BBC Video // 2010 // 60 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Chief Justice Michael Stailey // July 27th, 2011
"Sorry...Christmas Eve, on a rooftop, saw a chimney, my whole brain just went, What the Hell?"
Picking up soon after the events of Series 5, Rory and Amy's (Arthur Darvill and Karen Gillan) honeymoon has encountered a glitch. It seems their Space Love Boat has become ensnared in an electrical storm surrounding a nearby planet. The storm is a byproduct of the planet's defense shield used to protect its inhabitants from aquatic life that reside in its moisture rich atmosphere. With the ship in danger of being destroyed if the shield is not disabled, it's up to The Doctor (Matt Smith) to make nice with the people of this world, and fast! One slight problem: Their ruler, Kazran Sardick (Michael Gambon, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince), is somewhat of a...Scrooge. But our quick thinking hero borrows a page from his old friend Charles Dickens, to teach this miserly old sod the true meaning of Christmas.
If there were a feature film for this particular series' cast and crew, Doctor Who: A Christmas Carol would be it. Viewed by some as an annual standalone adventure and others as the first episode of the next series, recent Christmas tales have been rather hit or miss ("Runaway Bride" and "Voyage of the Damned" being the standouts). Where Russell T Davies gave us adventures on a sweeping epic scale, new showrunner Steven Moffat's best efforts are small intimate tales with mind-blowing implications. Whether it be cracks in our bedroom wall, statues that move when we're not looking, or face spiders who live in the deepest recesses of our cupboards, he knows exactly how to tap into the imagination of our inner 8-year-old to thrill or scare the bejeezus out of us.
Doctor: "Do you know there's a thing called a face spider? It's
just a tiny baby's head with spider legs. And it specifically evolved to scuttle
up the backs of bedroom cupboards. Which, I probably shouldn't have
Young Kazran: "Are there any face spiders in here?"
Doctor: "Nah, not at this time of night. They'll all be sleeping in your mattress."
On the surface, one might see Doctor Who: A Christmas Carol as yet another variation on Dickens' classic tale. And yet Steven is such a genius when it comes to playing with time, this episode is anything but. Using technology and storytelling in a way we've not seen in Doctor Who, our hero is able to take Kazran on a visual and psychological tour of his life, not only shining light on his many pitfalls but actually rewriting memories in the most subtle and effective of ways. It's an emotionally rich journey during which you will be hard pressed not to grow extremely invested in these characters.
I don't want to say too much, so as not to spoil the story's many beautiful moments. What I will share is how phenomenally well this cast works together. While Arthur and Karen are relegated to inconsequential narrative bookends, Doctor Who: A Christmas Carol gives Matt Smith a chance to really shine. You can actually see the wheels of the Doctor's mind spinning madly as he tries to figure things out, and his line reads are second to none. Then again, how can they not be when playing off someone like Michael Gambon. Alastair Sim (A Christmas Carol 1951) and Albert Finney (Scrooge) have long been regarded as definitive portrayals of Ebeneezer Scrooge, but I submit that Gambon can now share that adulation. There are more layers and nuance in this performance than can possibly be explored in 60 minutes. We must also give credit to Laurence Belcher and Danny Horn for absorbing some of Gabon's traits in playing younger versions of Kazran. Operatic nightingale Katherine Jenkins is lovely in her acting debut, but the best she can do is keep pace with her veteran co-stars, exuding an innocence the belies the wisdom of her voice.
Presented in 1.78:1 1080i, the image is as sharp and mesmerizing as its BBC America HD presentation. Yes, the high def purists are likely to spot their fair share of imperfections, so those looking for reference quality won't find it here. For the rest of us, the ambience of this tale, awash in a coat of chilly holiday blue, more than serves its story. The same can be said for the DTS-HD 5.1 audio, whose use of the surrounds envelopes us not only in Katherine Jenkins' flawless vocals and Murray Gold's rousing score, but the very world in which these characters inhabit.
Two bonus features are the icing on this holiday treat. The requisite Doctor Who Confidential documents the making of the special, in the grand detail we've come to expect from the production team. When David Attenborough decides to retire, I nominate these guys to pick up his torch. The other feature, Doctor Who at The Proms, has quickly become a favorite of mine. Given the exceptional work composers Murray Gold and Ben Foster have amassed on the revitalized series, seeing it performed by the entire BBC Symphony of Wales in front of a packed house of Whovians, and loaded with surprise appearances by characters and cast is a joy to behold. If you haven't seen the previous Proms concert, I highly recommend tracking it down.
My one gripe, and it pains me to say it: I'm concerned that it won't be included in the full series box set, as previous holiday episodes have been. Cash grab by the BBC? Perhaps, but Doctor Who fans will purchase it either way. And who knows, maybe it'll lure in uninitiated television fans looking for a taste of what the nerds can't stop talking about.
So to recap: Christmas + Steven Moffat + Matt Smith + Michael Gambon + Fish that swim in fog = Pure Wholiday Magic.
In a world so cynical we no longer have time for magic, Doctor Who: A Christmas Carol reminds us why it's so damn important.
Review content copyright © 2011 Michael Stailey; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080i)
* DTS HD 5.1 Surround (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 60 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Bonus Episode
* Official Site