For over a decade, the whole family could gather around the TV on Christmas Day and watch a new Doctor Who Christmas special. These episodes were rarely as all-around well-executed as the series’ best episodes, but they were always packed with holiday spirit and undeniably fun to watch. No Christmas special exhibited these qualities more than the 2010 special, A Christmas Carol. Being both Steven Moffat and Matt Smith’s first Doctor Who Christmas special, it had quite a lot to live up to—and boy did it. I’d argue that A Christmas Carol is not only a great Doctor Who Christmas special but also a great episode of Doctor Who in general. Loosely adapting Charles Dickens’ classic book, A Christmas Carol, the special is jam-packed with Christmas spirit, spectacular performances, and a suitably timey-wimey plotline perfect for the 11th Doctor. It is easily my favorite Doctor Who Christmas special. (5 out of 5 wands.)
Doctor Who: A Christmas Carol (written by Steven Moffat, directed by Toby Haynes)
Amy (Karen Gillan) and Rory (Arthur Darvill) are trapped on a crashing space liner, and the only way the Doctor (Matt Smith) can rescue them is to save the soul of a lonely old miser, Kazran Sardick (Michael Gambon, Laurence Belcher, Danny Horn). But is Sardick, the richest man in Sardicktown, beyond redemption? And what is lurking in the fogs of Christmas Eve?
Imagine if, instead of being visited by three ghosts representing different periods of his life, Ebenezer Scrooge was visited by an impulsive time traveler full of childlike wonder who could not only show Scrooge his past but change it for the better, and you’d essentially have Doctor Who’s version of A Christmas Carol. Here, Michael Gambon plays Kazran Sardick, the episode’s Scrooge-like figure, who rules the town of Sardicktown with an iron fist. He controls the foggy, fish-infested skies of his town with a machine that reacts only to his input. And the Doctor needs him to use that machine to help a crashing spaceship inhabited by Amy and Rory land safely, sparing the lives of all onboard. Sardick, hardened by his miserable child-and-adulthood, steadfastly refuses to be of any aid, leading the Doctor to take drastic action—rewriting Sardick’s past to change his present. It’s a very Christmassy idea—finding a way to warm the cold heart of the antagonist. But it’s also a very Doctor Who idea—using the Doctor’s TARDIS to literally give the antagonist a better past, thereby changing his present outlook and giving him a more hopeful future. And it’s a great premise for a Doctor Who Christmas episode—it’s that perfect mixture of science fiction and Christmas spirit and it’s executed brilliantly throughout the episode’s runtime.
Naturally, of course, in true Doctor Who fashion, it is not as simple as the Doctor changing the past to better the future. Ignoring the questions of morality (ie: does the Doctor have the right to rewrite someone’s past wholesale just because it would lead to a better future), the Doctor’s actions have unintended consequences on Sardick’s life. The bulk of the story sees the Doctor visiting a younger Sardick across a series of Christmas Eves throughout his youth and early adulthood. With each of the Doctor’s visits, Sardick softens some and we see this reflected in how Michael Gambon’s older Sardick reacts to these new memories he receives. This becomes even more apparent as each visit allows Sardick to spend another night with Abigail (Katherine Jenkins), a woman held in suspended animation by Sardick’s father as collateral for a loan taken out by her family. Over the years, Sardick and Abigail begin to develop feelings for each other. However, after several years of sharing Christmas Eve together, their relationship hits a devastating snag—Abigail had a limited number of nights left (due to an unexplained illness) and she had only one left. So, while the Doctor’s interference in Sardick’s past seemed to have a positive impact, this heartbreak sent him back to square one—cold and hardened. It turns out that Doctor Who’s A Christmas Carol wants to be filled with both action and romance. And it’s a great choice. Katherine Jenkins and Danny Horn have great chemistry and it’s absolutely heartbreaking seeing their happiness shatter in a single moment.
From here, Doctor Who’s A Christmas Carol veers a bit closer to its literary counterpart. The Doctor shows Sardick a glimpse of Christmas Present, with Amy attempting to win Sardick’s sympathies by showing him all of the lives aboard the crashing ship that will be lost if he doesn’t help. And, when that doesn’t work, the Doctor shows Sardick a glimpse of Christmas Future—but with another Doctor Who twist. It’s quickly revealed that the Doctor isn’t trying to show Old Man Sardick his future, but showing Young Boy Sardick what he will grow into if he doesn’t allow his heart to soften. And this is the straw that finally breaks the camel’s back, as the saying goes. And, man, it’s an emotionally earned moment. Early in the episode, Old Man Sardick almost hits a child but stops himself after remembering the fear he felt with his violent father. That moment is paid off here as Old Man Sardick nearly takes on the role of his father in beating Young Boy Sardick—but he stops himself. And, as it often goes in Christmas stories, his heart softened. From there, it’s a race against time to save the day and grant Sardick one last night with Abigail—a true Christmas miracle. Is it cheesy? Definitely. Is it fun and filled with plenty of Christmas spirit? Also, yes. Did I cry a little bit? That’s a secret, how dare you ask me that. But on a fundamental level, the story just works. It’s a very satisfying watch, with very clear character arcs that come to a natural and emotional conclusion.
Honestly, A Christmas Carol is everything you want a Doctor Who Christmas special to be. Matt Smith is at the top of his game here, bursting with energy and jubilance. The scenes he shares with Michael Gambon are incredible—if Doctor Who ever had a reputation for questionable acting, those scenes should put an end to them immediately. Michael Gambon’s character arc is the heart of the story, and he sells it with such grace. It’s crazy to me that Gambon has never played Scrooge before because he nails Sardick’s Scrooge-like nature while still making him sympathetic to the audience. Moffat manages to balance the timey-wimey elements of the story with the necessity of keeping it as accessible to a casual, Christmas Day audience as possible. Yes, it’s an episode where you should probably pay attention to what’s going on to understand the multiple timelines, but it’s never so complicated as to be incoherent. While the narrative proper isn’t anything super original, aside from the time travel element, it’s one of those tried-and-true stories that just works. The script holds your attention from beginning to end, and you feel delighted by the way the narrative concludes. The dialogue is as witty as you’d expect a Steven Moffat script to be, with endless jokes and one-liners galore. The visuals have a very Christmas flare to them—even though the story is set on some futuristic alien planet, it still has a very 1800s London vibe. The CGI was probably pretty good for 2010 BBC, but it hasn’t held up as well as it could have—particularly in regards to the giant shark that forms a pivotal part of the story. And Murray Gold’s score is what dreams are made of. His Doctor Who work was always stellar, but it frequently steals the show here—and rightfully so, given the importance of music to the narrative. His climactic song, sung by Katherine Jenkins, is gorgeous and makes for a great capper to a fantastic story.
At the end of the day, A Christmas Carol is probably my favorite Doctor Who Christmas special. It’s the story that most gets the balance between Doctor Who and Christmas right. Many specials feel superficially Christmassy, merely taking place on Christmas but otherwise having little connection to the holiday. Others try too hard to make a Christmas connection and lose themselves in the process (see: The Doctor, The Widow and The Wardrobe). But A Christmas Carol? It’s a perfect Christmas special. The story is Doctor Who enough to fit into the show’s world but Christmassy enough to feel suitable for holiday viewing. It’s a great story that’s told with a lot of confidence and style. It’s buoyed by utterly fantastic performances from Matt Smith and Michael Gambon—the two of whom command such attention when they’re on screen together that it’s impossible to look away. Everything about the episode just works. It’s Doctor Who firing on all cylinders—and it’s even a great jumping on point for viewers who are unfamiliar with the show. There’s little-to-no lore to bog down the story with and the story is easy to understand—particularly if you’re familiar with Dickens’ original story. Basically: if you haven’t seen Doctor Who’s A Christmas Carol, what are you waiting for it? It’s the best Doctor Who Christmas special and a classic episode of the series, in general. It’s great holiday viewing and it’s a fantastic episode of the show.
5 out of 5 wands.