Sunday, 26 December 2010

A Christmas Carol

The plot of 'A Christmas Carol' recreated in the far future with Steampunk visuals and flying sharks.

I did not have high expectations for this story, but I have to say that even I was surprised at how bad this was. This has to be the biggest load of garbage we have ever seen from the BBC Wales series. What surprises me most is that this story seems to be getting so many positive reviews and on comment threads, critics of the special are being dismissed as 'scrooges.'

Critics of the BBC Wales series have harboured hopes that the producership of Steven Moffatt would be a major improvement on the RT Davies years. Well, A Christmas Carol has satisfied me that Moffatt has all the faults of Davies and more.

As with so much of the BBC Wales series, this story has been written with visual impact in mind. Moffatt wants a visual spectacle, so the plot is purely subordinate to making the wonderful things he has imagined happen.

A Christmas Carol is built around an utterly contrived attempt to re-create a classic story. It fails in this because it tries to translate the basic plot of a fairy tale-like story into a sort of science fiction disaster movie. Dickens' story was about the individual grasping with his conscience; it was about the responsibility of one man to his fellows in the human race. This Christmas special is about the Doctor trying to prevent a disaster by manipulating somebody.

There are two basic problems with the situation that we are given in A Christmas Carol. The first problem is that there is no plausible motive for Sardik's unwillingness to do anything for the spacecraft in peril. So he is a nasty, mean-hearted old man, but there seems little indication that saving the spacecraft will be any great loss to him. It seems unlikely that the Doctor could not easily find ways to persuade him to act, either through bribery or pressure. Does Sardik really want people to die merely out of spite?

Secondly, the Doctor's strategy of saving the spacecraft fails to work both in terms of continuity with the history of the show and purely on a narrative level. In narrative terms, it is jarring to see the Doctor leaving the scene of a life-threatening adventure to travel back in time and have a long series of light-hearted adventures over a long period. While time travel presumably makes that possible, it seems to trivialize the significance of the disaster and rather makes one wonder that the Doctor could not come up with a more immediate answer to the situation. However, what is even more worrying is that the Doctor's strategy is such a departure from the way Doctor Who normally works.

Steven Moffatt has shown a worrying tendecy to use time travel as a plot mechanism. We saw this in his spoof Curse of Fatal Death, though nobody would have taken that seriously. More recently, he had the Doctor interfering in his own timeline in The Big Bang, despite his insistence that this was not possible in Parting of the Ways. I'm a 'Rad' fan and all for experimenting with different kinds of stories, but completely re-writing the way Doctor Who works is not a good idea. Throughout the history of the show, the Doctor enters a difficult situation and he gets on with dealing with it. He never travels back in time and alters the past. If the Doctor can do this, he has a 'get out of jail free card.' We can no longer enjoy him as a protagonist. If he can do this, he is nearly a god. Are we to just ignore the fact that the Doctor has never worked like this before? Are we to ignore the fact that the Doctor has said that you can't change the past, as he did in the Hartnell era (a notion which while not carried through consistently, still makes sense within a lot of later stories)? Are we to imagine that the Doctor's alterations to the past would not have massive and unpredictable results, such as the machinery for controlling clouds no longer being available?

A Christmas Carol even features the Sardik the boy meeting Sardik the old man. I know the notion that meeting your self causes an explosion, as seen in Mawdryn Undead makes absolutely no sense, but surely the fact that we never see this happening in Doctor Who (except in multi-Doctor stories) indicates that it really is a bad thing? I don't think we can just ignore the way time travel works in the continuity of the show and imagine that the Doctor can do anything he likes. That is just too easy and if it continues, we may see some seriously lazy script-writing.

This story features the greatest use of Steampunk visuals in a Doctor Who story. Personally, I am not a big fan of Steampunk. It is all just a bit too knowing and consciously cool. There is something of an air of unreality about Steampunk, given that it is trying to visualize a past/present/future that never was or is likely to be. Surprisingly and refreshingly, however, the crew of the spacecraft are wearing very retro-futuristic uniforms. This makes a refreshing change in BBC Wales Dr. Who. I have commented before about the tiresome tendency of the show to always make the future look like contemporary earth.

In my mind the casting of Katharine Jenkins was a seriously bad idea. Clearly, the woman is quite unable to act, but this is hardly a surprise given that she has never played a serious dramatic role in her life. At least when they cast Kylie Minogue, they had somebody who had some considerable acting experience.

Finally, seeing a carriage pulled by a flying shark as though it were Santa's sleigh just made me want to throw up. Far too much icing...


  1. I finally watched this tonight, and since it will be quite some time before I review it on my site, I'll put a few thoughts here.

    I enjoyed it, but I think it does have problems. First, it bears quite a bit of resemblance to a short story that Stephen Moffatt wrote in a Decalogue Collection some time ago. That story (Continuity Errors) involved the Seventh Doctor wanting to check out a restricted book from a library planet. The librarian was quite adamant that he is unable to do so. The Doctor then sets about re-writing the librarian's past, trying to make her more amenable to his particular desires. Perhaps my biggest complaint about Stephen Moffatt is his tendency to recycle his own material, and I believe A Christmas Carol is a prime example of this.

    Second, the whole re-writing time theme that has become so prominent troubles me a bit. Not only does it go against one of the founding concepts of the show, it creates more an issue with plot resolution. Why didn't The Doctor just try to stop the ship from taking off to begin with? Why didn't The Doctor arrive before it malfunctioned? Why not materialize on the ship and rescue all the people via The TARDIS? Part of me hopes that Moffatt is more clever than we are giving him credit and this re-writing time thing comes back to bite The Doctor really hard. There should be consequences if the rule is going to change. It cannot be this easy.

    These issues aside, I enjoyed it well enough for what it was. The Christmas Specials (and even the season 4 specials) never seemed to take themselves seriously and always seemed to be written to be just outside of normal continuity. They are written to be romps, and despite the darker tone of A Christmas Carol, it is really no different. I think New Who is still in the shadow of Davies and I really hope the new team can find their own voice and move into a strikingly different era.

  2. Thanks for your thoughts.

    I get the impression from the Moffatt stories so far that Moffatt has a very particular view of Doctor Who. I think that he views it as a program that is all about time travel, rather than a program about somebody who has adventures in time and space.

  3. I think my favorite Moffatt story was back in 2005 with The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances. This is a story that doesn't involve time travel in the resolution or progress of the plot.

    You may be right about his view. Although, he may also be taking advantage of a perceived lack. Since Doctor Who so rarely used time travel as the subject of the show, Moffatt may be trying to break new ground. There isn't anything inherently wrong with that, but it can unravel the fabric of the show if it happens too much. Time travel, like all narrative gimmicks, needs rules. David Whitaker established the primary rule way back in 1963: you cannot rewrite history. I think the New Adventures got away with showing The Doctor changing things in the past to bring about the situations that would benefit him because they showed both the consequences of such manipulation AND that it was incredibly difficult. There was an interesting theory put out some time ago (I forget where I heard it) that The Doctor is stuck in a causal loop. Essentially, for everything he changes he must go about and change other things to prevent or limit damage being done to time. But then, each of those secondary changes leads to tertiary changes and so forth. Thus, he will forever be mucking about in time to limit the damage of the initial thing he changed. While that breaks David Whitaker's rule, it does establish severe consequences, and I think justifies the violation. Thus far, Moffatt shows no indication that re-writing time has consequences. I hope he will in upcoming seasons, but I'm not holding my breath.

  4. I am afraid to say that you have misunderstood the New Adventures. One of the rules set out for the New Adventures was that history cannot normally be written. The New Adventures did a series of novels which involved interference in the past by the Meddling Monk, but otherwise they avoided stories about history being changed; a wise judgment in my opinion.

    The New Adventures show the Doctor doing all sorts of manipulative things; but altering history is not among them. The New Adventures were able to justify the coherence of the Doctor's meddling by making the assumption that Gallifreyan Mean Time (the current era of the Time Lord's and the Doctor's present) as being a long time in the past. Therefore, the Doctor was involving himself in shaping the future, rather than altering the past.

  5. I agree with you on many things about the old series, but you have a habit of talking out of your ass about the revival. I am willing to ignore it, because really, who cares.
    But then I read "At least when they cast Kylie Minogue, they had somebody who had some considerable acting experience." and pissed myself laughing.

  6. Thankyou so much for visiting this blog and sharing your thoughts. I really do appreciate the feedback.

    I don't understand where I am wrong about Kylie Minogue. I mean, she was in that Street Fighter movie and I remember her doing another movie called 'The Delinquent' which I imagine everybody has forgotten.

    How many movies has Katharine Jenkins done?

  7. I'm not sure where you are from, but I think she is mostly popular in Britain.
    Most Australians, who aren't bogans, detest her. She can't act or sing.
    And she was terrible Doctor Who, she was wooden and unbelievable.
    Also, reading over my previous post, it comes off a little hostile, I apologise for that it was not intentional.

  8. Yes, I am British, but I can't say I am a Kylie fan.

    I agree that she was pretty rubbish in that Christmas special. My point is simply that she had more acting experience than Katharine Jenkins (who I think was also rubbish as an actor in 'A Christmas Carol').

  9. I agree with just about everything you said on this one - Not since 'The Dominators' or maybe 'Terminus' as Doctor Who produced something so sleep-inducingly turgid.

    I was really looking forward to Moffatt taking over after five years of Eastenders in Space undet RTD, but this, with maybe the exception of Aliens in London, was the worst offering of the new series so far.

    I am really worried about the direction of the new series. 'Let's Kill Hitler' debuted today, and all I did throughout the duration of the story was wince. IT'S NOT QUANTUM LEAP! IT'S NOT STAR TREK! IT'S NOT BUFFY! IT'S NOT AMERICAN TV! THIS IS DOCTOR WHO, A BRITISH INSTITUTION, AND YOU'RE RUINING IT!!!

    The idea of having a running arc through the stories is great. But the arc is BECOMING the series - there was almost no unique plot to today's episode at all. Hitler involvement appeared to be totally gratuitous.

    Next week's episode looks promising, but Moffatt's reign is becoming increasingly reminiscent of Douglas Adams' - a superb writer, by under him the series turned into a joke. Moffatt - sort it out or go back to writing one story a year.

  10. Yeah, Moffat is killing the show.

    I don't know where to begin with reviewing Let's Kill Hitler.