Saturday, December 25, 2010

A Christmas Carol: "Christmas is Cancelled!"

'Sorry! Christmas Eve on a rooftop. Saw a chimney, my whole brain just went "What the hell!"'

'Tonight,' the Doctor tells Kazran Sardick - just in case any viewers hadn't spotted the title or caught any of the half-a-dozen Dickensian allusions which had already cropped up in the first ten minutes of A Christmas Carol - 'I'm the Ghost of Christmas Past.' There's a great twinkle in Matt Smith's eye as he says it. A knowing little wink to the audience. 'This is all very postmodern even if you don't think it is,' it seems to say. 'We're doing Dickens. You spotted that. And, nothing unusual in it, loads of TV series have done that before and loads more will do it again in the future. The difference here is that we're acknowledging that we're doing it as we're doing it. Do you see?' Hard to argue with that, really - although I'm sure that won't stop some mouthy malcontents from giving it a damned good try - because here we've got a text full of obvious Dickens clichés but which is mixed up in a huge Christmas pudding of allusions to all manner of other traditional festive texts - to Mary Poppins, The Snowman, It's a Wonderful Life, Groundhog Day and the story of Santa. Who is called Jeff, apparently. It's a top comedy name, Jeff, I've always thought. That's probably why Eddie Izzard uses it so much in his various stage shows. This, then, is a Doctor Who Christmas story in which The Doctor comes down the chimney to deliver a precise little essay on the vexed subject of right and wrong ('keep the faith ... and stay off the naughty list'). A Doctor Who episode with some outrageous conceits - fish that swim in the fog, no less - and a quite literal Jaws moment that is easily as thrilling a shock to the viewers as the series had ever produced in forty odd years of trying. 'Best! Christmas! Eve! Ever!' Maybe not, quite, but I'd give that statement a bit of cautious approval for even getting close.

A Christmas Carol juggles a plot featuring the bewildering -and potentially off-putting - intricacies of temporal mechanics with lots of cool jokes and sight gags and a little bit of opera. Culture for the masses and something-for-everyone all inside one neat Christmas present tied with a bow. It's, in-part, a study of loneliness and obsession clashing, sometimes violently, with a mad-as-toast disaster movie trapped at its core and bursting to get out. There's also a love story layered in there somewhere - 'it's either this, or go to a room and design a new kind of screwdriver. Don't make my mistakes!' A Christmas Carol is a story that takes Dickens' concept of seasonal redemption ('I despise Christmas,' says Kazran. 'You shouldn't, it's very you,.' replies The Doctor. 'Halfway out of the dark.') with some hard, cruel and bitter logic of experience. Michael Gambon's delivery of the line 'So you're saying I die cold, alone and afraid? Of course I do. Everyone does,' is possibly the key to why A Christmas Carol manages to fight its way through a potential overload of schmaltz and sentiment to find a nugget of truth. There's nothing cardboard about A Christmas Carol either in terms of its sets or its emotional centre. No tinsel and baubles. What adornments it has are there by right and by necessity.

Put simply, it's half way towards being a witty little comedy of the absurd dressed up in cod SF trappings and with a bit of a literary flourish and half a pan-dimensional fairy story in which good triumphs. Not because of any fundamental belief in the the value of right but, rather, because of the series' seeming certainty in the knowledge that humanity is, essentially, humane. Especially when there's a reason for it to be. Cause and effect. Time can be rewritten, Christmastime doubly so suggested the pre-publicity for the episode but A Christmas Carol's meddling with the time-lines is done in a satisfyingly daft Bill & Ted-style way. This part of the story is built on solid foundations. 'Better a broken heart than no heart at all,' could be the episode's touchstone.

The dialogue that springs, so easily, from Steven Moffat's word-processor, makes full use of the episode's potential for dramatic situations ('Why are they singing?' Kazran asks 'For their lives!' Amy replies) but leaves plenty of opportunity for Matt Smith to produce an array of resonant moments; from the sarky ('You know what boys say in the face of danger, don't you? "Mummy!"') to the plain daft ('what shall we do? Eat crisps and talk about girls?') to the unexpectedly wise ('everything has to end sometimes. Otherwise nothing would ever get started'). Two of my favourite lines of the episode, however, weren't specifically tied to the plot or, really, to the characters; they were just two golden Doctor moments to file away and put on Matt Smith's section of The Doctor's fiftieth anniversary show reel in 2013. 'Human beings, you always manage to find the boring alternatives, don't you?' And, even better, 'in nine hundred years of time and space I've never met anybody who wasn't important.'

'What's so special about Christmas?' Kazran asks. For Doctor Who over the last few years it's been a time of mostly enjoyably silly romps with an occasional moment of profundity just to make sure that anyone dozing in their chairs after too much turkey, meringue and Harvey's Bristol Cream got a sharp little poke in the ribs, Just, you know, to remind them that, actually, this space monster nonsense for the kids is, actually, a very great little television show that you're disrespecting! This year, they benefited from three great performances (from Gambon, as you'd expect, from Matt and from Laurence Belcher) and one surprisingly decent one (from Katherine Jenkins). Yes, this blogger personally would have liked a bit more of Amy and Rory, though they both had their share of terrific lines in the few minutes they got on-screen. I also enjoyed Murray Gold's music and the direction. I thought the effects were good, the shark was terrific and the episode's tone was just about right, balanced between light-hearted throwaway and something far more serious and worthy. Another Doctor Who Christmas special, in other words. We're getting used to them. Was it the best? No, probably not. It wasn't quite as good as The Next Doctor or The End of Time but it was about on a par with The Runaway Bride and The Christmas Invasion and maybe slightly better than Voyage of the Damned. Seven hundred and seventy episodes and forty seven years after it began, Doctor Who continues to provide Christmas crackers for everyone.

Which brings us to yer actual Keith Telly Topping's 45(s) of the Day. And this is useful because it gives one the opportunity to prove that not quite everything connected with Doctor Who is an unsurpassed masterpiece. I mean, take this abomination for instance:Thanks Jon. We'll let you know. Meanwhile, before he found gainful employment in the agricultural sector in t'grim North, here's Frazer Hines' bid for chart super stardom in the late 1960s. Once upon a time, people used to get transported to the colonies for lesser crimes that that. Written, incidentally, by Les Reed and Barry Mason whose songbook also included 'Delilah', 'I Pretend' and 'The Last Waltz.' All of which, one supposes, earned them a bit more cash than 'Who's Dr Who?' Still, at least there was always good old reliable Delia and her boys reminding us how it should be done. In stereo an'all.

Timeless. Which, for a TV show all about time travel is, you know, really rather reassuring.