Monday, 3 January 2011

"Marilyn! Get your coat"

Written by Steven Moffat, directed by Toby Haynes, 2010

So, yeah, yeah, it’s the ‘best’ Christmas special to date… But that isn’t saying very much.

Steven Moffat in crap story shock? Unfortunately, I think so. Of his output to date, people have seemed particularly unconvinced by The Beast Below, but I feel hard-pressed to write off a story dealing so confidently with (to use fan-parlance) such ‘oddball’ concepts. This, alternatively, doesn’t amount to much more than seasonal fluff, despite evidently trying to eschew Russell T Davies’ festive blockbuster template.

This year is the first time I haven’t been apprehensive about the Christmas special, because I thought we were in safe hands and assumed that, given Moffat’s take on the (for me, ordinarily equally painful) season finale, A Christmas Carol would be an atypically successful take on an element of the revived series that I've never enjoyed. Despite the line I opened with, The Christmas Invasion is to me still the only tolerable Christmas special, mainly because its seasonal setting is used as a trapping to the plot and is broadly irrelevant, whereas this story is entirely predicated around its own Christmasiness.

Given that the idea of a Christmas special being somehow necessary or appropriate to Doctor Who is fairly repellent to me, I’m probably not best disposed to enjoy this offering, even if it’s by a writer whose work I much prefer to his predecessor. I take issue with the idea of a Christmas special because it’s so staggeringly lazy, the thinking that jamming two things together that’re big with kids will somehow yield magical results.

Take this from Kasterborous’ ‘10 Reasons to Love Christmas Who!’ (all of which I pretty much disagree with): “The Christmas Season and Doctor Who are possibly the two greatest things to ever come together.” That sort of wildly spurious opinion typifies everything loathsome about the ‘special’ approach. There’s a case to be made for the merits of, say, chocolate and dildos, but that doesn’t mean a chocolate dildo is a good idea.

The only Christmas special I can recall ever actually being satisfied by was the League of Gentlemen’s effort, exactly because it played against its festiveness by being more grotesque than usual. So maybe I’m just too much of a miseryguts to appreciate the snow-drenched festivities Moffat and co delivered… but, yet, I was – and remain – willing to be proved wrong. It just hasn’t happened yet.

However, I would contend that A Christmas Carol’s problems run deeper than its festive spirit; for one thing, its standalone status gives the episode a disproportionate sense of significance which makes its failure all the more apparent. What we get is a weird and slightly damp mishmash of elements that somehow doesn’t spark in the way The Beast Below’s England-in-space did (for me). Sci-fi Victoriana… sharks… saccharine sob story… Star Trek parody. (The latter of which is particularly weak; I couldn’t care less about that particular franchise, but even I know taking off its shiny bridge set is breathtakingly old.) None of these things ever quite gel.

Then there’s the abrupt opening, which (excuse me) doesn’t quite fly; Amy and Rory’s marginalisation; the kind-of-crap flying fish; and the lack of antagonist (as Sardick ceases to fulfil this role pretty quickly, or consistently). All this fails to do justice to the neat Doctor-changes-a-life concept, previously explored in Steven Moffat’s Decalog 3 short story, and even the time-roaming Christmas Eve excursions with young Kazran and Abigail. These ideas should have been able to carry a whole episode, but overall the story feels both cluttered and yet still very slight, with only a couple of main sets, and, much as I hate to say it, lacking the grounding in realism of a period or contemporary setting - which might makes us care (the fifties Hollywood party seemed to have much more potential in only a very minor scene). In theory, I’m very much a believer in small-scale but clever, less-is-more scripts, which, on paper, this should be, but… sorry, no.

I certainly don’t think of Moffat as being infallible (even The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone wasn’t up to his very best), but this feels rather too much below par – jumbled and clever-clever (rather than complex and actually clever), with a slightly undeserved saccharine cloyingness (rather than actual emotion). The Doctor stepping from Sardick’s rooms in the present into the recording of his past, and the twist on the Ghost of Christmas Future routine, were both rather glorious moments – yet, what did the grandparents, assorted inebriated relatives, or the very young – ie, the majority of the audience – make of this?

In fairness, casting Michael Gambon, Britain’s favourite monstrous curmudgeon, an actor quite literally IN EVERYTHING, from The Singing Detective to The Life Aquatic, via The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, is quite the coup, and certainly counts for something, as he delivers much as you might expect. It doesn’t help however that Katherine Jenkins, though perfectly tolerable – and better than Kylie (albeit a back-handed compliment) – is saddled with such a non-role, as the insufferably sweet and doe-eyed terminal-case Love Interest.

It upsets me slightly to be so harsh, but almost nothing impressed me about this story. It looks quite good, but what were with all those wipes?! Dispiriting, as (the quite lovely) Toby Haynes brought so much brio to The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang. Speaking of which, with that two-parter, Moffat made a format I hate – the finale – work, by both engaging with its customary more-is-more mentality, but also undercutting it. So what went wrong with this soggy cracker of an episode?

Specifically, I don’t like the deification of the Doctor – less in terms of his manipulation of someone’s life to such a (controversial?) extent, or numerous right-on-time appearances, but because of his untouchable, non-realistic portrayal as someone everyone defers to and who is never ignored or dismissed. His ‘importance’ and significance as a character has been inflated so much he is literally akin to fairytale figures like Father Christmas, or a troubleshooting Jesus.

Also, hate to say it, but… things just felt a bit too, um, ridiculous. Or, at least, this story’s ridiculousness felt quite flimsy. Like, the fish thing felt like a perfunctory stab at a trademark ‘big, mad, bonkers’ Doctor Who concept. The very idea of a ‘trademark’ style is fishy (ha, ha) enough as it is, but maybe in this case it’s that it isn’t a mad enough concept. A flying shark; that would have been cringeworthy in even something as wildly apocryphal as a John and Gillian TV Comic strip.

Ehh, I dunno. It wasn’t hateful, just a bit smug and forgettable. Worst Smith story? Victory of the Daleks is, obviously, rubbish and The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood is bad, but they were just straight-down-the-line pulp filler; this was a big event episode written by a showrunner whose work and storybook outlook on the show I like – but which never felt special. Multi-script burnout, perhaps? Even Smith, though reliable as ever, wasn't stretched by the material and felt too familiar – like the reappearance of a fez, which is going to get old extremely quickly. I can only hope this is an inter-season lull.

It’s not a direct comparison, but I couldn’t help thinking of Jeunet and Caro’s dark steampunk fairytale, City of Lost Children. It’s not directly comparable, despite sharing some of the same look in its city setting, and even its nautical-themed imagery, though without quite such a straightforwardly Victoriana-with-goggles bent. There are only a couple of nods to a Christmas setting in the film, but it cruises the mysterious, foggy side of Christmas rather more successfully than this outing does, with its uncertain collision of near-monochrome cinematography and soggy love story. There’s also rather more solidity in Jeunet/Caro’s worldbuilding - which takes me back to The Beast Below and its Starship UK. Though the concepts of anglo-Blade Runner and Dickensian dystopia are as broad as each other, Starship UK is more fictively satisfying – if not, obviously, actually feasible – because, by contrast, I can’t imagine 'Sardicktown' functioning outside of A Christmas Carol’s festive setting. It’s so obviously created for a festive story that it doesn’t ring true, in even a fairytale sense.

It’s a dispiriting return to the 2005-2010 years to feel this disparaging, but it’s not all doom and gloom. The child’s-eye-view on the series continues to work, with the Doctor once again paired with a pre-pubescent pseudo-companion in the young Kazran - but there is a danger that this’ll become another in a line of Moffat stock elements that could easily become tiresome (see also the manipulation of voices, which threatens to become stale after The Empty Child, Silence in the Library, and The Time of Angels). Another recurring trick is the leap from grandstanding Davies-like blockbuster-style opening, even down to a reprise of Voyage of the Damned’s (irritating) “Christmas is cancelled” line, before segueing into Moffat’s vision – in the same way his first script at the helm slipped deftly from TARDIS-dangling rollercoaster into the more atmospheric setting of Amy’s Leadbridge garden.

Amy being sidelined once again (so soon after The Lodger and whichever episode of The Silurian Fiasco during which she was imprisoned) may be cause for celebration for her detractors, but seems a slightly dangerous precedent; perhaps her characterisation has been criticised as lacking because she’s not being considered central enough by the show’s writers? It wouldn’t hurt to go back to the mentality of the assertion in 2005 that Rose/Billie Piper was just as much the star of the series as the Doctor/Christopher Eccleston. It’s ironic that as he gets his name in the credits for the first time, Rory is similarly marginalised. I suppose this can be explained by the festive special’s standalone status, but it’s slightly worrying in that I don’t think Amy and Rory’s relationship (to the Doctor, at least) would be that self-explanatory to any members of the audience who hadn’t been paying fan-like attention to the last series.

It’s a shame to feel so critical of a writer whose work I ordinarily enjoy, but I like to try to respond to things intuitively, at least initially, and this just didn’t grab me. In theory, the idea of a twisty, relatively small-scale character-driven timey-wimey excursion should be wildly preferable to Davies’ festive blockbusters, but in practise it feels clumsy and swamped, with none of its even most effective concepts given enough weight to balance out the weaker parts.

It’s a bit grim, but the ‘coming soon’ trailer was the best thing about this hour of viewing, and felt far more exciting than what I’d just sat through, suggesting a freshness I hope the production team can live up to (the impossible-to-fake iconography of Monument Valley looks particularly startling). 


  1. I am so glad you don't like it either. I am surprised how many positive reviews this Xmas special has received.

  2. Great review, plenty of interesting points, particularly on the issue of Christmas DW. As you know, I personally loved it and enjoyed some of the things that you criticise... however it is the first Christmas DW I have really liked.

    However you're bang on with the Moffat "armoury" of tricks which does seem to be getting reused more than a wanton woman's lipstick...

  3. Hey, thanks Christian. I must admit I may have been overly harsh, but any improvement on the previous Christmas specials can only be a welcome step up...

    It is a bit worrying though isn't it how willing Moffat is to repeatedly explore/utilise the same concepts. The question is, is he simply unaware he's doing it or is he deliberately promoting a sense of coherence within 'the Moffat era'!?

    Thanks for commenting!