Well, here we are: the first Christmas special for the brand
new Doctor. During his first series, Matt Smith's portrayal
underwent some subtle changes as he experimented with the role.
For the most part, the Eleventh Doctor's scripts seemed to be
written for David Tennant, much in the same way that Tom Baker's
first series was written with Jon Pertwee in mind. That being
said, while he did display some very Ten-ish qualities in his
earlier stories, Matt Smith soon started pushing and pulling his
portrayal in different directions to see what fit best. In The
Beast Below, we saw the rage of the Eleventh Doctor during the
final scenes which would rarely be seen again. In The Lodger, a
lot of the comedy derived from how alien Smith's Doctor was
compared to his predecessors as he developed his trademark
physicality ("Are you capable of speaking without flapping your
hands about?" "Yes. No."). And throughout Series 5, we saw him
play around with the age dial, switching from childlike youth to
an almost literally lapel-holding old man. A Christmas Carol is
the first Matt Smith episode where he's completely nailing it.
This special was filmed as part of Series 6, so a lot of time
had passed since he first started on the show. The time for
experimentation is over, and the Eleventh Doctor has arrived.
Matt Smith gives one of his strongest performances in A Christmas Carol, and although it took a while, this is one of the first episodes that made me truly see him as 'the' Doctor; the definite article you might say. He has a sense of confidence throughout this story that he didn't have in the rest of Series 5, and in certain scenes you can really tell he's enjoying himself. His arrival down the chimney into Kazran Sardick's living room and the following scene of Smith rambling on and bouncing around the room is incredible. Right in the middle of a depressing sequence where Sardick, played to perfection by Michael Gambon, is keeping a woman away from her loved ones and letting a ship with 4003 people on board crash on Christmas, a big ball of energy and whimsy rolls in and the Doctor takes full control of the scene. He paces across the massive hall, filling the space with his presence and talking aloud to himself with some fantastic one-liners from one of Moffat's funniest scripts ("Big flashy lighty things have got me written all over them. Not actually, but give me time, and a crayon.").
The first thing that struck me about A Christmas Carol on transmission was the visual style. The pre-title sequence of the spaceship about to crash land looks clearly inspired by the J.J. Abrams Star Trek movie, with everything covered in lens flares and the ship's interior being sleek and white and pristine. Toby Haynes, who previously directed The Pandorica Opens and The Big Bang and would go on to direct The Impossible Astronaut and Day of the Moon (meaning he directed five Who episodes in a row), brings the setting of Ember (the planet is never named in the episode itself) to life. There are plenty of long, sweeping camera shots that really show off the locations and sets, making them seem a lot bigger and more alive. It's episodes like this that really make me wish that Doctor Who would leave Earth behind and do a full series set amongst the stars. Why would you confine yourself to 21st century London when you could have planets where fish swim through the fog?
This episode is the first in a trilogy of Moffat Christmas specials that retell classic stories with a Doctor Who twist, although as time goes on they get less and less to do with their source material (to the point that The Snowmen pretty much has nothing to do with the original animation other than the whole 'walking in the air' metaphor with the TARDIS parked on a cloud). A Christmas Carol however pretty faithfully retells Charles Dickens' original story. I love that instead of being a pure coincidence, the Doctor knowingly decides to recreate the original story as a way of softening up Kazran Sardick. It makes it a little less cartoonish if the main character is in on the fact that they're just telling the same story with a twist.
The idea of jumping into Kazran Sardick's past to change his future doesn't entirely make sense considering if the Doctor went back to meet Kazran as a child, surely as an adult he'd have immediately let the ship land, but coming at the end of a series which tells us that "time can be rewritten", I suppose we have to trust that the Doctor knows what he can and can't do. Also, because old Kazran didn't hit the boy at the beginning, the Doctor might think he's able to be redeemed anyway, so by changing time so he becomes a nicer person, he isn't actually changing that much. It's not entirely water-tight when compared with past representations of time travel in Doctor Who but there are explanations and, in a sci-fi show, you kinda just have to roll with it. If you're under the impression that Doctor Who has never contradicted itself before with regards to the basic rules of its universe, you clearly have never seen the TV Movie.
Amy and Rory spend a majority of the episode on the crashing spaceship and with the exception of a few scenes where they appear either as holograms or speaking on the other end of the phone, they're basically absent from the plot. The companion roles are instead filled by Abigail and Kazran, who go on many adventures in the TARDIS over the course of the episode. Despite her approaching death being an important dramatic element of the episode, Abigail's character isn't given nearly as much depth as Kazran, although the scene where she has Christmas dinner with her family is a real highlight. Her kind and selfless personality is certainly distinct (that's the whole reason why she's in Sardick's vault after all), and Katherine Jenkins' is surprisingly good despite this being her acting debut, but I feel like more time could have been dedicated to the relationship between her and her family to make the ending seem more tragic. That being said, there's only so much you can cram into an hour and the cast do a great job of selling the emotions involved and making you care about the characters regardless.
A Christmas Carol is a fantastic special, and my favourite of the Matt Smith Christmas quadrilogy. It's well written, directed, acted, and it's just a good episode overall. It has no glaring issues and it's a very original and unique take on the original Charles Dickens story, which is rare for a book that's over a century old that's already been retold countless times.