Halfway out of the dark.
A Christmas Carol is comfortably the best Doctor Who Christmas special.
Which isn’t really a controversial thing to say, of course. It’s been the consensus choice for best Christmas special since it aired – smack bang in the middle of that fantastic run of Toby Haynes directed episodes, probably the popular height of the Matt Smith era and a genuine contender for best consecutive run of Doctor Who stories full stop – and few of the specials that followed it have impressed anywhere near as much. (I’m quite fond of a lot of them, and I think Last Christmas probably comes quite close to A Christmas Carol, but still, there’s an obvious winner.)
Part of that is because it’s adapting what is essentially the Christmas story: in terms of sheer, impossible to quantify ‘Christmassyness’, A Christmas Carol is always going to win out. Certainly more than something like The Runaway Bride or The Return of Doctor Mysterio, neither of which are massively Christmassy – there’s a lot of them that treat it as just a fairly superficial aesthetic gloss, but it’s right at the heart of A Christmas Carol. (I’ve always been a little dubious of “they ran out of Christmas stories” as a reason for the move to New Year’s Day – especially because it feels like Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor would be so well-suited to the whimsy and sentiment of Christmas – but equally, once you’ve done A Christmas Carol you’ve used the best idea, so maybe that move was just a case of the schedules catching up to something that’d been obvious for some time.)
There’s also that brilliant central conceit, though, that this isn’t just Doctor Who doing A Christmas Carol – it’s explicitly, textually, the Doctor taking inspiration from Charles Dickens. It gives the whole thing an extra knowing edge, that level of self-awareness about what it’s doing; A Christmas Carol assumes its audience is going to know A Christmas Carol already, that people will notice and understand the way the story is being mimicked and where it’s being subverted. Genuinely, one of the smartest things Steven Moffat has ever written in Doctor Who is the Ghost of Christmas Future bit here – not Kazran seeing his grave, but bringing the Young Kazran forward to see the current Kazran, so almost his father. That’s fantastic, both on its own terms and in how it uses Doctor Who’s format to reshape the Dickens novel.
A Christmas Carol takes a great deal of care with its character writing, too. It’d be easy – given how familiar everyone will be with A Christmas Carol, a story that’s been repeated and retold and rearranged so many times – to coast on that idea of Scrooge that exists in the public imagination. The archetype is so well-defined that you could just leave it as a sketch and the episode would still work, I suspect, just the most basic shape of a Scrooge left to be filled in by Michael Gambon’s performance.
(Which is of course fantastic, incidentally. It’s a neat bit of stunt-casting for the series – particularly given how Harry Potter seems to have become, if not a Christmas staple, then certainly the sort of half-watched background radiation on ITV2 like disaster movies or Bond films – but a great performance full stop first and foremost. Gambon does some really clever, nuanced work here, especially impressive given that so much of what he’s performing doesn’t actually map onto any real-life emotions: he’s taking a sci-fi contrivance and breathing life into it, really selling the idea that he can feel his life and history changing around him.)
But the episode goes to great lengths to make sure the character writing does stand on its own terms, beyond just the Dickens riff. One of the smartest bits of the episode is that the Doctor’s meddling ultimately doesn’t change much – the realisation that Abigail is ill and that his time with her is limited (and that bitterness that develops at the Doctor in turn, Kazran believing that the Doctor had offered him a vision of a particular life only to take it away again) still sends Kazran down the same path. It’s the reunion with Abigail (in a simple but undeniably effective performance from Katherine Jenkins in her first ever screen role) that makes the difference in the end. The Doctor offers the opportunity for the change, but it’s the human element that makes the difference. There’s a really nice sense of A Christmas Carol – which is true of the original too, but anyway – that the whole thing is about watching Kazran healing, stepping out of his father’s shadow and building genuine human connections, however brief they might ultimately be.
It’s interesting to consider this episode in its original context again. A Christmas Carol was the fifteenth episode of Doctor Who in 2010, and it aired not even a full year after David Tennant’s regeneration in The End of Time. But if you put the two episodes together, it’s like night and day – you’d be forgiven, really, for assuming they were two different programmes entirely.
A Christmas Carol is entirely unlike anything Russell T Davies ever did, or ever would, write for the series; Matt Smith’s performance here is entirely unlike anything that David Tennant would have done in the part either. The pair of them own the show now – they have for ages, by this point (since fish fingers and custard, really) but this is probably the first time they really realised it themselves. The whole episode moves with a sense of confidence and grace, properly comfortable in itself and what it’s doing in a way their previous episodes often weren’t. (The Eleventh Hour is absolute brilliant, but there’s bits where you can almost feel the panic.) This was the first episode to be produced after any of Series 5 had actually been broadcast, at a point when they really genuinely knew that what they were doing worked; after how frantic (in the best way) Series 5 sometimes felt, and how ambitious Series 6 is about to become, there’s a sense that A Christmas Carol is almost a pause to take a breath.
Taken that way, this episode isn’t just an achievement in itself, but something that underlines and emphasises everything Moffat and Smith had managed over the previous year. It makes it all the more impressive really; after a complete and total reinvention of Doctor Who (the first of the new series, really), they very casually came along and did the best Christmas special the show has ever done. Still never bettered!