10 and 1 Things About Doctor Who's Christmas Carol

(If you don't expect spoilers, you don't know me very well.)Item 1: First off, I did love it, but one thing that struck me is how this was actually the first Christmas special that was actually about CHRISTMAS. The four previous attempts used Christmas as window dressing, but were essentially about other things. In The Runaway Bride, RTD felt compelled to throw a wedding because Christmas just isn't enough of a special occasion, and Voyage of the Damned is a Christmassy as a knee to the groin. Perhaps filming it in the summer put some minds off the season, who knows. With A Christmas Carol, we're actually given a Christmas story, not a story that takes place at Christmas. Moffat uses the fun of time travel not only to recreate Dickens' classic story, but to visit a number of Christmas Eves across space and time. It's a tale about giving a little boy hope for the future in order to melt that future man's heart, not just to save the starship crew that hangs on his decisions, but to save the man himself.

Item 2: One of the things that makes this a true Christmas story is the joyful fantasy of it. The Doctor mentions Mary Poppins at one point and yes, that's exactly what this is like at times. This Victorian planet doesn't just have a Scrooge figure in Kazran Sardick, but fish that thrive in fog, and a shark with its own little story arc who carts the newly-minted TARDIS crew around through the clouds.
Lullabies that sing fish to sleep, the miraculous way in which time travel is used, the Doctor making snowmen... The episode is grand fantasy, and very much in the Moffat Fairy Tale style. That shark is never jumped, my friends, because the magic of Christmas is in on fun. Again, compare to the dark streak of other Who Christmas specials.

Item 3: Not enough Amy and Rory! Not a complaint, because this story wouldn't have worked with them next to the Doctor, but it would have been nice to see the starring companions a little more before the new season. Seeing Arthur Darvill's name in the credits did bring a smile to my face though. Good no ya, mate!

Item 4: At the end of The Big Bang, the Doctor gets a call that sends the TARDIS to a story that contains the Orient Express, the Queen of England and an Egyptian goddess... in space. That story is never told (nor were the rumored Yeti in this episode), but could the spaceship be the "Orient Express"? Coming off the untold tale, the characters stay on for a little honeymoon roleplay and disaster strikes. Neat idea because it puts a bow on things (though the captain doesn't know Amy so...). Not so neat because it robs me of seeing a train in space.

Item 5: I enjoyed the Star Trek parody. Or don't you think the opening scene looked like a cross between The Next Generation and J.J. Abrams' film?
Lots of lens flares on a glossy white bridge, touch-sensitive consoles, and even a Geordi figure with an optical prosthesis. You know, it's stuff like this that feeds my dreams images of the TARDIS landing in other shows and movies.

Item 6: In the didja notice department... Didja notice the way Kazran's tie changed in the "present" depending on how close he was to the Doctor in the "past"? Cute. So yes, there are a lot of paradoxes in this story, and the more timeline conscious among you might be wondering how that all worked. We already know that history is not fixed in the Whoniverse. The 10th Doctor is always going on about fixed points that must not be changed (intimating that they can be) and Doc11's era has been consistently reminding us that "time can be rewritten". What we haven't really seen much before is the timeline updating itself before our eyes, and I think that's what some people have problems with. In Smith and Jones, for example, we see the Doctor do the tie trick before he actually leaves to do the tie trick. That's because we're seeing things from Martha's point of view in the updated timeline. Like we got the "television feed" AFTER the entire events of the episode. Blink is another good example. It's Sally Sparrow's point of view and we our "feed" is from after all the changes were made. In this (as with the way memory works re: the cracks in Cold Heart and The Big Bang, though the creation of the cracks is from an objective POV), we're getting the updates as they happen. The POV is that of the Doctor AND Kazran (who witnesses the changes being made so can't help but feel the updates being made). So if at first Kazran is a bitter old man because he was beaten by his unloving father, by the end, he's embittered because of his lost love. If at first, Abigail's family want to see her out of her coffin because she loves Christmas, by the end, they appeal to Kazran because he's actually let her out before. If at first Kazran refuses to use his pipe organ to save the ship, by the end he's unable to because his father never gave him its use. What we see are the small incremental updates that will build into this final changed timeline. To someone on the outside like Amy, it would probably seem like the timeline was always the final one. Kazran has some sense that things are changing, but once they've changed, he accepts the new timeline as if it were the real one. There is only a moment of confusion as the waves of time crash on his shores, but then the update takes hold. Works for me.

Item 7: Now it's come to my attention that a certain portion of the fanbase is up in arms about the Blinovitch Limitation Effect. This more or less states that a time traveler cannot touch him or herself in another time zone without some kind of explosion happening. It happened to the Brigadier in Mawdryn Undead, but you know what? Nowhere else, ever. New Whovians without the benefit of a Classical education will point to Father's Day and scream about the Reapers, but that's a non-starter. The Reapers are only there because time was collapsing due to an egregious paradox created by Rose. When she touched the baby, there was no explosion. It just further weakened time and allowed a crack for the Reaper to get through. By The Big Bang, there are no longer consequences to touching oneself (re: Amy). So what is the Blinovitch Limitation Effect, and is it still in play. I have a couple theories. If still in play, and given how little it has affected time travelers over the last 47 years, you could say that it's more a "rule" than an "effect". Time Lords are instructed not to allow people to cross each others' timelines because they can have dangerous effects (as opposed to "will have"). In Mawdryn Undead, it's possibly the method of time travel that creates a potential temporal energy release. In Father's Day, none of that, but the Reapers are at the church doors. In A Christmas Carol, two Kazrans hug with no effect. Can have, not will have. The Doctor knows what he's doing. He's older now and this incarnation is more savvy about time travel tricks than previous incarnations. If the BLE is no longer in effect, that can be explained too. In The Big Bang, the universe was recreated, possibly with differences. Since the TARDIS became an engine for the restart, it could have updated a few of the time travel rules. In the new universe, such things are just more manageable.
Item 8: So what did Abigail die from? This is, admittedly, one of the niggling questions left by the episode. It's not clear whether she's actually dying from a disease - of which there is no sign - for which a number of days left to live can be so exactly derived, or that the freezing/thawing process severely shortens one's life, which seems like a terrible deal to make. Are all coffins equipped with day counters? If she can't be frozen and thawed again, that's fine, but that once thawed she has only one day left to live? The real answer is in the fairy tale. Abigail is a magical princess cursed to live only one more day and Kazran must choose exactly which day. It's part of the opera. Magical Christmas nonsense. Technobabble-heads can of course find a reason (though perhaps a convoluted one), but only because Doctor Who lives in a "science fiction" space. It's still tantamount to looking for why Sleeping Beauty pricks herself when she knows about the curse.

Item 9: Fish bites! You might have noticed the tiny fish that bite the Doctor in the back of the neck are never pictured in all their CGI glory. Could be something weird that gets explained during the next series (à la Doctor with jacket on/off in Flesh and Stone), but there's no reason there couldn't be mosquito-sized flying fish. From a story point of view, they're trying to make the Doctor shut up while Abigail sings. From a Doctor Who point of view, they're getting revenge for his eating fish fingers in The Eleventh Hour. From a Dickens point of view, are they... humbugs?

Item 10: Speaking of references, Moffat likes to always include bits for older fans. Though the first Doctor got a lot of play in Series 5, A Christmas Carol has a couple of nods to the fourth. The reaction to Kazran's mention of isomorphic controls is the same as Doc4's in Pyramids of Mars, and there's young Kazran's scarf (see above). Doc4 was also the first to fail at card tricks. Any I didn't spot?

Item 11: Of course, one of the most exciting things about the Christmas specials is that we get the first trailer for the new season. Here it is!

Lots to look forward to, including a trip to the U.S. that makes great use of locations it seems. Although it's great to see the Ood, and River Song, and President Doctor, and Roswell aliens, the Doctor in prison, more historicals, an Ambassadors of Death reference(?), etc., the most intriguing thing to me is the split second reappearance of the makeshift TARDIS from The Lodger. Yeah, I'm just built that way.

Bring it on!


Anonymous said...

I always figured the Blinovitch Limitataion Effect was what the Doctor was talking about when he couldn't undo a recent mistake because he's "part of events". That would be consistent with the first description of the BLE, if my vague memories are correct.

But time travelers have been meeting themselves on "Doctor Who" since "The Three Doctors". The Time Lords, you may recall, were worried that there might be repercussions for twisting time in that fashion, but they did it anyway, and nothing bad happened (quite possibly because the Doctor was responsible about not messing with his own timeline).

So, like you, I'm satisfied that this bending of time didn't violate the established rules of "Doctor Who"; the basic course of events continued to proceed as it always had, so the timestream remained stable enough to incorporate the changes. "Wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey" works for me.

snell said...

Re: Blinovitch. In The Big Bang, the sonic screwdriver sparked a bit when it touched "itself," which the Doctor offered as proof it was the same screwdriver, different time. So there is something there...

In Madwryn, the Brigadiers' meeting "shorted out the time differential," implying that the TARDIS is protecting its passengers from Blinovitch, but failed that time. Perhaps the recent reconfiguration of the TARDIS included a much stronger "time differential."

Or, since that Blinovitch energy "healed" the older brigadier's memory AND saved the Doctor, perhaps the TARDIS let it happen on purpose...she does have a mind of her own, sometimes.

snell said...

King B--I always hypothesized that regeneration made substantial enough physical changes that Blinovitch didn't apply to the Doctor, as they weren't really the "same" person anymore, physically.

Siskoid said...

The time differential made a comeback in Moffat's own Time Crash, and it made the 5th Doctor look older. This is an AWESOME justification to allow the now older actors to reprise their roles in a multi-Doctor story down the line.

Radagast said...

So glad to see you call Young Kazran and Abigail 'the newly-minted TARDIS crew'.

Does that mean we'll see TARDIS-character versions of them for the CCG? I'm very much hoping that's a 'yes'!

Andrew Gilbertson said...

The Lodger Proto-TARDIS lit up my heart like a Christmas tree! Hurrah!!! I am insanely psyched about that. Almost make shaving to suffer through the Ood again worthwhile. :-)

LiamKav said...

(I'm writing this while I'm waiting to hear your thoughts on season 7, for reference)

I loved this episode at the time. Loved it. Now, however, I'm thinking it's another example of Moffat's slightly... inconsistent approach to time travel. For all the criticism RTD got for handing in "first draft scripts", I don't think that Stevie is immune, and the problems start here. Well, actually they started at the end of the previous series with the complete non-answer as to how Rory got the sonic screwdriver to let the Doctor out, but here is where the show starts to violate its own rules.

The Tardis used to be a tool to plop the Doctor down at a location. He would have an adventure, get back in, and be done. Moffat himself has said that he aims to get the Doctor out of the Tardis doors as quickly as possible, because that's where the fun is. And the show has always gone with the idea that once the Doctor is involved, that's it. Adric gets killed? They jump back in time and save him. Peri gets poisoned? Same thing. When that gets violated (such as in "Father's Day") we are told that Bad Things Happen. And yet here, the Doctor can just pop into the past and change someone's attitude and personality? So why hasn't he ever gone back in time and thrown a birthday party for a 5-year-old Davros?

As clever as the Past, Present, Future thing was, and as much as I loved the idea that the Ghost of Christmas Future was old Kazran, I think the idea of altering a currently present bad guy by popping in to his past and improving his childhood opens a horrific can of worms, and the show deals with it by basically just ignoring the idea and never using it again.

Siskoid said...

I blame a Christmas miracle.

My litmus test for stuff like this is: Did breaking the rules make for a good story? And this time, it did.

I could play the No-Prize card and say that the rules post-Big Bang II have changed. It's a new universe, one spun out of a TARDIS exploding. We'll see what I come up with when I eventually get there. As for Season 7, I've decided to only talk about it when I reach it in the daily reviews, so that's gonna be a little while yet.

LiamKav said...

"My litmus test for stuff like this is: Did breaking the rules make for a good story? And this time, it did."

I would never want a TV show to not do a story because it violates something a character said once 4 years ago. So Sisko once implied that his parents were dead... we can hand wave that away.

In this case though, I think it's a much bigger issue. We're not ignoring the Dals apparently changing their name to Kaled between two episodes that aired over a decade apart. The Doctor not being able to time travel during the events of a story is a fundamental rule of the show, and doing it hear raised the issue of why doesn't he do it all the time?

It reminds me of how RTD got annoyed by fans bringing up the 13 regeneration limit, saying that they were never bothered when the Third Doctor said he was thousands of years old. He didn't seem to understand that some stated facts are more important than others. The Doctor's age ultimately has no bearing on the show. Sure, it was annoying that Eccleston was "younger" than McCoy, but it didn't affect past or present stories. The regeneration limit was different though. It directly affected at least 3 stories, and also had a huge difference on how we view the Doctor's character. There's a significant difference between "dying" if you can only do it 13 times compared to being able to do it thousands of times.

So, likewise here. "You can't cross your own time stream, except when you can". And that then leads into "time can be rewritten. Except for when we say it can't." In a fictional universe, there have to be consistent rules. If the Federation have a no interference policy one week, they have to have one next week; Otherwise we end up with "Justice", or the new52 where Tim Drake was a Robin oh no he wasn't pretend we never said that.

(A lot of my annoyances come from knowing that Moffat is a good writer. A very good writer. Which is why some things he's done lately have annoyed me so much. I KNOW he can do better.)

Siskoid said...

Again, not as bothered as you are. If there's one thing watching every episode in order is teaching me, it's that time travel rules are NEVER coherent across the whole of canon.

A lot of the "rules" came to us via the continuity-obsessed 80s, and I'd argue few of them were good ideas or even made sense.

The truth is that each era had its own way of handling time travel (and other issues), and while the continuity between RTD and Moffat seems unbroken, it's really a different show, one that handles plot, character, themes, and yes, time travel very differently.

I'll attempt to explain the breaking of any rules as they occur though, because I'm as big a nerd as the next guy.


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