by Jonne Bartelds
It’s pretty much impossible to pick the best Doctor Who episode. After all, there’s 50+ years of televised content, not to mention the Expanded Universe, which, like our own actual universe, just keeps on expanding. Then there’s the fact that Doctor Who is so varied, spanning so many different genres, writers, directors, styles. Doctor Who, as a whole, is essentially a whole bunch of different shows, which all attract different kinds of people. So I don’t think you can objectively pick a best episode, and I won’t. What I can do, is make a case for my favourite episode.
Picking a favourite episode is still hard, though. There are so many I love, and which one I love the most tends to shift depending on my mood. But the one I always end up coming back to is A Christmas Carol. It is without a doubt the best Christmas special New Who has had (and with this much smaller pool, I think I can say that objectively). It is the rare episode of Doctor Who that I would actually consider nearly flawless. Everything comes together in such a beautiful way. It is funny and heartbreaking, it is dark and yet full of hope, and it is gorgeous.
The phrase ‘halfway out of the dark’ pops up a few times. Let’s talk about that, because it is really the core essence of this episode.
A tale of two stories (it’s a Dickens reference, you see)
“A Christmas Carol” is, essentially, a double adaptation. The first thing it is adapting is of course the Charles Dickens story of the same name. This is such an obvious story to pick for a Christmas special that I’m honestly kind of amazed that Russell T. Davies didn’t use it first (it’s not like he was averse to doing ‘[x story] IN SPACE’ for Christmas – “Voyage of the Damned” is essentially The Poseidon Adventure IN SPACE, after all). It’s a classic Christmas story that also involves time travel (sort of), so it’s a perfect fit. Maybe it was just too obvious. Maybe he didn’t want to be compared to all the other adaptations. Either way, it is definitely a perfect fit for Moffat: it’s a bit fairytale, it plays with time travel, and it’s a whole lotta Christmas. However, the far more interesting adaptation at play here – to me at least – is the one Moffat is doing of his own Seventh Doctor story, “Continuity Errors“, which was published in 1996.
I suppose adaptation isn’t really the right word; it’s really just Moffat reusing an idea from his own story. In fact, this story is a treasure trove of little things Moffat will reuse in the show: the Library that houses all the known books in the universe, an archaeologist with a diary (though Benny is not Moffat’s creation of course), the Luna University, some dialogue (“What do monsters have nightmares about?” “Me.”)… it’s a fun thing to read if only to play ‘spot the thing Moffat reused’ (but also because it’s just a good story and you should read it anyway). For “A Christmas Carol” however, Moffat doesn’t just reuse a small bit, but the core concept: that of rewriting someone’s life through time travel.
So we’ve got two stories at play here: Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol“, which is a heart-warming Christmas tale about a man learning to be a better person, and “Continuity Errors“, which is… well, it’s kind of a horror story about the Doctor.
I think this is something people overlook about “A Christmas Carol” sometimes: what the Doctor does is really, deeply messed up. That is how it is presented in “Continuity Errors“. In this story, the Doctor is the antagonist. The protagonist (Andrea, a librarian) is initially afraid of him, as she has learned (and will later unlearn) that he’s a CSTE – a Complicated Space-Time Event. As with Kazran, the Doctor proceeds to rewrite her entire life in order to get what he wants. In both cases, he does this for a good cause: Seven wants to loan a book that could help him prevent a genocide, Eleven wants to save a crashing spaceship. And ultimately, he changes both their lives for the better. Even so, rewriting someone’s entire life without their consent is a violation. Despite his good intentions, there is something deeply sinister about how casually the Doctor plays with their timelines. Especially because, in both cases, he does this at points in their lives at which they are very vulnerable.
In “Continuity Errors“, Andrea resists the Doctor’s efforts to get the book up until the very end. She comes to like him, yes, and she’s grateful that he saved her daughter and her marriage, but she is also aware of what he did, of how easily he manipulated her life for his own gain.
‘I’m grateful for what you did – of course I am. In fact I love you for it. Which, of course, is the general idea, isn’t it? But anyone capable of doing what you’ve just done to me simply to withdraw a library book is very dangerous. And I really don’t think I could justify releasing a restricted text to a man as dangerous as you.’
She recognises how dangerous he is. It is implied that she only thinks this because of a lecture she attended when she was young, but the thing is, she’s right. Yes, he had good intentions, and yes, just giving him the book at the start of the story would have prevented all of that, but look at how easily he turns to this kind of manipulation. Look at how far he goes, just for a book. It is a reminder, for Andrea and for us, that the Doctor isn’t just a hero. He’s an alien, and as much as he likes humans and saves the Earth a lot, sometimes he does things like this – playing with lives and time so casually – that makes it seem like he regards us as little more than pawns. He is part funny uncle, part eldritch horror.
Still, simply giving Andrea a better life is not enough. So what does the Doctor do?
Right at the centre, staring up at him, was a young woman. She had sharp, intelligent features and a hint of challenge in her dark eyes. On her lapel was a blue badge, indicating that she was undergoing memory augmentation, probably for a career in one of the larger libraries or InfoCentres. A side-effect of the process, of course, was that during the initial stages of the treatment she would become extraordinarily susceptible to received ideas. Whatever she heard in the lecture today would stay with her for ever. Except, of course, he reminded himself again, he wasn’t giving a lecture – he was changing history. […] ‘I’m going to give you a little chat on the importance of lending library books to your friends.’
He doesn’t just change her mind, he goes back to a time where she is extremely vulnerable to being manipulated and essentially brainwashes her. Despite knowing that she was against this, that she thought it was wrong. Was this really the only way? Was this the best way, or just the easiest for him?
Eleven doesn’t go quite as far, but it’s still noteworthy to look at which point he chooses to start his manipulation of Kazran. He goes to Kazran when he’s a child. Now, that is of course already a vulnerable stage of anyone’s life, but it’s not just that. He specifically chooses the moment right after Kazran has been punished and hit by his father. He’s lonely. He’s miserable. He’s crying. What a relief then, that the Doctor is here to make it all better! Showing up at just the right time to befriend him, to give him everything he wants. To make this child latch onto him, to make Kazran like him, just as he tried to make Andrea like him.
And yes, it’s kind what the Doctor does. I’m not about to argue that making an abused child feel better is horrible. Just as saving a woman’s daughter from dying and preventing her marriage from falling apart isn’t horrible. It is the way he does it, and the why. The way he slips into someone’s timeline and rearranges their life – without their consent, and sometimes explicitly against their wishes, just so it benefits him. Andrea didn’t ask for this. Kazran didn’t ask for this. They both love and hate him for it. As Andrea says, anyone capable of doing something like this is very dangerous.
And I ask again: is this the best way, or just the easiest for the Doctor? Or maybe it’s not even that it’s easy, maybe it’s the most interesting way to do it. Maybe, after hundreds of years of time travel, you wanna spice things up a little, regardless of the feelings of these little humans you’re manipulating. Maybe we can never really be sure of the Doctor’s true motives.
Or maybe that’s an overly cynical take, and he just wanted to make a cranky old man better.
Now, “Continuity Errors” is a very Seventh Doctor kind of story. Of course he would do something like this. He’s a chessmaster, a manipulator. This is what he does, this is the kind of thing we expect from him. But Eleven? Up to now he’s been a dorky goofball. He can get angry, sure, but he’s funny and nice and he looks like a puppy and he can’t dance. He’s no Seven. A large part of the fandom seems to agree. The amount of times I see him get sorted into Hufflepuff is staggering – and very wrong. The Eleventh Doctor is the closest to the Seventh Doctor we’ve gotten so far. We’ve seen hints of it in series 5. He keeps secrets. He lies to Amy about why he took her with him. We see a literal personification of his darker self in the Dream Lord. In series 6 we see that manipulative side come out stronger: there are only a couple of episodes where he does not manipulate someone in some way. Just as the underlying darkness of “A Christmas Carol” gets looked over, so does Eleven’s. And this episode is where it really, properly starts to come out.
So it makes sense then, for Moffat to adapt his Seventh Doctor story for Eleven. And yet… and yet “A Christmas Carol” is not Continuity Errors. Eleven, despite his manipulative tendencies, is not Seven. This isn’t the Wilderness Years, during which Continuity Errors was written, where many Doctor Who stories skewed more towards the grimdark. This isn’t even the Davies era, where most finales were sad, or at the very least melancholy. We just ended series 5 on an absolutely joyous note, a fairytale ending complete with magical wedding. So rather than being played straight, “Continuity Errors‘ ” twisted story gets subverted. Like with Andrea, Kazran initially doesn’t change. He grows into the same bitter old man he was, only now with added heartbreak. But rather than the Doctor going back in time once more, it’s ultimately not the Doctor who changes Kazran – it’s Kazran, seeing his younger self, and remembering that this wasn’t ever who he wanted to be. He doesn’t become a good man because of his time spent with the Doctor or because he literally got brainwashed, he decides to be one at the end. And so this isn’t just a dark tale about a man’s life being rewritten, it is also a hopeful tale about a man finding love, about him dealing with childhood trauma and abuse, and choosing to be a better man than his father. It’s about a woman choosing to spend her last days not locked up, but with people who she loves and who love her. It’s about saving the day with a song. It’s about fish that can swim in fog. It’s about light and hope.
It is a story that is, itself, halfway out of the dark.
Now that we’ve got all that boring story stuff out of the way, how about we take a look at some pretty things? Because it’s not just the story that is halfway out of the dark. Let’s look at the visuals, in a segment I’d like to call –
This Whole Episode Is So Pretty It Makes Me Cry A Little
Can I marry everyone who worked on this episode? Because I want to marry everyone who worked on this episode, especially those who worked on the visuals. The direction, the cinematography, the set design, the lighting, the costumes – everything just blends together seamlessly to create the magical environment this magical story is set in. Incidentally, this marks Michael Pickwoad’s debut as set designer, and it definitely shows.
Speaking of which, I want to talk about the setting for a bit, because while this is in part an aspect of the story, there is a lot of worldbuilding expressed through the visuals here. There’s a bit of a nautical theme, for one, which ties into the fish, and the episode has a very steampunk-y vibe to it. That makes sense, of course: this whole episode is essentially Dickens’s A Christmas Carol In Space And With (More) Time Travel. And in a way, that means the world itself is halfway out of the dark: it’s a different planet with futuristic tech, yet the aesthetics of the world are that of the Victorian age. There’s a machine that controls the clouds, but it looks like an organ. There are pods that keep people in stasis, but they’re big and bulky, and look more like they belong on a submarine. Young Kazran has a camera (oh god, he’s a vlogger), but it seems to only record in black and white, and the Doctor uses an old-fashioned projector to show old Kazran the footage. This is a world that has one foot in the future, and one in the past.
There is, of course, another ‘world’ as well: the ship Amy and Rory are on, which seems to be lifted straight from the 2009 JJ Abrams Star Trek movie – complete with lens flare. It is bright and sleek and shiny: the light to the dark of Kazran’s world. It does intrigue me that the people on Kazran’s world are perfectly aware of this ship – and thus by extension another, more standard futuristic world – existing. In fact, the dialogue tells us this must be a kind of colony world, settled by humans who knows how long ago, and the spaceship is from Earth. Yet where the people from Earth have embraced that Star Trek aesthetic, Kazran’s world has not. It has clung onto this bygone era, and judging by Kazran’s refusal to allow these people from Earth to even land, is not interested in changing. This might even be entirely because of Kazran and his father. Think about it: the cloud layer covers the entire planet, and prevents outside ships from landing, which in turn prevents other societies from influencing and mingling with Kazran’s world. From the way Kazran talks to the president (“I don’t make the rules – oh wait, I do.”) we can tell that he has a considerable amount of power on this world due to his machine. The machine is both the reason for that power and the means of keeping it, so it is in Kazran’s best interest to make sure nothing changes. And so, like the people frozen in the pods, the Sardicks have frozen the development of this world in order to stay in control of it.
Let’s talk art!
Let me preface this by saying that I am by no means an art historian, so if I get stuff wrong, feel free to correct me. I am an illustrator, though, and I love pretty things. And “A Christmas Carol“? It’s downright art.
Now, up to this point, the Moffat era in general had been a step up visually. In part this is probably just due to better equipment, but it does feel like there was more of a focus on making the show look more cinematic. I don’t think an episode like this could have happened in the Davies era, regardless of budget or technology. That’s not to say that the Davies era didn’t have its moments (though funnily enough, when I think about visually striking RTD-era episodes, the ones that come to mind first are Moffat’s), but in general the show had a (to me at least) fairly uninteresting visual style. And that is not to say that the Moffat era was 100% cinematic art, but it plays it less safe, visually. “Heaven Sent” is an obvious example, as are all of Rachel Talalay’s episodes, but then there’s also episodes like “Listen” and “Time Heist“, which use a lot of interesting colours, or “The Girl Who Waited“, which has a whole host of beautiful shots courtesy of Nick Hurran. And of course, there’s Vincent and the Doctor, with its direct recreations of Van Gogh’s work. (And its horrible pronunciation of Van Gogh’s name. It’s not Van Goth, you heathens.)
I think what gives “A Christmas Carol” an edge over these episodes, is that it’s visually much more cohesive. In part, that is because the episode is largely set in one place. Different times, different locations, yes, but almost all of it is set on Kazran’s world. Then there’s the fact that all of it is set at night. The night automatically limits the colour palette more, which leads to more cohesion across the scenes. Even when they go off-world, the basic colour scheme holds up. Even the cruise ship, with its futuristic white decor and lens flare, looks a bit darker than we might expect. Even there, there’s deep, dark shadows. Because that’s one of the things that makes this episode so pretty: it’s practically dripping in chiaroscuro.
Now I imagine most people know what chiaroscuro is, but just in case you don’t: chiaroscuro is a painting technique developed during the Renaissance that uses strong tonal contrasts between light and dark (chiaroscuro literally meaning ‘light/dark’). Closely related to that is tenebrism (from the Italian tenebroso, meaning “dark, gloomy, mysterious”), which is essentially chiaroscuro turned up to eleven.
Caravaggio is probably the most well known user of this technique, but A Christmas Carol mostly calls to my mind the works of Dutch artists in the 17th century (though I might be biased, being Dutch myself). A lot of these artists painted night scenes lit by candlelight, and we see this in a Christmas Carol too: almost the entire episode is set at night (Christmas Eve, in fact), and although the lights are probably electric (this is still the future), they are styled to look like gaslights. They never fully light up a room, instead giving a more atmospheric, candle-like glow. Contrast this painting by Gerrit van Honthorst…
…with this screencap from “A Christmas Carol“.
And yes, I realise the Van Honthorst painting doesn’t actually use a candle as its light source, and instead a baby, which is a neat and novel way of lighting that I think more people should use. But you see those deep, dark shadows in the screencap? The light and the staging of it, the way the soft, candle-like glow draws your attention to their faces – the most important part of the human figure – makes it look like a painting.
Meanwhile, there are about a million close-up shots that might as well be Rembrandt portraits.
And then there’s this shot, which I don’t really have a matching painting for, but which I’m just kind of obsessed with. I mean, look at the hands! Those hands could have been painted by Caravaggio himself.
And aside from looking pretty, it fits in perfectly with the ‘halfway out of the dark’ theme, albeit in a slightly different way. It’s not so much the light at the end of a tunnel, as it is a marriage between the two. It’s not light or dark, it’s both. It’s the interplay between the two, the way light and dark contrast and heighten the intensity of each other. (Am I reaching here? Possibly, but that’s art criticism for ya.)
This use of chiaroscuro in film (or in this case, TV) is not new, of course. Black and white films were especially suited for it, starting with German expressionist films in the 20s. Think Nosferatu, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Metropolis. Think also film noir, with its sharp silhouettes, the light streaming through windows and blinds, creating all these interesting shapes. And later, when colour made its introduction in film, it did not go away either. The most famous example of a more ‘modern’ movie using chiaroscuro is Stanley Kubrick’s 1975 film Barry Lyndon. In true baroque style, Kubrick shot many scenes lit only by candlelight – for which he had to create an entirely new lens.
So it is hardly revolutionary for Doctor Who to use chiaroscuro like this. In fact, the episodes preceding this one – “The Pandorica Opens” / “The Big Bang” – use it quite well, too. There’s all those scenes in the Underhenge, where they walk around with torches. There’s the scenes in the museum. There’s the shots of the Doctor in the Pandorica. All these scenes involve contrasts between light and dark, and the episodes are certainly very pretty, but it’s not quite the same thing. It’s not as stylised, and the shots aren’t nearly as beautifully composed. Speaking of which…
Citizen Kane more like Citizen Kazran, am I right? (No)
Because that’s another thing about A Christmas Carol: it doesn’t just use chiaroscuro well, the shots are also a masterclass in composition. Remove the colour, and there’s that German expressionism, there’s the film noir – hell, there’s even a bit of Citizen Kane. And maybe comparing a Christmas special of a silly British sci-fi show to what many consider the best movie ever made is going a bit too far, but I think it’s justified. Just look at what happens when you turn “A Christmas Carol” into a black and white movie.
This is the kind of thing you could use in an art class to teach about how to create good, visually interesting compositions. Take the spotlight above the Doctor, or the shadow of a street lamp reaching out to Abigail; look at how the light draws your attention to the figures, how it creates shapes that lead your eyes. All these shots are so well-crafted, in a way that I can’t say I had seen in Doctor Who before, and I have not seen as much of since. There have been instances, certainly. There have been numerous very beautiful shots. But an entire episode like that is this meticulously shot? I can’t think of any – with the exception of “Heaven Sent“. “Heaven Sent“, which, aside from utilising chiaroscuro very beautifully, also adopts the earthy colour scheme that many paintings from the artists I mentioned before also used. “A Christmas Carol” uses a different colour scheme, so hey, let’s talk about that!
It’s colour theory time boys
Setting the episode at night, aside from limiting the colour palette, it also allows for more control of the colour palette. After all, it’s easier to pop some coloured filters on your lights than it is to control, say, the actual sun. And so A Christmas Carol has one basic colour scheme: blue and yellow. This shot shows it off very clearly:
It’s a nice complementary colour scheme, and also a nice break from the blue/orange colour scheme which has been really popular in the last 20 years or so (here’s a good article about that phenomenon), Doctor Who included (hell, the title sequence is blue/orange). Sure, blue/yellow doesn’t seem that far off from blue/orange, and sometimes the yellow skews more towards the orange, but it never becomes that bright, warm orange. Even in the scenes shot in the TARDIS, which has a lot of orange (and which is blue on the outside, fancy that), it’s a bit more toned down, a bit cooler. And the funny thing is, to me that makes it a little bit less Christmassy, in a way. When I think Christmas, I think ‘gezellig’ (to be very Dutch for a moment). I think about warmth, coziness, twinkling lights, being together with family. If I had to point out a Christmas special that gives me those feelings (strictly visually speaking), I think about “The Husbands of River Song“, which is very colourful, or perhaps “Voyage of the Damned“, which has a lot of warm golds. Yet the colour scheme in “A Christmas Carol “stays quite cool throughout, and that makes the episode feel cold. Not in a bad way, mind you. It gives it a nice wintery vibe, and in the scenes that are more cozy (like the one with Abigail and her family), it makes it feel kind of like an old, faded painting.
That’s not to say that the episode is completely devoid of Christmas-ness. Despite its blue/yellow colour scheme, it manages to sneak some red/green in there as well, which, as we all know, is the most Christmas of all colour palettes. It’s in Kazran’s house, with its green walls and red furniture. Less subtly, it’s in the scenes between Amy and Kazran, at the end of the episode. Here, the green of the hologram is contrasted with the red lights in the ship.
And again, look at how dark this ship is. If this was Abrams’s Star Trek, it’d be way brighter. Instead, it was made to match the lighting of the planet below, again creating more cohesion despite the very different settings. It may be a small thing, but it’s this attention to detail that makes this episode stand out from others.
A conclusion, of sorts
I know there are people who don’t care much for what an episode looks like. I know there are people who say Doctor Who is supposed to look cheap, that all these fancy effects and visuals detract from the story and characters. That New Who is all style over substance. Ultimately though, tv is a visual medium. Why wouldn’t you take advantage of it? Why wouldn’t you create something pretty, just to be pretty. And I’ll admit that I’m very easily swayed by pretty things. There are movies, shows, games I like just because they look nice. I’m not really into period dramas, but the cinematography of the 2011 Jane Eyre adaptation makes me swoon. I love the game Dear Esther, not because I care that much about the storyline or gameplay, but because you get to wander around a beautiful windswept island. I love the works of Guillermo del Toro, because his attention to detail and passion is evident in all his movies, even if his characters aren’t always that well-rounded. And the same goes for Doctor Who. “Cold War” is probably my favourite Gatiss episode, not because of the story, but because I really like the colour, lighting and atmosphere in it. Same goes for the entirety of series 6. Is it the best series? Maybe not, but it has a distinctive, cohesive style that increases my enjoyment of it. A style that started with “A Christmas Carol“, which is why I personally always count it as the first episode of series 6, rather than the last one of series 5. There are other reasons it’s my favourite, of course, but the aesthetic of it is a big factor.
Maybe that’s superficial, I don’t know. I don’t really care. It’s just what I like. For me, sometimes style is enough. Sometimes style is the substance.
Luckily, in the case of “A Christmas Carol“, there is both style and substance, and they elevate each other. I’m sure there are plenty of people who would say that there are episodes that are far better than “A Christmas Carol“, and they wouldn’t even be wrong. I’m not necessarily trying to convince you that it’s the best ever, but I hope that it will make you appreciate the craft and skill that went into it, that you’ll notice things you didn’t notice before. I hope it’ll make you look at it in a new light.
A blue/yellow coloured light, even.
Jonne Bartelds is a Dutch illustrator and unapologetic Moffat stan who has probably drawn Clara Oswald more than any other person in the world (well, aside from the official comic book artists). She can be found on twitter at @jobeeart.