Jodie Whittaker’s first seasonal special airs tomorrow, and as such, I thought now would be a good time to revisit “A Christmas Carol”, my favourite Christmas special, and the first Christmas special of the Moffat era, before the end of the Christmas period. This is a collection of previous thoughts I’ve collected on the story, so those of you who follow me on tumblr, or read my blog when I posted regularly on blogspot, will recognise much of this essay, but I’ve added in a few new thoughts, so there’s new content here, too. Wishing all of you a happy new year, those of us here at DoWntime will see you in 2019!
I love “A Christmas Carol”. It’s one of my favourite Doctor Who stories ever. In typical Doctor Who fashion, it openly borrows from the Charles Dickens classic to create a story that is moving, funny and inventive. It came along at just the right time for me: although Series five’s now one of my favourite runs of Doctor Who, at the time, I was just beginning to get bored of the show (I was a sixteen-year old trying to convince myself I was too grown up for Doctor Who – in my defence, most people are idiots when they’re sixteen). Then this story came along, and I couldn’t get it out of my head. I was hooked on Doctor Who again. Socially, I was doomed. I regret nothing.
This episode is a huge Matt Smith charm offensive, much in the vein of “The Eleventh Hour”, giving the Eleventh Doctor plenty of screen time to be clever, heroic, and generally at his most fun to watch. My personal favourite sequence is the Eleventh Doctor’s entrance, which sees him being generally hilarious and stealing the scene, but also gives him some lovely dark moments that show Matt Smith’s gift for switching tone at the drop of a hat, and also show the building dark side of the Eleventh Doctor, that will start to be critiqued and rejected over the course of his era.
The fairy-tale nature of the Moffat era starts to pay off in a big way, in a beautiful and confident Christmas special, totally embracing its status as a Christmas story, with the opening pan through Sardicktown beautifully establishing the episode’s fairytale tone and aesthetic.
This fairytale tone and aesthetic gives us a particularly delightful concept that allows me to indulge my vegan agenda a little more: a planet of naturally occurring flying fish. Once agin, we see Moffat’s minor, but recurring, preoccupation with the mistreatment of animals emerge in this script: Kazran’s father spreads lies and misinformation about the fish being “dangerous” so that he can gain control of the planet. To quote Kazran: “Tame the sky, he says. The fish’ll be able to come down, but only when we let them. We can charge whatever we like.” Societal fear and mistreatment of animals stems from Elliot Sardick’s capitalist greed and accumulation of wealth: they become his means of controlling the population. And the Doctor’s disgust at this is expressed in fairytale terms: “Tame the sky. Human beings. You always manage to find the boring alternative, don’t you?”: Elliot’s actions rob his planet of its fairytale beauty and wonder through through exploitation of animals and people in the name of profit.
But as well as being disgusted by Kazran’s exploitative fear mongering about the mostly harmless fish, the audience is also invited to empathize with the one fish we see that does pose a threat:
“DOCTOR: She was trying to eat you.
KAZRAN: She was hungry.”
Here we see an example of another point several Moffat scripts touch on: very few things are evil, but everything needs to eat, to paraphrase a Doctor line from “The Pilot”. We are asked to empathise with the predator, instead of viewing it as evil simply because we are at the other end of the cutlery, and see that it deserves to be saved, as a being that acts not out of malice, but of a basic need to live.
Another way the Moffat era aesthetic and approach is becoming increasingly clear and confident comes in the form of time travel being used as a source of fun and play that adds colour to the story, here in the form of the “7245” sequence, which is a cute paradox. The Doctor learns the code from older Kazran, who knows it not because of his father, but because the Doctor told younger Kazran after learning it from older Kazran. Clever and cute!
The metatextual elements of the era are becoming increasingly clear as well. The episode is explicit about the way it is simultaneously borrowing from and adapting the Dickens story, even in the narrative itself: the Doctor recognises that Kazran is a scrooge-like figure, is inspired by hearing the title of the novel, and takes the opportunity to perform his own twist on the narrative to save the day in this story.
The metatextuality is also evident in the episode’s imagery and direction: As Kazran watches the night he first meets the Doctor on a screen, becoming, like the Doctor, a metatextual figure as he becomes an analogue for the Doctor Who audience, reacting as a viewer would to the events of his changing past. Of particular significance is the moment where on Kazran’s orders, the Doctor leaves Kazran’s sitting room in the present, and steps back into Kazran’s past. Because the Doctor does this by stepping from the room into the recording superimposed on the sitting room entrance, this all occurs in one take, with no camera cuts for the Doctor’s time travel. The Doctor just moves from one medium – the narrative’s reality – into a new medium: a Doctor Who episode organized by the Doctor himself, as he travels to a miser’s past in the name of saving his soul. Past and present blur into one through the episode’s use of metatextual visual storytelling.
So Kazran’s final moment of redemption comes when he makes it clear that he also knows what kind of narrative he’s in: “I’ll die alone, and unloved”, but while Kazran is aware of the kind of story he’s in, the Doctor is able to subvert that story with his own anarchic twist on “A Christmas Carol”, using Doctor Who’s current approach to time travel to subvert the nature of a Christmas Carol’s use of time travel – the Doctor confronts young Kazran with the image of old Kazran, and this is when Kazran’s redemption is achieved.
Abigail is often called a literal woman in the refrigerator, which is a fair critique: she literally starts the story inside an ice box, and her story revolves around the tragedy of her terminal illness, but I think the episode’s invoking the trope to critique it.
I’ll assume that most people reading this know what I’m talking about, but it’s perhaps worth taking a moment to define the ‘woman in refridgerator’ trope. It originates from comics fandom, and was coined by Gail Simone, who compiled a list of all the times in comics women were either brutually murdered or subjected to degrading treatment, cutting off their character arcs to further the (usually angsty) development of a male protagonist (who’s usually her lover or father). Although the term was coined in comics fandom, the trope can be seen across all forms of fiction. The trope is, in my opinion one of the worst and most harmful examples of the sexist treatment of female characters in storytelling.
It’s also worth acknowledging that the episode thinks the same thing:
DOCTOR: Who’s she?
SARDICK: Nobody important.
DOCTOR: Nobody important. Blimey, that’s amazing. Do you know, in nine hundred years of time and space, I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t important before.
Kazran tries to write off Abigail, the woman in the refrigerator, as unimportant. The Doctor disagrees. No one is unimportant. No one deserves to have their story cut short. That’s the episode’s attitude to fridging, summed up in three lines.
However, to engage with a trope, you do have to evoke it, and at first “A Christmas Carol” follows the trope as if from a textbook. In an attempt to save Kazran’s soul, the Doctor travels back in time to give Kazran a happier childhood. While doing this, the Doctor and Kazran release Abigail from her cryochamber, and Kazran and Abigail fall in love. But Abigail is dying, and when she reveals to Kazran that she only has one day left to live. This exchange follows:
KAZRAN: Good night, Abigail.
ABIGAIL: Good night, Kazran.
(Kazran seals Abigail in her cryochamber.)
This is the moment where the fridging happens. Abigail, doomed to die, is literally shut in a fridge, her story cruelly cut short. Her male lover grieves and angsts over her. But there are still twenty minutes of the story to go, and there’s nothing Moffat loves more than turning a narrative on its head. The Doctor, with his own twist on Christmas future, convinces Kazran to save the starliner, but Kazran can no longer work the controls to the cloud belt. The only way left to save the day comes from Abigail. To save the day, Abigail has to be brought out of the refrigerator.
And so, we get this scene:
SARDICK: Could you do it? Could you do this? Think about it, Doctor. One last day with your beloved. Which day would you choose?
ABIGAIL: Christmas. Christmas Day. Look at you. You’re so old now. I think you waited a bit too long, didn’t you?
SARDICK: I’m sorry.
ABIGAIL: Hoarding my days, like an old miser.
SARDICK: But if you leave the ice now
ABIGAIL: We’ve had so many Christmas Eves, Kazran. I think it’s time for Christmas Day.
“One last day with your beloved. Which day would you choose?”/ “Christmas. Christmas Day.” This brief exchange turns the narrative’s treatment of Abigail on its head. The perspective shifts from Kazran to Abigail, as we are shown that this is not just Kazran’s last day with his beloved, but Abigail’s as well. And she gets to define the terms of her death: stating that Christmas day is the day she wants to be her last day alive. She then critiques Kazran’s behaviour, in softer terms than the Doctor, at the start of the episode, saying he shouldn’t have been hoarding her days: the Fridging narrative is denounced by the woman set up to be the victim of it. Finally, she refutes Kazran’s protestations, stating that she’s ready for Christmas day. Any leftover desire he has to take control of her life is shut down. Christmas is saved by Abigail’s song, and we’re halfway out of the dark.
So yes, “A Christmas Carol” does feature the woman in refrigerator trope. It uses the trope in order to critique it, and then replace it with a better story. This story is seen in the final shot of Kazran and Abigail, riding the shark sleigh and laughing as they do so. A story in which grief and death are sad, and therefore it’s all the more important that we celebrate life while we can still live it.
This episode is not the best Moffat will do this: it will be more central to future stories he writes, instead of being on the margins and easy to miss and take for an uncritical application of the trope, but this is the first time we see it appear in his Doctor Who work, and the subversion is, for my money, smartly written, if a bit too quiet a part of the episode. Most significantly, it’s an example of the continued emergence of some valuable feminist themes that become increasingly prominent throughout Moffat’s era, one that is consistently invested in critiquing bad stories and switching them for better, more useful ones.