"That ship needs to land, and it can't land unless a very bad man decides to turn good just in time for Christmas Day "
Back in the wilds of 2005, when it was by no means clear that the revived series would be a hit, let alone get a Christmas special, the Doctor Who production team might have missed a trick. In The Unquiet Dead, the third episode of series one, the Doctor and Rose met Charles Dickens, on Christmas Eve, and were visited by ghosts. It was the most perfect Who Christmas special you could imagine except, of course, it wasn't. Instead, we found ourselves on the road to the giant Cyberking stomping all over London.
That is, until now. A Christmas Carol is so audacious that if it wasn't done so well it might amount to blasphemy. On a human colony sometime around the year 4000, the Doctor must make Michael Gambon's Scrooge-like miser Kazran Sardick mend his ways and prevent the crashing of the doomed starliner carrying Amy, Rory and 4002 others. Finding the obvious parallels irresistible, the Doctor decides to use the Tardis to play out his old mucker Dickens' most famous story.
And that, basically, is it. Moffat scripts are always ingenious, but A Christmas Carol is a remarkably small-scale caper. There's no malevolent alien invasion force just Michael Gambon perfectly cast as a lonely old man with a grudge against the world in general and Christmas in particular. Because we need a behind-the-sofa sequence there's the flying shark, but "Clive" (as she was dubbed by the production team to ward off spoilers) turns out not to be a baddie after all. And while we don't want to belittle the lives of 4004 people, the stakes are remarkably low no threat of enslavement of a population, no nuclear Armageddon circling the Earth, no madmen flirting with the end of reality. Which feels right because Christmas isn't really about those things. It's about the kind of warm and shameless sentimentality in which this episode deals, a time where it always snows and love always saves the day.
A Christmas Carol riffs magnificently and faithfully on the beauty and simplicity of its source material. At Christmas people always talk about the Greatest Story Ever Told in other terms, but this is a sumptuous triumph from start to finish.
"Father Christmas. Santa Claus. Or as I call him, Jeff."
If you thought the Who specials were Christmassy in the past, then even discounting the Dickens stuff this was off the scale. The Doctor pops into Kazran's house down the chimney. There's a shark-powered sleigh ride through the chimneys of Sardicktown. There's a wonderful peasants' Christmas dinner where the Doctor proves himself hopeless at card tricks. And, of course, Father Christmas is real and our hero is mates with him. I just hope that for next year's special we get to meet Jeff for ourselves.
"Do you know, in 900 years of time and space, I've never met anyone who wasn't important."
The stunt casting sirens were sounded when Katherine Jenkins was announced as Abigail in her acting debut. And a wag would venture that all that was really required of her was to play a lovely Welsh girl with a wonderful voice, something she did beautifully. But the whole thing would have failed if the love story wasn't credible. As Abigail was awoken every Christmas Eve wowed by outer space, Egypt, Rome, Sydney, Paris, California and beyond, holding on to her terrible secret Jenkins proved she had the chops to melt hearts. And the final payoff, as the mended Kazran admitted that it was now finally time for Christmas Day, was as effective a climax as the showy ones of the past. I watched this sober in a screening theatre in mid-December and was welling up. If you've just watched this drunk and high on chocolate, I pity your tear ducts, I really do.
"Marilyn! Get your coat!"
In a story heavy on romance, the Doctor once again proves himself hopeless with women, but still ends up inadvertently marrying Marilyn Monroe. Also fab: the moment in Young Kazran's bedroom where the psychic paper is finally shorted by a lie "I'm officially recognised as a mature and responsible adult!"
Are Amy and Rory Pond taking the universe's longest honeymoon? In SJA story Death Of The Doctor they were off on a honeymoon planet (a planet on a honeymoon, it married an asteroid). Here they're engaging in saucy WPC/Gladiator roleplay in the honeymoon suite of the doomed Starliner. And next the Doctor promises a moon made of honey (not made of real honey, and alive, and a bit carnivorous, but it has beautiful views). We trust they'll be suitably rested in time for series six. Talking of which ...
"I wear a Stetson now. Stetsons are cool!"
If there's one thing more exciting than the Christmas special, it's the coming-soon trailer and here was a doozy. We got our first glimpse of the US two-parter, with the Doctor in the Oval Office and a gun-toting River Song (yes!) queening through the boulders of Utah. Then there was a chained and bearded Doctor, a glimpse of an Ood, what looked like a Clockwork Robot, and Suranne Jones in the Neil Gaiman episode. All ludicrously exciting.
But for now: well done everyone, well done, we're halfway out of the dark.