30 December 2010

The Watcher: Doctor Who 2010 Christmas Special

This installment of The Watcher will be a bit more different, mainly because of it being all about DOCTOR WHO, of which I have one hell of a obsession for. So the entire thing is dedicated to it. That and the fact that there really isn't much else new I'm watching on the tele. Merry belated Christmas, folks!

Transmission date: 25 December 2010 (BBC One/BBC America)

Plot: Amy Pond and Rory Williams are trapped on a airliner descending rapidly towards a planet destined to crash, and the only man on that world who has the power to save them just doesn't give a damn. Thus The Doctor springs into action, using time travel to his advantage to change the mind and heart of Kazran Sardick.

Starring Matt Smith, Karen Gillan, Arthur Darvill. Guest starring Michael Gambon, Katherine Jenkins, Laurence Belcher. Written by Steven Moffat, Directed by Toby Haynes.

The most Christmassy DOCTOR WHO Christmas Special, indeed.

Oh, Doctor, how I've missed you. It's been six months since the last episode, "The Big Bang", and another few months until you return in April with a split season (noooo!!!), so this 2010 Christmas Special is sort of a big deal. Plus we've got Dumbeldore (Michael Gambon) and UK singer sensation Katherine Jenkins as guest stars, so how does that not sound interesting?

In case the title was a bit vague on the episodes story, this is the DOCTOR WHO version of Charles Dickens' A CHRISTMAS CAROL. Suffice to say, if I ever become a teacher, I will never, ever show my students the 44,000 re-enactments of that story; I'll just show them this. It hits all the right notes, and makes the Scrooge-character even more of a possible lost cause, making his (gasp! spoiler!) change of heart all the more powerful. The Doctor is clearly having a blast, as Matt Smith continues to make the role his own and perfectly make create one of the best interpretations of The Doctor.

"A Christmas Carol" is full on fairy tale, continuing the 'dark fairy tale' theme from Series 5, as well as full on 'timey-wimey', where time travel is used more consistently in this new series than before and none so important as now. The fairy tale of the son fearing he'll become like his abusive father and inevitably fulfilling that fear, but gaining a second chance to change. The fairy tale of the woman who can sing to "the monsters" and actually tame them. The fairy tale of the man who came down the chimney bearing gifts and changed many lives. And the best fairy tale of them all - traveling through time and space, and the wonders that come with it. Not only is "A Christmas Carol" a fine story for the holidays (and the most appropriate of the DOCTOR WHO Christmas specials), but also captures all the elements that make the show click, making it a great jumping on point for the crazy lots who chose not to jump onboard with "The Eleventh Hour."

Fun, timey-wimey, and most of all, humanity are trademarks of Steve Moffat-written DOCTOR WHO episodes, and this is no exception. There's fun from the first frame to the last, and time travel hasn't been more important since the previous Series 5 episode "The Big Bang", and the humanity - oh boy, the episode is all about it, tapping into a seemingly soulless mans humanity in order to save lives. Couldn't be a better Christmas tale, eh?

But then there's another element of the story some other reviews noted: The Doctor changing the man to suit his own needs, a comment also addressed by Kazran as the holographic Amy pleaded for help. In defense, it could be said The Doctor is doing this to save the 4,000 passengers onboard the airliner, but really the truth is The Doctor is deliberately changing not only the memories, but the personality of Kazran Sardick. True, The Doctor noted the deeper meaning of Kazran's refusal to hit the young boy in the first act and later his younger self, as well as refusing to believe Kazran's statements of not caring about the doomed souls on the ship. Really, the whole thing is a jumbled mess that could turn into debates of ethics, of The Doctor becoming too controlling again which lead him down the tragic path of "The End of Time", but for entertainment purposes and for fulfilling the story requirements of "A Christmas Carol" - well, it's pretty brilliant. For example, The Doctor showing a young Kazran his future self: entirely didn't see that one coming, and a ginormous surprise.

The Grand Moff, as is apparently the coined named for showrunner and Head Writer Steve Moffat (SHERLOCK), has crafted a very, very good episode with all these different elements that come together nicely. If there are any major faults, it's that a story like this probably could have used a tad longer of a running time, just to fully appreciate the transformation of Kazran Sardick, which does feel a little rushed. I'm not hating or anything, I do realize we got a full sixty minutes of commercialess story, and it's grand, all I'm saying is that a longer runtime would have allowed this specific aspect to feel a little less abrupt and, dare I say, forced. As for Moffat's trademark witty dialogue that often feels very Joss Whedon-y, it's all there and more. Nothing quite as quotable as the "Hello Stonehenge!" speech from "The Pandorica Opens", but a exchange about The Doctor being a 'very mature' person elicited quite a collection of giggles, for example.

Seeing as how the episode is very Doctor-centric, Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill are more background figures, initiating the story but not really becoming a part of it. Well, with the exception of the hologram Amy making a futile attempt to tug at Kazran's humanity. Darvill plays up his comedic one liners just fine, but Karen actually comes off a bit more mature, more adult and confidant here than what we saw in Series 5. Perhaps the events of "The Big Bang" have left quite the impression on her. As for Matt Smith being The Doctor, there's not much to be said that hasn't already been mentioned in earlier DOCTOR WHO reviews. Brilliant as always, and his entrance at the five minute mark and his rambling monologue was pure gold. If there's only one fault I'd attribute to Smith, it's that on occasion I can't necessarily suss out what he's saying, and it's usually the aside funny lines.

Guest stars Michael Gambon and Katherine Jenkins fare quite well, too. Gambon gives a grand performance, full of menace when consumed with anger, or sorrow in contemplation of making a fatal choice, it's the best role I've seen him in...which basically includes just the HARRY POTTER films. So, yeah, take that with a grain of salt. And as I understand it, this is Katherine's first acting job, and I feel she did quite fine. Hell, I would never have thought she hadn't done any roles beforehand.

Under the gifted direction of Toby Haynes, fresh off the two-parter "The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang", "A Christmas Carol" is visually startling and beautiful to look at. The wide shots inside Kazran's study room, capturing the spacious loneliness the room produces; the beauty of Christmas time, with the falling of snow and all around magic that comes with the holiday; and when need be, a intense chase sequence as The Doctor and a young Kazran run for their lives from a monster (which half reminded me of JURASSIC PARK III, when the main characters hear a familiar ringtone but realize it belongs to a deceased friend eaten by the Spinosaurus - who just happens to be watching them right then). There's even some visual inspiration from J.J. Abrams as lens flares are abundant onboard the space liner; the camera's movements even mimic the constant motion of Abrams' film. The close ups, medium and wide shots are all splendidly framed, and the overall dark color scheme makes for a very interesting visual presentation. Indeed, this new series of DOCTOR WHO has visually felt the most cinematic, and "A Christmas Carol" is no different. This 60-minute production could literally pass off as a theatrical experience, as all the elements come together brilliantly: the acting, writing, direction, editing, visual effects, and score, etc.

Speaking of score, I might as well be a broken record: Murray Gold as composed yet another outstanding soundtrack. Perfect in every single possible way. I also get quite giddy listening to multiple variations of the Eleventh Doctor's theme; I love "All the Strange, Strange Creatures" as much as the next music-giddy bloke, but the energy and boundless sense of fun "The Doctor's Theme" provides just makes me want to break out and dance all Doctor-y like (see: "The Big Bang"). Um, anyway. Also, I still have no clue as to who Katherine Jenkins is or what type of music she performs, but her last song in the final ten minutes was fantastic. Her voice, the editing of Amy and Rory saved, of Kazran finally happy and peaceful, of Christmas and lives saved - it sends shivers up me spine, I tell you! And Murray's music emphasizing the magic of the moment...that's magic all onto itself. I'll be purchasing the soundtrack for that track alone. So all in all: Murray Gold, I love you.

Although, I still dunno who I'd be forced to vote for if it was Murray Gold vs. Bear McCreary. Two totally awesome composers boasting some of the best television music of all time. Yikes.

DOCTOR WHO doesn't have a limitless budget. May seem like it does, but like all programs, it don't. So the question becomes: how does a $1.8 million budgeted episode look nothing less than $120 million? The digital effects alone are breathtaking. The opening shots of the space liner plummeting towards a cloudy planet, the post-credit shots of a entirely digital city that is comparable to ILM's Coruscant, and the realism of the Shark. Wow, that was amazing. Lest I forget The Doctor, Abigail, and Kazran's flight through the city pulled by the Sharkie. Amazing, brilliant stuff [note to self: I really need to come up with new words]. CGI aside, the production design is just as gorgeous: the interior of Kazran's building is eerie and very plain, the cold chamber with the frozen 'investments', and the exterior shots of a snow-prone planet covered by a major cloud system. Just wowzers, mates, wowzers; yes, technical term.

"A Christmas Carol" is a success. Truly the most Christmassy special yet, it's a brilliant spin on a very, very old and reused tale making it seem at least moderately fresh and loads of fun. Since it's going to be a long, long time until the next episode, I thought I'd leave this review with a hilarious and trademark shot from Series 6, taken from a short sixty second trailer that aired after the special. Area 51, River Song, and the Doctor wearing a Stetson now. Blimey, I can't wait!!!

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