A Christmas Carol

DVD Box Set
NTSC Region 1
box set

DVD Box Set
PAL Region 2
box set

1-episode volume
See below for Blu-Ray options
(Doctor Who Story No. 218, starring Matt Smith)
  • written by Steven Moffat
  • directed by Toby Haynes
  • produced by Sanne Wohlenberg
  • music by Murray Gold
  • 1 episode @ 61 minutes
Story: It's the Christmas Solstice on a fog-shrouded colony planet, and Amy and Rory and 4000 other people on a cruise ship have lost control in the turbulence and are about to crash. The Doctor decides the best way to help the ship land safely is to reform the wealthy Scrooge-like owner/operator of the planet's cloud control system. What is the secret of the beautiful woman in the cryogenic casket? And what special properties does the fog have that allow this world's fish to fly in it?

DVD Extras include:

  • Doctor Who Confidential documentary (56 min.) with Matt Smith (The Doctor), Michael Gambon (Kazran Sardick / Elliot Sardick),
    Katherine Jenkins (Abigail Pettigrew), Laurence Belcher (Young Kazran), Danny Horn (Adult Kazran), writer Steven Moffat,
    director Toby Haynes, producer Sanne Wohlenberg, introducing new production designer Michael Pickwoad, composer Murray Gold,
    conductor Ben Foster, executive producers Beth Willis & Piers Wenger, set decorator Julian Luxton, and VFX supervisor Tim Barter.

    plus, only in the box sets:

  • Comic Relief Sketch: "Space" by Steven Moffat (4 min.)
  • Comic Relief Sketch: "Time" by Steven Moffat (3 min.)

In-Depth Analysis Review

by Martin Izsak

WARNING: This review contains "SPOILERS", and is intended for those who have
already seen the program. To avoid the spoilers, read the Buyers' Guide version instead.

Well, this is a pleasant way for sci-fi / fantasy buffs to spend a holiday afternoon or evening. Of course, you may have to turn the scientific part of your brain off, and just wish upon a star for an hour instead.

Of course, any average member of the public can guess most of what's going to happen in this one. It's right there in the title. This is largely a most comfortable and nostalgic pinch from Charles Dickens, which provides a great emotional backbone for the adventure - after all, Dickens' version couldn't have become one of the most famous stories in the world without some pretty strong appeal.

The other half of the story is Moffat's usual song and dance. He meddles with time, throws a romance out of sync with one person aging while the other does not, puts in some frights that don't quite have any reason to be there other than to be scary, and lets everything work out all right. Sort of. Most of this has also been tried and tested in previous episodes, and it continues to intrigue controversially and satisfy emotionally.

The Orbit of the Crystal Feast

Well, thank goodness we get to go to an alien planet. Regular readers of my reviews will recall how strongly I advocate for that, particularly to reward our travels with discoveries of other cultures and ways of looking at life. In a Christmas Special, perhaps we could look at the holiday traditions of an alien culture.

The trouble with today's unnamed planet, however, is that it isn't all that alien, and borrows all its imagery from very Earthly sources, cutting and pasting it into only a slightly different collage. Why Dickens' own industrial era is reproduced so faithfully on a futuristic colony in space is a scientific hilarity, but of course it's nostalgic, isn't it? Perhaps the best idea - that of fish in the atmosphere - gets the worst realization, in that there is nothing alien about these creatures. For example, their fins could be larger and shaped like wings had they cut their imaginations loose with the freedom you get from alien planets. Instead, they look exactly like Earth fish. Disappointing. And in fact, investigations of our own seas here on Earth often discover countless creatures beyond the imagining. One of the Confidential featurettes later in the season features Arthur Darvill encountering real sharks, and as a buff of the exploration element in sci-fi, I found it more gripping and with better defined emotional stakes. Oh well.

Much of the most poetic dialogue betrays very Earthly and British thinking as well. Winter solstice is fundamentally an astronomical marker, based on things like a decent tilt of the Earth's rotational axis, the fact that this rotation is independent of our orbit around the sun, and the fact that our rotation is not "tidally locked" to the sun's surface like the planet Mercury (or Svartos), which has no day/night cycles. In fact, just go to the other end of our own planet, like Australia or New Zealand, where Christmas Solstice marks the brightest day of the year, and you get an idea of how non-universal some of these concepts are, and how much variation exists to be explored. The planet Uranus and its large moons get a winter solstice with an entire hemisphere in the dark all day and all night, and 42 Earth-years later comes the summer solstice where that same hemisphere gets sunshine (albeit faint) all day and all night.

On a completely new planet, it's all up for grabs, limited only by imagination. How long is a year on Sardicktown's planet? If Christmas solstice came every 3 Earth-months or so, I wouldn't blame old Kazran for getting sick of it. I'd love more details on this planet's orbit and climate and winter solstice cycle, and more on "The Crystal Feast" that was originally celebrated here. One odd cast-off mention doesn't really satisfy. However, if Moffat wants to save the real fruits of his imagination for season 32 proper, and just do Christmas Specials as blatant pinches from other sources, I don't mind so much either. I'm not a particular fan of mandatory Christmas episodes every year. My favourite is still the "Sliders" season three episode "Season's Greedings".

Memory Time

Time travel is not this story's strength, with Moffat really going wild with the outdated "single rewriteable line". And no, he doesn't get to excuse it just by having Amy dance around citing "Time can be rewritten" like an airhead. Most of what the Doctor does in this story would help our scrooge's doubles in parallel/branching universes, not rewrite the one he meets originally in the "present" time, whenever that is. And after all the Doctor's excessive independent time jumps in this story, which flow off into parallel/branching universes, he'd be hard pressed to know which doubles of Amy and Rory he ended up saving and taking home at the end.

By the way, how many of you out there chimed with Moffat's suggestion that Dickens' original "A Christmas Carol" was already (kind of) a time travel story? Technically, it isn't; it's more of a time observation thing. Scrooge looks at past, present, and possible future, and as a result of what he's seen, decides to change his destiny by making new choices in the present. The crux is entirely in "the now". Moffat's story may fail space/time/choice mechanics, but Charles Dickens aces it with flying colours. Just to be clear.

Moffat's only decent wiggle room is in the idea of memory, but he doesn't confine himself to what would work in that regard. We go beyond that to have photographs and broken sonic screwdrivers turn up as well, while isomorphic controls do not get rewritten along with everything else. It's as if Kazran and the controls followed separate timelines that suddenly slam together at the end of the story. The adventure turns out about as ridiculous as "The Pandorica Opens" in that regard, but here it is at least self contained. Okay, whatever, Moffat gets no great points here.

A Character Story

What works is the human emotional element. And both Dickens' masterpiece and Moffat's usual arcs contribute to that and complement each other, even if it's a bit of a rerun of "The Girl in the Fireplace" and "The Eleventh Hour".

Michael Gambon's portrayal of the elderly Kazran Sardick is the centerpiece holding the story together - completely enjoyable all the way through and receiving good support from the younger actors playing him at earlier ages and from Katherine Jenkins playing Abigail. Matt Smith is enjoyable as usual as the Doctor, and gets to make a highly unique entrance that I thoroughly liked on this occasion. One infers that the TARDIS is VERY busy in this story, but it does so mostly in the background - which is pretty much a necessity and an ideal this time around. You have to wait for the very end to see a trick-dissolve dematerialization on screen. I'd have added one more materialization and lengthened the sequence when 12-year-old Kazran and Abigail get their first trip in the TARDIS, 'cause you never know who might be watching this as their first Doctor Who episode ever, but it's not critical this time around, just my preference.

Another good idea is that of music, and perhaps more importantly the emotion behind the music, having an effect on the clouds. I like that, and it is pulled off quite well in the finished product due to the combined efforts of Toby Haynes' directing, Murray Gold's composing, all those involved in the orchestra, and of course Katherine Jenkins adding the crowning vocal qualities to the idea and tying it into the story via her character. Crystal fog sounds like a cool new idea, but is it really? Fog is made of clouds, and snow is made of crystals. What's really new? There's enough room here for way-out answers, but no one cared to ask the question.
Music by Murray Gold
A full suite of music from the story
is available on the audio CD album:
Doctor Who: A Christmas Carol
Original Music soundtrack

More info & buying options

The whole set-up with Amy and Rory on a crashing spaceship added to scrooge's isomorphic controls all seem like a bit of overkill just to motivate the character story though. If the Doctor has as much power as he does to jump all over time for days on end, surely he could help the ship down more directly. If you want to do the scrooge thing, do it because it feels so good character-wise, not because of crashing ships. Oh well. I guess this all reflects today's excesses of energy and pace on TV. I must say I got dizzy each time we got a scene on board the ship, and by the time we approached the end of the show I dreaded the setting. Of course, there's excellent payoff there once the music starts, but I think a somewhat steadier camera on the ship during the earliest segments could have made the complete piece flow much better and made the much more relaxed pace of the scrooge-arc seem less like it was ignoring the urgency of the ship's situation.

Speaking of pace, I'm not impressed to see the cast rattle through exposition so fast and carelessly. There is potential for it to have some charm if done right, but I think it's done excessively. There is a line attempting to explain why the Doctor doesn't use the TARDIS to help the ship (either with a tractor beam thing, or by getting onto the bridge to fix something, or just to evacuate everyone into the TARDIS). The line is "The TARDIS can't lock on." Okay, that doesn't really explain enough to convince me to invest in going the long way around through a scrooge arc. Perhaps the line is buried in Smith's rambling to try to escape scrutiny.

Amy and Rory have little to do in this one. Are they making the smart move of double-banking the Christmas special, as season 19 did with "K9 & Company"? Later stories suggest not. It just seems a bit bizarre to finally include Arthur Darvill's name in the opening titles along with Smith and Gillan, and then to give him and Gillan so little to do in the story. I wouldn't have minded seeing more of them in a Christmas Special - however, if they're going to be occupied with anything approaching a proper honeymoon, you can leave that off-screen, as was so thankfully done here. And I am pleased that this was not the adventure that the closing dialogue of last season had led me to anticipate. This was better.

I'm not sure I understand the logic of having Abigail's countdown numbers on her cryogenic casket though. My guess to their meaning on first viewing was the number of times she could be safely frozen and/or unfrozen, before the chamber could no longer overcome the problem of organic cells ripping apart as the water inside freezes and expands, although even that explanation isn't watertight as we shall see. At any rate, you'd think the numbers would pertain to her time in the chamber, yet instead it's supposed to show us how much time she can spend outside the chamber, which would make more sense if shown on a watch on her wrist or something. The logic of casket numbers breaks down best when you remember that the original reason to bring her out of the casket was to put the shark in. So what happens when someone or something else takes a turn in the chamber? Does it still try to keep track of Abigail on the outside, or does it pay attention to its new inhabitant instead? What if that person isn't sick? And besides all that, you'd think someone dying of a disease with only eight days left would not look so picture perfect all the time, or not have the perfect voice, or not have some serious emotional issues that coincided with bringing the disease on in the first place. Perhaps it is best that no tangible evidence to support the exact time of her death is ever brought on screen. I think she was misdiagnosed, either through incompetence, or conspiracy to convince her to become collateral for the loan - which would firmly place Kazran as the creator of his own misery to buy into such a feeble lie in the first place. When all is said and done, you're better off looking to the hilarious animated series "Futurama" (and the pilot episode is great for this) to see countdown numbers on cryogenic caskets that actually make sense in pertaining to their inhabitants only while the inhabitant is in the casket's care.

That said, I think it's great imagery to have frozen family members as collateral for loans - a nice sci-fi update on the "bah humbug" of Scrooges everywhere, and another good reason to put usury permanently to rest.

Well, this is unlikely to become a favourite Doctor Who episode of mine, but I must say, it's a nice enough Christmas Show. If you're in the mood for Christmas, by all means go for this. If you're in the mood for Doctor Who, standard episodes are better.

International Titles:

Deutsch: "Fest der Liebe"

Magyar: "Karácsonyi ének"

Français: "Le Fantôme des Noëls passés"

Русский: "Рождественская песнь"

Italiano: "Un canto di Natale"

This story has become available on DVD and Blu-ray.
Click on the Amazon symbol for the location nearest you for pricing and availability:

DVD NTSC Region 1
14-episode box set
for the North American market:
in the U.S.
in Canada
DVD PAL Region 2
14-episode box set
for the U.K.:

(Limited Edition)

Blu-Ray NTSC Region 1
14-episode box set
for the North American market:
in the U.S.
in Canada

Blu-Ray PAL Region 2
14-episode box set
for the U.K.:

(Limited Edition)

This story is also available in a single episode volume with unique bonus features.
Click on the Amazon symbol for the location nearest you for pricing and availability:

Standard DVD:
NTSC Region 1 - U.S.
NTSC Region 1 - Canada
PAL Region 2 - U.K.
Region A/1 - U.S.
Region A/1 - Canada
Region B/2 - U.K.
DVD Extra features include:
  • Doctor Who Confidential documentary (56 min.)
    [also included in full season box sets,
    see top of page for details]

  • "Dr. Who at the Proms" 2010 concert (57 min.)
    [unique to this volume]

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Read the In-depth Analysis Review for the next story: "The Impossible Astronaut"

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