Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Shark Whisperer

Christmas day is never the best time to enjoy a Doctor Who story. You're full of turkey and trimmings, replete with wine and port. Concentrating on some timey-wimey action is out of the question really, and in previous years, the Doctor Who story presented on Christmas Day has tended to be packed with action and adventure and never-mind-the-logic to keep the kids happy and looking forward to when they might be able to buy some toys related to what they have just seen (usually months and months later when they have forgotten all about what was on anyway, having been distracted by more presents from the late-arriving Aunt Ada or something). Anyway ... in the lead up to more 11th Doctor adventures, I realised it was high time I cracked open the Sky Planner and re-watched the Christmas Day adventure from just 4 months ago - but it seems like forever! So I settled down with a glass of wine in one hand and a notepad in the other ... as 'A Christmas Carol' unfolded before me again. The first thing to say about Nu Who is that textually and narratively it's very rich. When I was making notes on a Russell T Davies story, I might fill 3 or 4 pages of my notepad. For 'A Christmas Carol' I filled 8 pages. Every line brings some new information, something to be noted, cross referenced, stamped and filed. Steven Moffat loves to fill his scripts with character and interest and this offering did not disappoint on that level at all. From the outset we're plunged into danger as a very Star Trek spacecraft is plunging to its doom on an unknown planet. There is the squeaky voiced captain from Voyager there, complete with tight fitting white uniform; the multi-racial crew to appease the PC brigade; the navigator who seems to be blind ... all the stereotypes are here. But then there's Amy dressed as a policewoman and Rory dressed as a Roman Soldier fresh from the honeymoon suite ... hmmm ... something for the dads to ponder on I suspect, while the kids realise that more action figures are on the horizon. The spaceship us crashing because there's a machine on the planet which is affecting the sky ... and the Doctor needs to turn it off, but he can't because the controls are isomorphic (cue a nice little bit of tete a tete referencing 'Pyramids of Mars' and the whole Doctor Who isomorphic thing), so instead he needs to change the mind of the grumpy curmudgeon who seems to run the planet Kazran Sardick, who sounds like his name is spelt backwards. For some reason Kazran has people kept on ice in his basement while he lends people money. How he sees any return on this is unknown as he never appears to get repaid ... but a family member is kept as security for the loan. A very strange arrangement. The Doctor arrives down the chimney for no good reason other than it looks cool, and talks everyone to death for a couple of minutes before the family trying to get to see their family member is thrown out. The Doctor realises that Kazran cannot hit the child, and this shows him that Kazran is not beyond redemption. There's a nice verbal reference to 'Buffy The Vampire Slayer' here with Kazran's 'Bored now!' utterance, before the Doctor leaves to try and figure out why there are fish flying in the fog. This is a lovely touch, and is quite magical - you really can accept that the little fish fly around in the fog, suspended on the ice particles therein. Beautiful idea and very well realised. But Amy and Rory and their crashing Star Trek ship have less than an hour! Good job the Doctor can travel in time then ... failing to convince Kazran by any normal means, the Doctor leaves the old man watching a video projection of his younger self, and the Doctor arrives in the video to meet the boy Kazran. This is a very well thought through conceit, that Kazran Sr can watch Kazran Jr meet the Doctor and feel his memories changing as the Doctor changes the course of his life for good. So the Doctor charms Kazran Jr and agrees to attract a fish to his bedroom using the Sonic Screwdriver ... except that it's a massive shark which comes hunting and ends up with half the screwdriver in its belly. There's lots to enjoy here as the Doctor plays leapfrog with time, allowing houseworkers to win non-existent lotteries and popping back to see Kazran Sr to get the code number for the ice vault in the basement (it's 7258 if you ever need it). The shark is dying and the Doctor intends to take it back into the sky but needs an icebox, so they choose the one which was seen at the beginning of the show, occupied by a beautiful young woman called Abigail Pettigrew. Luckily Abigail can sing beautifully and sings to the shark to calm it down. This is now starting to get a little daft and convenient. Plot going out the window as opportunity comes in its place. Why is this woman of all those in the vault the one they choose? Why is she the only one who can sing to calm the shark? And why does her casket have 000 008 on the front counter? Somehow Kazran Sr is still watching all this, but there's no evidence of the Doctor using a camera or anything, so it's all a little strange. Then, for no apparent reason (though I suspect it's to try and make Kazran Sr a nicer man) the Doctor and Kazran Jr spend the next 7 Christmas Eves waking Abigail up and heading off on many adventures together. Kazran Sr has many many photographs of everywhere they went (and it seems to be more than just 7 days). But Kazran Jr slowly grows up ... and he falls in love with Abigail. He also seems a lot older than the 18 or 20 he must be by the end (assuming he's 10 or 12 years old at the start). Kazran is told a secret by Abigail and he puts her back in the box for the last time (the number on the front is 000 001) and tells the Doctor he doesn't want to see him for any more Christmas Eves. Meanwhile (remember the Plot) Kazran's father completes his machine to control the fish (I'm not sure why he wanted to, something to do with people paying to see them, so maybe he was paid to bring sharks and the like down onto the planet for some reason ... all a little vague) but Kazran Sr still won't help the Doctor to save the crashing spaceship (and given that they had an hour to go, it feels like days have passed ... but never mind!). The Doctor tries showing him holograms of the passengers of the ship singing (no idea how he did this) and then somehow transports a hologram of Kazran to the ship so he can see it (again, no clue how this worked). It transpires that Abigail was ill when she was frozen and only had 8 days to live ... which is why the counter was counting down. But how did Kazran know that when he froze her in the first place? Why take as security for a loan someone who's going to die anyway ... he was such a hard-nosed character, that doesn't make sense at all! He would require someone that the family would want back, not someone who was about to die. And what number did all the other caskets have on them? And why a count down? If the idea was that Kazran maybe charged interest on the number of times the families had their loved ones back, then it would count up surely, so at the final reckoning, Kazran could see how much they had to repay him? As I say, this aspect really makes no sense at all. The final straw is when the Doctor allows Kazran Jr to see what he becomes, and Kazran Sr goes to hit his younger self but cannot. I wondered here what happened to that good old Doctor Who trope the Blinivitch Limitation Effect, as admirably demonstrated in that paragon of Doctor Who continuity 'Mawdryn Undead'. If the same person from two different points in their timeline meet and touch, then there is a massive explosion of energy. Except that here there isn't, and Kazran can hug his younger self with no problem whatsoever. The ship is still crashing ... remember the ship? ... but the Doctor discovers that Kazran's machine now won't respond to Kazran either as the Doctor has changed him too much! So the Doctor decides to use his broken Sonic Screwdriver to set up a resonance with the part still in the shark (which apparently has lived all this time - maybe 60 years? According to Google this might be possible though) but they need to transmit something that they know will work - Abigail's singing. So they have to break her out of cold storage again - and thus make her live her last day - singing to save the spaceship. Now the practical side of me says that the Doctor actually had a recording of Abigail singing - Kazran was watching it - so why couldn't they have played that on a loop through the Sonic to sort it all out? The Doctor didn't seem to think very laterally here, and just morosely accepted that Abigail would have to die to save everyone on the ship ... would he have done that if Amy and Rory had not been on it I wonder? So the Doctor returns Kazran Jr to his timestream, and then leaves with a rescued Amy and Rory, and Kazran Sr spends his last day with Abigail flying around in a carriage being pulled by the shark. The End. Whoah! What happened there? Why didn't the Doctor at least try and save Abigail? That's not very Doctory ... He doesn't leave people to die and not even try? We don't even know what was wrong with her, or why they knew it was exactly 8 days she had to live ... she certainly didn't seem very ill or sick in any way. I didn't like this aspect of it as it cast the Doctor in a very poor light. Rather than battling valiantly to save her, and perhaps failing, he was never seen to even try. Even Amy and Rory seemed pretty unconcerned by it all ... such a difference from 'The Fires of Pompeii' where the Doctor is forced by Donna to save just one family from the devastation ... you'd have think he'd learned something. So overall it was a rollicking ride, with some great imagery and surreal scenes of sharks and fish and crashing spacecraft. The performances were brilliant - Michael Gambon as Kazran was superb, being pig-headed and evil one moment and oozing with pathos the next; Katherine Jenkins was cast as Abigail because she can sing, and she was pretty good at all aspects of the role; Laurence Belcher was excellent as the young Kazran; and the award for the best ever actress name on television goes to Pooky Quesnel as the spaceship Captain. The regulars of Amy and Rory barely got a look in however, and one suspects that for the most part the actors were not available at the same time as the Doctor and others, necessitating a split in location which meant they never really met. 'A Christmas Carol' is perhaps the best of the Christmas Specials presented by the new series. A great piece of television, with only a few elements which fail to hold together in the cold light of Boxing Day morning. I can't wait for the next series!

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