Doctor Who: A Christmas Carol

Written by Peter Grehan

It was inevitable that one day we would see a Doctor Who Christmas special that was a retelling of a Charles DickensA Christmas Carol. In fact it’s so obvious an opportunity for a series involving a time travelling character that I’m surprised we haven’t seen it already. But then perhaps it is only now, as Doctor Who beds itself firmly into the realm of fantasy, that it is considered appropriate to do so. I wonder if Doctor Who can still qualify to be called Science Fiction. Doing so can only add to the confusion of the Booksellers’ shelf classification where horror, fantasy and something we might recognise as science fiction reside together. Such is the trend nowadays that science fiction has a sub classification known as the New Weird (though I would argue that it is a genre that crosses elements of strangeness from existing genres, a sort of hybrid of writing). It seems that hard science has fallen out of favour, being held responsible for such horrors as pollution, nuclear weapons, global warming and Semtex. Besides it’s difficult to understand, requiring effort and application, whereas crystals, magic and mumbo jumbo is fun and deludes us into thinking we can somehow tune into an understanding of the Universe. Pity really, because one of the great things about good science fiction was that it could give you an understanding of science and how science worked while being entertaining and stimulating.

There is no doubt that this Doctor Who Christmas special had very high production values, visually it was stunning and a credit to all those creative professionals that worked on it. The acting to was first class with good performances from Matt Smith, Michael Gambon as Kazran and Elliot Sardick and Katherine Jenkins as  Abigail Pettigrew. The story itself though seemed incoherent at times with dialogue being lost in the exciting special sound effects and dramatic music (though that might have been partly due to my inner ear infection) and verged on the ridiculous at times, (flying sharks pulling sledges through the air). Very little seemed to be explained, or if it was it got lost in the desperate rush of telling the story. What exactly was the nature of those clouds, how did the liner get itself into that mess (did their breaks fail), how could fish survive and fly, and how come things like the portrait changed yet other things didn’t? I know some people will have gleaned the answers to these questions from the episode, but I bet a lot didn’t like me.

All that said I think this is probably the best ever Doctor Who Christmas special ever having far more originality and imagination with a problem to be solved that is on human scale we can relate to (no end to the world, universe, time scenarios here) than previous efforts.


    John Campbell Rees

    January 1, 2011

    In the original run of “Doctor Who” , stories would run for weeks and needed extraneous padding to fill the excess running time. Although the stories these days seem to have gone to the opposite extreme with not enough explanation of important plot points. I always hated the unnecessary pseudo-science explanations, after all the audience had already excepted the absurdity of the TARDIS without the need for explanations. Sometimes it is just enough to enjoy the story, without worrying about all the technicalities and background information. For instance, fish on Earth evolved the shape they did because they swim almost constantly throughout their lives and being bullet shaped with a tail on the end is the most efficient shape for that sort of life. Other creatures who live in the same environment, past and present, have also evolved a similar shape. The “Fish” in this episode seem to me to be swimming almost constantly through clouds that for an unexplained reason have the same properties of liquid water, and some form of Convergent Evolution has made them fish-shaped.

    Peter Grehan

    January 2, 2011

    While I agree that, since its beginning, Doctor Who has been evolving into a Fantasy John (spending the transition as something that can best be described as Science Fantasy) I maintain that it did at least begin life as science fiction. People often confuse the term science fiction (never a suitable label) as a fiction devoted to science and technology. I would argue that Science Fiction is in fact better described as an “anthropological thought experiment.” In other words it isn’t the science that is the subject of a good SF story; rather it is the effect of the ‘other’ on the structure of human society and culture. The ‘other’ could be some new or extrapolated technology, disease, natural or cosmic disaster, an alien location or contact with an alien species, but it is consistent with the known ‘rules’ (real or theorised) of our Universe. Aliens are in turn often used as a metaphor for racial or social issues that can be isolated from the ‘here and now’ so that they can be examined with unbiased eyes. H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine examined the issues of human biological evolution, and how these might be influenced by the social injustices of his day. The ‘Time Machine’ was a contrivance by which he did so.
    Doctor Who has looked issues in a similar way. The Daleks started life as a question asking how our evolution might be affected by a nuclear war and as an expression of our continuing fears of Nazism. The Cybermen expressed fears that the new technologies of Cybernetics might alter what it was to be ‘Human.’
    At the same time we should remember that it was originally conceived as an educational program, to teach science and history (hence companions who were history and science teachers). The TARDIS was merely a contrivance as in The Time Machine.


    January 2, 2011

    John, you can’t argue that Doctor Who is a Fantasy then try and use convergent evolution to justify fish swimming through clouds. It’s one thing or the other. And since these weren’t creatures that looked a bit like fish, but were fish I’d say it was fantasy, especially as they looked to me to be Earth ocean species like a shark! If they’d made these alien creatures that looked a bit like fish, maybe with fin wings it would have been so much more creative. Instead they just made the whole thing silly.

    John Campbell Rees

    January 4, 2011

    My classification system, there is

    # Science Fiction: where something vaguely technological separates the world of the story from our world, and that separation is a a way of looking at our World. A detailed explanation of what this vaguely technological something is and how it works soometimes helps but is not always necessary. Examples: Doctor Who, Blade Runner, the Vorkosigan Series.

    #Fantasy: Were all powerful magic separates the world of the story from our world, and that separation is a a way of looking at our World. A detailed explanation of this all powerful magic works is always unnecessary and can even be harmful. Examples: Discworld, Middle Earth, Sword and Sorcery

    #Urban Fantasy: the borderland where something magical is treated with scientific rigour separates the world of the story from our world, which separates our world from the and that separation is a a way of looking at our World. This means that the way the Watchers in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer tv series study supernatural creatures is like a naturalist studying the natural history of newts. Examples : Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Fright Night, Ultra Violet.

    So, for me “Doctor Who” is always Science Fiction, because it uses something vaguely technological to power the story and to makes it interesting. A little explanation of how the important things work is good, but it does not need every little detail explained. In fact, trying to work out the details myself is half the fun, hence my Convergent Evolution explanation for the Fish.

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