Sunday 26 December 2010

Doctor Who's Christmas Carol

It's as Christmas as Noddy Holder and selection boxes. It may have only been going since 2005 but the Doctor Who seasonal special has become a firm festive favourite. According to overnight figures, it managed some 10.3m viewers - second only to Eastenders. So Steven Moffat and the Cardiff crew can cheerfully raise a glass to a job well done. And if I was wealthy enough I might get them a round in too. Because, for once, the Christmas episode was quite good.

Doctor Who's
A Christmas Carol is, as you might expect, an adaptation of the ever-green Dickens favourite. High above a neo-Victorian planet a space liner is threatening to crash with Amy and Rory on board. Oh noes! Their fate rests in the hands of the Scrooge-like oligarch Kazran Sardick (Michael Gambon). Kazran is the owner of a device that keeps the cloud decks away from the surface, and with it the sky-swimming scools of sharks and other fish. He can use his spire to guide the liner in to safety but refuses to do so - and the Doctor is helpless to intervene directly because its controls are biologically-bonded to Kazran's person. The subsequent plot (described in detail here) sees the Doctor travel into Kazran's past to try and guide his development and maturation down a gentler, compassionate path while loosely following the themes of Dickens' book.

As you'd expect it's completely daft, featuring scenes of a shark-propelled rickshaw and enough time paradoxes to keep the nitpickers scratching their heads until the next series. But there was something that didn't sit easy with me, a bit like one too many mince pies.

Straight away we are (sort of ) introduced to Abigail (Katherine Jenkins), a young woman kept by Kazran in cryogenic deep freeze. Because he refuses to release her into the custody of her (impoverished) family for Christmas day on the grounds that she is collateral for a loan they have yet to pay back, he is set up as the Scrooge-like character. Half way through the story the reason for her suspension is changed. In his attempts to reform the young Kazran, the Doctor begins disinterring Abigail from her icy crypt every Christmas eve. They whisk her away to all the desirable locations - Venice, the pyramids, a Frank Sinatra party in Vegas. Each time she returns at the end of the evening the counter on her capsule inexorably decreases by one. With only eight to begin with and one left on the tumbler, it's not long before we learn her secret: Abigail is dying. The numbers indicate the days she has left, and all the cryogenics are doing is delaying the inevitable.

There's a little bit of gender politics at work here. Stripped of Who's derring-do and down to brass tacks, this is a story about an old man who keeps a woman in a box in his basement. He not only refuses to part with her (after all, she is his property), but because she's on ice he - aided and abetted by the Doctor - controls her freedom. Rather than allowing her eke out her last days with her family, Abigail is let out for jolly japes with the boys. They determine what she can do. They determine how long she's out for. And at the end of each adventure they put her back into the box. With only one day left on the counter, Abigail is called on again many decades hence to sing, which reverses the polarity and saves the day for Amy, Rory and the others on the doomed space liner. In other words she is kept under lock and key until she becomes useful. This time however she's left to her fate, and we leave Abigail to her unpleasant fate riding a shark-drawn carriage with Kazran.

Criticism and interpretation of film, books and TV is a tricky business. But Sci-Fi has form as far as dodgy gender issues are concerned (see some of the critical material at
Feminist SF, for instance). Doctor Who's case isn't helped by Steven Moffat himself, who authored yesterday's episode. In an installment of Doctor Who Confidential, the BBC Three behind-the-scenes documentary of every Who episode, he discusses the casting of Karen Gillan as the Doctor's new companion. After seeing an audition tape of Gillan sitting down, Moffat is on record as saying "And I thought, 'well she's really good. It's just a shame she's so wee and dumpy ... When she was about to come through to the auditions I nipped out for a minute and I saw Karen walking on the corridor towards me and I realised she was 5'11, slim and gorgeous and I thought 'Oh, oh that'll probably work.'"

If this is the key criterion for Moffat's casting decision it's small wonder
A Christmas Carol has an uncomfortable subtext. I wonder how many of his other episodes do, too?


Stephen said...

Haha, that's brilliant! I honestly didn't notice that little subtext there in that DW episode. Certainly, I see now how Abigail is basically just used by the Doctor for his own ends.

For myself, I was a little uncomfortable with the ethics of going into the past and changing a person's history in order to change who they are because the Doctor basically didn't like who Kazran was, saving 4003 lives aside.

It's just that what makes me who I am today is my past, and there is no right of anyone (even, dare I say, the Doctor) to take away my past and change who I am, whether it makes me a better person (in his eyes) or not. Perhaps in the same way that we have a right to bodily integrity, don't we have in some way a right to temporal personal integrity?

Unknown said...

See what you mean about the subtext and the link to the iffy gender politics implied by Moffat's comment on Gillan's audition tape.

I'm tempted to say he should keep his negative value judgements about women's bodies to himself, but I guess that would help leave the ideologies that some would argue inform those value judgements in place (in that we wouldn't be able to critically discuss them in quite the same way. Mind you, I suppose even if he didn't say anything like that we would still see the effects of those value judgements in the casting of the series).

But I must admit I didn't notice the subtext of Abigail's treatment in the episode on first viewing and greatly enjoyed it overall. Matt's Doctor had some very witty lines. And it was beautifully shot too - very filmic. The production values have improved a lot in the past year.

Ethics aside, anyone with an academic interest in refuting Moffat's claim that Karen looks 'wee and dumpy' when sitting down is advised to check the photoshoot she did for recently.

Nick Fredman said...

"Sci-Fi has form as far as dodgy gender issues are concerned"

For a media studies degree in the early 90s I took a very interesting unit in television and ideology, led by John Tulloch, an Althussarian Marxist (as the department all were) and Doctor Who nut (as only he was). Just about everything could be related to the good doctor (though I think we also watched some early Ken Loach). He wrote a book about meanings in the show of which the heavy theory is a blur, but I well remember how he had edited together a series of many screams from just about women character in the show, neatly showing the stereotyped, passive, victim-like representation of women generally therein. He's probably best known in the UK for writing a book about his experiences of and thoughts on being badly injured in the 2005 London bombing, which didn't dent his anti-war views.

Phil said...

Cheers, Stephen. Of course this is why the Doctor is a fascinating figure for Marxists because he is explicitly a man outside of time, as someone who supposedly stands apart from the historical process. In a nutshell he is the logical outcome of 'the great men of history' mythology which underpins populist bourgeois approaches to history. He bends history according to his will simply because he can. Like the great historical figures he brushes aside lesser figures as inconsequential and sweeps them up in his train.

Phil said...

As I've said before, TGR, doing analyses of this sort is useful because we're all cultural products. Every act of cultural production, from writing a blog post to producing a TV show carries that baggage with it.

That an interpretation of a particular episode of Dr Who is plausible and possible shows how digging beneath the surface the shows sexism is still present. But that it has to be dug out rather than being immediately obvious itself demonstrates how much culture has changed in the last 30 or so years.

Jim Jepps said...

On the doctor's ethics I rather like the fact that he has a darker side to him (potentially brought about by his way of life). I particularly like the hint that the Doctor knew exactly what he was doing and that she would end up dying for his friends and Scrooge would end up with a broken heart.

He's always breaking eggs, the Doctor.

However, this woman in the fridge thing is a recurring theme in sci-fi and if it's going to get wheeled out again it really needs to be subverted a little. Once again the only two real agents in the show were the two big men... it was still fun though

Kaila said...

Well that is interesting, but I don't agree with the fact that they decide where she goes, so at first they let her out because of the fact that they need her help, but then they promise her they'll come back and they do, but really if she didn't want to go with them, she wouldn't have.

And also, I don't think the Doctor really manipulated Karzan, more or less helped him, though, yes, I agree he did do it for his own end.