Dec 15, 2013

Doctor Who: A Christmas Carol

Steven Moffat's "A Christmas Carol," the sixth Doctor Who Christmas special, begins with a galaxy-class starship, an obvious intertextual allusion to Star Trek, hurtling through a roiling cloud mass, to a voice-over to its passengers, asking them to "please return to their seats and fasten their safety belts? We are experiencing slight turbulence." The Captain conveys the starship's certain doom with a mix of Shatneresque resolve and seasonal Whovian whimsy: "Both engines failed, and the storm-gate's critical. The ship is going down. Christmas is cancelled."  The Doctor's newly wedded companions, Amy Pond and Rory Williams, are conveniently on-board; in a meta-moment of self-reflexivity, Amy speaks the words every audience member is thinking: "He'll come. He always comes." And sure enough, as all seems lost, the Doctor sends a message of hope, to which Amy Pond responds, "It's Christmas."

Like any great work of fiction, cinematic or print, "A Christmas Carol" begins with all the elements that will be used throughout the rest of the story. Moffat sets up three concepts around which the rest of the episode will be structured: intertextuality, self-reflexivity, and whimsy, all in service to the hopeful message that Christmas is a symbol for being "halfway out of the dark."

Intertextuality, a term coined by literary theorist Julia Kristeva is "The need for one text to be read in the light of its allusions to and differences from the content or structure of other texts; the (allusive) relationship between esp. literary texts" (OED). I take umbrage with the Oxford English Dictionary's contention that this allusive referentiality is somehow more the purview of literary texts. I'd argue that Science Fiction trumps many literary works for being intertextual. Doctor Who is often intertextual, but "A Christmas Carol" is a mix of both the obvious intertext--we are fully aware from the title credits onward that the episode will be a riff on Dickens's Christmas classic--and the less overt intertext in the face spiders, which sound suspiciously like the face huggers from the Alien franchise. And then there are the countless intertexts of how time travel can affect the past in an immediate way in the fictional present, from James Blaylock's "Lord Kelvin's Machine," (which would prove a very prolific intertext with this episode, since it concerns changing the past to change the villain's disposition), J.M. Frey's Triptych, to movies like Back to the Future and Looper. Dressing Dickens's A Christmas Carol in Whovian garb reminds us that it is a pre-SF tale of time travel. Scrooge is given visions - he does not actually travel through time, but then again, neither does Michael Gambon as Kazran Sardik, this episodes' science fiction Scrooge (whose father, also played by Gambon, looks very much like Charles Dickens). Sardik too, only receives visions and new memories - and it is in the reception of those visions that the program engages in numerous self-reflexive moves.    

Self-reflexivity in literature is the idea that the text is aware it is a text. In cinema or television, it conveys a sense of the film or show being aware of what it is. This is sometimes overt, as in the breaking of the fourth wall in a program like Boston Legal, when characters spoke of the addition of "new characters" at certain points in "the season." At other times, it is subtle, like the many inside jokes Matt Smith and his companions make, winking at the camera without actually winking, as in the brief moment we see the young Kazran wearing a Tom-Baker-era scarf. But less often, it is even more subtle, as when "A Christmas Carol" uses Michael Gambon's gaze as the eyes of the audience, watching his past as projected image. This is an echo of Amy Pond speaking the words we are all thinking in the opening: "He'll come. He always comes." But Kazran becomes our mirror for laughter and tears: we know when it is time to cry, for Gambon's teary gaze tells us it is so. When his childhood self and the Doctor are threatened by a flying shark, he yells what we want to yell: "Run!" It's a lovely moment, reminiscent of Don Quixote standing in a bookshop holding a copy of Don Quixote. We are watching a character on an episode of Doctor Who watching an episode of Doctor Who.
 This self-reflexivity become the means by which Moffat tells his audience that this episode must be read as whimsical. When the Doctor discovers the ostensible reason the flying fish respond to singing, the young Kazran dismisses his explanation by saying, "The Fish like the singing: now shut up!" The script draws attention to this moment, playing out the dismissal with the Doctor as the voice of the hard SF Who-fan who's seeking causality, while Moffat speaks through the voice of the child, and at other times, the Doctor: "No chance, completely impossible: except at Christmas." After all, this is the episode where the Doctor reveals that "Yes, dirty little steampunk-boy, there is a Santa-Claus," and that the Doctor knows him, not as Father Christmas or Santa Claus, but as "Jeff." The fish may indeed be calmed because "The notes resonate in the ice crystals, causing a delta wave pattern in the fog," but saying so will result in you getting bit by those little fish. They are not pleased with the cynical viewer who is sputtering "Bah, Humbug" at the screen. Moffat seems to be sending semaphore to the audience, warning them to steer clear of such inquiries. Time travel paradoxes be damned -- the aged Kazran will need to meet the young Kazran so he can arrive at a point halfway out of the dark. The choice of Michael Gambon as Kazran is almost an intertextual moment as well - of course magical things can happen to this man - he's Dumbledore, one of the greatest wizards who ever lived, after all.
Kazran's cynicism at the outset of the program is the cynicism many bear towards holidays of light and goodwill: "On every world, wherever people are, in the deepest part of the winter, at the exact mid-point, everybody stops and turns and hugs, as if to say, well done. Well done, everyone. We're halfway out of the dark." He says it with an ironic voice, and we can hear the derision - it's the derision I suppose many feel for episodes of Doctor Who like this one. But it is why Doctor Who, unlike so many geek narratives, can have a Christmas special that doesn't feel like an aberration - it feels like a continuation of the same moves we have seen in the series, over and over, of self-reflexivity, intertextuality, and whimsy.
Knowing that Moffat is playing with these three elements in the fashion he is permits the viewer to allow the episode to speak on its own terms, not those we might impose for it. As hard-SF, the episode fails abysmally: one wonders how the study of brain plasticity weighs into the outcomes of Sardick's life - is his brain physically changing? After all, memories are not just visions - they are part of the pathways and programming of the organ in our skull. Hence the need for a whimsical, child-like faith that people can change overnight. Further, the episode needs that overnight change, for the source intertext of Dickens demands this optimism, and reality be damned. It is a reminder, however, that we choose the fictions we live by. We choose to watch Doctor Who because he's the sort of person who, after 900 years of time and space travel, has never met a person "who wasn't important." Knowing that we choose our stories, choose our visions, if you will, is conceded repeatedly by this episode's self-reflexivity. Moffat knows we're out there, and he's waving at us from time to time, reminding us to not take it too seriously. This is not "serious" SF in the sense many would mean it. But what serious SF could wrap up its story with Christmas special cliches like snowfall and singing, and weave them into the story? It's absurd, to be sure, but then again, so is the practice of Christmas.

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