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?