...a blog by Richard Flowers

Monday, January 24, 2011

Day 3646: DOCTOR WHO: A Christmas Carrot

Christmas Day… Ish:

If I had a TARDIS, I should use it to keep sending Daddy Richard back in time until he got my diary posted on the RIGHT DAY!

I enjoyed the Christmas Special enormously, particularly the towering performances from Michael Gambon and Matt Smith. It was, for once, about Christmas, which was novel; it celebrated the Dickens to which it owed its heritage without betraying the series continuity; and it was, in a lot of ways, very Doctor Who: hilarious though I found it, the Cyberking was infinitely less Doctor Who than alien fish that swim in air.

(And with respect to Larry, who protested that they did not look alien, "alien fish" are aliens that look like fish; not fish that look like aliens. They swim in air, for goodness sake; they clearly aren't fish in the terrestrial sense, so just as clearly they're called fish because that's what they look like. Which does rather rely on them looking like fish. Also, this is a stick, and that is the wrong end that you've got there.)

So I'm in a bit of a quandary here, because while the idea of the Doctor setting out to heal the villain rather than hurt him, to – as the Master put it – make him better, seems so ever so very nearly right, that whole central thrust of the story relies on the Doctor trying to change someone into a different person against their will (and very much abusing the laws of time to do so into the bargain).

Tinkering with someone's past like this until you get an outcome you like feels too much like brainwashing, like possession. It's a violation. It is taking away a person's fundamental right to make their own choices, even to make the "wrong" choices: if you can't make the wrong choices then you can't make choices at all, can you. Failure is supposed to be one of the basic freedoms, so what happened to Sardick's freedom here?

Why not just hypnotise Sardick if that's what you want to do? Because that would make it too obvious that this is just what the Master would do. The Doctor's using the same methods here; he's only trying to be nice about it – or at least trying to convince himself that he's being nice about it.

So the ethics here are extremely dodgy.

And perhaps it's significant that this aspect of the plot is adapted wholesale from Steven Moffat's very first published Doctor Who story, "Continuity Errors" in the short-story collection "Decalog 3" which featured the most… ethically-challenging of the Doctor's incarnations: the planet-bombing seventh.

In "Continuity Errors", the Doctor repeatedly rewrites a librarian's history merely to obtain a particular library book. I say "merely"; he clearly wants the book so that he can rewrite a larger history to avert a planet-scale massacre. Note particularly the "bigger motive", changing one person to save many.

We're going to have to reach for the utilitarian book of ethical calculus to say: "well in the plus column we prevented more than four thousand fatalities at a cost of, in the minus column, destroying one person's entire life (though we did replace them with an identical if "nicer" version)."

A utilitarian would call that a win. The Doctor… wouldn't, usually. He's read the Brothers Karamazov.

Compared to that, it's a side issue but I'll ask it anyway: does the Doctor actually succeed in changing Sardick at all?

Look, I'll raise it here, a lot of people have criticised that: "if the Doctor can go back in time and change Sardick's past, why not just go back and change the past so the rocket never got into trouble in the first place", to which the obvious answer is "because the Doctor wants to save everyone on the rocket and Sardick as well, and thinks that doing this will do that". He even says so explicitly, when Sardick thinks that he's trying to be threatening. (Though I reiterate my main objection to the ethics).

The implication of the cloud machine no longer working must be that he does.

But doesn't this lead to a paradox? Seeing that he becomes a bitter old man is what stops him becoming a bitter old man. But if he's not going to become a bitter old man, what is it that he sees that stops him?

And quite how the machine no longer works is another problem. As presented, we assume that the machine knows what Sardick is supposed to be like and, because he's changed, no longer accepts his new persona. But how can it know what he's "supposed" to be like, when what it knows ought to have been altered in the past along with Sardick's personality. Basically, for some reason the machine hadn't updated itself with all the other currents of time because… er… the Doctor was standing too close to it? Or does timey-wimeyness not work on this particular sort of machine?

We are left to infer the only logical possibility: an altered history where Kazran does not join his dad in the plotting and gloating business and so doesn't get his brain pattern added to the control system in the first place. Even that's not perfect because Sardick clearly expects that it will work for him, as if it always had. But we could stretch a point to put that down to confusion between the several versions of history that he now remembers.

Of course the entire premise of the Doctor altering Sardick's nature after he's already met him is riddled with this sort of thing: if Sardick is "nice" when they meet, why would the Doctor go back in time to "fix him" in the first place?

Is, perhaps, the Doctor's personal past immune to paradox? You have to admit that would be highly handy, if not essential, for a time traveller. Essentially, his own history and that of anyone he meets would have to be "frozen", become fixed points in time to use the series' own jargon, with changes to the past somehow only affecting them from the "present" (relative to the Doctor) onwards. That might explain Sardick's ability to remember both histories.

If you look at this in a quantum mechanical kind of way, there are two superposition states of Sardick relating to his possible live: nasty and nice (actually, arguably three states: nasty 'cos he never saw a fish; bitter, 'cos of Abigail, and nice). The Doctor's intervention in the past creates no paradox because what he's doing is altering which superposition state he interacts with in the present day. It's an experimental application of Schrodinger's cat, and Kazran – as the cat – gets to experience being metaphorically alive and dead at the same time.

Of course the many-world interpretation (which actually is the one most people say that we should use if time travel is possible) this would mean the Doctor is just moving from a universe where Sardick is nasty to a parallel universe where he is nice. Which, by extension, means that he's abandoning his Amy and Rory to crash on the spaceship and going to a universe where nice parallel-Kazran will unfreeze parallel-Abigail and save parallel-Amy and parallel-Rory with her singing.

That's not really the spirit of what happens, is it?

So is it possible that the Doctor doesn't change Kazran after all?

It's certainly implied – by not striking the child, or himself as a child – that Sardick is a good person underneath, so long as he is properly motivated. Perhaps nasty old daddy set up the machine so it would only work so long as you were using it selfishly. Kazran mostly has been using it selfishly, so up to now it's always worked, but this selfless act trips the circuit to cut out.

That would make Sardick right when in reply to Amy's claim that "time can be rewritten" he snarls "people can't!" But that suggests a rather grimly deterministic belief in the fundamental goodness or wickedness of people's souls, regardless of what time throws at them.

And to be honest "people can't!" would usually be the sort of thing the Doctor would say, too. His modus operandi, especially notable in the ninth Doctor's era, is see the best in other people and empower them to bring it out, not to perform outright personality surgery. And he's particularly against mind control, and quite right too, often insisting that people struggle against it. Unless she's blonde.

On the other hand, it might also partly excuse the Doctor's increasingly irritating habit of handing out winning lottery tickets (which he's been doing since "School Reunion" – not to mention the big one to Donna – in case you think this little violation of causality is a typically Moffat slice of timey-wimey), if he's not massively distorting the fabric of history every time he does so: it may alter the scale of what these people do but not the moral value of their actions. Or perhaps it's just a stupid running joke.

But on the whole, the spirit of the piece is that the Doctor does change Kazran Sardick and does so by altering his past in a way that ought to be paradoxical but isn't if only on the grounds that we are only ever shown the self-consistent bits.

Still, being a different person is probably what spared us that heart warming Kazran/Kazran hug turning into an explosion under the "Mawdryn Undead"/"Father's Day" rules.

(Yes, we covered this under "The Big Bang" – exploding twelve-year-olds on Christmas Day: Not. Going. To. Happen.

But seriously… how can you remember the Blinovitch Limitation effect for the sonic screwdriver and then forget it straight away? I mean you can make a case that it's sort of more consistent for the screwdriver – which is the same set of atoms – shorting out time than for two iterations of the same person – where all the atoms will almost-certainly have been replaced in the time interval – but that's really not how the rules are laid out.)

Essentially the story works – and it does work, don’t get me wrong, it works extremely well – it works by fairy tale logic and gets by on emotion. Those people who say Moffat can't write character – yes, that includes me – are wrong. This feels right even if the logic is screwy because it is true to the character of the Doctor and to that of Sardick (ironically, given that his character being in flux is the whole darn point).

We can forgive that almost nobody else has a character – at least not more than one dimension of one – given that the piece is basically a virtuoso two-hander between Gambon and Smith, either of whom electrify the screen when they are on it separately, and together…!

Most inexcusably, Amy was hardly in it. Though when she was, she was more roundly characterised than previously, more sympathetic under her spiky exterior, with sympathy for the probably-doomed passengers but also for Kazran. We cheered to see Arthur Darvill's well-earned appearance in the title sequence, but it was earned off the back of series five, not his few minutes of screen time here. He played a very nice straight man to Amy in the opening jokes – do I need to change the bulb / don't treat me like an idiot – but was otherwise not troubled by the script.

Katherine Jenkins as Abigail did as much (or as little, depending on your point of view) as was expected of her in a role that required little more than she be lovely. And sing, which she did beautifully, and Murray Gold rose to the occasion as usual.

She was of course, in a rather literal sense, a woman in a fridge.

But it seems to me that that meme is really about turning women into graphic totems of violence, not just taking away their power but displaying then as a trophy, a literal objectifying. But then who am I to say what a meme means, and if you felt that Abigail in the freezer satisfied the objectifying and display aspects I'm not going to argue the point.

There's something a bit odd about that whole arrangement, anyway.

I mean, for starters, the usual idea of "security" is that you let someone have an asset of yours which they can sell should you fail to keep up your repayments; that way they have "security" that they will get their money back. Elliot Sardick can hardly expect to sell the people in his vault. Or perhaps he can. Which makes the whole business even more sordid. But surely poor nine-days-to-live Abigail still cannot be that good an asset.

(Oh I don’t know, says the cynic – the very scarcity of her days might make some so-and-so pay and pay highly for them. Yes, the whole scenario just gets worse and worse. Although that rather suggests daddy Elliot would have been mighty pissed to discover that Kazran has been making free with some of the finest time he's got laid down. Does nobody ever audit the vault to make sure the assets are keeping up their value?)

But look at it from the other point of view. Abigail's family have "deposited" her in the elder Sardick's icy vault, in return for which he has advanced them a sum of money. Doesn't this seem a bit win-win for them? They get their dying sister cryogenically preserved at Mr Sardick's expense and a cash bonus too. Perhaps he's covertly an eccentric philanthropist after all. Who coincidentally hits kids.

The fact that her ending is bittersweet – she still only has one more day to live – is a good thing, avoiding the sentimentality of many of Russell's and to be fair Moffat's own stories (in his "everybody lives" mood). But without the Doctor, no one would have opened that casket at all. She had no more days at all. Even Kazran having loved and lost her would not have opened the casket again; as evidenced by how old he got, she would never have had her last day. Thanks to the Doctor, she got her days back.

Anyway, more troubling in terms of Moffat's writing was the fact that the role was, pardon the pun, a one note part. He is normally very good at writing equally for women as for men – although occasionally suffering from the problem that when he writes, all women are Linda Day and all men are Steve Moffat. Again, I'd say in a two-hander between Gambon and Smith, it's understandable that other parts aren't as filled out. But this did make me reflect on season five and think that it really wasn't as good in its roles for women as Russell's series had been. I mean when there are really just two strong positive female role models in the series – one whom is a time travelling murderess and the other is written by Chris Chibnall(!) – you know something isn't quite right. Let's hope that's addressed.

Visually, this was stunning. Top notch visual effects, of course, we expect that now. And the set design, interiors and exteriors of Sardicktown, were a joy: it managed to match up the sense of the alien with the sense of the (even more alien) Victorian. I particularly loved the detail of all the porthole windows – indeed from the trailers I'd wondered if, with the fish and all, the setting would be underwater, though in fact it was the perfect mysterious physics of an alien world. And I'm so glad they did a whole story set on an alien planet, if only to prove that they can do that, even at Christmas (and without recourse to a quarry).

The chubby rocket-ship was great fun, inside and out, even if inside it was only a bridge set and the bridge was rather more Starship Heart of Gold than Starship Enterprise (even with Geordi LaForge at the helm!).

Sardick's "castle" was like something out of a fairy tale, with what Alex calls his reverse-Frankenstein bolt of lightning from the roof and he keeps reanimated bodies too, in his lake of frozen victims in the cellar; and the central chamber so huge but so cold and empty, just like its master.

And the fish were marvellous. Perfectly realised, and, as I said, exactly what Doctor Who ought to be about. More ideas like that please, Mr Moff.

From moment to moment there was always something to enjoy: the Doctor's fireplace entrance; Sardick's casual and sardonic proof of the isomorphic controls (when he was flicking those switches was when he most reminded me of an evil Dumbledore, funnily enough); the beautiful moment where the Doctor appears in the home movie and carries on his conversation with the older Sardick in real time; his expression when the shark eats his screwdriver; the sequence of hats and scarves as he and young Sardick spring Abigail from her fridge each Christmas Eve; Marilyn Monroe… Endlessly inventive, playful and clever, it is perfectly crafted to carry you along while at the same time tangling your emotions around the life of this young/old man each doomed to become the other, thanks to the Doctor.

I'm still not sure about the central ethics: I can't be sure I believe that the Doctor should do what he did nor that he should do it in the way that he did.

But "A Christmas Carol" made me laugh and made me cry. Perhaps more importantly, it made me laugh at the bits which were funny and it made me cry at the bits which were sad.

And the shark made me jump, and not the series. Which was good.

Dr Woo's Christmas Carol is now available on shiny disc and shiny blue disc.

1 comment:

Caron said...

Fantastic review. I agree on much of it - my much inferior effort is here:

What neither of us did, of course, was to quote the best line in the whole episode - when the Doctor says to Kazran, terrified that he's going to have to kiss Abigail, that he should get on with it because the alternative is sitting in his room designing screwdrivers - don't make my mistakes:-).

I've been waiting for this post from you for ages, and it didn't disappoint.