Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Ghost Of 'Fan Entitlement': Arturo vs. Doctor Who: A Christmas Carol!

The prevailing trend so far in Steven Moffat's stewardship of Doctor Who has been to write the Big Episodes - Matt Smith's debut, the Season Five finale - at a break-neck pace, with Smith's Eleventh Doctor racing around until he stumbles into a solution. This year's Christmas special doesn't change that, as Smith at times threatens to out-hyper even the somewhat manic David Tennant. It's not a bad episode, but even Smith's charm and some game performances can't quite cover up some flaws - some character-driven, some pointing to a bigger problem.


But let's start with the positive. The genius of the episode was Eleven's decision to use "A Christmas Carol" as the basis for what amounts to a con - literally, convincing the miserly Kazran Sardick to re-rig his atmospheric control device so as to allow Rory and Amy's honeymoon cruise ship to land safely on the surface of ... whatever Sardick's planet is called.

(Come to think of it, why a planet presumably beyond our solar system would not only have inhabitants who dress and act like Victorian-era Londoners but airborne fish and sharks that look just like the ones you find on ours is never even hinted at. But we're trying to stay positive here.)

As the elder Sardick - both of them, in fact, as he also plays Kazran's domineering father - Michael Gambon delivers the kind of oomph you'd want of a Serious Actor moonlighting on this kind of show. As it turns out, The Doctor's scheme goes awry; his feel-good machinations lead the teenage Sardick (Danny Horn, an unsung standout as the pivot-point of this subplot) to fall for the terminally-ill Abigail (opera singer Katherine Jenkins). (What's wrong with Abigail? Why doesn't The Doctor even attempt to cure her? Wait, no, Positive!)

Abigail, you see, is cryogenically held as a lien on an undisclosed debt her family owes Sardick's father. How much do they owe? It must be somewhere in Wesley Snipes territory, as, rather than help the family raise up the funds to free her, The Doctor opts to chaperone Teen Kazran on a yearly series of Date Nights with Abi. When she 'fesses up that her time is running out, Kaz's heart shrinks all over again, forcing Eleven into a singularly troubling last-ditch effort. And here's where my good cheer toward the episode gets tempered.

As the older Kazran, Gambon perfectly sells the aftermath of that heartache, even if the fact that it numbs his character to the potential deaths of hundreds of people (and Amy and Rory!) steers him well south of "regretful old man" into "vengeful bastard" territory. To finally sway him, The Doctor plays the Christmas Future card - but against his childhood self, bringing Kiddie Kaz into the here and now to face the old man he will grow up to be. The shock for both Kazrans is palpable, and again, all credit is due to both Gambon and Laurence Belcher as his youngest self for capturing the moment.

But for fans, even New Whovians, there's also this to consider: in arranging the meeting, The Doctor willingly breaks one of his own rules; not only has he inserted himself into a timeline after becoming a part of events, but the meeting of the two Kazrans violates the Blinovich Limitation Effect - in effect, creating a paradox.

It must be said that the BLE isn't just some old device from the original series; it's been referenced repeatedly since Russell T. Davies revived Who five years ago. One of the first centerpiece episodes in the series' renaissance, "Father's Day," dealt with what can happen when you mess with your own timeline, best of intentions be damned. As recently as this past season in "The Hungry Earth," Eleven tells Amy and Rory not to get too close to their future selves.

At this point I want to say, again: I enjoyed "A Christmas Carol." But that doesn't mean the Kazran encounter doesn't bug me just a little. Nor should it mean that it can't. But even a little bit of a hand-wave - for example, Eleven saying something like, "I really shouldn't do this, but ..." - would've been it for me. After all, in last season's finale, Amy's younger and present-day selves met, but because the timelines around Earth had deteriorated by that point, it made "sense." (Although I also can't blame the inimitable Matt Bremner for dubbing "The Big Bang" CIRCULAR LOGIC - WE HAS IT!)

What's more disappointing than that plot point, though, is the response to bringing it up: "It's Christmas" or some variant of, "OMFG YOU'RE WRONG AND BAD FOR TALKING ABOUT IT." At some point in fandom, paying attention to things like continuity became something to be penalized for.

It'd be one thing for Steven Moffat to say, "It's just a show" (more on that in a bit) but when fans start demonizing each other as Comic Book Store Guys for things that even hint at critical analysis, that's a more-slippery slope. What's often derided as "entitlement" is really closer to investment: we watch or download shows like Doctor Who because we enjoy them, but asking that they play fair by their universe's own rules, or acknowledge when they don't, isn't automatically a fit of capriciousness. It's a recognition that attention to details of the past - like, say, Eleven hamming it up in a long scarf - can help elevate a series, and the lack thereof is often a symptom of bigger problems. Anybody who watched Heroes spiral into self-parody can tell you about that.

So it's perfectly possible that the Kazran Effect won't be reflected upon Doctor Who's upcoming sixth season. But it's not unreasonable to feel just a tingle of wearyness. "Time Can Be Rewritten" was meant as a threat during the Davies era, but it seems to have become a mantra for Moffat. If he's not too careful, that shark The Doctor and friends tamed Christmas Day might be the one they jump over later.

No comments: