Listening to “What Christmas Means To Me” while I was decorating a few weeks ago got me thinking about, well, what Christmas means to me. So I decided it would be fun to spend the month of December reflecting on that with a series of posts. Then I thought it would be even more fun to use Doctor Who Christmas specials as the lens through which to do so! This time I want to look at Doctor Who’s 2010 Christmas special, “A Christmas Carol,” the first written by Steven Moffat and starring Matt Smith as the Doctor along with Karen Gillan’s incomparable Amy Pond and Arthur Darvill’s Rory Williams. So, What Does Christmas Mean To Me (Vol. 2)? Well, it turns out “Doctor Who: A Christmas Carol” has a lot to say about that!
The episode begins with Amy and Rory enjoying their honeymoon aboard a galactic-class cruise ship in the 44th century, you know, as most couples do. With systems failing and a crash imminent, they call the Doctor for help. The Doctor lands the TARDIS in Sardicktown, on the unnamed planet below them. He needs to get Kazran Sardick (Michael Gambon) to open the electrified cloud layer above the planet, in which the ship is trapped, so it can land safely. If Kazran refuses, the ship will crash, killing all 4,003 people onboard.
As the TARDIS lands, Kazran’s opening narration sets the episode’s tone, “On every world, wherever people are, in the deepest part of the winter at the exact midpoint, everybody stops and turns and hugs as if to say, ‘Well done. Well done everyone. We’re halfway out of the dark.’ Back on Earth, we call this Christmas or the Winter Solstice. On this world, the first settlers called it the Crystal Feast. You know what I call it? I call it expecting something for nothing!” While the abrupt shift at the end obviously establishes Kazran as our Ebenezer Scrooge character, the first part is far more important. Halfway out of the dark. While Christmas is the feast of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, December 25th certainly isn’t the literal day he was born. Well, to be fair there’s a 1-in-365 chance it was. But when the church set the 25th as the feast of Jesus’ birth, it wasn’t because they thought he was actually born then. Rather, it was chosen because of the deep, significant meaning that day carried.
December 21st is the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year. So, setting Jesus’ birth on December 25th speaks to Jesus being a light in the darkness. The light is returning. We are halfway out of the dark. Perhaps now, at the end of a year of pandemic living with the pandemic still raging around us, that message of hope has never felt more important. At least I don’t think it has in my own life. The light is returning. We’re halfway out of the dark. Now, more than ever, I’m ready to celebrate being halfway out of the dark. Even on non-pandemic years this is significant, in so many literal and figurative ways, and that’s why the Christian church set December 25th as Jesus’ birthday.
The episode is dripping in Christmas feels, too! Sardicktown is like a little Dickens-esque Christmas village come to life. There are flashes of 44th century tech all around, sure, but the aesthetic reminds me of every li’l light-up village I’ve ever seen under Christmas trees, in hearths, on mantles, and on tables. Setting up these villages at Grandma’s and my parents’ home are some of my most vivid Christmas memories :). I lived for that! They were as exciting as the tree! Plus, this episode has perhaps the most Christmas-y entrance of all for the Doctor:
I love it! The Doctor coming down the chimney just like, “Father Christmas. Santa Claus. Or, as I’ve always known him, Jeff” XD. It’s just fantastic! When the Doctor notices Abigail (Katherine Jenkins) in her cryo-chamber in the middle of the room he asks:
The Doctor – “Who’s she?”
Kazran Sardick – “Nobody important.”
The Doctor – “Nobody important?? Blimey, that’s amazing. Did ya know, in 900 years of time and space I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t important before.”
However, Kazran isn’t having any of this. He has no sympathy for Abigail’s family who are asking she be let out (Abigail volunteered years ago to be frozen as collateral for a debt her family owed to Kazran’s father, Elliot Sardick) just for Christmas Day. He has no patience for the Doctor. And he doesn’t care whether the 4,003 people aboard the crashing cruise liner die, as they aren’t crashing onto his house. However, the Doctor sees something beneath Kazran’s cold exterior when he doesn’t hit Abigail’s nephew for throwing a chunk of soot at him in anger. Kazran begins to…but he doesn’t hit the boy. As he leaves their first encounter the Doctor says, “Merry Christmas, Mr. Sardick.” Kazran responds, “I despise Christmas!” The Doctor replies, “You shouldn’t. It’s very you.” Surprised, Kazran asks, “It what? What do you mean?” The Doctor says, “Halfway out of the dark.”
I love, love, love what they’ve done here! Looking at the symbolism that’s wrapped around setting the birth of Jesus on December 25th, the church is speaking to light returning to a broken world. But here they are applying this idea not just to the world as a whole but to our own journey as individuals. Who are we? We’re just like Kazran. He stands, in this moment, as a man halfway out of the dark. We all exist on that line in our own ways, tipping a little more to one side or another due to so many different causes, large and small.
The Doctor realizes, with an hour until the ship crashes, his best hope with Kazran is A Christmas Carol. Arriving back in Kazran’s home, the Doctor tells him tonight, he is the Ghost of Christmas Past. Looking back at a video recording from a Christmas Eve when he was twelve-and-a-half, Kazran’s father comes in and hits him for wanting to see one of the fish that swim though the electrified moisture in the air. As he cries, the present Kazran watching the video coldly tells the Doctor he learned life’s most important lesson that night – no one comes.
The Doctor then jumps in the TARDIS and materializes on that Christmas Eve when Kazran was twelve-and-a-half (Laurence Belcher). Together they have an adventurous night, fleeing from a sky shark before saving it’s life, with the help of Abigail who is accidentally thawed out in the whole mess and uses her gorgeous singing voice to sooth the shark. So the Doctor begins jumping through Kazran’s life one Christmas Eve at a time. Each year he arrives, they let Abigail out and go on Christmas Eve adventures together all throughout time and space.
As is always the case with Doctor Who, this gives us SO MANY angles for analysis. But, when we’re talking about what Christmas means to me, it all comes down to what plays out on these many Christmas Eves, and the effect they have on Kazran. When we boil down why we love Christmas – why it explodes around us from the end of October through the beginning of January every year in the form of Christmas decorations and music and shopping and presents and cookies and sweaters and candy and cards and TV specials and movies – it’s because, at its heart, Christmas is a time to be together. We joke or roll our eyes at how quickly stores convert themselves to Christmas and how long it hangs around. But of course it does! We buy, do, and revel in all that stuff because we love this time of year. And we love this time of year because, all trappings aside, it’s a time to gather close to one another.
We make a point of reaching out and connecting. It can be with a Christmas card or a text. It can be with a visit or a dinner out to catch-up. It can be a bit of a chore, sitting down with those relatives we don’t (sometimes with good reason XD) see regularly or it can be a celebration made all the more beautiful by the festive light of love it casts on the relationships we regularly fill our lives with. As this episode points out, this is ancient. For millennia we’ve had feasts and festivals to mark this time. We intentionally stop, turn to one another, and hug. Well done. Well done everyone. We’re halfway out of the dark. But even in lieu of mindfully participating in these ancient rites the draw to one another remains. At Christmastime, we make a point to reach out and to be with one another.
We can’t survive alone. And we certainly can’t find our way out of the dark on our own. As much as I love shopping for and giving gifts (getting them can be pretty fun, too), that’s not what I remember when I think of Christmas. The memories that flood me with warmth, laughter, and the occasional tears of happiness are sitting around the tree in my parents’ family room every Christmas morning of my life. It’s watching National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation together in that family room every year, too :D. It’s Christmas Eve with Dad’s side of the family and Christmas Day with Mom’s. It’s jamming more people than should comfortably be in Grandma’s house in there together, yet somehow there’s always more than enough room. It’s making dinner plans to catch-up with old friends over the Christmas break, settling into a booth at some bustling restaurant filled with people doing the same. It’s the hugs goodbye and wishes of “Merry Christmas!” exchanged with Theresa, Ashley, Sarah, Hannah, and Matthew at work on the last day before the holiday begins and how those hugs magically feel full of even more love than usual. It’s all the Christmases with Kalie’s family and how much a part of their family I became and now, even though we’ve broken up, we remain best friends and I still feel as much a part of their family (and vice versa) as I’ve ever been. It’s listening to Mom, Dad, David, Aunt Judy, Melanie, and Grandma when she was alive recount every Hallmark Christmas movie they watched that week at every Friday night dinner – and it’s Grandma, last year, not coming to the table to eat until she saw the final dance in Christmas Waltz, her all-time favorite Hallmark movie :).
This is what carries us through the dark. This is how we survive. And this is what makes this time of year so special. This truth is what motivated the Doctor’s actions. He took a lonely, ignored, and isolated young boy – who naturally grew into a callous, unfeeling old man as a result of such treatment – and filled his life with Christmas Eves of fun and, far more importantly, loving relationships. As Kazran grows up (Danny Horn), he and Abigail fall in love. He lives for their Christmas Eves together…until one year, crying, Abigail tells Kazran the reason she volunteered to be frozen was because she’s terminally ill. She only has so much time left and, given all their Christmas Eves together, she now has just one final day before she dies. When that particular night is over, Kazran tells the Doctor he’s done. Christmas is for kids. It’s time he grew up. The Doctor watches, confused, as Kazran grows into the embittered old man he was when they first met. Kazran can’t do it. How can he choose when Abigail’s last day will be?
The Doctor has Amy, as a hologram from the ship, appear to Kazran as the Ghost of Christmas Present, showing him the people aboard who are going to die. He is unmoved buthe reveals to Amy the source of his embittered nature – Abigail has only one day left to live. Then the Doctor appears as the Ghost of Christmas Future:
The Doctor – “Sorry. I didn’t realize.”
Kazran – “All my life I’ve been called ‘heartless,’ my other life, my real life, the one you rewrote. Now look at me.”
The Doctor – “Better a broken heart than no heart at all.”
Kazran – “Try it – you try it!.”
The Doctor – ….
Kazran – “Why are you here?”
The Doctor – “Because I’m not finished with you yet. You’ve seen the past, present, now you need to see the future”
Kazran – “Fine! Do it! Show me! I’ll die cold, alone, and afraid. Of course I will. We all do. What difference does showing me make? Do you know why I’m gonna let those people die? Not a plan. I don’t get anything from it. I just don’t care. I’m not like you. I don’t even want to be like you. I don’t and never, ever will care!”
The Doctor – “And I don’t believe that.”
Kazran – “Then show me the future. Prove me wrong.”
The Doctor – “I am showing it to you. I’m showing it to you right now. So what do you think? Is this who you wanna become, Kazran?”
He turns to see his younger self watching on in horror. This brings with it an onslaught of memories, first of his father’s abuse and then those memories are washed away in a flood of memories of Abigail. Kazran begins to cry and apologizes to his younger self. Then they, along with the Doctor, go about trying to save the ship. However, the controls for the cloud cover are isomorphic, meaning the are keyed to respond only to Kazran. His experiences with the Doctor have changed him too much; the controls no longer recognize him.
The Doctor tells Kazran the only option left is to wake Abigail. Her voice resonates perfectly with the fog crystals and, if he amplifies her voice, it can calm the sky. Kazran does so, despite knowing this will be her final day alive. Abigail sings, unlocks the cloud cover and, as the ship lands safely, it begins to snow in Sardicktown for the first time in many, many years. As Katherine Jenkins’ voice is so beautiful (and if you’d like a good cry), here’s the scene:
The Doctor takes young Kazran back to his time. Amy and Rory rejoin him and, as they head off together in the TARDIS, Kazran and Abigail fly off to enjoy one final day together – their first Christmas after so many Christmas Eves. It’s a beautiful, beautiful episode and I often cry when I watch it. When I recently rewatched it to write this piece, I found myself sobbing at all it made me feel.
I was expecting to cry watching this this year, even if how hard I cried was a surprise. This episode reminds us that Christmas is a time to be with those we love but it’s also a time to remember those we’ve lost. Having lost Grandma this past August, I knew that was going to hit. And it did. Even now, as I write, I’m crying a little. So yes, there’s a sadness here, too – a sadness for all those we can’t spend Christmas with, because they’ve gone or because a relationship’s ended or just because life, sometimes, can be unkind. It’s ok to be sad. Those memories, those pangs of loss are a reminder of what we had. If we didn’t love that person so much, their absence wouldn’t be so deeply felt. All life is impermanent, too. Everything, in varying degrees, is always changing. That’s ok, too. As the Doctor tells Amy right before they depart Sardicktown:
Amy – “Are you, are you ok?”
The Doctor – “Course I’m ok. You?”
Amy – “Of course. It’ll be their last day together, won’t it?”
The Doctor – “Everything’s gotta end sometime otherwise nothing would ever get started.”
What does Christmas mean to me? In part, it means Christmas is a time to be with those we love. Yes, there are those we will see in person over this magical time of year and that’s beautiful. There are those we’ll talk to on the phone or on FaceTime or on Zoom or text or email, too, and that’s just as beautiful. And there are those we will only be with because we carry them in our hearts, now and forever. That’s beautiful as well and, as long as we hold them in our hearts, we’ll always feel them around us. It’s not the means of connection but the beauty of the connection itself which we celebrate. As the Doctor says, in one of the truest lines he’s ever uttered, “[I]n 900 years of time and space I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t important before.” Amen. Christmas is a time to take stock of all those irreplaceably important people we carry in our hearts and to embrace this time together in which we celebrate each other and the love that binds us, in whatever form that may take.
Are you in the mood for more merry and bright Doctor Who Christmas fun?? Well you’re in luck! Check out: