A Christmas Carol is Dickens’ most appropriated tale, with an eclectic mix of artists involved in its retelling, from Mr Magoo to the Mr Men, and Batman to Barbie. The latest, and highly entertaining, offering was from the BBC’s flagship drama Doctor Who in its 2010 Christmas Special (aired in Britain on BBC1 on Christmas Day), in which the miserly Kazran Sardick (played by Michael Gambon) was the only man who could save the Doctor’s friends – and several hundred other passengers aboard a crashing spaceship – but chose not to, prompting the Doctor (Matt Smith) to effect a change of heart in Sardick by delving into the misanthropist’s past, present and future. The scriptwriter Stephen Moffat felt that there was no better Christmas story than Dickens’, so rather than try to compete with that, he had decided to use it as a springboard to make what he aimed to be the most Christmassy special ever (it also included sleigh rides, carols and snowmen). The episode, called simply ‘A Christmas Carol’, was not only a conscious and transparent revising of Dickens tale by Moffat, but also by the series’ protagonist; as a 900-year old traveller of time and space, the Doctor was familiar with Dickens (indeed, in an earlier episode aired in 2005, the pair had met). The Doctor thus deliberately uses the tale as the basis for his plan, and knowingly quotes it at several points. Consequently what ensued was a deliberate manipulation of Dickens’ plot to suit both the hero and the show.
The result was a typical example of the series’ approach to glamorising the past. This is the new Doctor Who, currently enjoying a renaissance after a sixteen-year hiatus (the original series, originating in 1963, was cancelled in 1989 due to low audience figures), and in being reworked for modern audiences has catered for shorter attention spans and higher expectations of special effects and action sequences. Story arcs have been shortened (the original stories could feature episodic adventures of up to twelve weekly parts, while the modern series prefers to complete a story within one episode, or two at the most); more action scenes and romantic entanglements have been inserted; men in rubber suits have been replaced with CGI; the actors playing the main part are significantly younger than their predecessors; and the treatment of history and historical figures is equally symptomatic of sexing up.
This last point is the latest parry in a losing battle between the show’s original intention of being an educational show for children, and the subsequent response from audiences. When it began, the producer’s aim was to have ‘no bug-eyed monsters’, but instead to alternate thought-provoking science fiction episodes with purely historical stories set in Earth’s past, an idea that eventually was dropped in the mid-sixties when it became apparent that monsters and aliens were a much bigger draw; the Doctor would still visit Earth’s past, but always, coincidentally, at a time when an extra-terrestrial threat was at large.
When the series was revived in 2005, historical episodes would still feature, but in a form even further departed from the ideas presented in 1963, and a manner more symptomatic of modern celebrity culture. The show’s writer, Russell T. Davis, wanted each series to have an episode featuring a famous historical figure, hence the episode with Dickens, ‘The Quiet Undead’, and the following year ‘Tooth and Claw’, an episode starring Queen Victoria. In each instance, the focus of history was on one recognisable figure, rather than an atmospheric exploration of the entire period which they were visiting (as had been the case in the history episodes of the early sixties). Moreover, these figures were not treated with reverence, nor showcased as austere figures, but were quickly assimilated into whatever alien threat was driving that particular show’s plot. Hence Dickens and the Doctor battled ghost-like aliens on Christmas Eve, whilst Queen Victoria was besieged by an angry werewolf and a horde of ninja monks. This was not educational as the series was originally intended to be in the 1960s, but rather a vigorous, sometimes patronising, effort to make history cool. At best, young children might be encouraged to find out more about Dickens or Victoria having watched the programme, but the immediate impact was of reducing inspirational characters from the past to action-hero sidekicks.
This cavalier attitude to titans of the past could be seen in the latest episode, ‘A Christmas Carol’. It was still set during Christmas Eve, but on another planet, where fish swam in the air and a ravenous shark burst in whenever a scene was going a little slow. This was not a tale to savour as you sat back in the armchair, but rather edge of the seat, fast-paced, popcorn entertainment. Indicative of this is the implication of having a time-traveller brought into Dickens’ story. The Doctor did not merely show Sardick his past, but was an active participant in it, aggressively changing the character of the adult by tampering with his childhood; Scrooge recalls his past love for Bella, but Sardick, who has no past love, is provided one for the first time by the meddling Doctor who introduces him to Abigail (played by Katherine Jenkins). Thus the adult Sardick sat confused in his chair while remembering ‘new memories’ of his younger self having adventures with the Doctor, and a doomed romance with Abigail. The story was no longer, as Dickens’ had been, of passive observation of the past leading to internal reflection, but rather of proactive engagement with the past, with an external force (the Doctor) facilitating Sardick’s transformation, less a Christmas carol and more Christmas karaoke. It was this attitude, rather than the relocation on another planet, that constituted the most significant change to Dickens’ original. Victorian literature was sped up and sexed up for modern tastes. It was no longer an intangible ‘Ghost of an idea’ (as Dickens’ described his book), but a very physical interaction with the memories of the miser, and a hands-on approach to psychoanalysm.
Interesting, then, that as the episode continued, the Doctor’s attempts to rewrite the past still led to the outcome of Sardick as a misanthropist. The message of the story, voiced by the Doctor’s companion, Amy, and Sardick in conversation is that while ‘Time can be rewritten’, ‘People can’t’. The necessary change of heart was, like the original, an internal event, as the adult Sardick was brought face-to-face with himself as a child, with a montage of memories displayed on screen illustrating his own remembering of the past. For all the shark-chases, crashing spaceships and guest appearances from Marilyn Monroe and Frank Sinatra (don’t ask), the tale reverts to its original, introspective conclusion. To have changed Sardick/Scrooge by force would be to rob the story of its moral and its example to others watching/reading the tale; the decision to save the people in peril had to come from within Sardick, not without. It seems, ultimately, that Dickens knew best.