If Michael Gambon is in it, I’m there – but he’s just one reason to watch Doctor Who: A Christmas Carol, an energetic, goofy, time-traveling special that sideswipes the Dickens tale and takes off on its own demented path. I’m not praising this as a Doctor Who fanatic. I like the series just fine, but its premises -- the Doctor crashing into new planets, times and adventures -- are often more intriguing than the results, even when the Doctor runs into Vincent van Gogh, as he did this season.
This Christmas special, part of a Doctor Who tradition, is terrifically entertaining even if you don’t approach it with cultish affection, or at least it becomes amusing once you get past the space-ship-about-to-crash scene at the start.
Amy Pond, the Doctor’s latest sidekick, is on that ship on Christmas Eve. It can’t land because – here’s where things get Who-ish – there is a terrible cloud cover over a planet controlled by Kazran Sardick, played by Gambon as a cranky anti-Dumbledore. Even though he seems to live in the 19th century, Kazran has a machine that can clear the clouds, but chooses not to use it. In one of writer/producer Steven Moffat’s many droll twists on Dickens, Kazran is also busy telling a poor family (the Cratchit substitutes) that he will not release the wife’s cryogenically frozen sister, Abigail, for Christmas; she’s collateral on a loan.
That’s the Doctor’s (Matt Smith) cue to tumble down the chimney. And turning from Santa into the Ghost of Christmas Past, he takes Kazran back to his own childhood and young manhood, when the Doctor and Kazran unfroze Abigail for one day every year, and took her out to party on Christmas Eve. On this odd planet where fish can swim through the air, the highlight is their ride in a carriage pulled by a shark. There are time twists: can you really change the past? But the spectacle comes from watching the Doctor, thanks to some clever set design, make his way through a sooty-looking sort-of-London on a planet that a wizard would feel at home in.
Of course, it wouldn’t be A Christmas Carol without a few heart-string tugs. Abigail, played by opera singer Katherine Jenkins (you'll see they didn’t cast a singer for nothing) leads the story to a warm Dickensian end.
Doctor Who: A Christmas Carol will be on BBC America on Christmas night at 9 ET, preceded by a day-long Doctor marathon, including previous Christmas specials. Members of the Doctor’s cult, go crazy.