A Christmas Carol

Proper Who is dead.

Which is rather like saying “the Third Doctor is dead” or “the Eighth Doctor is dead.” That is: both true and false. The man regenerates. He’s the same man; he’s eleven men. The show regenerates too, roughly once a decade.

I have trouble watching the 60s incarnation, partly because of small things like pacing and tone and aesthetics (I really do like color, and if that brands me a philistine so be it), and partly because there’s so little of it left to watch, but to my mind it’s probably the most fertile and diverse period of the show. With the regeneration to Pertwee for the 70s you got the first Earthbound stint, the refocus to “alien invasion” stories, and the Doctor-plus-female-sidekick formula everyone now thinks of as classic. Halfway through the decade, Tom Baker and the new production team flipped the balance to more outbound SF, but to my mind the period between 1973 and 1976 saw less drastic change than the one between 1978 and 1981. In the 80s, the show started aiming for more and more intensity and less humor; whether it achieved its aim is a matter for debate, and it was the first time since 1966 that the Doctor (and thus also the show) was allowed to be actively unpleasant. Then in the 90s you got quite a lot of novels of varying quality, and one utterly godawful TV movie with a lead actor who was decent in the role but oddly bland, a sort of mathematical average of the Doctor’s personalities and fashion sense. Eight was like the Valeyard, only rather than a distillation of the Doctor’s evil side he was a distillation of the Doctor’s boring side. It was a time when everyone was trying to keep the Doctor alive but hardly anyone quite nailed what he was really supposed to be like.

And then in the 2000s we finally got a reinvention with the energy and inspiration and taste to get it mostly right. But what does “mostly right” mean anymore? Classic, austere 60s? Dashing, textured 70s? Glossy, violent 80s? Confused, unstable 90s? My gut says that the series that started in 2005 is more different from the series that ended in 1989 than the 1989 stories are from the 1963 stories, but I haven’t yet managed to articulate the reasons why.

But I think I’ve put my finger on one of them: between 1989 and 2005, the way fans relate to science fiction and fantasy television changed, or at least the writers of same began to really notice. I’m not sure if the term “fanservice” applies the way I want it to, but in this context I think of it as what you do as a writer if you start to assume that everyone watching your show is as much in love with your characters as you are, and wants to see them do cute things that don’t necessarily serve a convincing or realistic story. Example: I’m currently watching and, against my prejudices, beginning to enjoy Babylon 5, but there are definitely “fanservice” moments that stick out like sore thumbs, such as the way Ivanova “has sex” with that one creepy racist alien ambassador. There’s nothing remotely convincing about that sequence; it’s there so Ivanova can be cute and funny.

From 2005 to 2009 or so, Doctor Who seemed to be aiming for “moving,” which is understandable with a soap opera creator at the helm. Now, in 2010, it still looks for this, but is primarily concerned with being cute and funny. Other considerations, such as nerdy stuff like “being science fiction” (which, to be fair, was always a little loosely defined), are at best nice-to-haves and at worst window dressing.

I like cute and funny. I like moving, too. And although I watched the Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy stories over and over as a 12-year-old, because that’s what I did at that age, and although I think there were probably more worthwhile satires and action-packed adventures in that era than in the entirety of this one, I have to confess that I don’t treasure any of them. And with the TV movie as an example of how wrong things could go, “Rose” couldn’t help but seem a relief.

After watching “A Christmas Carol,” I think I’m coming to terms with the latest regeneration. Not Matt Smith’s Eleven, whom I really do like a lot. But with the latest regeneration of the show, which is pure comic fantasy.

What is there really to say about this episode? It’s steampunk Harry Potter, and not just because Michael Gambon’s on board. We’re only really asked to believe in it on an emotional level, which is a challenge in itself: even if we believe the Doctor can’t manage to land on one single spaceship despite being able to take young Scrooge all over time and space with incredible precision, we’re also supposed to believe he’s willing and able to revise one person’s entire biography without finding a way to save another’s life. It’s thrilling to see the show finally stretching its “time travel” premise to the very limit, and this thrill is at the heart of what makes this enjoyable, for me anyway. It looks lovely, and the script is witty and tight, and these things alone are almost enough, especially considering that as much as I enjoyed the show’s previous incarnations, “lovely, witty, and tight” were all too rare qualities before 2005.

But it ends with two people in a sleigh pulled by a flying shark. The question isn’t whether you believe this; it’s whether you are enough in love with the show to find this so cute and funny that it’s satisfying to you.

To paraphrase Colin Baker’s Doctor after a change that seems far less radical now, by comparison, than it did then: “This is Doctor Who now — whether you like it or not.”