Something special about ‘Doctor Who: A Christmas Carol’

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Christmas cards, Christmas dinner, “A Christmas Carol” — the United States has borrowed many of its holiday traditions from its imperialistic progenitor across the pond. But while Christmas crackers and mince pies show up regularly if not universally, Americans have not embraced one of the British mainstays: Christmas Day television.

In Britain, TV is all about Christmas, and vice versa, for much of December, including specials (and, of course, the Queen’s Speech) on the feast day proper. Last year was particularly eventful: Dec. 25 saw David Tennant’s final appearance (and Matt Smith’s first) as the Doctor in the wildly popular “ Doctor Who,” and in the days preceding it was difficult to find the news amid all the Tennant appearances and general brouhaha.

In America, meanwhile, we like to pretend that no one, not even non-Christians, are interested in TV on Christmas. Or if they are, it is limited to “The Sound of Music,” which has mysteriously become what “The Greatest Story Ever Told” is to Easter, and DVDs of “ It’s a Wonderful Life.” Networks and cable stations alike hedge their bets by airing whatever holiday episode or special they’re doing in the early weeks of December and then going into reruns.


But there are signs that this is changing. SyFy is running Christmas Day specials of “Warehouse 13” and “Eureka,” and BBC America plans to run the Christmas-themed season premiere of “Doctor Who” simultaneously with its British mother ship.

“Doctor Who” has long specialized in Christmas Day specials, including one with murderous Santa robots trying to kill the Doctor, but “Doctor Who: A Christmas Carol” may be the best yet. Written by Steven Moffat and featuring flying fish, mysterious clouds and an intergalactic honeymoon suite, not to mention guest roles for Michael Gambon (“ Harry Potter,” “The King’s Speech”) and opera singer Katherine Jenkins, it’s a gorgeous, glorious mishmash of Victoriana and sci-fi.

Summoned to save the spaceship on which his most recent companion, Amy Pond (Karen Gillan), is honeymooning, the Doctor finds himself on an Earth-like planet where fish fly and the skies are controlled by a curmudgeonly old bugger by the name of Kazran Sardick (Gambon). Unmoved by the thought of 4,000 souls crashing into his planet — “it’s a sort of landing,” says he — Sardick won’t lift a finger to help. Using his best command of space, time and Dickensian narrative, the Doctor goes into Sardick’s past to change his present. It’s an old saw made young again by airborne sharks, frozen beauties and, of course, the sonic screwdriver.

During his tenure, Tennant turned the Doctor into something of a rock star, both at home and abroad, which meant Smith had large shoes (though rather slender jackets) to fill when he took over. But he is just as nimble, quick and slightly mad as his predecessor, with a charming boyishness that belies his abilities and seems to imply that the Doctor, at 900-plus years now, is aging backward. Gillan, though she does not appear often in this episode, is a fun and feisty companion, with added benefit of having just gotten married — one of the Doctor’s biggest problems has been the increasingly tedious tendency of his companions to fall in love with him.

Since its most recent resurrection, the “Doctor Who” franchise has increasingly benefited from the computer technology that at times seems to have been specifically invented to reward longtime fans of sci-fi and fantasy and extend the fan bases of both genres. Although there is still plenty of homage paid to the Dalek sensibility — the Doctor’s fiercest foes looked a bit like fire hydrants with deadly toilet plungers as arms — “Doctor Who” has embraced the green-screen “A Christmas Carol,” with its strange roiling skies and schools of airborne fish gathered around the gentle shine of the quasi-Dickensian lamp posts. It’s a terrific example of how well old and new technologies, just like old and new narratives, can come together to make something brilliant. Which is a perfect message for any day, but perhaps especially Christmas.

‘ Doctor Who’

Where: BBC America

When: 6 and 9 p.m. Saturday

Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)