[I forgot to include a spoiler warning. Apologises to anyone who read this and then regretted it]
The seasonal benevolence of the BBC is impressive. For Christmas, they gave us both more Dr Who and more Sherlock.
Even though the residents of 221B Baker Street were back they were not quite as we are used to seeing them. The update has been restored to its original setting. Well sort of. In the end it was all a dream. But that was justification enough to watch the actor/character combos we’ve grown to adore back in action.
It’s quite a romp. Things are allowed to be more knowing, strange and melodramatic than before. And for all of those things the baseline was already high. The freedom to be heightened produces some great moments. The new setting creates opportunities for lots of new comedy. And the return to the age of Conan Doyle allows Moffat and Gatiss to indulge their love for the author – even more than usual.
But that does come at a price. That looseness borders on indulgence and this episode just doesn’t feel as finely honed as a regular episode. The formulation of the various “dreams within dreams” becomes messy. By the end I wasn’t sure whether we were supposed to believe Holmes’ solution of the problem. For the first time in the show’s run the cinematography was distracting rather than impressive. And its style of repartee feels anachronistic coming from Victorian mouths.
This makes it a fitting choice as a Christmas Special: entertaining while it lasts but ultimately disposable. I like the kind of experimentation that characterised this episode and series 3. But after a stretch of it, I hope that Moffat and Gatiss will take things back to basic for series 4.
Which in a way was what Moffat did for Dr Who’s Christmas special. This was coming off the most ambitious series since the show’s resurrection in 2005. It tried out new types of episode like a one hander and was bolder with its themes and character choices. By contrast, this Christmas Special felt like it could easily have been from the Russell T Davies era.
I deduce that it was successful from the fact I didn’t hate it. I have an allergy to the Christmas specials that I tend to find cloying. That’s indicative of the fact that I tend to like my Who dark. I find it funnier when it’s not trying to be comedy and more affecting when it eschews sentimentality. I’ve also generally disliked the River Song story arch partly because I find Alex Kingston grating but mostly because it brings out the two worst aspects of Moffat’s writing: convoluted plotting and women written as fantasies rather than characters. So my not being upset about this episode is actually a significant achievement.
Sure it wasn’t great. It mistook goofiness for hilarity, leaned too much on us finding River a compelling character and had too many cameos from overrated comedians. But it had enough energy and weirdness to carry me through. And I liked the scene where we saw the Doctor bring the restaurant into existence. For dramatic reasons, we usually see what happens when his efforts to manipulate time go wrong or at least only succeed in desperate situations. So it was good to see him living up to his billing as a ‘Time Lord’ and effortlessly play with the course of history to do something special for a loved one.
Of course, I may start to look back on this episode with genuine fondness if it proves to be River’s last.
Whatever my misgivings about these two episodes they were both good pieces of television, and suggest that we’ll have plenty to enjoy when the main series return next year.