Thursday, December 22, 2016

Oh Look… It’s A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life Again

By Jerry Chandler

It has come every year for decades now. It’s almost like a seasonal plague. Sometimes there are only a few cases here and there while other times we suffer a massive, terrifying outbreak. I speak of course of the annual tradition with many television writers where they feel that they too must do their show’s take on either A Christmas Carol or It’s a Wonderful Life.

Sometimes the attempts have been just plain bad. Well, most of the times the attempts have been just plain bad. A good chunk of the time we get something that’s watchable- perhaps it’s even good –but totally forgettable. It’s like the writing teams just decided to do the most basic paint by number version of the story their riffing on and then knocked off early that week.

But, ever so often, you get an attempt at doing one of these Christmas classics where the writer or writing team decides that they want to play with the concept. They decide to turn the concept on its ear, twist it inside out, shake it up a bit, and create something that actually has the ability to stand on its own and feel like more than just a lazily done, cheap knockoff of the original. I present to you a few of those attempts that are worth seeking out for your holiday viewing pleasure.

Honorable Mention

The Odd Couple - “Scrooge Gets an Oscar”

Short, sweet, not really an attempt at turning the story on its ear, but absolutely worth a look if only because of the chemistry between lead actors of the show; Tony Randall as Felix Unger and Jack Klugman as Oscar Madison are just a joy to watch in this. Felix is hard at work trying to put on a local stage production of “A Christmas Carol” and failing miserably at finding his perfect Scrooge. The obvious answer (to him at least) becomes casting his grouchy roommate Oscar in the role.

But after a series of ever more annoying events- not the least of which is Oscar’s ex-wife sending a singing telegram C.O.D. to threaten him over his late alimony payments –Oscar will have none of it. He wants nothing more to do with the season, and Felix’s play may now be ruined. But a horribly chosen pre-nap meal aggravates Oscar’s ulcer and causes him to have a dream where he is Scrooge, and he’s haunted by a Christmas ghost played by Felix.

The writing actually provides an enjoyable sendup of Dickens where the strength of the performance all falls on the shoulders of the cast and their talents. Fortunately the entire regular cast of character actors for the show had talent to spare, and the Randall and Klugman pairing may have been the greatest comedic odd couple combination (both for the Odd Couple itself and in general) ever put together. It’s fun, it’s clever, and you will find yourself laughing.

#5 - Married with Children "It's A Bundyful Life"

In the history of Married with Children, this is probably not one of the best episodes they put out. The writing wasn’t at its peak of sharp wit that the series had at its best moments, and Sam Kinison really brought nothing more than his name and his reputation to the role of the angel who has to show Al what the lives of his friends and family would be like if he were gone. What makes it a worthy addition for our list is the manner in which the writers twisted the story concept.

After a miserable start to the evening, Al manages to just about kill himself adjusting the lights on the outside of the house. He’s picked up by his guardian angel- who discovers to his horror that Al is his charge. He’s got to convince Al to want to live again, or his mission on Earth that evening is a failure. To do so he dusts off his book of clichés and grants Al the wish he made just before the electricity coursed through his body moments earlier. He’s going to show Al the world where he was never born.

Al gets to see the horribly dysfunctional family that we all know and love as their alternate versions, and they’re all much better off without him. Bud and Kelly are the very model of perfect children. They’re doing well in school, they’re well adjusted, and they’re focus during the Christmas season is on making others happy rather than just what they’re getting out of it. Peggy is the model of the stereotypically perfect housewife to her new and successful husband. Even the Bundy’s friends are doing better off without Al in their lives. The trip through this reality with the angel teaches Al one thing and one thing only. The world is a much better place without him in it.

Kinison’s angel is depressed by the end of it as he’s sure that he’s failed in his mission. Al surprises him by telling him that he wants to live. Shocked by this announcement, Kinison’s angel asks why. Al gives the best line of the show by exclaiming that there’s no way he’s letting them be happy after all of the misery they’ve caused him over the years. For fans of the show it was the perfect subversion of the paint by number copies of the traditional story as seen on the more family friendly network shows over the years.

#4 - WKRP "Bah, Humbug"

This one was actually a more traditional telling of the “A Christmas Carol” story, but it makes our lists for a different reason than a clever twist on the tale. On top of being an enjoyable if weird episode of the show, it was terrifyingly prescient with its look at the future of the radio business.

Mr. Carlson is trying to decide whether or not to hand out Christmas bonuses to the station employees and leaning towards not doing so because of the station’s finances that year. As the decision weighs on him more and more, he makes the mistake of eating one of Johnny Fever’s special holiday brownies- complete with medicinal herb special ingredients. Drifting off to sleep afterwards he finds himself dreaming the typical “A Christmas Carol” storyline with the other members of the cast as the three ghosts and the various other characters.

The dream section was filled with a number of gags and lines that were hilarious on their own, but doubly so for fans of the show. Howard Hesseman’s Johnny Fever as the Ghost of Christmas Future in particular delivers a line about the fate of the Johnny Fever character that is still well remembered fondly by many fans of the show while still being funny to those who might not be familiar with the entire run of the show. There’s also a gag where even writer and show creator Hugh Wilson cops to the fact that he’s engaging in writing what was fast becoming a hoary old cliché on television even back then as Mr. Carlson asks one of the ghosts if he’s going to get just the one visit or the full Charles Dickens treatment.

The episode- originally aired in December of 1980 –also nailed the direction of the business. Looking back on it, it’s vividly clear that the three ghosts are different eras of the radio business. The Ghost of Christmas Past is the radio station of what was even then the distant past. The stations were local run- sometimes even family run affairs –that more strongly connected to their communities. The Ghost of Christmas Present is the radio business of that day and age. Things are less focused on the locality, and the nature of being tied to the local community was being threatened by mass ownership and bean counters. The Ghost of Christmas Future represents what many stations ultimately became in the years after the show first aired. He represents radio stations as preprogrammed and sometimes pre-taped, run by bean counters, and with far less consideration for being something that represented the community it was in.

The episode is funny, the gags are often sharp and witty, and the cast are a joy in their roles. It’s also worth a look as a prophetic warning of what was to come. Hugh Wilson’s WKRP was a favorite among the radio business community, and he would hear from them often as well as taking story inspiration from their stories. He also heard the odd concerns about the direction of the business and occasionally put that into the show. He managed to create a prophetic warning with this episode about the future of the radio business perhaps giving up too much of its local soul and replacing it with corporate uniformity and indifference. In a way, as Charles Dickens himself wrote stories with messages in the subtext and warnings of things to come in society, it makes WKRP’s stab at doing the traditional tale one of the more worthy attempts at doing a new take on it.

#3 The Real Ghostbusters “Xmas Marks the Spot”

My only cartoon entry comes to us from The Real Ghostbusters television show from 1980s. It has a rather interesting twist in both the story and the typical story for the show. Peter is feeling the Christmas blues, not wanting anything to do with the season or the festivities around it. Driving along in the snow filled night; they unknowingly encounter a Christmas miracle that- unbeknownst to them -moves them across both time and space.

They end up coming across a man facing three ghosts and do what’s natural for them. After containing the three ghosts they head back to Ecto-1 and head home. But when they get back to their HQ they find a changed world. Christmas is viewed by many as something to be treated with disdain. Much to their surprise, even Janine is acting like a veritable Scrooge towards the season. They eventually realize what’s gone wrong when they find that the big holiday book for the season is Scrooge’s book, A Christmas Humbug. It’s the story of how he defeated Christmas.

The Ghostbusters set out to save Christmas. Their plan involves two parts. Egon has to risk the dangers of the angry and vengeful specters they’ve captured by entering the containment unit to find the three ghosts of Christmas in order to lead them back to the outside world. While he’s doing that the others have to return to the location the encountered the time storm, go back to the Christmas Eve of 1837, and keep Scrooge busy until Egon can return with the three ghosts of Christmas in order to set the history of Christmas right again. Even as a cartoon, the episode provides some enjoyable slapstick as the three Ghostbusters try to play the part of the three ghosts using whatever tricks (like a View-Master with a Christmas Carol reel in it) they can come up with to put Scrooge back on the right path just in case Egon can’t get the ghosts back to them. Of course, Egon arrives and the already bewildered Scrooge gets another three ghosts that can actually do their job right. They return to their own time to find that Christmas and the timeline have been saved, and even Peter has a new perspective on the season.

It’s a nice little twist on the story, and an enjoyable little piece of Christmas spirit. Additionally, the story was one of the early TV works by a writer known to many science fiction lovers in fandom. Some guy named J. Michael Straczynski who would go on to give us a little show called Babylon 5.

#2 Blackadder's Christmas Carol

One of my longtime favorites of the holiday season is the story of Ebenezer Blackadder, the nicest, kindest, most generous and giving man in the land, being visited by Robbie Coltrane’s Spirit of Christmas who shows him the terrible Blackadders of the past and a peek at the future. He thus inadvertently turns him into a miserly Scrooge. It’s a hilarious holiday special for fans of the Blackadder series, but it’s also pretty funny if you have little real knowledge of the series.

The show provides a nice skewering and sendup of the characters in Dickens’s story as well as giving fans one more look at the (then) three existing television versions of Blackadder’s ancestors before giving us a glimpse at two possible far future versions of the line. All of the regular crew are on hand to take on roles both old and new, and an amazing array of recognizable guest stars show up to add to the fun. The writing is clever, the jokes range from broad to sly and dry, the performances are all top notch, and it teaches you how to write “Merry Christmas” without using a single correct letter in the spelling of Christmas.

Really, if you’ve missed adding this one to your Christmas viewing lists before now, you have to make time for it this year. It really is one of the required modern classics of the season.

#1 Doctor Who “A Christmas Carol, Doctor Who Christmas Special”

I love this story. I mean, it’s got a flying shark and fish that “swim” in ice fogs. Who doesn’t love flying sharks?

As far as in-story continuity and the bio of the Doctor goes, the Doctor has the best “legitimate” reason to steal a page from Dickens. He personally knows Charles Dickens. So when he hears carolers singing Christmas carols and explains what the noise is to someone else, it’s only natural that he’d choose this path to prevent disaster.

Oh, I skipped a bit ahead there.

A ship full of thousands of people is about to crash on a planet. One of the problems is that the atmosphere, a swirling, storming mass of ice clouds, is too turbulent for them to get control of the ship. Fortunately, there’s a device on the planet owned and run by one man that can stabilize and control the weather. The Doctor lands his T.A.R.D.I.S. on the planet to seek the man’s help only to find a bitter, heartless man, Kazran Sardick (Michael Gambon), who could care less if the ship crashes. After all, as he himself puts it, everybody has to die, and Christmas is as good a time as any. Besides, the most value people have to him is as collateral to be kept in stasis sleep until those who owe him can repay a debt. What value is there to him in strangers?

The problem the Doctor faces with just doing things himself is that the machine that controls the skies is directly linked to Kazran in such a way that only he can operate it. But the Doctor picks up on some things that lead him to believe that there’s still some good in the damaged man before him. It will require some work to find it- or rather rebuild it -though. The Doctor takes on the role of the Ghost of Christmas Past, just with a twist. He doesn’t simply show Kazran the past, but rather shows him the past that the Doctor has now gone back into in order to change the man in the present.

The Doctor begins visiting the young Kazran every Christmas, taking him on amazing adventures, and introducing him to the one true love of his life. He changes Kazran into a better man with memories of a far better life. This only makes matters worse as when the Doctor returns to the present he finds a bitter man who hates the world and especially Christmas because of what he’s now lost. But the Doctor has one more trick up his sleeve.

Matt Smith had settled very comfortably into the role of the Doctor by the time this special was filmed, and it shows with a performance bursting with a sense of wonder and optimism. Michael Gambon is one of the great actors of his time, and he brings a power and intensity to the older Kazran Sardick that makes you feel for him even at his worst moments. Acting newcomer Katherine Jenkins as Abigail brings the right touch of innocent wonder and tragic loss to the part, and, of course, her background as an opera singer adds a lot to the performance at the key moment of the story. Both actors playing the younger Kazran do well in their role as well, and of course the Doctor’s regular companions do their bit onscreen. Plus, you know, honeymoon suite.

Of all of the Doctor Who Christmas specials so far, this one has by far the most Christmas spirit to it. It also has the most heart and the most emotional punch of all of them. Okay, well… The Husbands of River Song might equal it in emotional punch, but this one provides that punch from its own self-contained story and doesn’t require knowing a dozen other episodes.

Plus, well, again… It’s got a flying shark.

Jerry Chandler follows geek stuff. When not found writing here he can be found writing for Gruesome Magazine and his own blog. He has a Twitter. He can also occasionally be heard talking pro wrestling with the amazingly talented crew at of the ESO Pro: The Pro-Wrestling Roundtable podcast.

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