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Doctor Who Recap 2011 Christmas Special, “The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe”

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Doctor Who Recap: 2011 Christmas Special, “The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe”


The day before the first ever episode of Doctor Who was broadcast on British television—the 22nd of November, 1963—is etched into world history forever due to the assassination of John F. Kennedy. However, that day was also notable for the deaths of a pair of celebrated British authors. One was Aldous Huxley, and the other was C.S. Lewis—who therefore missed by the narrowest of margins the chance to see a science fiction twist on the enchanted wardrobe from his famous Narnia books that opened onto whole worlds of adventure. The similarities between Lewis’s magic wardrobe and the TARDIS have often been noted, especially by current Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat, and in this year’s Christmas special he uses The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as inspiration for a festive bit of escapism. There’s nothing much going on below the surface—and compared to the convoluted plotting of this year’s season arc, the storytelling here is almost shockingly undemanding—but the Who of the Christmas specials has always been a deliberately simplified version of the show, specifically aimed at an audience containing a large number of non-regular viewers.

The “romp” nature of this episode is apparent right from the start, as the teaser opens with a bang—literally. A shot of the Earth from space turns into a brilliant evocation of the Star Wars opening as an enormous spaceship bristling with intimidating weaponry glides over the camera. But before it can even finish issuing a single “Puny humans, you are doomed” announcement, the ship begins to break up. Inside, we see the Doctor (Matt Smith) dodging fireballs and sparks and crashing scenery as he frantically tries to escape the explosion he has evidently set off. Clinging to the outside of the ship, before being swept away by the final detonation, he ends up scrabbling to grab hold of a spacesuit which, like him, is in free fall towards the Earth below. I doubt there has ever been as energetically cartoonish an opening for a Doctor Who episode before.

Appropriately, our next sight of the Doctor, after he’s crashed to the ground, is of him lying at the bottom of a little crater like Wile E. Coyote. He’s managed to put the spacesuit on on the way down (and naturally, Moffat simply waves away the question of how he could possibly have survived a fall from space by calling it an “impact suit” and having him say at one point that it’s “still repairing me”). It’s Christmas Eve, 1938, and the Doctor is found by housewife Madge Arwell (Claire Skinner, this episode’s above-the-title guest star). Madge is baffled but happy to help this weird stranger in his quest to find a police telephone box, and this sequence contains some lovely physical comedy from Matt Smith as the Doctor staggers around with his suit on back to front (“How did you manage that?” “I got dressed in a hurry”), running into street lamps and so on. I do have to admit to being bothered by the holes in the back of the helmet (obviously put there to let Smith see where he was going). I know it’s rather absurd to complain about suspension of disbelief being broken in an episode like this, but I found myself wishing they could have been better concealed (or possibly covered up using CGI).

The Doctor: “If there’s ever anything I can do for you, let me know.”
Madge: “How?”
The Doctor: “I don’t know…make a wish. That usually works.”
Madge: “Does it?”
The Doctor: “Well it did for me. You’re here, aren’t you?”

Now we jump foward three years to the height of the Second World War, and the main story begins with Madge receiving the dreaded official telegram informing her with “deepest sympathy” that her husband Reg (Alexander Armstrong), a bomber pilot in the RAF, has been lost over the English Channel; his damaged plane suffered instrument failure on a night without moon or stars visible, and never made it home. To escape the bombing of London, Madge and her two children, Lily and Cyril, are evacuated to a large, ominous-looking house in the country. But instead of the old caretaker they’re expecting to meet, they find a young man in a bowtie who rapidly turns their lives upside-down…

The Doctor, in keeping with his new determination to keep a low profile in the universe, is content to be known simply as “the Caretaker.” He is here to repay the favor of Madge’s help three years ago, and has obviously had immense fun turning the house into a magical wonderland full of flashing lights and strange gadgets. The first few minutes after he welcomes them into the house show the Doctor at his most Willy Wonka-ish, as he shows off his work to the delight of the children. As always, Matt Smith’s acting range is astonishing. He is brilliant at sustaining this high-energy silliness, but when the scene turns serious as Madge reveals the strain she is under, concealing her husband’s death from the children so as not to spoil Christmas for them, he can immediately switch to showing warmth and wisdom:

Madge: “Of course, when the Christmas period is over…” (beat) “I don’t know why I keep shouting at them.”
The Doctor: “Because every time you see them happy, you remember how sad they’re going to be. And it breaks your heart. Because what’s the point in them being happy now if they’re going to be sad later? The answer is, of course…because they are going to be sad later.”

Another aspect of Smith’s Doctor Who work has been his excellent rapport with child actors, which has led to an increase in the number of child characters in the show over the last two seasons. The Arwell children are played by a couple of excellent young actors; both Maurice Cole (Cyril) and Holly Earl (Lily) give natural and believable performances. Cyril is the studious young boy with huge round spectacles, interested in everything, while Lily affects a teenager’s disinterest and attempted worldliness—she does her best to conceal her enjoyment of the Doctor’s antics, and, in a nice touch, only says “I like him” when she can contradict her mother, who has just called him “quite ridiculous” and ordered her children to stay away from him.

This special doesn’t follow the template of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in the way last year’s was explicitly modelled after A Christmas Carol. Indeed, the “Wardrobe” part of the title is something of a red herring—there’s a joking line from the Doctor to Lily about the TARDIS being his wardrobe (“I’ve just painted it to look like a phone box”), but apart from that slim justification the TARDIS ironically has no part to play in this story. The true “wardrobe” is hidden in a big gift-wrapped box under the Christmas tree downstairs. Naturally, the ever-curious Cyril can’t stop himself from opening his Christmas present early, revealing a dimensional portal—through which he crawls, emerging into a snow-covered forest. Eventually, the Doctor realizes where Cyril has gone, and that what was meant to be a simple, supervised tourist visit has turned into something more perilous, and he and Lily follow the boy’s trail in the snow. Soon after, Madge goes through the portal as well, in search of her children.

The story Moffat is telling in this winter wonderland is surprisingly straightforward, albeit with a strong component of fairytale logic. He produces a stream of whimsical invention, involving a forest of sentient trees, which bear what look like living Christmas tree ornaments that suddenly expand when touched and break open like giant eggs. The trees are aware of an approaching threat to their forest, and have created a tower-like construct to lure a suitable living creature to serve as a vehicle for their “souls,” which will be transported elsewhere so the trees’ life-essence can be preserved. The creatures hatched from the Christmas tree ornament “eggs” have rapidly grown into huge statue-like forms which can communicate with the humans.

Unfortunately, the whole story is very slow-paced, and the Doctor and the humans tend to accidentally trigger or simply observe events rather than actively driving the plot. Also, the direction from newcomer Farren Blackburn doesn’t inject any great excitement into the proceedings. Even scenes like those of Cyril, trapped and alone in the tower and gradually making his way to the top, don’t generate any great amount of tension. On the other hand, the production design is certainly up to the series’s usual high standard. The seemingly vast snowy forest is a beautifully rendered environment, and the Wooden King and Queen are excellently designed creatures. They look menacing at first, but once their true purpose is understood they are capable of projecting a regal and majestic bearing. They also allow Moffat an extended riff on the joke he’s used a couple of times before, about the inability of the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver to cope with wooden doors and creatures.

The atmosphere of the story lurches alarmingly as a massive tripod-shaped vehicle stomps through the forest, and three armored soldiers emerge from it to confront Madge. They tell her they’re from Androzani Major, in an unexpected classic series reference. (Elsewhere, there’s another reference in passing for the fans to catch, about a previous race of sentient trees the Doctor met in “The End of the World”.) Apparently, they came to investigate the strange life-signs they observed in the forest, because anyone still in the forest after another few minutes will be destroyed as the trees will be “harvested” and turned into fuel via acid rain. Bizarrely, though, this supposedly serious part of the plot is embedded within sequences of the soldiers bickering among themselves about wool blocking their scans, and not being able to interrogate a crying woman. Two of the soldiers are played by famous comic actors Bill Bailey (Black Books) and Arabella Weir (The Fast Show), and it’s almost like the episode has momentarily turned into a comedy sketch (“I have motherhood issues!”), with everyone trying a little too hard to make something distinctive out of rather thin material.

In any case, the soldiers are soon beamed out of the story, having been intimidated by Madge’s status as a mother looking for her children. This episode is in many ways a paean to motherhood—when Madge reaches the tower, the Wooden King and Queen quickly decide that she is the suitable vessel to transport the life-essence of the trees; as the Doctor says, “How else does life ever travel? The mother ship!” It’s a childlike solution that fits this episode well—most of us have had the occasional bout of nostalgia for a simpler time of life when Mother could solve anything.

Lily: “What’s happening?”
The Doctor: “No idea. Do what I do—hold tight, and pretend it’s a plan.”

As the acid rain starts to fall, the life-essence of the trees is safely stored in Madge, and the dome at the top of the tower detaches and reveals itself to be a vehicle—fittingly, looking like a larger version of the ornaments hanging from the trees. With encouragement from the Doctor, Madge manages to pilot the vehicle safely through the time vortex. By focusing on her memories of Reg—in particular, those triggered by the telegram announcing his death, which she has been carrying all this time—she is able to bring them all home.

Unfortunately, when Moffat tries to trump this with an even happier ending, the episode tips over into bathos. In trying to bring all the threads of the plot together in a grand convergence, he yields once too often to the temptation of “Everybody lives!” This worked brilliantly in his 2005 episode “The Doctor Dances”—at a time when a Doctor Who episode in which no one died was extremely unusual—but has produced diminishing returns each time it has been used in the years since. In this case, the happy ending feels particularly unearned because it comes about purely by chance—or rather, by authorial fiat. Somehow, the glow of the vehicle, as Madge is piloting it through the time vortex, becomes visible to Reg in his plane, providing him a beacon to navigate by. So his death gets cancelled, and he lands his plane safely in the field behind the old house.

This complete undoing of all negative consequences means that there is very little development for any of the characters in this episode. They have had a fun adventure, but have hardly been changed by it in any significant way. Admittedly, it would have made for a rather grim Christmas episode to show the family having to come to terms with Reg’s death, but it could certainly have been done, and would have meant the episode was actually about something. As it stands, it’s a feel-good episode—nice to watch, but nothing more.

As has been known for several months now, the next season of Doctor Who—the seventh since the show was revived in 2005—will, for various reasons, not be premiering until near the end of 2012. It’s a pity that the last episode before the biggest gap in transmission since the series returned should be so insubstantial, and perhaps magnifies the disappointing aspects more than they deserve to be. (In the last “gap year” of 2009, “Planet of the Dead” had much the same problem.)

Fortunately, the episode ends on a high point. In a final scene which is very well acted by both Claire Skinner and Matt Smith, Madge finally realizes that this mysterious caretaker is the spaceman she met three years before. When the Doctor confesses that all his friends now think he’s dead, Madge tells him he must go and see them at once, overriding his objections that the situation is “complicated.” Smith’s mock-sulking as the Doctor agrees to do as he’s told by “Mum” is hilarious.

Then, in a memorable coda, the Doctor is reunited with Amy (Karen Gillan) and Rory (Arthur Darvill), after two years away (from their point of view). The humor as Amy faces the Doctor on the doorstep, each determined to make the other be the one to hug first, is perfectly played. As we saw at the end of “The Wedding of River Song”, unbeknown to the Doctor, Amy and Rory had already been let in on the secret of his non-death. Appropriately for this episode, Amy is every inch the proud mother when talking of her improbable daughter:

Amy: “River told us.”
The Doctor: “Well, of course she did.”
Amy: “She’s a good girl!”

The episode closes with a superb bit of work from Matt Smith, stretching out the moment as the Doctor finally makes the decision to head inside to join his friends, with both a relieved laugh and a surreptitious tear. The Doctor may have deliberately turned his back on being a universal figure, and left his fame behind him, but that doesn’t mean he has to be alone.

Classic Who DVD Recommendation: As mentioned above, the grim, cynical world of “The Caves of Androzani”, starring Peter Davison and Nicola Bryant, gets unexpectedly name-checked in this episode. It’s a story generally considered one of the pinnacles of the classic series (apart from one laughably bad monster, which fortunately makes only brief appearances), thanks to a brilliant script from veteran writer Robert Holmes combined with a thrilling directorial debut from Graeme Harper—the only classic series director to also work on the 21st-century show. Davison responds to the material with one of the best performances of the Doctor ever seen, and it’s a story that anyone even slightly interested in the classic series should see.