Doctor Who Christmas special: The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe review

Six years after David Tennant saw off the Sycorax in his pyjamas in the first Doctor Who Christmas special, the show has become as much a fixture of BBC1’s festive schedule as the Queen’s Speech. And this second seasonal special from the pen of show-runner Steven Moffat was a perfect metaphor for Christmas Day itself: a flurry of excitement at the beginning, a bit bloated around the middle, but ultimately satisfying in the end as it reinforced the value of family and close friendships.

Thoughts (and spoilers) below …

“This is one of the safest planets I know. There’s never anything dangerous here”

Having drawn from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol for last year’s Christmas special, this year Moffat turns to C S Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia – specifically The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe – as the inspiration for this year’s festive episode.

Claire Skinner goes from playing stressed-out mum Claire in Outnumbered to playing stressed-out mum Madge Arwell here (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

Christmas 1938: Madge Arwell (Outnumbered‘s Claire Skinner) helps a mysterious man in a spacesuit. Three years later Madge is concealing the recent loss of her pilot husband Rex from her children Cyril and Lily as they are evacuated to a house in Dorset where they encounter a mysterious madman calling himself the Caretaker (“Usually called the Doctor. Or the Caretaker. Or Get Off This Planet”). On Christmas Eve Cyril climbs into a glowing blue box which transports him to a wintry planet, drawing in first the Doctor and Lily and then Madge in search of him.

On this supposedly safe planet, on which the Doctor had intended to take the family for a Christmas Day treat, they discover unexpected peril. What at first appear to be Christmas tree baubles are spawning wooden creatures, who are desperately trying to escape an oncoming acid rainfall triggered by Harvest Rangers from Androzani Major, who use the trees as a source of fuel. The trees need a strong female to act as a relay to allow their life forces to escape the planet. Madge is duly selected, and not only pilots their craft through the time vortex to safety, but also acts as a guiding light for Rex to follow home to safety, saving him and the crew of his Lancaster bomber.

Establishing a new direction for Who

Moffat’s new vision for the series led to much discussion after last season’s finale The Wedding of River Song. It was a deliberate move away from the god-like figure the Doctor had become – worshipped by some, feared as a harbinger of destruction by others, known by apparently everyone in the universe – back towards the series’ origins of a time traveller journeying the cosmos in relative anonymity, righting wrongs wherever he found them. Not so much the Time Lord Victorious of Russell T Davies‘ closing days as the early Doctors of William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton.

This process of unburdening is obvious from the pre-credits teaser where we see the closing moments of an unseen adventure, with the Doctor desperately escaping an exploding spaceship threatening the Earth in a spectacular action and effects sequence. (Honestly, haven’t any of these war-like invaders seen The Christmas Invasion or The Eleventh Hour?) But this is the only significant action of the episode, with the thrills and spills being played on a more cerebral and emotional level.

Just another average Christmas for the last of the Time Lords (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

Indeed much of the opening quarter of the episode is played primarily for laughs, with the Doctor taking the Arwells on a tour of the remodelled house, which now includes a sitting room with mobile spinning armchairs, a kitchen with hot, cold and lemonade taps and (providing an insight into the way his brain works) his idea of the ultimate children’s bedroom which contains, among other things, a sciency-wiencey workbench, a maze, a window disguised as a mirror, a mirror disguised as a window, a zone of tranquility, the Magna Carta and a yellow fort. It doesn’t have any beds, but as he says:

Who needs beds when you’ve got hammocks?

Quite. This entire sequence showcases Matt Smith‘s talent for both verbal and physical comedy, which then segues into a quieter moment which highlights his dramatic capabilities, when he tells Madge:

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’re going to be sad later.

It is this ability of both Moffat and Smith to switch from humour to pathos in an instant which separates this incarnation from his predecessors Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant. Both were a wonderful fit for the out-and-out angst of the Ninth and Tenth Doctors, but lacked Smith’s gift for comedy.

Humany-wumany

The story certainly presents a more ‘human-wumany’ and less god-like Doctor. The whole premise for the story is simply that of a Christmas treat gone awry. The Doctor is not attempting to halt a planetary invasion or prevent a space-liner from crashing – he is merely trying to repay a kindness. More than that, at no point is he ever really in control of the situation – the tree creatures even puncture his bravado by calling him ‘weak’ – leading him to eventually admit that the others should “do what I do. Hold tight and pretend it’s a plan.” Rather than being the master manipulator, always two steps ahead of his foes, the Doctor is just along for the ride and doing the best he can under the circumstances.

And the final coda with the Doctor heeding Madge’s advice and seeking out his closest friends on Christmas Day gives us an emotional cameo by Amy and Rory. We get a glimpse of the bond that will always exist between the trio and discover that Amy and Rory always set a place for him at the table for Christmas dinner, just in case. And, in shedding a tear of happiness, the Doctor learns that he is perhaps more human than he realises. In addition, given Moffat’s promise that the Ponds would depart the show in the middle of next season in what he described as “heartbreaking” fashion, it is perhaps one last moment of straightforward happiness between the three TARDIS ship-mates before an inevitable tragedy falls.

Lovely but imperfect

For all that Moffat’s script pulls the heart-strings beautifully in all the right places and Smith and Skinner’s central performances carry an at times mind-bending plot, the episode fell some way short of perfect. The middle third sagged somewhat, with the tree creatures proving an underwhelming foe and contributing to a general lack of urgency and jeopardy.

While Alexander Armstrong‘s on-screen time as Rex was relatively brief, there was at least a pleasing circularity in the theme of him always following Madge home. However, the appearances of Benidorm‘s Paul Bazely and comedians Bill Bailey and Arabella Weir as the trio of Harvest Rangers, though welcome, felt somewhat forced, existing to provide little more than a couple of decent jokes – “Please stop crying, ma’am. This is a military engagement. There is no crying in military engagements” – some basic plot exposition to introduce the acid rainfall and to give Madge a physical means of moving from point to point quickly. Their appearance was shorter than their billing merited, but long enough to feel like an unnecessary sideline which dragged on the pace of the plot – most unusual for a writer whose scripts are generally jammed to overflowing.

Nonetheless, despite its flaws this was a super piece of family Christmas entertainment, feeding us all the staples a TV audiences demands and expects on this most festive of days, while quietly resetting the series firmly in its new direction. It made me laugh out loud several times, and yet left me with a tear welling in my eye at more than one point. Season seven cannot come soon enough.

Rating – 8/10

Links: Season 5 review, A Christmas Carol review, Mid-season 6 review, Season 6 review