Live-blogging Doctor Who Christmas Special: The Doctor, The Widow, and the Wardrobe
Posted 27 December 2011 in Doctor Who by Catriona
So here’s experiment one in new ways to talk about Doctor Who. I’m still calling it a live-blogging, but to be honest, there’s not much live about this one. So, in addition to any talk about the actual episode, I’m also interested in opinions about how this new model works for you. I’m not committed to it myself, so I’ll still try some other experiments with the new season.
But for now, on to “The Doctor, The Widow, and the Wardrobe”.
This live-blogging brought to you by the sound of a small dog voluptuously chewing his own foot and about to be spoken to firmly.
The Doctor, having foolishly blown up a spaceship without ensuring that he had ready access to the TARDIS, finds himself plummeting to Earth in a spacesuit, which he somewhat improbably manages to climb into while free-falling from orbit. This sparks a spirited debate in the living room about why this doesn’t immediately smoosh him when his fourth regeneration dies after a sixty-foot fall from a radio telescope, but it turns out the spacesuit is magic. He manages to find himself a nice woman who’s an appalling driver (cue cliche number one), who takes him back to his TARDIS, which is on Earth, despite the fact that he just blew up a spaceship in orbit while he was still on said spaceship, and despite the fact that he couldn’t possibly have controlled his free-fall from orbit enough to land within driving distance of the TARDIS.
Three years later, in 1941, the poor woman finds herself widowed when her husband is lost in his bomber over the English Channel. This sparks spirited debate number two, as my parents argue over whether or not he’s a bit old for military service, especially before they became desperate for men, and especially in 1941, before the bombers were called into really heavy service in Europe. Either way, he’s dead. And she chooses not to tell her children, but instead to make a wish (as the Doctor told her to do if she needed him) and to take the children to stay with their mad uncle.
Surprising no one, the mad uncle is missing, but the Doctor is posing as his caretaker, and has set the house up as a Christmas wonderland for the children. One thing he’s provided is a dimensional portal of some sort, disguised as a Christmas present.
I didn’t receive a single dimensional portal for Christmas this year.
Naturally, a small child crawls through the portal too early and, less naturally, finds himself in a winter wonderland of sentient trees. Soon enough, everyone ends up following him, only to find that the forest is about to be melted down (by Bill Bailey, of all people) by acid rain, and the trees are trying to evacuate their life force. The Doctor’s too “weak” to transport them in his mind, as is young Cyril. His sister Lily is “strong” but not strong enough. Luckily, their mother is sufficiently strong, apparently because she’s a mother (cue cliche number two). Seemingly, “weak” and “strong” are synonyms, in the language of these sentient trees, for “male” and “female”, even though I’m just going to go out on a limb (see what I did there) and state categorically that trees don’t see the world that way.
Either way, she manages to fly a giant golfball through the time vortex with the power of her mind.
Sadly, during this process, she inadvertently lets the children know that their father is dead. Luckily, they don’t have much of a chance to grieve for him, because she manages to travel back in time to the moment when his plane was lost, and draw him with her to Great Uncle Digby’s house. Then the Doctor heads off to have Christmas dinner with Amy and Rory.
What didn’t work for me in this episode
The Narnia angle. Let’s be honest: there really wasn’t one. The wardrobe wasn’t a wardrobe at all. Okay, there was this bit:
LILY: Why have you got a phone box in your room?
DOCTOR: It’s not a phone box. It’s my … wardrobe. I’ve just painted it to look like a phone box.
But that’s really the only attempt they’ve made to shoe-horn a Narnia theme into the episode. And while I admit I like the acknowledgement that the TARDIS is the spiritual descendant of that wardrobe the Pevensie children climbed into, I was expecting something a little closer to the original text, especially given last year’s rather effective Christmas Carol redux.
(I really don’t consider a World War II timeline and a winter wonderland setting to be intrinsically Narnian.)
The dimensional portal itself was nicely done, but I’m still not sure why the episode couldn’t have either used an actual wardrobe, had a stronger Narnia angle, or have dropped the (ultimately illusory) Narnia theme altogether.
The characterisation also didn’t work much for me. The children rather defaulted to cliches, and I couldn’t really feel much for the grieving widow (despite Claire Skinner being lovely), since we didn’t get much sense of her life with or love for her husband: we barely met him before he was dead, and everything else about their relationship was retrospective.
In fact, their relationship lead to this conversation:
MADGE: He said he’d keep on following me until I married him.
MY FATHER: Isn’t that called stalking?
NICK: Not in the 1920s.
Claire Skinner did really sell her heartbreak in that scene, albeit with a bit too much gasping for my liking, but without any narrative grounding up to that point, I wasn’t really committed to it.
And, on a similar note, I found the gender politics a little odd in this episode. Doctor Who has always been a rich source of discussion about gender politics (cue reference to easily sprained ankles here, or even to Helen Mirren saying she wants to be the Doctor, not his sidekick), but this episode seemed to default rather to unreconstructed and monolithic categories (women = strong and men = weak, for example), which just reinforced my sense that the story floated along on a fairly shallow pool of story-telling cliches.
What worked for me
Disclaimer: I’m not a good target for Christmas specials, because schmaltz tends to make me groan rather than make me feel happy about the universe and my place in it.
Not a whole lot worked for me in this episode, to be honest. As you might have gathered from the synopsis, I thought the plot was a wee bit cliched, as well as being rather thin and a little bit silly in places.
I admit to being delighted by the idea that Amy was attacking carollers with a water pistol. I can sympathise with that. I also did like the Doctor’s slightly stunned realisation that he was crying at the end, but that’s exclusively down to Matt Smith, whom I adore.
ME: So what did we like about this?
NICK: Oh, the first twenty minutes or so. Very much. Once it gets to the snow planet, I think it loses some complexity. I mean, there’s a mystery there, but it’s not the most exciting they’ve ever done.
That about sums this up for me. It was rather a thin episode, and some points that were picked up weren’t explored in any real detail or even with a strong degree of consistency. For example, why were the trees growing Christmas baubles? Why didn’t all the baubles hatch? Why were there two sentient wooden giants but every other life-form on the planet was a Christmas trees? Why didn’t the Doctor know that these sentient life-forms were being harvested for fuel? Why wasn’t he more outraged about that?
NICK: It was certainly visually very striking throughout. Um …
That about sums it up for me, too. It was no “End of Time”, of course, but neither was it “Blink” or “Vincent and the Doctor”.