by Catriona Mills

Live-blogging Doctor Who Christmas Special: The Doctor, The Widow, and the Wardrobe

Posted 27 December 2011 in 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.

Synopsis

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”.

Share your thoughts [13]

1

Wendy wrote at Dec 27, 11:47 AM

I agree with everything you have said. Found it all a bit ho hum actually. Disappointing really.

2

Deb wrote at Dec 27, 12:18 PM

There were a couple of pieces of dialogue that referenced the Narnia story – such as the “whatever do they teach children these days” (approximation).
Ordinarily when Matt Smith says something like “I know” to me, in this ep the very clever room accoutrements, I know he knows what I am thinking but sadly in this episode that was only true on one occasion. [Bear with me – I have only seen it once so far]
Bill Bailey was wasted but probably thrilled to be there.
I struggled with last years ep. – dare I say it jumped the shark? pause for collective groan but at least it engendered some discussion, this year’s was far more ‘meh’.

3

Drew wrote at Dec 27, 12:35 PM

I very much like the new live-blogging format. :) It is much better than the episode was.

4

Catriona wrote at Dec 27, 09:07 PM

Good point, Deb! I didn’t spot that as a Narnia quotation (though I should have: shame on me), though I do have a vague memory of finding the line annoying in context.

And I agree re. Bill Bailey. I’d have thought, when I heard he was in it, that his role would be a bit larger.

5

Wendy wrote at Dec 27, 10:37 PM

More Bill Bailey would definitely been an improvement….those characters were interesting…but then not really developed I thought

6

Catriona wrote at Dec 27, 10:52 PM

They were underdeveloped, weren’t they? Shame, really.

7

John wrote at Dec 28, 02:25 AM

I agree with all of the above.

I was feeling slightly dissatisfied and not really being able to understand why until I read a tweet complaining about the OTT celebrations of ordinary humanity. All the encouragement for Madge to save the day sounded really hollow, and I suspect the problem was the writing. Now I never thought I’d find myself criticising Steven Moffat, but compare the dialogue with this:

Right now, not very far from here the German war machine is rolling up the map of Europe. Country after country, falling like Dominoes. Nothing can stop it, nothing until one tiny, damp little island says “no”. No, not here. A mouse in front of a lion. You’re amazing. The lot of you. Don’t know what you do to Hitler, but you frighten the hell out of me.

(The Doctor to Nancy, The Empty Child, 2005)

Same writer, similar context, but a universe away in every other way. The quote above nearly makes me cry, even now; but the dialogue from the Christmas special left me pretty cold.

I wonder whether the pressures of being head writer work against the quality of that writing.

8

Catriona wrote at Dec 28, 04:56 AM

You might be onto something there, John—though I think “The Eleventh Hour” is fabulous. Certainly, I don’t think he’s hit the heights of, say, “Blink” since he became head writer. (Not that there haven’t been lovely episodes from other writers in the past couple of seasons.) Then again, I also wasn’t much of a fan of most of Russell T. Davies’s own episodes, but thought he did truly marvellously with “Midnight” and “Turn Left”, both of which I loved and thought were harrowing and brilliant. So let’s hope the genius comes up to the surface again in this coming season.

I should say, I didn’t think this was awful, and Nick says that judging from the ratings, it did what it was meant to do: enthral and amuse millions of sugared-up and over-stimulated British children. But it was, for want of a better word, a bit shallower than I like.

9

Tim wrote at Dec 28, 12:55 PM

This episode was very, very weak. The new blogging format looks handy, though.

As Deb said, Bill Bailey was wasted. (I could imagine him doing a Manny-esque ‘We’re fighting trees?’ or similar, though perhaps that would be too obvious.)

Also, I thought the Androzani references were a pointless throwaway. Another thing that annoyed me was them not showing the remaining crew of the bomber at the end. (Poor Anderson.) And again with Moffat apparently thinking stalking is romantic.

10

Drew wrote at Dec 30, 08:07 AM

I’m sure you’re right John, I imagine that the plot of The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances probably was something that Moffat tossed around for a while in his mind so he had ample time to refine it. Doubt he has time for that now. And yet, I just bought the first season of Sherlock and while I’ve only watched the first 2 episodes I’m finding it typical of the quality you’d expect of Moffat. It’s a facsinating show, the convergence between the myths of Holmes, Doctor Who and Batman all seem to meet and the infulences flow back and forth from them all through the episodes I’ve seen. Really enjoying it.

11

Catriona wrote at Dec 30, 09:47 PM

Sorry to have been a bit slack on responding to comments: I’ve been felled by a chest infection, as though 2011 wasn’t bad enough already.

Tim, Nick thinks the same thing on the Androzani references. And it’s a bit like the Narnia references, in a way: it’s seemingly a way of deepening and enriching the narrative, but actually it’s just a bit superficial and annoying.

Drew, I really liked Sherlock, too—except the second episode, which I thought distinctly weak. But Moffat only wrote one episode of that, so he is still dividing his attention. I’m not always comfortable with Mark Gatiss’s work (some of his Doctor Who eps have disappointed me very much), but he does seem to be working well with Moffat on Sherlock. Looking forward to the new season very much.

12

Matt wrote at Jan 1, 11:32 AM

I’m wondering if it was an editing thing. They seem to have preferred to spend a lot of time on the children experiencing the forest and the Doctor’s tour of the house and then tried to shoe-horn in the rest of the story. I wish they could do longer episodes like in the old days. The title was unfortunate, I reckon everyone would think the subtle Narnia references were brilliant if the title didn’t raise our expectations.

And what’s the story with Amy and Rory, have they left the show or not?

+1 for the “live” blogging format too. Happy New year and I’m beaming you internet sympathy for the chest infection.

P.S. The Doctor shedding a tear at the end was nicely done IMO

13

Catriona wrote at Jan 1, 08:49 PM

I think it was Nick, Matt, who said that this episode seemed much more explicitly “for the kiddies” than some past episodes have been, and I think that’s true—even despite the episode being supposedly focalised more through the adult than the child characters. That might explain the focus on the magic (well, what he did to the house was meant to look like magic) and the forest.

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