“Well, this is all really rather clever, isn’t it?”
Ring out the bells, it’s Christmas time – and the time for that most divisive of Doctor Who traditions, the saccharine, family-oriented Christmas special episode. Every year since the show returned, these episodes have divided the show’s dedicated fans like no other stories, with a very vocal group always, without fail, proclaiming each one as “the worst episode ever”.
But the thing about the Christmas episodes is that they’re very different beasts to the stories shown as part of the series proper. As a centrepiece of the BBC Christmas schedule since 2006, they have to appeal to a wider audience even than the extremely successful show normally manages. They can’t be steeped in continuity which would alienate casual viewers less familiar with the show’s Byzantine mythology. And as an intended piece of wholesome Christmas fare, they have to be even more family-oriented than the show usually is, and encapsulate the ‘sentimental’ feelings so closely associated with the festive season.
Whether you like or very vocally hate the Christmas episodes is very much dependent on your tolerance for these strictures. If you’re curmudgeonly enough to find all these things objectionable, then you’re going to hate the end product no matter how finely crafted. And for the last two years, there’s been the added factor of the distinctive style that Steven Moffat has brought to the show – a very children-friendly blend of fairy tale and magic (in the guise of technology) that, for some fans, represents a dumbing down of a show that used to eschew such things and praise the virtue of science over superstition.
This year’s story, The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe, had all these tropes in spades, and as usual, seems to have brought many a fanboy more outrage than joy this Christmas. But fanboys aren’t the Christmas episode’s intended audience; if some of them like it, well, great. But I doubt Steven Moffat’s going to lose much sleep over the ones who don’t. For this fanboy, the episode managed to – just – keep the balance of all these factors pretty much right. As a result, I found myself enjoying it, in fact more than last year’s.
One particular plus was that, unlike last year’s Dickens tribute, The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe told a simple, linear story with none of the reliance on temporal paradoxes that’s been so divisive among the show’s fans. Speaking for myself, I rather enjoy this element of the show, but I do think it’s been rather overused recently, so a straightforward story was more than welcome for me.
But if that Moffat trope was conspicuously absent, there were plenty of others in evidence. Like its obvious inspiration, CS Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, this was very much a children’s fairy tale, something Moffat seems to have steered the show towards in the last couple of years. All the fairy tale archetypes were there, and I have to admit, they appealed to my inner ten-year-old. There was a big old country house, a mysterious, magical ‘Caretaker’, and best of all, a portal to another world. Stories of mysterious gateways to other worlds were always a favourite of mine as a child, so it was no surprise that I enjoyed this.
Like Lewis’ novel, this took place in the early years of World War 2. Historical settings seem to work well for Christmas stories, perhaps because adults find the emotions surrounding Christmas to be steeped in nostalgia; even last year’s alien world was basically a pseudo-Victorian fantasy. World War 2 was not the nicest of historical periods, but in keeping with the general style, this focussed less on its unpleasant aspects, and more on the cosy, rose-tinted remembrance of a simpler time, with the bombing and the evacuation a perfect adventure for children.
It didn’t sidestep the nastier bits of war entirely, though, as we saw loving father Reg seemingly plummeting to his doom as the pilot of a failing bomber over the Channel. This was nicely realised, but while Alexander Armstrong was great as Reg, it was hard to escape the memory of his street-talking comedy RAF pilot in The Armstrong and Miller show!
The ‘advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’ trope was much in evidence from the outset, with a typically frenetic prologue of the Doctor casually blowing up one of the standard alien ships intent on taking over the Earth. It’s a mark of how established the show now is that we take the preceding events for granted now; it’s an alien invasion, of course the Doctor’s going to beat it. The details of how are almost irrelevant – and a good thing too, as that kind of simplistic story was pretty old-hat even in the show’s ‘classic’ run.
It was an exciting sequence, full of pyrotechnics and well put together by director Farren Blackburn, who impressed me directing half of The Fades earlier this year. But it required quite a suspension of disbelief to swallow the part where the Doctor plummets into the vacuum of space, then grabs a handy spacesuit and puts it on to somehow survive re-entry and the crater-engendering impact in 1930s England. Fanboys may have been recalling a similar spacewalk in less than fondly remembered Peter Davison story Four to Doomsday; others probably just wondered how come he didn’t die. All right, there was a line that referred to the suit as an ‘impact suit’ that somehow repaired its wearer. But still, I suspect your tolerance of Moffat’s use of technology as magic will have influenced your opinion of the story even at this early stage.
If you could cope with that, though, you were likely to enjoy the magic of the story proper. After his rescue by doughty young mum Madge Arwell (the excellent Claire Skinner), the Doctor promises to return the favour; all she has to do is wish. In the event, it’s her children who do the wishing, which magically does bring him back on Christmas Eve, in time for him to act as a sort of mad uncle/Willy Wonka in ‘redecorating’ the old country house they’ve come to stay in for Christmas.
Matt Smith leaned very heavily on his comic talents as he showed them around the ‘improved’ house, which was like every child’s dream. Taps that dispense lemonade, dancing chairs, a rotating Christmas tree complete with train set – and a mysterious, very large present that turned out to be a gateway to a distant planet in the far future, where a magical (there’s that word again) forest grows natural Christmas decorations. Perfect for a Christmas outing; but as we’ve seen recently, this Doctor is all too fallible, and he hadn’t realised that spacefaring humans were about to melt down the forest for fuel with acid rain.
It was a nice touch to bring hard technology and future energy prospectors into such an overtly magical world, and an even nicer touch for fanboys that they came from Davison-era planet Androzani Major, The three technicians/soldiers were a nice comedy touch in the style of classic series writer Robert Holmes, with their amusing repartee, but it did seem odd to have cast comedian Bill Bailey and have him essentially function as the straight man of the group! Still, some amusing dialogue, with the scanners confused by woolly garments and Bailey’s look of comprehending horror when he realised Madge might just shoot them – because she was a mother looking for her children.
In fact, the whole story was very much an ode to the strength of motherhood and the bond a mother shares with her children – I wonder how much Steve Moffat’s wife (and mother to his children) Sue Vertue served as an inspiration. While the Doctor was there to explain everything, it was Madge who was the true hero, fearlessly chasing her children to an alien world, hoodwinking people from the future, and ultimately serving as the only one ‘strong’ enough to be a vessel for the souls of the sentient forest as they evacuated (like the wartime children) from the threat of imminent destruction.
Again, this was all very much steeped in fairy tale style magic, as the forest was represented by an anthropomorphised King and Queen styled as walking wooden statues. These were very nicely realised – in fact the CG was generally really good this episode – but looked to have stepped straight out of the pages of a classic storybook. As was their tower, ostensibly grown from wood, with its geodesic space/time ship at the top. Again, you had to swallow magic to swallow this, really. If the tower was grown from trees, presumably the ship was too – so how did it fly? What was its power supply? How did it access the time vortex? The trouble is, if these questions nagged at you, you probably have a problem with the Moffat style in general. Like the thwarted alien invasion, he asks his audience to take magic (ie advanced technology) on trust, with very little – or no – exposition to explain it. But to a modern child, technology and magic must seem very nearly indistinguishable from each other.
And it was no surprise – not really – that Madge’s trip through the vortex also had the side effect of rescuing her husband. As her thoughts locked onto him, and the ship became visible in a blaze of light, he flew his bomber straight into the vortex; a scene rather more poetic than the sillier spaceborne Spitfires in Victory of the Daleks, but undeniably similar. Reg’s sudden reappearance on the English lawn was a cheering moment, undercutting as it did the tearjerking scene with Madge trying to tell her children that their father was dead.
I actually found this rather predictable, unfortunately. From the moment I saw Reg’s bomber start to fail in the earlier scene, I just knew that he would be saved at the last minute. The manner of his salvation was well- worked out, but I never thought for one minute that the Christmas special would end with two heartbroken children learning of their father’s death. Not mention that in Moffat-Who, death is rarely permanent for nice characters. But while I sometimes feel that, in the series proper, this cheapens the idea of death and undercuts jeopardy, I have to say that it felt right here. And after all that emphasis on the virtues of motherhood, it was nice to see that the children needed their dad too. If anything, it was as much a celebration of family as any one member of it.
If all this doesn’t mention the Doctor too much, that’s because he was almost a McGuffin in this plot; but Matt Smith was as excellent as ever, switching in a heartbeat from slapstick comedy to emotional connection and even loneliness of his own. The final scene, with him realising that he too could cry with happiness, was rather beautiful – though I can imagine that, for some, this very much tipped the scales of saccharine too far. But it was a lovely surprise to see Amy and Rory again, and for the Doctor to finally embrace the friendship he’d been pushing away from last year. And here again, he had Madge to thank – such a good mother, she even reduced a 900 year old Time Lord to a surly teenager: “OK Mum. I’ll think about it.”
Generally then, an enjoyable Christmas special, light on the convoluted plotlines Moffat’s been so keen on, but steeped in all his other archetypes. I very much enjoyed it, even though the story felt a bit slight for all the spectacle. But as almost concentrated Moffatiness (a word I invented), I’m sure it’s going to be as love-it-or-hate-it as everything else he’s done with the show!