THE DOCTOR, THE WIDOW AND THE WARDROBE
Ah, Christmas. Season of goodwill towards all humankind. Season where it doesnít really matter what kind of episode Doctor Who shoves out as long as it has snow and a few bits of tinsel, right?
Well, sort of. There are some things that are just going to be there, end of. The snow, yes. Very possibly the tinsel. Certainly a couple of vats of syrup. Thatís just the way Christmas episodes are, so thereís no point getting fluffed up about their faults. As a certain previous Doctor once remarked, got to take the rough with the smooth.
On the other hand, itís not like our paper hats slipping down over our foreheads have blocked our view of a Christmas episodeís faults. And so we have to point them out, because thatís what a review is. The difference with Christmas is in how much weight you give them. As for us, weíre inclined to think Christmas episodes donít really count, so if they get things wrong, well, so what? And as a result, despite its faults we had a pretty good time watching The Doctor, The Widow And The Wardrobe.
It starts with some Battlestaresque shots of a spaceship breaking up. Which looks fabulous, but a crashing spaceship at Christmas again? Really? Then, at less than two minutes in, we were forced to pause for a lengthy discussion of exactly how long the Doctor would actually have survived in a vacuum and whether or not itís feasible that flapping your arms would really have made him move faster. In, as we said, a vacuum. And why we can hear him yelling and hear the ship breaking up. In. A. Vacuum. Oh well, itís Christmas. On we go.
And oh, look, itís set during World War Two. Couldnít be a Steven Moffat-penned episode, by any chance? Why, yes, it could! Delightfully sensible Madge finds the man who fell to Earth (not to mention who got dressed in a hurry. Lovely line). She drives him into the village, during which we had time to wonder why a space helmet would have ventilation holes, particularly at the back. We enjoyed the fakeout with the police box, though, especially Margeís derring-do with the hairpin.
Hey, itís Xander Armstrong playing the Dad! Always good value, although in this particular case we found his casting a little surprising given his brilliant turn as an RAF pilot in Armstrong And Miller. Every time he opened his mouth in that plane we were expecting him to start complaining about how he wasnít allowed to wear his well hardcore trousers with all pockets and shit, which kind of knocked the pathos out of the situation.
The kids make a wish on a wishbone, which is a nice way to pull the Doctor back into the picture, and the family evacuates to some ginormous house in the country. Itís a weird kind of evacuation, given that the whole family is going and the house is empty, but never mind, itís Christmas and we have to get the CS Lewis stuff started somehow. The Doctor lets them in (where was Mr Cardew, anyway? We canít help wondering if the Doctor has done away with him) and hey, is that statue under a cloth in the hall actually an Angel? We guess weíll never know.
Then follows several minutes that are plotless but delicious as the Doctor does what he does best. Christmas episoding at its finest. And finally, we get to Narnia.
We canít say that overall weíre big CS Lewis fans, misogynistic git that he is. We take a dim view of him chucking Susan out of Narnia because she liked lipstick and boys, given that weíre quite fond of lipstick and boys ourselves. Nevertheless, the winter wonderland behind the wardrobe is an irresistible concept, and fortunately Moffat uses the Narnia stuff as a springboard rather than following it slavishly.
Cyril crawls out into the snow, and wow, it looks gorgeous. No Mr Tumnus: instead, we have trees growing their own decorations, which is a fantastic idea, especially when they turn out to be eggs. Nice. And Lily and the Doctor follow. Thereís some lovely writing in here, particularly the stellar ďFairyland? Oh, grow up, Lily! Fairyland looks completely differentĒ, and Matt Smith as ever makes the most of it.
If thereís one criticism we have of the story so far, itís that it seems very wispy on plot. We know we often complain about plots being overstuffed, but this goes a little too far in the opposite direction. Something we also often complain about is Murray Goldís music, but not only is it brilliant in this episode, it actually steps in to save the plot. Turn off the musical soundtrack, and aside from Mattís splendid blathering this looks like a somewhat dull story about people in a house and a long trudge through the woods.
Madge, meanwhile, is having a trudge of her own, abruptly curtailed by some shock and awe merchants who turn out to be Bill Bailey, Arabella Weir and Paul Bazely. Itís enough to make you weep. Bill Bailey! Arabella Weir! And they barely appear at all! We thought Xander Armstrong was thrown away, but he has a starring role compared to these pointlessly tiny cameos. (What are they even supposed to be doing there? And how come they leave their platform thingy behind when they go?) They do a good job with what they have, which is a bunch of exposition larded with jokes, but itís sadly little. (Of course, their other task is to do some excellent subliminal advertising for us. Androzani! Three times! Thanks, Steve-o!)
The Doctor finds the amusingly shaped lighthouse, his exclamation of ďOh! Look at that!Ē fair crying out for the Second Doctorís response of ďYesÖ that is a big oneĒ. The wood things are nice, even if the shot of the wood king turning his head is an exact match for the treatment of the Stone Angels in earlier episodes. The trouble is, itís hard to get too involved: itís never clear enough whatís at stake, and other than some nebulous menace from the wood royalty that never comes to anything, thereís little danger to worry about either.
As for the whole tree harvesting thing, what a mess. ďThe question is: why does a forest need people?Ē Yes, good point, Doctor. The survival of the forest life forces depends on a human woman happening past? Foretelling or not: mad. And the whole Androzani/acid rain thing is so rushed past that it makes no impression other than Vague But Worthy Ecological Problem Of The Day.
Madge might seem mild-mannered, but guess what? Take away her children and yet again we have a mother whoís all rrowr. Not only is it enough for her to produce a gun (whereíd she get that from?) and effortlessly take three people prisoner, she magically intuits how the platform works to get to her children. Because sheís a mother. Sorry, a Mother. What is it with Steven Moffat and mothers, anyway? Paul Bazely sums it up: ďI have mother issues, sir. Itís all on file.Ē
And thatís not all. Sheís not just a superhero because she can get to her children. ďSheís female! More than female, sheís Mum!Ē There you go, ladies. Youíre marvellous because of your awe-inspiring Capacity To Bear Life. Wince. Not a little patronising? At all?
Blah blah blah happy ending after all, as Daddy totters from the smoking plane into the loving arms of his family. Um, what about the rest of them? Isnít there a seriously injured guy on board? And Christmas takes place just as it should, with them back at home with presents magically transported from the house they were evacuated from. What about the bombing? Oh well, never mind, itís Christmas.
After a stern telling-off from Madge, the Doctor goes to see the Ponds. And unfortunately, this scene immediately throws a spotlight on exactly whatís wrong with the rest of it. From the water pistol to the mutual first hug refusal, this is genuinely emotionally engaging, showing up in harsh relief how very much the rest of it isnít. The lack of plot; the cardboard characters, the missing element of danger and suspense: all in all, itís just not enough to grip you.
Itís by no means the worst Christmas episode weíve ever seen. Not by a long shot. The gorgeous snowscape and the plot-free but lovely Doctory stuff in the house do a lot to balance the other bits, and at least for the first time through itís an entertaining watch. Should we ask for more at Christmas? Probably not.
MORAL: Thereís no business like snow business.
ITíS A WRAP
So given that the Doctor has set up the gift for Christmas Day, how does Cyril end up going through the box on Christmas Eve? We think it must be the TARDIS seductively flashing the present. The box is clearly connected to the TARDIS, given all the wiring and wrenches in the Doctorís room, and Christmas Eve is actually the time they need to go there to save the trees. As she said in The Doctorís Wife, she takes him where he needs to go.
STRIKE A LIGHT
Aside from the Doctorís, where did the torches come from?
When the Doctor takes a luxurious sniff of the tree, a piece of the snow stays clinging to his nostril.
NOTHING SAYS I LOVE YOU LIKE A RESTRAINING ORDER
Madge first gets together with her husband when he follows her home through a wood - a lonely, empty wood - every day until she agrees to marry him. Yes, this is setup for the lovely line ďI didnít want to make a sceneĒ, but we canít believe itís presented as adorably romantic when in fact itís ew stalkery creepiness. And Moffat did the same thing before in Blink. Double ew.