Doctor Who 2011 Christmas Special review: The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe

Posted: 13 January 2012 in television
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Listen Cyril, tell him that I’ve borrowed Mr Goldsmith’s car. That I’ve found a spaceman in a field – possibly an angel – but he’s injured and I can’t get his helmet off, so I’m having to take him into town to find a police telephone box. Alright?

Doctor Who - The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe

After a series replete with flashbacks, foreshadowing and much “wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey” (©The Grand Moff) jumping around of the narrative, it came as something of a surprise to have the production show runner pen such a linear tale as The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe. Often it felt more like a Russell T Davies script than a Steven Moffat one and that is in no way praising the writing. The sequence with Reg’s Lancaster following the light from the “lifeboat”, and the children refusing to escape because their mummy always comes to find them, came close to being as nauseatingly saccharine and sickening as any OTT emotional moment in an RTD script.

Moffat and RTD have both often stated the importance of putting the festive setting of a Christmas Special front and centre. To quote Slade “It’s Christmas Time!!!”. Yet the stories premiered on Christmas Day have never been the best that the series has produced in the 21st century. Elements such as killer Christmas trees, robot assassins disguised as Santa Claus, and oodles of falling snow remain in the memory long after the tales themselves have been forgotten. Possibly the best Doctor Who Christmas Special is the one story that was never developed, produced, or labelled as such. Charles Dickens, themes of sacrifice and redemption, and ghosts in a snow-covered city on Christmas Eve, The Unquiet Dead is by far the premier tale for the festive season. In 2010 The Grand Moff drew upon Dickens’ A Christmas Carol for the narrative (and title) of his first Christmas Special and for his follow-up in 2011 he appropriated elements from another literary classic for inspiration: CS LewisThe Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the second part of the highly popular The Chronicles of Narnia.

Aspects of Narnia saga have been cited as inspiration for Doctor Who, none more so than the gateway to Narnia: “the wardrobe” – an incongruous everyday object that concealed the entrance to an infinite world of thrills, mystery and strange beings. If the TARDIS were not a police box then surely it would be a wardrobe of some sort. As Lewis died on 22 November 1963, the day before Doctor Who was first transmitted, he never saw the TARDIS, but if he had lived to see the mysterious nature of the Doctor’s timeship, how likely would he have been to recognise his ideas in flickering black and white?

Usually called the Doctor. Or the Caretaker. Or “Get off this planet”. Though strictly speaking that probably isn’t a name.

In 2010 Sir Terry Pratchett was taken to task by numerous fans for daring to suggest that the science in Doctor Who is “pixel thin”. An alien with two hearts travels through time and space in a wooden Metropolitan Police telephone box. Well of course the science is nonsensical. Producing a book about the science in Doctor Who would be idiotic. Science fantasy has always been a better way to label the series, especially since Steven Moffat took the reins. Is there anyone out there that can apply a scientific explanation to how the Doctor is summoned from across time and space by the Arwell family by the snapping of a wish bone next to a telescope?

Quite often the Doctor’s curiosity and intentions for the best land him in trouble on numerous occasions, and his desire to repay the kindness of Madge Arwell was the catalyst of the majority of events in The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe. When set against characters who have never encountered him before Matt Smith’s Doctor comes across as a manic child with no adults to contain him. In this narrative that approach to the Time Lord was grating at times.

The stars are going inside her. She’s taking the whole forest.

Doctor Who - The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe 2With “nu-Who” (as it’s been dubbed in unimaginative quarters) one aspect that can never be faulted is the production design. Granted the budget is far more than was available in the days of old but it clearly helps to have designers in tune with the visions of the writer and the director. In the 80s a designer could work on light entertainment one week and Doctor Who the next. Particularly impressive this time around were the “lighthouse” and the Wooden King and Queen, which were strongly reminiscent of the illustrations John Howe has produced over the years in association with the Middle Earth tales of JRR Tolkien. Curiously enough in the 1930s and 1940s CS Lewis was a member of the literary discussion group Inkings that was associated with the University of Oxford. One of the other regular members was Tolkien.

The ineffectiveness of the sonic screwdriver against wood has been a running joke from the pen of Steven Moffat. Doubtless this gave rise to this story, though the concept of wooden aliens first appeared in the second Christopher Eccleston story The End of the World and that adventure is explicitly referenced. Once again the wood-based aliens are the goodies not the baddies with the “monsters” being humanity with their urge to sacrifice nature for the sake of commerce.

Please say we can tell the difference between wool and sidearms.

Guest star Arabella Weir seemed destined to appear in Doctor Who given that David Tennant is one of her closest friends, was her lodger for several years and is godfather to her children. It’s a shame that the role she took on wasn’t more memorable. The intention by teaming her up with Bill Bailey appeared to have been the creation of a Robert Holmes-style comedy act. However, it failed. Whilst Bailey in particular was note perfect dead pan with the delivery of his lines, the three Harvest Rangers were simply not given even screen time to make a proper impact. In some ways they were a comedy version of the mercenaries seen in The Caves of Androzani – apt given that they came from Androzani Major, one of the planets seen in Peter Davison’s memorable finale. This methodology works the best with references to the classic series in that it provides a lovely moment for the longtime fans and detracts nothing from the narrative for those who have only watched the 21st century version of the series.

River told us.

The Doctor’s own family were likely lost during the events of the Last Great Time War, possibly sacrificed when the Time Lords and Daleks were destroyed. Only one genuine member of the Doctor’s family has ever been seen on screen, his granddaughter Susan and in The Tomb of the Cybermen Patrick Troughton’s 2nd Doctor implied that his own family was long dead or lost in some manner.

Through his companions the Doctor created himself pseudo-families, probably without the realisation that he had even done so. Though the Time Lord has constantly professed to being happiest in his own company it’s always been clear that he needs company on his travels through time and space – often to tell him how brilliant he is, occasionally to keep him in check, but mostly to experience the wonders that he can only now experience as simply science. As good as he is at lying solo, Matt Smith’s Doctor goes to new levels when he’s in the company of Amy and Rory.

The coda of The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe demonstrated how much these three characters have come to mean to each other when the Doctor learnt that a place is always set for him at the Christmas dinner table. However, all that will end later in 2012…

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