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Doctor Who: The Doctor, The Widow & The Wardrobe (Review)

Where are we?

In a forest. In a box. In the sitting room. Try to keep up.

– Lily and the Doctor sum things up

I could get used to this “coopting a holiday classic” thing that Steven Moffat has going. After all, last year riffed on A Christmas Carol (right down to the name), and this one leans pretty heavily on The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe. I imagine a Doctor Who episode themed around It’s a Wonderful Life can’t be too far away. Still, strangely enough, the episode worked best as an illustration of the show’s wonderful heart and its charming understanding of childhood psychology – even if the actual science-fiction plot was a little disappointing and the ending felt like a bit of a copout. Certainly not quite as good as last year’s entry into the Doctor Who Christmas canon, but not a waste of time either.

It left me a bit cold...

Those who enjoy exploring gender roles on Doctor Who are going to have a bit of field day. In fact, gender roles are frequently an area of Moffat’s writing that tend to draw criticism from commentators. I can’t imagine The Doctor, The Widow & The Wardrobe doing much to quell their concerns. Aside from the whole “strong” and “weak” thing – with an alien technology that apparently works based on human gender being a problematic plot point, let alone a minefield for anybody writing about gender in the show – it felt strange that the episode reverted to the remarkably old-fashioned plot points of (a.) the insinuation that women are more empathic towards other women than men can be, and (b.) women are bad drivers.

Even the Doctor gets in on the “bad drivers” joke, as a massive walker struggles across a forest, before eventually collapsing. When Lily asks him if he recognises the technology, he replies, “More to the point, I think I recognise the driving.” It doesn’t matter that this is ridiculously futuristic technology that no modern human (let alone one from the Second World War) might have any sort of frame of reference for, it felt strange for the show to fall back on cheap jokes. But I digress. There will undoubtedly be commentators who will delve into the issue with more depth and sophistication than I can offer, but it really struck me while watching the episode.

Present and accounted for...

Anyway, I have to admit, I actually loved the first half of the episode. I think a lot of Moffat’s more recent writing can be more intellectually stimulating than it is emotionally affecting. I think that we got so caught up in the temporal gymnastics related to River Song, for example, that we never really felt the sense that a family unit had been shattered in the middle of this. Here, at the start of the episode, we feel for the Arwell family, a family unit divided by the Second World War. Madge’s dilemma about whether or not to inform her children about the status of their father makes for compelling television, as does the Doctor’s implicit understanding.

“What’s the point in them being happy now, if they’re going to be sad later?” he asks, expressing Madge’s internal train of thought, as she tries to make sure they can enjoy one last Christmas without losing their father. The Doctor, in fairness to him, comes back with the best response possible under the circumstances. “The answer, of course, is because they’re going to be sad later.” I like Moffat’s Doctor, imagined as an imaginary childhood friend rather than “the lonely god.”The Doctor, after all, is a coping method, a means of escape – a means of externalising all the fears children have of the world, putting them in cheap rubber suits where they might be vanquished, if only temporarily.

Trees of life...

Those early sequences are touching, because the Doctor is exactly the figure of fun that the kids need him to be. Matt Smith has exceptional chemistry with younger actors, and that really works here. The guided tour of the house is a beautiful little scene, as the Doctor introduces concepts like hammocks and taps filled with lemonades, and gigantic Christmas presents. All of this is underscored by the fact that the children are going to have to cope with something very grown-up later on, making “the Caretaker’s” concern and sympathy all the more endearing.

In that way, the ending of the episode does feel like a massive cop-out. I know it’s Christmas, and this is a family Christmas show, but I think the episode would have worked much better without the fairly large deus ex machina ending that manages to conveniently sidestep all the emotional issues flagged in the first fifteen minutes of the show. As I said, I suspected that something like this would happen, but it removes the faint taste of bitterness that serves to enhance the sweetness of the episode.

A screw loose?

I also think Moffat’s characterisation of his lead continues to be top-notch. he basically writes the character as an overgrown child. There’s the same wonderful sense of irresponsibility, as the whole situation is quite clealry the Doctor’s fault – despite the fact he’s actually trying to be responsible for the kids in his care. Indeed, Cyril seems to have a rather similar curious outlook on life as the Doctor, even uttering the very Doctor-esque line “I like the bombs – they’re exciting.”

Much like a child, the Doctor is drawn to danger, which is grand because he can handle it – but something that makes him singularly unsuited to being a guardian. Indeed, while Moffat recognises the character is the mbodiment of childish imagination, I do like that the write has deconstructed the character to an extent, making it clear that the Doctor (if he ever really existed) would be the kind of person you’d keep away from kids. Look at how his relationship with Amy turned out.

Snow idea where he went...

There are other nice touched. I like the idea of the Doctor “keeping an eye” on a character who essentially did hima  good turn years earlier and returning the favour. It fits with the idea that the Doctor is a figure of fantasy who tends to return to people when they need him most – just as he returned to adult Amy on the eve of her wedding, as a way of working out her own internal issues. I didn’t mind the cameo from the Ponds at the end of the episode, a nice touch which seemed to suggest all the Timelord’s “Time War” angst was behind him. He lost his home, but he has a new one.

I’ll confess to being a bit disappointed with the section of the story that took place off-world. It wasn’t that it was bad, it was just that it was serviceable. As with a lot of Moffat’s stuff, the ideas were great. I love the fact that the show gleefully embraces all manner of Yuletide ideas and incorporates them – the trees, the lights, the “decorations” – however, the resolution all felt a bit generic. After all, how many times has an alien civilisation required a human consciousness to guide it or steer it. It just felt a tad generic, which is a shame.

Through the eyes of a child...

Of course, last year was a retread of A Christmas Carol, but I think the execution was a lot stronger. The ending there wasn’t a massive “happily ever after” cop out, and it say the guest star accept the fact that somebody he loves would die, rather than being saved through a miracle. I also think that Michael Gambon was a much stronger guest star than any of the cast here, but I suspect he probably had more to work with. I think the episode criminally underused its two strongest assets – Claire Skinner and Bill Bailey, both of whom felt rather short-changed.

The Doctor, The Widow & The Wardrobe was grand. However, it feels like a bit of a disappointment, given that this is going to be a very dry year for the show, and the high standard set by last year’s special.

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2 Responses

  1. I liked your review but I just wanted to clarify one point. I think you misheard one of The Doctor’s lines, If you go back and watch that segment again, I believe you’ll find The Doctor said that he recognized the driver, not the driving. On the other hand, it’s equally possible that I may not have heard him correctly so I don’t want too come off too strongly or heavy-handed in my comments.

  2. Matt Smith’s gift for both verbal and physical comedy suits Moffat’s style well. So much of the opening 15 minutes works brilliantly with him, in a way it would not have done with Tennant’s and Eccleston’s Doctors. For me the middle 20 minutes was awfully slow but I can forgive the saccharine ending – it is Christmas, after all – particularly with the emotion that drips from the coda with Amy and Rory. We now know it will all end soon for the three of them, but this final scene was genuinely moving.

    http://slouchingtowardsthatcham.com/2011/12/26/doctor-who-christmas-special-the-doctor-the-widow-and-the-wardrobe-review/

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