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

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

The Doctor, The Widow & The Wardrobe originally aired in 2011.

I don’t understand. Is this place real, or is it fairyland?

Fairyland? Oh, grow up, Lily.

Fairyland looks completely different.

– Lilly and the Doctor get their geography straightened out

The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe is, like A Christmas Carol before it, a rather wonderful idea. A Christmas Carol mashed up Doctor Who with one of the best-loved Christmas narratives of all time. The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe does something similar, substituting CS Lewis for Charles Dickens. It’s a fantastic idea, given that Doctor Who is the spiritual successor of that peculiarly British thread of childhood fantasy.

The only real problem with The Doctor, The Widow and The Wardrobe is that it can’t quite stretch that good idea across an hour of television.

On the run again...

On the run again…

Russell T. Davies used to over-stuff his Christmas Specials. He’d pack them to the brim with plot twists and shocking reveals and large action sequences. There was a sense that he was trying his hardest to keep the groggy family members awake by maintaining a relentless pace – making sure that his scripts never stopped long enough for the audience to catch their breath. It was an approach that didn’t always lead to the most satisfying television, but it did provide a solid hour of Christmas entertainment.

Moffat’s first Christmas Special was nowhere near as busy as Davies’ scripts, but it still moved incredibly fast. There were giant flying sharks and multiple timelines and history re-writing itself and a giant ship plummeting towards the surface of some distant planet. In contrast, The Doctor, The Widow and The Wardrobe is a much more low-key affair. It’s almost intimate. The episode’s big action set piece comes before the opening credits, with the Doctor blowing up an alien ship while sky-diving towards Earth and trying to get his space suit on in time.

He's on top of the situation...

He’s on top of the situation…

The rest of the episode is fairly basic. Following up on an act of kindness by a strange who found him in a crater, with his helmet on backwards, the Doctor decides to look out for a family during the Second World War. He keeps his word by trying to offer the children the best Christmas ever, while their mother deals with the fact that their father has been reported missing and presumed dead. It’s a rather more personal story than we’re used to, but it’s the plot that holds the episode together.

As an aside, it’s interesting how Moffat seems to be drawn to the blitz as a quintessential British experience. His first script for the revived Doctor Who was set during the blitz and featured a wonderful speech about British resilience. The first Dalek episode of the Moffat era, Victory of the Daleks, was set during the Second World War. Winston Churchill would become a recurring guest star during Moffat’s tenure as executive producer.

Thinking outside the box...

Thinking outside the box…

So the decision to set The Doctor, The Widow and The Wardrobe during the Second World War feels appropriate – and not just as part of a gigantic homage to CS Lewis. Moffat’s Christmas Specials tend to draw on more basic and nostalgic archetypes than the Christmas Specials produced by his predecessor. Moffat seems to see Christmas as an excuse to celebrate nostalgia, and so playing on the premise of a beloved children’s classic against the backdrop of the Second World War is the perfect fit.

Unfortunately, “the Doctor looks out for a family” doesn’t really make an exciting Christmas Special, so Moffat winds up slotting in a fairly generic whimsical adventure into the middle of the episode. This gives The Doctor, The Widow and The Wardrobe a rather strange structure, something the Doctor concedes towards the end of the episode. “Got a bit glitchy in the middle there, but it sort of worked out in the end,” he concedes. “Story of my life.”

It doesn't do wood...

It doesn’t do wood…

The centre of the story is quite distractingly straight-forward. As befitting an homage to CS Lewis, the greed of one little boy has catastrophic consequences. If The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe is the story of how one little boy’s hunger for Turkish Delight almost dooms an entire kingdom, The Doctor, The Widow and The Wardrobe is the story of how one little boy’s eagerness to open his Christmas presents almost has disastrous consequences.

Despite that wonderful hook, it mostly consists of Cyril following a wooden figure through a snowy landscape; the Doctor and Lilly following Cyril through a snowy landscape; and Madge following Lilly and Cyril through a snowy landscape. It all leads a suitably over-complicated conclusion that allows Moffat to touch on the themes of gender that he has running through his Doctor Who. The problem is that none of this is really that engaging on its own. It lacks any real drive or engagement, and it distracts from the wonderful affective framing sequence, which sees the Doctor trying to return a favour in a mundane and heart-warming manner.

It doesn't do wood...

It doesn’t do wood…

Here, there’s a sense that Moffat’s writing owes a considerable debt to the work of Paul Cornell. Cornell was one of the guiding lights of Doctor Who during the wilderness years, and his work was massively influential on the relaunch. Cornell is also a close friend of Moffat, and his character-driven approach to Doctor Who lends itself to stories about Christmas. In fact, Cornell even wrote a shore Doctor Who Christmas story for the Telegraph, The Hopes and Fears of All the Years.

The Hopes and Fears of All the Years is a rather marvellous short story, and it has some brilliant ideas. It even ends with a suitably “timey wimey” explanation for everything that has unfolded, in case you needed proof that the styles of Cornell and Moffat complement one another. It’s worth noting here that Cornell’s Father’s Day was, after all, the first “timey wimey” episode of the Davies era, years before Moffat coined the term.

Opening a door to adventure...

Opening a door to adventure…

The Hopes and Fears of All the Years is basically the story of the Doctor checking in with one family over the space of countless Christmases. It’s a more intimate and low-key story that you’d ever see at the centre of the BBC One Christmas line-up, but it’s also a story that has a clear influence on A Christmas Carol and The Doctor, The Widow and The Wardrobe. A Christmas Carol had the same “every Christmas!” hook, with the Doctor popping in to visit Kazran annually, and so getting into the spirit of the season in that way. The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe is about the Doctor’s interactions with a normal family around the holiday.

The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe would be a much stronger episode if it wasn’t burdened with being a big blockbuster episode of Doctor Who – if there weren’t certain expectations that came with a prime time slot on one of the most high-profile nights of the year. Had The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe been produced as a twenty-minute short film complementing the Christmas Special, broadcast on Christmas Eve or St. Stephen’s Day or released on the DVD, it would be a classic instalment of the series. As it stands, it’s an ambitious and highly flawed piece of Doctor Who.

Hardly a crowning accomplishment...

Hardly a crowning accomplishment…

It does perfectly capture the fairytale aesthetic of Moffat’s Doctor Who. When Madge asks how she might be able to contact the Doctor, he replies, “I don’t know. Make a wish. That usually works.” The show celebrates a universe of infinite possibilities, including a planet that grows Christmas trees. “It’s a big universe. Everything happens somewhere. Call it a coincidence. Call it an idea echoing among the stars. Personally, I call it a brilliant idea for a Christmas trip.”

As with A Christmas Carol, there’s a healthy dose of meta-fiction going on here. Like its predecessor, The Doctor, The Widow and The Wardrobe is very much a story about the magic of Doctor Who, and how important that optimism and magic can be. Studying the living room, he declares, “Just chairs. Bit pointless without a television, so I made some repairs.” Even if there isn’t a television, the story itself is about an adventure that a family has “in a forest, in a box, in a sitting room.”

Throne for a loop...

Throne for a loop…

The notion of the Doctor arriving to help a struggling family make it through some tough times is heart-warming, particularly the Doctor’s meditation on how hard it is to watch somebody being happy when you know they must eventually be sad. “Because what’s the point in them being happy now if they’re going to be sad later?” he asks. “The answer is, of course, because they are going to be sad later.” A family coming to terms with the loss of their father is a situation that the Doctor can’t magically fix, but he can bring some small measure of comfort and joy to them.

That’s sad, but it’s also heart-warming. There is, after all, a limit to what a fictional character can do to improve the lives of real kids. The best he can do is offer them magic adventures through a box in their living room that is bigger on the inside. That might sound like a lot, but he can’t make the real problems go away. He does what he can, and that is worth celebrating and commending. Indeed, the biggest problem with the framing story is that it ends with the rescue of Reg Arwell.

Present and accounted for...

Present and accounted for…

Of course, this is the Christmas Special. There can’t be too much in the way of lasting tragedy. Even when Davies killed off Astrid in Voyage of the Damned, he had to try to cushion the blow. That wasn’t really a problem, because Astrid’s death was not the entire point of the episode. It was an addendum to the adventure. The Doctor failed pretty spectacularly, with most of the guest cast dying off over the course of the episode, so the death of Kylie Minogue’s character was not a cornerstone of the episode. Indeed, providing a cop out on the death of Astrid allowed the other deaths in the episode to stand.

Here, the death of Reg Arwell is the entire point of the episode. The part of The Doctor, The Widow and The Wardrobe that works is the part about the Doctor trying to help a family dealing with a massive loss. Reversing that massive loss in order to provide the episode with a happy ending undercuts a lot of the stronger themes of the hour. Apparently the point in people being happy now is because they’ll continue to be happy later. Which is great, but not really a solid foundation for an hour-long Christmas Special. It’s the most manipulative form of sentimentality, and it’s the most frustrating aspect of The Doctor, The Widow and The Wardrobe.

Looking forward to the next one...

Looking forward to the next one…

That said, there are some other potentially problematic aspects of The Doctor, The Widow and The Wardrobe. The classification of women as “strong” and men as “weak” is a bit of an interesting choice. It feels like an awkward piece of gender essentialism, suggesting that a character’s capacity to hold the spirit of the forest is based on their capacity to carry children. That is especially fascinating given that you’d imagine a tree’s concept of gender would be radically different from our own. After all, most trees are hermaphroditic growing perfect flowers with both a female pistil and male stamens.

It’s very hard to mount a defence of this creative decision against allegations of sexism, particularly when Madge’s conversion immediately follows what amounts to a “women drivers” joke. Moffat’s writing is generally a lot more nuanced than his detractors give him credit for, and he has really advanced the role of the companion in Doctor Who. It’s clear that he’s trying to argue that Madge is fantastic because she is a mother – and thus has an incredible amount of strength and resilience – but it’s doesn’t work at all. It feels ill-judged and ill-considered, which is a shame.

Walking the walker...

Walking the walker…

It casts a bit of a shadow of The Doctor, The Widow and The Wardrobe, which is  disappointing given the basic strength of the premise and the potential of the idea. It’s nice to reinforce the idea that the Doctor should never be made responsible for children, and to stress that a parent’s love is one of the most incredibly powerful forces in the universe. However, it feels strange to place a mother’s love as the purest and strongest love in the cosmos.

Still, The Doctor, The Widow and The Wardrobe does play out something of a Christmas theme for the Moffat era. The Doctor tends to spend his Christmases alone. To be fair, this is largely a production issue – the companions in the Davies era didn’t tend to stick around for the Christmas Specials, so the Doctor was frequently wandering on his own. Moffat turns that into something of a plot point. It’s worth noting that the actors playing the companions turn up in each and every one of his Christmas Specials, even if the role of the actual continuing companion is somewhat marginalised.

If you go down to the woods today...

If you go down to the woods today…

So we get a sense that even the Doctor shouldn’t be alone on Christmas Day, which feels appropriate given that the Eleventh Doctor’s regeneration occurs at Christmas. The Doctor’s isolation is portrayed as something of a tragic personal flaw by Moffat, rather than the fear generated by an untethered Doctor during the Davies era. Moffat’s Doctor isn’t going to be driven mad with power any time soon, but he does run the risk of becoming too isolated and withdrawn. “I don’t have a home to think of,” he candidly tells Madge. “And between you and me, I’m older than I look and I can’t feel the way you do. Not any more.”

The Doctor, The Widow and The Wardrobe is a great idea that is botched somewhat in the execution. Part of that is due to the demands of the Doctor Who Christmas Special, and part of this is down to poor choices made by Moffat. Either way, it’s a bit of a waste.

You might be interested in our other reviews of the seventh season of the revived Doctor Who:

4 Responses

  1. I recommend Diamanda Hagan’s video review of this very strongly and I also find it mildly amusing that a lesbian was the only person I can find on the Internet who just came out and said this about the mother-ship reveal in the end:
    “This is clearly very insulting to men.”

    • Well, to be fair, I had the same sort of problem. Although it’s just as insulting to women, suggesting that women have stronger strength of character – which one would imagine would vary from person-to-person – because of their capacity to be mothers. What about fathers or women who don’t want to be mothers?

      • It’s easy to see why you didn’t post my second comment. The comparison I made was offensive, though well-intentioned. I do think that it is equally offensive and patronizing to women. Diamanda went on to discuss that in depth in the wonderful review, and coming from a male writer accused of sexism in the past it is just an embarrassingly sexist attempt to “appreciate the ladies” that is just eye-rolling so-called chivalry that actually enforces bad gender ideas and belongs in the stone age.

      • Hi! I don’t seem to recall ever unapproving one of your comments? Is it possible it could have been marked as spam or an attack or something and re-routed out of the manual accept/reject flow?

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