jason stives reviews the annual Doctor Who Christmas special …
Well, back so soon I see! It seems like only yesterday we were just wrapping up coverage of Series 6 (two months to be precise) and now we rejoin for Doctor Who’s annual Christmas special, this year aptly titled “The Doctor, The Widow, And The Wardrobe.” The Christmas episodes of Doctor Who could really be waved off most of the time because they normally are stand-alone stories that don’t connect with the previous or forthcoming seasons. That being said, they are always a wonderful break from the throw of continuity and some of the dark tones that the show has recently showcased. This year’s episode had such a great amount of charm to it and showcased in buckets the two things that make Doctor Who such a well-rounded show: a great mix of clever science fiction and heart.
The story focuses mainly on the character of Madge Arwell (Claire Skinner) and her dilemma of making her two kids, Lily and Cyril, sad at Christmas time. This in part because the story takes place during World War II, and Madge has learned via telegram that her husband’s fighter plane was shot down. Faced with the trouble of telling her kids the grave news, the three set off on Christmas Eve to an old mansion where they meet the caretaker of this home, and by caretaker we mean The Doctor. While they are getting ready to enjoy Christmas and wait for their father to “arrive,” mischief is afoot in the form of a mysterious blue present which when opened sends the family and The Doctor into a snowy white world that isn’t all that happy to begin with.
I’ll save the plot description, barring that I assume that most people reading this have seen the episode, and if you haven’t, then I won’t spoil you. Regardless, “The Doctor, The Widow, And The Wardrobe” was an inventive twist on established fiction, in this case, borrowing very small plot points from The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe.
The most important aspect of this story is the Doctor himself, and Matt Smtih once again showcases why this role and Christmas specials are his forte. While David Tennant had five specials over his time on the show to showcase how charming he is in these scenarios, Smith in his two seasons has shown to work wonderfully with children and his childlike curiosity and excitement for the little things makes him far more accessible to younger cast members and viewers. The first 20 minutes of the episode were Smith’s time to show off his comedic side and his manic showcase of all the adjustments he has made to the house was a lot of fun from the kitchen with a faucet specifically for lemonade to the bedroom fit only for hammocks because they are just too much fun (“This hammock has a fault!”).
This episode was just as much about Madge Arwell as it was The Doctor, though. Claire Skinner plays the matriarch role very well here, and a lot of that helps from watching her in a more stress-filled role on the hit BBC comedy Outnumbered. Madge is emotionally in despair over having to break the news of her husband’s death to her children and acts cold and unhappy to them in order to break their cheerful spirits when the time comes. The Doctor quickly thwarts this, noting that it’s best for them to be happy now because they will be sad later. This turns Madge into a more protective mother, and her pursuit of her missing children and their strange caretaker shows a lot, and she plays the fragile but brave woman very well.
The Doctor also has a lot going for him emotionally as he clearly wants to do what’s right for this family as a favor, but he is trying to stay in the shadows as close as possible after convincing the universe he was dead. His interaction with Madge and her two kids teaches the importance of having someone in the most dire of times and that no one should ever be alone at Christmas time. This affords The Doctor a reason to go and visit the Ponds briefly at episode’s end and when they gladly invite him inside for Christmas dinner, The Doctor sheds a tear, showing the return of his overall happiness in life. Smith plays this beautifully and is so convincing when it comes to making people trust The Doctor in the most dangerous of scenarios.
If there were any gripes in the cast, it was in the use of British comedy greats Bill Bailey, Alexander Armstrong and Arabella Weir. Considering all the hype when their casting for this episode received, they were relegated to being just a bit of explanation to the plot, playing a trio of troops overseeing the acid rain destruction of a forest of basically Christmas trees. It’s a shame they weren’t utilized more but in hindsight considering the flow of the story what more could be added so what we got was amusing for the time they were on screen.
It’s always nice to talk about the visual elements of an episode of Doctor Who, and this time out we got a lot to work with. The opening pre-title sequence, which is a coattail off of the online prequel that debuted a few weeks back, made me wish I could see the adventure that occurred prior to this episode. The destruction of this hostile spaceship looked amazing and the shot of The Doctor running down the ship’s corridor with flames behind him was epic and heroically appropriate — regardless of being over the top. The alien world the group finds themselves on was also a beautiful collection of snow and starlight and looked great. This may be the first year that the Christmas special has felt overly Christmas. While previous specials have made sure to make you note that it was Christmas time in the episode, this story when out of its way to paint a wonderful landscape that would only feel right during a winter broadcast.
Considering we now have quite a wait until Series 7 begins, it was nice to have a refreshing standalone story that didn’t tie together any plot threads or start any new ones to drive us nuts with puzzlement for the next 10 months. “The Doctor, The Widow, And The Wardrobe” is up there with “The Next Doctor” as one of the best Who Christmas episodes, filled with a lot of care, precision and fun. It’s a nice gift to fans to hold them over until the autumn of next year.
Rating: 9 out of 10 (Outstanding)
All Photos Credit: BBC America