The word “special” is used too often anymore for things that don’t deserve it, much like the word “epic,” for that matter, but that’s for a different article. A lot of times when television shows have Christmas specials, they really don’t earn the word. Mostly they’re just episodes that take place at Christmas. Even the first few Doctor Who Christmas specials, going all the way back to 2005, were just regular adventures that just happened to land on the holiday, so there were the trappings of Christmas, but that’s really as far as it goes. Last year’s special, A Christmas Carol, was touted as the most Christmassy Christmas special of them all, turning Dickens’ classic story into a fun, touching science fiction adventure. This year’s special, The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe, trumps even that. Focusing exclusively on the power of family, togetherness, and love, this episode might be the most Christmassy of all. Moffat’s just a big ol’ softy, ain’t he?
Now, officially, the title foregoes the Oxford Comma, but I just can’t do it. I’m sorry. From the title, we know the episode gets its inspiration from the C.S. Lewis novel, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I have never read any of the Narnia books nor seen any of the films, so if there are some obvious references I don’t mention, please don’t hold it against me. I see the correlation between the TARDIS (and the present) to the wardrobe, given that the Doctor calls it that, and I’m told there are tree people as well. Is that right? Other than that, I saw nothing that seemed very Narnian. I didn’t feel my lack of knowledge of the material lessened my enjoyment any, so that’s really the best kind of reference; too subtle for people who don’t know to know they’re missing.
There’s a lot to like about this special. I love how it began with the Doctor yet again saving Earth from an enormous extraterrestrial threat, only this time it’s the late 1930s and everyone on the planet is none the wiser. When he crashes after having put an impact suit on backward (in the UK again, what are the odds), he meets Madge Arwell (Claire Skinner) who seems completely nonplussed by the fact that a spaceman (or angel) happened to fall from the sky. I quite liked Madge. She was a bit dotty but overall she was a fantastically grounded and believable character. Three years after she helps the Doctor, we find her having just received the news that her husband, a WWII pilot, has crashed and died. She doesn’t want to tell her children, Lily (Holly Earl) and Cyril (Maurice Cole) on Christmas for fear of ruining the holiday for them forever. She then makes a wish, one that the Doctor hears. I like the idea that this Doctor can somehow respond to people’s hopes, fears, and wishes. It happened during Night Terrors with the weird alien kid as well. It’s not fun all the time, but once in a while, I like that the Doctor can tell when he’s needed.
Trying to escape the bombing, Madge takes her children to a big old house in Dorset where a weird man who calls himself “The Caretaker” has made the house a veritable wonderland for the Arwell kids. Since the Doctor is basically a giant kid himself, he knows better than anyone what kids would find fun. I particularly enjoyed the lemonade tap and the clockwork Christmas tree (I know). He also gives them a special package which no child could resist. Madge isn’t too pleased with the Caretaker, but it’s perfectly understandable why.
In the night, the children leave their hammocks; Lily finds the Caretaker up in the attic with his “wardrobe” and Cyril tricks them, using the old bear and duvet, and opens the large blue package and enters a snow-covered forest. What look like ornaments begin to form on the tree and Cyril takes one down. It begins to grow and hatches, and whatever’s inside grows further. Lily and the Caretaker chase after him, 20 minutes behind, and later Madge goes after them as well. Cyril tracks the tree thing to a large tower wherein he finds the king of the Treeple sitting in a throne and at the top, he finds the Treeple queen holding a metal crown, which she attempts to put on the boy. Lily and the Caretaker enter and see the trees are forming stars, which Lily finds so beautiful she begins to cry. Apparently, only humans cry when they’re happy. They then try to enter the top room to aid Cyril, but, wouldn’t ya know it, the sonic screwdriver still can’t do wood.
Elsewhere, Madge runs into three guys from Halo, led by Bill Bailey. They ask what she’s doing in the forest and she begins to cry. He tells her they’re from Androzani Major (best classic series reference ever) and that the forest will soon be subjected to acid rain to melt the trees down into a powerful energy source. Unfortunately, this whole thing will happen in five minutes so, once the video game guys get teleported away, it’s up to Madge to pilot the weird, three-legged machine to the tower to retrieve her children. In the tower, the Treeple tell the Caretaker that they’re looking for someone to hold their energy to transport them away from the acid rain. Cyril won’t do, and neither will the Caretaker. They’re too weak. Lily is strong but too young, apparently. Once Madge enters, it becomes clear that she’s perfect cuz she’s a woman… and a mother…. She puts on the crown and absorbs the entire forest and then the top of the tower takes off like a spaceship and ends up in the time vortex.
In the vortex, the Caretaker tells Madge that she must think of home in order to go home and they are all shown the memories of Madge and Mr. Atwell meeting and falling in love and stuff. Then she sees the night he died and her children are finally cued in on what has really happened to their father. Suddenly they land outside the Dorset house and the children demand to know the truth. The Caretaker comes out, but comes right back in with good news. Seems flying through the time vortex gave Mr. Atwell and his plane enough of a light to follow to safety. Again, people cry when they’re happy, and the Caretaker says “humany wumany” which is the kind of line I’m pretty damn tired of. Still, it was a nice moment. Madge goes up to the attic to find the Doctor ready to leave again in the TARDIS. She then twigs that he was the silly spaceman from three years earlier. Through their conversation, she convinces him that it’s not right for his friends to think he’s dead and he oughtn’t to spend Christmas alone. So lo and behold, the Doctor goes to the Ponds’ house.
As I said earlier, there was a lot to like about this episode. First and foremost is Matt Smith as the Doctor/Caretaker. You’d think I’d get tired of singing his praises, and yet I never do. He’s perfect in the role, plain and simple. Claire Skinner was likewise pretty wonderful as Madge. She came at the craziness of the situation from such a refreshingly naïve angle that I couldn’t help but chuckle, especially at her line about knowing what it’s like to be a forest. The kids were also pretty good. Bill Bailey, Paul Bazely, and Arabella Weir as the Androzani people, while not in it very much, were pretty hysterical in their function of being a plot point. The story itself was pretty imaginative, and I liked the design of the Treeple. In all the other Doctor Who Christmas specials, the Doctor has had to save a whole planet from an enormous threat, and even last year saw him having to save Amy, Rory, and a whole ship full of people. This year, however, was really just about the Doctor trying to make one family happy. I really liked the un-epic nature of the story while still maintaining a very fantastical and magical atmosphere.
If I have any complaints, weirdly and surprisingly, it’s with the plot. It was very contrived and designed to do nothing else but tug on the heartstrings. That type of stuff doesn’t really work on me. I also think it’s funny how Moffat’s attempt at being wholly unsexist results in a pretty darn sexist story. Men are stupid and useless and weak, don’t you know. It puts all the characters into very specific gender roles which it really didn’t need to. There could have been a better way to have Madge be the one to shepherd the Treeple’s consciousnesses away. I’m also slightly tiring of the “Everybody Lives, Rose” style of storytelling. Happy endings are fine, but not at the expense of narrative flow. This one was explained better than some, but it still was a bit of a cop out. Not that I wanted a scene of children crying about their dead father, but there’s lots of kids whose parents weren’t saved by time vortexes who’ll be watching the episode. Also, do you think it’s a responsible move for the Doctor, who faked his death to go into hiding, to visit his last known companions on the most conspicuous day of the year?
Despite these nitpicks, though, this episode succeeded in being a truly Christmassy and special Christmas special. Even the bits I didn’t really like only stuck with me for a moment. The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe is an episode, like A Christmas Carol before it, that can truly be enjoyed by the whole family. It’s both timey and wimey without giving anyone a headache and, like a glass of eggnog and a Santa-shaped cookie, it can be imbibed, digested, and leaves you with a pleasant feeling in your belly.
The only sad part is that now we have to wait until next August for another new episode. Egads.
-Kanderson’s always pulling the old bear and duvet. Follow him on TWITTER