Each year, Doctor Who fans receive a very special gift underneath their proverbial television viewing tree – and this year is no exception! For the second time since taking the series over from Russell T. Davies, Moffat presents us with his interpretation of what a Doctor Who Christmas special should be.
While Davies gave us fantastical adventures like “Voyage of the Damned”, “The Next Doctor”, and David Tennant’s two-part sendoff “The End of Time,” Moffat made the decision when taking over the series, to transition these seasonal television events into programming that celebrates the surrounding holiday fare – which is contrary to Davies’ proclivity towards attempting grand-scale storytelling, of which their success often varied from year to year.
Set in World War II, the Doctor Who Christmas special follows newly widowed Madge Arwell (Claire Skinner) and her two children, Lilly (Holly Earl) and Cyril (Maurice Cole), as they flee from their homes to a South West England, in an attempt to distance themselves from the threats of bombings. Arriving on near Christmas, Madge is still reeling from the news of her husband Reg’s (Alexander Armstrong) death – and, more importantly, trying to figure out how to break the news of his passing to her children.
Deciding to wait until after Christmas is over to tell them, the Arwell family are greeted at their holiday refuge by an eerily familiar time-traveler serving as the caretaker. The Doctor (Matt Smith), knowing of Reg’s passing, has decided that he’s going to make this the best Christmas ever for Lilly and Cyril. With a big blue package sitting under the tree, all there is to do now is to wait for it to be opened on Christmas Day. Unfortunately, things don’t go quite as planned.
Unable to wait until to open the present, Cyril bypasses The Doctor’s defenses with the infamous “bear underneath the covers” technique and unwraps what turns out to be a magical gift. As the cardboard box opens, it reveals a portal to another planet.
This planet, which The Doctor describes as something that logically has to occur based on the sheer number of plants in the universe, is a pseudo-Christmas tree planet – except here the trees are alive, the bulbs are naturally occurring, and the “shining stars” are actually life forces.
Being too intrigued to turn back, Cyril enters the portal and begins to traverse the wintery landscape, in an attempt to follow this unknown being that grew out of a fallen bulb. As The Doctor and Lily, as well as Madge (though separate), enter the portal, it quickly becomes apparent that something isn’t right with this planet.
As the mystery behind what’s happening to the planet is revealed, the episode stages itself within a circular room at the top of a tower made from trees, from which the majority of the storytelling takes place. By giving so much time to a setting with such limited space, it provides the perfect stage for Skinner, Cole, Ear, and of course, Smith to shine, like the life forces themselves.
With a flurry of conversations and short, but meaningful, monologues in this single room, viewers are taken on journey an intriguing journey with the life forces, a heartbreaking journey with Madge and her children, and a somewhat sad journey as The Doctor acknowledges his inability to feel emotions the way other do.
Through Moffat’s use of his infamous time travel logic – which, admittedly, does feel a bit heavy handed in its convenience (but, hey, it is Christmas) – the story wraps itself up nicely – and there’s even a little extra special present in there for Madge, Lilly and Cyril. While it’s true that the resolutions to problems presented aren’t as exciting as what came before, one has to admit that the minor negatives hardly outweigh its many positives.
That being said, there appeared to be a certain self-awareness with this special, in which it felt as if Moffat knew that there were a few minor imperfections with this special and attempted to correct it awkwardly. As Madge was attempting to fly the bulb room through the time vortex, while thinking about home and having all of the life forms in her head (imagine someone who isn’t familiar with Doctor Who reading that), she unfortunately revealed the death of her husband (as well as somewhat showing it) to her children.
While this moment should have been emotionally heavy, it wasn’t. And even though the reveal about their father’s death to Lilly and Cyril had pretty much already occurred, there was an additional scene after all the timey-whimey stuff had concluded where Madge basically repeated what she had previously said – even though the children were asking for confirmation of their father’s death the first time it was revealed.
That being said, the supplemental scene ultimately did pay off where the previous one did not. Perhaps it was the calmness of not having so many other things happening concurrently.
As the episode comes to a close, The Doctor is encouraged (the only way a mother can) to go and visit Amy (Karen Gillan) and Rory (Arthur Darvill), whom he believes still thinks he’s dead. Upon Amy opening the door with The Doctor standing in the door, there is a feeling that Amy’s story has found a happy conclusion.
With news that Gillan and is leaving the series, one had to wonder whether or not her exit would feel appropriate. But, for whatever reason, the too few words that were spoken by Amy, Rory and The Doctor made it right.
Two years have passed since the events in the Doctor Who Season 6 finale, and the characters of Amy and Rory do feel like they have grown beyond The Doctor. And when Rory says that Amy always leaves a plate on the table for him, it doesn’t come across as obsessive or sad, but as something someone who cares does.
While “The Doctor, The Widow, and the Wardrobe,” isn’t as great as last year’s Doctor Who Christmas special, “The Christmas Carol,” it does have many wonderful moments, which far outweigh any of its minor faults. That being said: Bill Bailey could have been given more screen time. Sure, his character did kind of take away from the story tonally, but it was fun to watch.
Doctor Who season 7 premiere fall 2011 on BBC One & BBC America
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