Review: ‘The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe’

For most of my adult life, I’ve been a regular churchgoer. This has sometimes been out of a genuine, heartfelt desire to go, and sometimes because I feel I ought to be there. I was brought up with religion, then I rejected it, and then it found me again and wouldn’t let go. Until it did. These days, it’s very, very hard: I am paying lip service, going through the motions, and clockwatching. I don’t think I’ve stopped believing in God, but beyond that nothing much is certain.

This is not the place for an account of my spiritual journey, but one thing consistent attendance has taught me is how we cater for people at different times of the year. And there’s something in particular about Christmas where Church (note the capital ‘C’) gets perhaps a little more accessible. Or at least it should. Because the fact is that some people come to church at Christmas and then that’s their fix for the year, apart from the occasional wedding / funeral / christening. These are good, ordinary people and aside from religious beliefs there is comparatively little difference between us. It would be lovely if we could see some of them at other times of the year, but that’s the way it goes.

In any event they come at Christmas, and that’s when we have to do things a little differently, and perhaps make things a little easier and a little less automatic. Things we do every week without thinking about them are explained. The story is recapped with simplicity and clarity. We reassure people that they’re welcome to do whatever makes them comfortable. We avoid rituals that might make them uncomfortable. All this is with a view to show them that the Church can be welcoming and can adapt itself to the people who are attending – that we’re not entirely stuck in our ways, cut off, exclusive, inapproachable.

It struck, me, reading some of the comments online this week, that Doctor Who is a little like this. Because the Christmas special – a staple of the seasonal calendar since the 2005 revival (and not something they did in the show’s original run) – has become, to a great extent, Doctor Who for people who don’t normally do Doctor Who. At Christmas, when you’re sitting in front of the TV and The Gruffalo’s Child has finished, and the beer is all spilled and the whiskey is flowed, it might be something you do that you don’t normally do. So the Christmas specials are a little different. And whenever you’re judging an episode like this you need to have that at the forefront of your mind.

Why am I writing about all this in particular? Well, it’s because reading some of the commentary online over this past week has frankly made me lose some of my seasonal cheer. It’s reminded me that for the most part, all we do is complain. W.H. Auden might as well have written “Bring out the coffee, let the mourners come”, which would have detracted somewhat from the sombre tone of ‘Stop all the Clocks’ (or whatever it’s called, no one I know seems to be able to make up their mind), but it’d work if you were trying to describe a post-Who Guardian Comment is Free thread. It is in the pages of the Grauniad, indeed, that such debates are at their most acerbic, acidic and downright scornful, with the left-wing intellectual neo-atheist snobbery shining through (and yes, I say this as an out-and-out Guardian reader). But the Independent was no better – although it didn’t help, in this instance, that the review of the show was once more written by Neela Debnath, who appears to have minimal knowledge of the show and absolutely no writing ability whatsoever. There is much good journalism in the Independent, but sadly none of it is by her.

(Multiple spoilers follow.)

Snow-sprayed forestry (in August).

Here’s the thing. If you’re going to judge ‘The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe’ by the standards of a normal Who episode, it will be found wanting. Structurally, it was all over the place. It opened with a plane in trouble, and Alexander Armstrong (recognisable as the voice of Mr Smith in The Sarah Jane Adventures) murmuring “I’m sorry, my love” as his plane appears bound for oblivion – an exact repetition, you may remember, of the words of River Song as the TARDIS exploded at the end of ‘The Pandorica Opens’. And that ended well, so we instantly knew – on some level, at least – that Armstrong was coming back from the dead, or would be spared death by some sort of last-minute intervention.

Because Moffat does that. He’ll give us one ending, and then tell us the rest of it later, as it transpires that what we saw earlier was an incomplete scene, designed to give us certain preconceptions before pulling out the rug from underneath. It’s by turns clever and infuriating. Sometimes, indeed, it’s infuriating simply because it’s clever – we want a simple narrative, rather than the convoluted prancing of something like ‘The Wedding of River Song’, which jumped around through history, tied up several loose ends and featured a cameo from Simon Callow while somehow delivering far less than the sum of its parts.

There was one clever-clever moment in this Christmas special, but aside from that it was a straightforward romp through a forest where the trees appear to grow baubles on demand. Claire Skinner played (very) recently widowed Madge, who had earlier helped the Doctor (whose identity was at the time unknown to her, given that he was wearing a space helmet the wrong way round, having put it on in a hurry) back to his TARDIS – except, of course, it wasn’t the TARDIS at all, but an actual police box. It was as shamelessly predictable as the TARDIS’ materialisation between two storage crates at the beginning of ‘Fear Her’, but no less amusing for it.

He put it on in a hurry, apparently.

Three years after the encounter with the impossible astronaut, Skinner and her children (neither of whom appear to have aged at all) are checking into an old house in the middle of the country, where they’re greeted by a lanky twenty-something who says he’s the ‘Caretaker’. The house is full of gimmicks and gadgets (including hammocks that drop from the ceiling, which I think I want in my space-deprived bungalow) but the ‘magic of Christmas’ scene that introduces them all goes on far too long, and Smith’s constant boyish cries of “I know!” are immensely irritating. In any event: there is, of course, a big blue box in the lounge. And of course the children open it in the middle of the night, instead of on Christmas morning, which the Doctor had intended, in order for it to be ‘a supervised trip’. And before we know it, Cyril (he with the ridiculous glasses) is lost in the woods, and the trees appear to be moving.

Cyril. Amazing glasses.

Dan Martin, in his review, pointed out the major plot hole: “While the Doctor berates the children for opening their present – a potentially hazardous trip to another planet in the far future – he also knows,” he says, ”that every normal child would have done the same. Really, the whole thing was his fault.” Except, of course, he doesn’t know anything of the sort. Not really. Because the Doctor’s not human. At least this one isn’t. He’s almost as alien as they come, exceeded only by Baker (i) and Troughton. Not noticing the way humans behave is part for the course. He didn’t notice Elliot wandering off in ‘The Hungry Earth’. He was oblivious to the ins and outs of Craig and Sophie’s relationship – and the former’s infatuation with the latter – throughout ‘The Lodger’, at least not until the point at which it really mattered. Leaving a mysterious parcel in the middle of the lounge and then expecting them to wait until morning before opening it is exactly the sort of thing the Eleventh Doctor would do. He’ll take things to the brink and then come up with a solution, producing all his best work under immense pressure, but he thinks very much on his feet, and consequences are not always at the forefront of his mind – as is beautifully vocalised in the closing fifteen minutes when, as the tower collapses around the protagonists, he suggests that they “hold tight and pretend it’s a plan”.

The kids are good; Skinner’s better. She basically plays Madge as a brisk 1940s version of Sue from Outnumbered. Her reaction to the three colonists in the middle of the forest, her subsequent mastery of the platform and, indeed, her ability to completely understand and accept the situation have been criticised as unbelievable by some (this, in a show about talking trees) but again that’s missing the point – which is surely to subvert the traditional inter-generational relationships that companions have endured since 2005. Traditionally (and I use that word loosely, seeing as before the revival the Doctor’s friends didn’t even seem to have tangible families of their own), it’s the companions’ willingness to be open-minded that enables them to become companions, while the reaction of their parents, when the truth is inevitably discovered, ranges from scepticism to worry to downright hostility. Madge doesn’t go into shock at discovering the world inside the blue box, nor is she fazed by the appearance of the Androzani colonists (more on them in a moment), and indeed when she is reunited with her straying children (straying child, I suppose, if you’re going to be picky) her reaction isn’t one of outrage towards the Doctor for dragging Lily and Cyril into danger, as you might have expected from Jackie Tyler. Instead she hugs them and then delivers the funniest line in the episode, when she says “Cyril, what have I told you about opening your presents early? Something like this was bound to happen…”

Wondrous Madge, with a forest in her head.

Indeed, Madge doesn’t just accept the situation into which she’s been thrust – come the final reel, she’s the one who saves the day, through an ability to improvise, keep her head and simply by virtue of being a woman. You might suggest her openness to the alien world stems from a staunch unwillingness to deal with the death of her husband, and the two are neatly (if rather glibly) tied together when Madge is forced to directly confront the fateful moments over the English Channel – available as conveniently recorded footage – in order to fly the ship home. Of course, in doing so she also nips back in time and saves Reg. It’s a sickly sweet moment, necessary perhaps because it’s Christmas, and nice things happen at Christmas, but it’s the episode’s weak spot. (There’s also the fact that the Lancaster bomber sitting on the lawn outside the mansion presumably still contains, come the end of the story, the co-pilot and injured gunner, both of whom are wondering why their commander’s taking such a bally long time to go and get directions.)

Reunions on the lawn.

Elsewhere, we have Bill Bailey, Arabella Weir and Paul Blazely, whose sole purpose in the episode is to be funny. Their enhancement of the narrative is minimal and could easily have been provided by the Doctor himself or some other underling – the establishment of such big names is there only to ensure a big draw, and it’s understandable that people might feel a bit cheated if they expected the episode to revolve around the colonists. They’re there to simply blunder about and make jokes about wool – Dan Martin’s review complains that “we don’t see nearly enough of them”, apparently missing that this was clearly supposed to be a pitbull cameo, and I suppose that you’ll either enjoy the dialogue and love them, or loathe the dialogue and find their inclusion pointless.

The comedy trio. Am I mad, in a coma or in a scene from Halo?

When I emailed Gareth to talk about the episode, he not only loathed the sequence, but also took issue with the fact that the colonists were from Androzani. “It served no purpose,” he said, “and I don’t understand the point of such references – new viewers won’t get it, and surely most fans would find it jarring and irrelevant.  (Maybe a few might go “yay!” at an old-Who shout-out, but why?) I don’t understand how it appeals to fanboys, even though I saw a ‘SQUEEEEEE’ about it earlier.  I would rather see a story involving Androzani Major (or rather ‘hear’, since I expect Big Finish would do it far, far better than Moffat) than have a random mention of its name. What’s the point?  ‘Oh, let’s mention, um, the Voord for no reason.’”

He is basically right, but Moffat does that with annoying regularity: drops in little references to Old Who for the fanboys to spot. I have a feeling that many people are far more tolerant of it than Gareth, and to be fair to Moffat, Davies was doing it years ago by (amongst others) having the Doctor introduce himself as James McCrimmon in ‘Tooth and Claw’. It is, however, symptomatic of the New Who trend of parody and self-reference that even I find annoying at times – the show has become (a la Wes Craven) deliberately self-aware, and perhaps modern audiences need that, but sometimes it just gets in the way of the narrative.

I mentioned earlier that the structure was somewhat uneven, and nowhere was this more apparent than the closing minutes, which felt rather tacked on, and the only part that would have been unfamiliar to a new audience (I had to explain who everyone was to my dinner guests, none of whom have watched the show since Tennant departed). It was sweet to see the Ponds again (and didn’t you, like me, just read that and think “No, it should be the Williamses” before correcting yourself?) but the ending served to tie up loose end that really ought to have waited for the next series. However, one thing the scene did quite well was to keep the mawkishness to a minimum by having the Doctor acknowledge his ‘happy tears’ with a single wipe of an eye, and a smile of cautious, then unbridled joy. Davies would have had Smith actually speak the line, and it would have killed it stone dead. (The same thing happened earlier in the episode with a reference to C.S. Lewis’ Digory Kirke, when Smith lamented “What do they teach you in schools these days?” – which, in the hands of Davies, would have become a repeated gag that lost all sense of worth come its second, third and fourth appearances.) The Doctor had never looked more like a little boy than when he was entering Amy and Rory’s hallway, and Moffat’s comparative restraint ensured that while it was trite, and sentimental, it somehow didn’t matter.

And perhaps you could apply that to the episode as a whole. Because it strikes me that the people complaining about ‘The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe’ are spectacularly deluded as to what exactly the episode set out to achieve, which (and I’m second guessing the writer here, but isn’t that all we ever do?) was surely to provide fun family entertainment on Christmas Day.  It would be nice, as Gareth pointed out to me, to have a special episode of Doctor Who at Christmas, rather than something that was vaguely Who-ish, but I pointed out in turn that Davies’ idea of a special episode of Doctor Who was ‘The End of Time’, which was unparalleled shit.

Happy tears.

I opened this review talking about the Church, and it strikes me that the parallels with Who don’t end with the concessions made by the Christmas episode. The truth is that the established members of the Who fanbase – i.e. the people who watch the show regularly – spend so much time bickering and arguing about it that anyone watching from outside is going to be utterly perplexed by our behaviour. We split into factions and disagree about what’s canon and what isn’t, and what works to us and what doesn’t (and usually that’s just a matter of what we like personally, rather than what’s actually best for the show) that I honestly can’t fathom out how some of us could call ourselves fans. And I will put my hands up here and concede that this probably applies to me as much as anyone else. At the same time, I can’t help thinking that we’re so precious about what the BBC have done (or not done) to ‘our’ programme that we’re unwilling to acknowledge outside influences, different demographics or the simple fact that not every episode of Doctor Who is going to be tailored to you and you alone. So you didn’t like ‘Love and Monsters’? No, neither did I. But my six-year-old son did. I’m also one of the people who enjoyed ‘The Lodger’, even though a great many considered it the low point of series 5 (an accolade I’d much rather award to ‘Victory of the Daleks’). I love Smith, but Tennant and Eccleston both had their moments.

The bottom line is this. On Christmas night I was gathered round the TV in the lounge with five others. One of them was my wife, who is a regular viewer. The others were house guests who, as I think I mentioned earlier, don’t watch the programme. And every one of them enjoyed this episode. Even my mother-in-law, who is sceptical of its cultural value (and not entirely approving of my decision to show episodes to a six-year-old) appeared to have enjoyed it. So I had a roomful of people who’d spent an hour in unfamiliar territory and come away with their appetites sated. Now, look me in the eyes and tell me that’s a bad thing. We can complain about the episode’s narrative inconsistencies and mawkishness until we’re blue in the face, but I think in doing so we’ll miss out on the potential we have to bring it to other people and say “Yes, this was quite good, but have you seen….?”. This isn’t going to work with everyone – I have read comments from people who said “I watched it for the first time tonight and thought it was rubbish” – but the opportunities are still there. We might want it to be a gourmet platter that caters exclusively for our tastes, but Doctor Who at Christmas ought to be, perhaps, like a seasonal cheese selection: fruity, flavoursome, matured and simultaneously fresh, and preferably with something that everybody can enjoy.

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