Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Review: The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe #doctorwho Christmas Special

There are spoilers in this, so if you're likely to throw a Twitter tantrum and block me if you find things out you don't already know, DO NOT read any further.

In recent years, one of the highlights of Christmas Day has been to gather round the television in the early evening for the Doctor Who Christmas Special. It's certainly more essential than watching the Queen in our house.

We've gone from the Sycorax running amok while the Tenth Doctor sleeps off his regeneration to the searing poignancy of the final build up to his farewell with a futuristic Titanic with Kylie as a waitress, an unwitting Doctor imposter and flying fish soothed only by Katharine Jenkins along the way. 

What would this year have to offer?

Let's put it in context first. The last series saw the Doctor's public murder and private escape. Of course, it's an open secret amongst those close to him that he's still alive, but he's keeping a low profile and staying away from them. So, it's a lonely Doctor who's wandering around the universe getting himself into scrapes. He starts the episode by falling from a spaceship. If it were River, he'd be waiting with the Tardis swimming pool roof open or something, but there's nobody to catch him. He has to make do with fighting his way into a space suit, back to front, before crashing to earth in some sleepy little English village. Didn't he do that before and leave a  little girl heartbroken?

Anyway, he finds himself at the bottom of a crater in 1938 and he's rescued and driven by Madge Arless, who seems to be a very accepting soul. Not many of us would casually help a spaceman from the future with a suit on the wrong way round - especially one who criticised their driving. 

Three years on, Madge, played by Outnumbered mum Claire Skinner, receives the awful news that her RAF pilot husband has been killed in action just before Christmas. She decides not to tell her two children, Lily and Cyril, because she doesn't want them to forever associate Christmas with their Dad's death and packs up the family to spend the holiday at the unseen Uncle Digby's home, run by a mysterious and slightly bonkers caretaker - our Doctor. He's clearly going for the Mary Poppins style. The children's room, complete with hammocks has all sorts of magical treats. 

However, typically, all that magic within their bedroom is not enough to keep young Cyril occupied. He just has to open the huge present under the Christmas tree downstairs - which is a portal into a magical world, just like Narnia. Like all good Who adventures, the main protagonists are separated and each work out bits of the story. A good idea of the Doctor's, to give the kids some happiness and fun, goes awry, as you might expect.

From flying fish twelve months ago, we've moved on to trees with little starry souls seeking escape before the landscape is plundered for energy. No parallels with anything modern there, then.  Bill Bailey and Arabella Weir are absolutely brilliant as hapless representatives of the company destroying the forest. It just goes to show that there are jobsworths alive and well in the 24th century. Weir wrote about her experience for the Telegraph last week. These characters' contribution was quite brief but very funny and I want the Doctor to meet them sometime.

The way the story unfolds, which amounts to the ever accepting Madge carrrying an entire planet's worth of tree souls in her head and thinking them to their new home, is both funny and poignant and has an unintended consequence. However, Moffat did make a huge howler in an effort to shoehorn a superfluous plot line into the script. I'm fine with our heroes illuminating the time vortex at exactly the right spot to guide our RAF heroes home, but I'm not ok with stalking being shown as an appropriate courtship ritual. We learn through flashbacks that Madge's husband followed her home every night until she agreed to marry him. I'm sure it wasn't meant to be as offensive as it was, especially as he didn't much seem to mind having a wife who was as open and accepting of strange, futuristic concepts as Madge. However, it is simply not right for a bloke to repeatedly follow a woman through a lonely, dark, scary forest at night until he gets his way.

Earlier in the episode, the Doctor tells the children that the TARDIS is his wardrobe. A casual glance at the clock as the wartime story concluded told me there was more to come. As soon as Madge claps eyes on the TARDIS, she knows that the caretaker is the man she helped out all these years ago and when he tells her he can't see his friends cos they think he's dead, she basically tells him not to be so daft.

He then turns up at Rory and Amy's TARDIS like house. I have to say I'm not convinced that our Amy is so po faced that she'd take a water pistol to carol singers, but what was undeniable about that scene was the amazing on screen chemistry between Karen Gillan and Matt Smith. I know that there probably wasn't much further to go in the whole Amy-Rory-River story arc, but last week's news, announced by Steven Moffat, that Karen and Arthur Darvill would be leaving in the new series, made me very unhappy. I wouldn't have minded if they were to disappear but remain contactable, like Sarah Jane Smith did, but it seems that there will be some heartbreak involved. Why? It's just not necessary to do that to much loved characters. I wonder if it'll involve them going back to the library to try to get River out of the computer. You never know.

But back to the matter in hand. The Doctor's Christmassy indulgence in going back to Amy and Rory's will surely have alerted the Silence that he's still alive. After all, even the most incompetent group of people would keep an eye on their enemy's associates, just in case. 

The Doctor, the Witch and the Wardrobe was searingly sad in places. Watching Madge having to experience that emotional pain to the maximum was really tough but, unlike last year, we know that the pain ends there. There were moments of comedy gold and some good old sentimentality. Moffat took the idea of Narnia and, as Louis Walsh would say, made it his own. I'm not quite sure he'd remind anyone of a young C S Lewis, though. It wasn't my favourite Christmas Special and, to be honest, I think I preferred the flying fish last year, but it ticked all the boxes it needed to tick.

It's going to be a long wait for the new series.

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