The Doctor, The Widow and The Wardrobe

TARDISFrom DWM #443. Fact fans – I first saw this story, sat in the office where I work, just as the Christmas edition of our magazine (not DWM) was going to press. So I felt very festive indeed.

I saw it again at the BBC press launch, which was held at Television Centre. We journalists filed into a studio alongside kids – kids! – to be regaled with a silly warm-up man, the episode itself and then a Q&A in which kids – kids! – asked most of the questions. As we stood up to leave, grumping about the lack of free drinks (we’re monsters), a curtain rose  revealing, on stage, a TARDIS stood in a winter wonderland… and a bar. It was a Christmas miracle.

DWM #433DWM #433Like tinsel, indoor trees, Top of the Pops and unusual tolerance for one’s extended family, Doctor Who feels a unique fit for Christmas. It chimes in beautifully with the sentiments of the Big Day, wherein naughty folk are punished and the nice prevail. How perfect.

This year’s effort, The Doctor, The Widow and The Wardrobe by Steven Moffat, feels especially bedded in with all that’s Christmassy. Indeed, all that is Christmassy on telly. Even the crazy pre-titles sequence is reminiscent of James Bond films from TV Yules of yore (specifically 007’s improvised skydiving in Moonraker). But once that exploding spaceship fizzles into glitter, we find ourselves tumbling into a wonderful tale brimming with festive sentiment.

During Christmasses past, Doctor Who brought us killer trees whirring like buzzsaws and deploying explosive ornaments. Now we have festive ferns in a winter wonderland, which weep baubles and emit their own stars. There’s also a magical gift box, plus an over-sized snow globe that sends our heroes spinning into the time vortex.

That seam of sparkle burns brighter still within the Arwell family, from mother Madge (Claire Skinner), who’s a poster girl for stoicism, to her husband Reg (Alexander Armstrong), a veritable David Niven in the face of death. Then there are the children, Lily (Holly Earl) and Cyril (Maurice Cole), the latter decked out as your quintessential bookworm, in dressing gown and glasses. Immediately you warm to him. To all of them. There’s nothing fancy here, they’re just nice people.

And it’s they who are at stake. There’s no spaceliner falling from the sky, nor giant spiders emerging to claim the planet. There’s not even a multiplicitous Master plan sweeping the globe. No, the extent of it all is Mum, Dad and the kids. Like so much of recent Doctor Who, we’re once again denied a proper villain (you’ve really got to bring back the baddies, Mr Moffat), but this time around it seems wholly forgivable. The space that absence opens up allows the Doctor to get right into the centre of a family Christmas. A position, of course, he also adopts within the lives of most of us watching along.

Family. In 2011 Doctor Who has played a lot of games with that concept. We’ve seen both Amy and Rory’s fractured domestic life and, across the series, various permutations of father and son relationships. Throughout, the Doctor has remained outside the circle. He’s even forsaken his friends, and in this story confesses to Madge he can no longer feel the pull of going home. That loneliness permeates his orchestrations to provide Cyril and Lily with the best Christmas ever. Although he lays on dancing chairs, lemonade on tap and hammocks in the bedroom, he remains an onlooker. Isn’t it telling how the Caretaker’s own room at the top of that big old house remains bleak and functional? No familial cheer for him. But that changes… How?

“Mummy always comes!” insists Cyril. “The mothership!” gasps the Doctor. “Mother Christmas!” we all nod along. In a show that’s done so much to celebrate paternal love, it’s great to finally hear it for the mums, and particularly pleasing the celebrated Madge is never suggested to be anything intrinsically special… other than a mother – and that’s plenty. It’s her exchanges with the Time Lord that are at the heart of this story, notably when the Doctor paraphrases Madge’s reservations about laying on a merry Christmas for her children while in the knowledge their father has died.  “What’s the point of them being happy now if they’re going to be sad later?” he says. His answer (“Because they’re going to be sad later”) doesn’t just rouse the widow, it tells her – and us – everything we need to know about this incarnation of the time traveller. He’s more cognisant than even his fifth persona of the importance of small, beautiful events.

Madge’s role as a mum also means she’s uniquely empowered to command the Doctor to stop being silly and drop in on Amy and Rory; his own ersatz family. The result of that is a lovely, schmaltzy finale, albeit one a little undermined by Amy’s grouching. Threatening carol singers with a water pistol? Oh, come on! It just strikes the wrong note. This isn’t sassy, it’s spiky and Scrooge-like. To use Ms Pond’s own words against her: “It’s Christmas, you moron!” Thank goodness Rory’s there, his marvellously breezy reaction to the Doctor’s reappearance – “You’re not dead, then?” – helping to disperse that unhappy odour.

In the meantime, well done Madge for getting them all back together! It more than justifies her own happy ending, when Reg is returned from the dead. Happy crying for the Arwells, and even a happy tear for the Doctor. The nice, at Christmas, are duly rewarded, and hooray for that. Further still, in defiance of any suspicions Doctor Who’s festive episodes play out as a bit of an appendage to the main narrative, we get some honest-to-goodness plot development that’s going to stick with the show. To wit: The Ponds are back in our hero’s life and he’s back in theirs. For now, anyway…

On 22nd November, 1963 – the day before Doctor Who began – author CS Lewis passed away. The previous year, Head of BBC Serial Dramas Donald Wilson charged Alice Frick and Donald Bull of the BBC Survey Group with investigating the feasibility of creating a science fiction TV series. In their report, the duo made the snooty claim Lewis “pretentiously” used “the apparatus of SF in the service of metaphysical ideas”. But, this humbugging aside, it remains clear his Narnia books – and specifically the notion of a wardrobe as a portal to another world – actually provided huge inspiration for the programme which (after a fashion) resulted from Frick and Bull’s studies. The programme, in fact, that Lewis never got to see.

The Doctor, The Widow and The Wardrobe is the first time Doctor Who has explicitly acknowledged this debt, but it’s by no means as close to the text as last year’s Dickens-themed A Christmas Carol. The gift box that hides a magic gateway, the 1940s setting, the juvenile adventurers and the snowy forest… is that pretty much it? Nonetheless, like the Narnia tales, Moffat’s story is excellent at evoking the feeling we’re being presented with a story steeped in folklore. The wooden king and the wooden queen who sit at the top and bottom of a tower – they feel drawn from some ancient fable. Or a logic puzzle in an old Doctor Who annual.

That the JCB-clad trio of Droxil (Bill Bailey), Billis (Arabella Weir) and Ven-garr (Paul Bazely) can tramp straight into this tableau is as good an example as any of the breadth the show can encompass. “Please say we can tell the difference between wool and side arms,” groans Droxil, prompting viewers at home to wonder who would ever actually say “side arms”. Well, we must suppose, a big hairy space harvester from Androzani Major in the year 5345, that’s who.

Incidentally, Androzani Major! What fun! It’s a shame we never got to see any of the three minus their helmets. It would have been good to know if those natty rat-tail hairdos were still all the rage in the Sirius System.

 The cliché when reviewing a Christmassy tale such as this is, at some point, to pull out the word ‘posset’ as a kind of metaphor to describe a concoction that’s got lots of lovely things in it. Readers, we are now at that point. Plus, it’s a useful conceit to round up all the details we haven’t been able to elegantly segue into the discussion thus far. Thing is, The Doctor, The Widow and The Wardrobe really is a posset. A terrific posset, full of fantastic ingredients.

Although it’s one of the show’s more linear stories of late, it still sports at least one excellent feint, which slips out within the comedy of the Doctor’s back-to-front space helmet. It’s the moment when Madge picks the TARDIS lock. So funny and deflating for our hero, we never suspect that, actually, it really was just a police box she’d been tinkering with all the time. There’s also plenty of business packed into seemingly throwaway lines, like the Doctor claiming the house’s rear door is “broadly speaking, operational” and the world of chaos suggested by the clause in that sentence. Likewise, Billis’ concern, when she and her colleagues are pointing – ahem – side arms at Madge, that “this visual’s deteriorating.” Now there’s a lot of backstory. This tale even joins up the thought from A Good Man Goes to War that the Doctor’s name has contributed the word’s meaning to the universe, by bringing us the notion decorated trees are “an idea, echoing among the stars”. It’s a very pretty thought in this, one of the prettiest Doctor Who stories ever.

Well, that was Christmas, and it won’t surprise you to learn your DWM reviewer places disproportionate importance on the quality of the Doctor Who special when it comes to totting up how happy his own holidays have been. Courtesy of The Doctor, The Widow and The Wardrobe, 2011 proved to be that much vaunted thing – the best Christmas ever!

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