When, in pre-war 1930s England, Madge Arwell (Claire Skinner) is knocked from her bike after witnessing something star-like and silvery crashing from the night sky one Christmas as she’s riding home, she later recalls the clumsy, shiny, groaning figure who emerges from the crater in a nearby field, clad in a high-tech alien ‘Impact suit’ with the helmet on back-to-front (‘I got dressed in a hurry!’), as being ‘either a spaceman or an angel – I’m not sure which’ … The convergence in modern DOCTOR WHO of gleaming, state-of-the art science fiction tropes and epic space opera visuals, with a sense of fairy tale wonder and childlike joy found in traditional Christmas-themed children’s literature, is never more acutely expressed than when the two approaches are brought together in a Steven Moffat-penned DOCTOR WHO Christmas Special -- and the juxtaposition of the words ‘spaceman’ and ‘angel’ is about the simplest distillation of what the programme is all about when it comes to its distinctive, stand-alone Christmas-themed incarnation.
Or at least that’s how it now seems after this second consecutive example in a row of Mr Show Runner Moffat’s Christmas storytelling in the Whoniverse. Both “The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe” and its predecessor “A Christmas Carol” take the pre-established mythology surrounding the Doctor and attach it to the template of a piece of well-known and much-loved classic literature (the titles of both episodes make it obvious in each case which classics are being referenced) and then try to show that there is really only a matter of emphasis separating the two forms of fiction: if Dickens’ tale of personal self-transformation was outed as a story also about paradox-busting time travel and alternate realties in a multiverse of diverging possibilities, then C.S. Lewis it seems, was also unknowingly writing about dimensional portals into other worlds when he came up with the idea of a box that’s bigger on the inside than it is on the outside (as well as providing those Christian allegories), which makes “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” the perfect model for the eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith) to imitate when he wants to do a good turn for some evacuated wartime children whose mother once helped him out when he needed it by getting him safely back to his TARDIS (although the fact that this took place in England in the ‘30s meant that it was quite a while before she found the right police box!). When the Doctor leaves her with the words ‘If there’s ever anything in return I can do to help …!’ you just know that he’s already planning to transform her world with something outrageously mad and probably unwittingly dangerous.
It’s noticeable that both of Steven Moffat’s Christmas episodes thus far start off with pre-credit sequences that not only appear to be about as un-Christmassy as it is possible for any television to get, but also illustrate their apparent lack of empathy for the time of year by tarting themselves up as uncharacteristically snazzy and expensive-looking pastiches of classic science fiction franchises. Last year it was Star Trek (as evidenced in the flight deck of the space liner ferrying Amy and Rory on their honeymoon and the costume design of its crew) this year, director Farren Blackburn (“The Fades”) cheekily kicks off proceedings with a shot that will be familiar to all from George Lucas’s “Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope” in which a large battle cruiser gradually fills the screen from overhead. This absurdly overstated, action-packed opener ends with the spearhead of an alien invasion exploding in orbit around the Earth and the Doctor tumbling through space while trying to put on an impact suite before hitting the ground. Which is where Madge and her bike came in.
It’s an opener designed to show us that the newly anonymous Doctor is still out there saving the Earth after all the events at the end of the last series, even though all his enemies now think he is dead and he no longer has any of his companions to accompany him in these dangerous adventures; and even though there’s no longer anyone left to show off to. So when he crashes from the sky at Christmas like a falling star and meets the guileless Madge on the eve of war, he’s provided with a wonderful chance to anonymously show off to some nice people who deserve a good turn.
This is Moffat returning the Doctor to his roots as a cosmic drifter, a lone adventurer out to explore and experience the Universe and lend a helping hand wherever it is needed. The falling star imagery of the Doctor crashing to Earth and the cosy pre-war village setting he winds up in have by now set-up the Christmas atmosphere perfectly, but Matt Smith’s Doctor had already been established as the Doctor who particularly loves Christmas, and so his anonymity allows him especially to play up to the image of a Willy Wonka-style eccentric who injects magic into the lives of strangers just for the joy of bringing happiness into their world. Suddenly, the Doctor becomes the most Christmassy of Christmas characters one could ever imagine and Moffat draws out the realisation that he always was. This Christmas special also follows the format instigated last year by not really having any villain or monster that’s out to destroy the Earth or get up to some other mischief that has to be stopped by the Time Lord; instead both episode are primarily about emotion and family and love and all the things Christmas is supposed to be about but never is except in heart-warming TV and literature.
It’s also very much still about adventure: the Doctor next enters Madge’s life three years later, after war has broken out. Madge’s husband Reg (Alexander Armstrong), a pilot for the RAF, has just been reported missing presumed dead while flying his damaged plane back from a mission across the Atlantic at night, and Madge is waiting until after Christmas to tell her two children, Lily (Holly Earl) and Cyril (Maurice Cole) because she doesn’t want Christmas to forever be associated in their minds with the death of their father. When the family is evacuated during the Blitz and go to live in an old mansion belonging to a relative in the Dorset countryside, they’re surprised to find an eccentric, bumbling tweedy figure in a bow tie who calls himself the Caretaker in charge of looking after the place.
To the accompaniment of Murray Gold’s wonderfully seasonal and joyfully expressive score, Matt Smith establishes this newly charming, mad-inventor-with-a-child’s-mind persona of the Doctor’s, with its special emphasis on creating crazy magical moments in the lives of others, in a wonderful scene during which ‘the Caretaker’ shows his puzzled charges around their new house, which he has adapted specially for them with spinning armchairs in the living room, an extra third tap next to the ‘hot’ & ‘cold’, marked ‘Lemonade’ and a bedroom over-equipped with everything any imaginative child could ever want (‘a selection of torches for midnight feasts and secret reading’) -- apart for proper beds, that is.
When Madge’s initial anger at all this absurd craziness is revealed to the Doctor to be a mask for her secret grief at her husband’s death (which she’s still keeping from the children until after the Christmas period), we also get a glimpse of what really motivates him when he voices aloud to her the subconscious reason why she lately finds herself shouting all the time at Lily and Cyril for no reason: ‘What’s the point in them being happy now, when they’re only going to be sad later?’ And we realise that this must be a particularly familiar dilemma for a centuries old time traveller who surely quite often knows what’s coming next in the lives of a great many of the people he meets; someone who presumably frequently knows the not-always-pleasant circumstances in which those people will eventually meet their ends. What is the point of helping to bring happiness to people in the present when you know that, ultimately, they’re going to be sad later? ‘The answer is of course,’ the Doctor explains to Madge, ‘because they’re going to be sad later.’
We get the real sense here that the Doctor has long ago confronted this conundrum and resolved it by realising that each moment in the mixed up tapestry of time -- the jumbled perceptions of past, present and future that constitutes the experience of an itinerant time traveller -- is worth forging into the best moment it can possibly be; every day should be like Christmas, in other words. The mad man with a box, here becomes the strange caretaker in the attic … with a box; busily concocting bizarre tricks and treats to please his young friends from the 1940s (Lily and Cyril recognise a kindred spirit straightaway and instantly take to the Doctor’s batty ways), the main one being a big square box under the exquisitely exotic Christmas tree he’s invented for them, wrapped in TARDIS blue wrapping paper and not, on any account, to be opened until Christmas morning.
Only the Doctor of course could overlook the fact that everybody peeks at their presents before Christmas morning!
And so the Doctor’s intended supervised Christmas trip to an alluring planet where ‘nothing dangerous ever happens’ (later, he reluctantly acknowledges that ‘there are some sentences I really should just keep away from!’) becomes a frantic search for Cyril after curiosity leads the youngster to sneak downstairs on Christmas eve and open the glowing box under the tree -- which, of course, turns out to be a portal into an enchanted landscape of snow-covered forests with naturally occurring Christmas trees that grow their own baubles. The Doctor and Lily follow Cyril, the Time Lord explaining away the seeming unlikeliness of the existence of such a planet by pointing out that it’s a big Universe and everything imaginable must happen somewhere.
And so we come to the actual content this year of Steven Moffat’s delightful Christmas box of sci-fi tricks. As ever, it’s made up of a bizarre and random mix of elements to be sure: scary-looking but essentially friendly humanoid wooden figures, carved into effigies of a king and a queen in order to oversee the fulfilment of a very specific prophecy; living Christmas trees that whisper to each other across a snowy landscape and convert their life-force into pure light to escape the tree harvesters from Androzani Major (minor roles for comedians Billy Bailey and Arabella Weir, and Paul Bazely) who have come to dump acid on them in order to melt them down for battery fuel; a giant Manga/anime-style robot being piloted by a 1940s mother looking for her children on the surface of an twinkling, snowy planet and who later gets to host an entire forest of conscious trees in her head as she guides them to safety through the time vortex. There’s no point at which it isn’t obvious to every viewer that all this is somehow going to come together at the end to result in Lily and Cyril being reunited with their supposedly dead father, but that doesn’t make it any less poignant when it happens.
When we bang on about Moffat’s mind-boggling season arcs and timey whimy plot twists, we so often forget to mention that no-one is able to make such wildly crazy storylines of disparate elements cohere into the kind of ridiculously emotional payoffs that common sense says you should be able to dismiss as the most outrageous sentimental old tosh, but which still somehow manage to get you blubbing like an idiot all the same. The climax of this one is made especially sweeter by the Doctor grinning and straightening his bow tie with a flourish when Cyril and Lily rush to greet their father at the end, as though the silly fool had planned the whole thing this way all along! A nice addendum to the main story recalls the moment in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol when the reformed Ebenezer Scrooge goes to have Christmas dinner with his nephew and his family for the first time: here, the Doctor is reluctantly persuaded by Madge that he shouldn’t be alone at Christmas; accordingly, he turns up on Amy and Rory’s doorstep (who both know he isn’t really dead because their daughter River told them). From their perspective it’s been two years since he dropped them off at the end of “The God Complex” but every Christmas, we learn, they’ve set a place for him at the table on Christmas day, just in case he ever turned up again. Ahhh …
The hour long special, “The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe”, is accompanied on DVD and Blu-ray by three forty-five minute documentaries which were evidently made for screening in the U.S. back during the mid-season break of season 6. They’re essentially extended clips shows featuring an assortment of talking heads discussing various features of the last two seasons starring Matt Smith as the eleventh Doctor, under the headings Favourite Moments of -- the Doctor, Companions and the Monsters, respectively. The interviewees are all American comedians, actors, musicians or journalists, most of whom I’ve never heard of, but all of whom are very enthusiastic and seem really into the show. Among them is scream queen Danielle Harris, star of Rob Zombie’s “Halloween” and “Hatchet 2”. It seems especially odd that this eccentric, once rather parochial fifty-year-old British institution is now apparently loved by cool American movie stars (and mad looking blokes with crazy afros as well according to this) but it couldn’t happen to a more deserving TV legend. On this year’s evidence there’s no sign yet that this proudly eccentric show is running low on that unique blend of charm, sci-fi imagination and emotional fantasy which kept it alive in fans’ hearts even when it seemed relegated forever to being a sub-clause in television history. Now Steven Moffat appears especially intent on binding it ever more closely to the timeless greats of Christmas literature at least one time each year, melding references to C.S. Lewis here with casual nods to the show’s sprawling continuity, with mentions of Androzani Major and the Forest of Cheem thrown in seamlessly with the effortless Christmas-flavoured cheer, furnishing us with yet another fine example of the Moff's restless, unfathomable imagination and reassuring us that, almost half a century since two London school teachers stumbled into that mysterious blue box with a glowing white interior in a junkyard in Totters Lane, this is a show that is very far from becoming predictable and stale.
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