Doctor Who episode 800: The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe (25/12/2011)
‘Look what you can do, Mother Christmas.’ Coming off the back of an unloved Series Six, I think I was sniffy about this at the time. Seen again, a lot of it is perfect Christmas Special material: a refreshingly straightforward plot, filled with magic and with a happy ending that rounds off the year’s story arc on a positive note.
In particular, the first half hour is filmic (or at least, Christmas filmic), as the Doctor repays a debt to the recently-widowed Madge Arwell and her children Lily and Cyril by becoming the caretaker of a huge house they’ve evacuated to for the festivities. Madge is wrestling with how to break the news of their father’s death to her kids; the Doctor wants to give them all a moment of happiness. If this were a Disney product (what am I talking about – now, it is), he’d be some sort of Santa’s helper, perhaps an enthusiastic elf acting beyond his remit. Which, I suppose, is as good a description as any. Smith pitches his performance accordingly – there’s less shade than in a regular episode, but the arm-whirling excitement flips to sad stillness when he’s alone with Madge, understanding her suffering. Claire Skinner’s equally good, all no-nonsense briskness until the mask slips.
The crowning glory of this magic Christmas is a present that’s a portal to an alien planet in the future, where Christmas trees grow naturally. As the title suggests, this provides some Narnia style sequences of a curious Cyril investigating the parcel before the big day, arriving in a snowbound forest. Sadly, there are no fauns to be seen – but there is a Christmas bauble that’s actually an egg. Cyril follows the hatchling’s footprints to find a strange tower, inside which are a wooden king and queen holding a glowing crown. The Doctor and Lily aren’t far behind him, and then Madge plunges through the portal after them.
Up until this point, it’s a sweet Christmas adventure. The second half is a bit less surefooted – stumbling about like a platform piloted by Madge between a light environmental message (the Androzani Major colonists are going to burn down the forest with acid rain), and some airy-fairy stuff about the ‘life force’ of the trees needing to occupy Madge’s body to escape. None of this is bad, but if this really were a Disney style Christmas adventure we’d meet the entertainingly villainous leader of the deforestation team, and he’d end up defeated. Instead, the Androzanians are an inoffensive bunch who get a couple of amusing scenes with Madge and then abandon ship.
Instead, the forest is destroyed, but it turns out the mysterious tower is their escape plan and they’ve made it of wood. Which is a bigger problem – because nothing about it looks wooden. This design failure actively works against the story, despite the script’s best attempts to hand wave it. And then the problems stack up: the King and Queen need a life form to contain the trees’ life force, but that life form needs to be ‘strong’ – by which they mean, a mother. In comparison, the Doctor and Cyril are ‘weak’ because they’re men, and Lily has potential, but as she does not yet possess a fecund womb, she’s not good enough. Only Madge will do. This is clearly meant to be a celebration of motherhood, which is a wonderful thing. But the fact it does it by telling the little boys in the audience that they’re weak and implies that the little girls in the audience should aspire to be mothers is surely not the intended message. Combined with a slight return for the “man stalks woman until she submits to his will” motif from Blink, there’s an accidental sourness here.
Looking past that, the pay-off to Madge saving the trees is that she also guides her husband to salvation. It’s easy to scoff at this, but honestly, it’s a Christmas Day episode for kids, and any other ending might have been more realistic and tearjerkingly satisfactory, but it wouldn’t have been festive. Plus, it leads to the glorious little coda of the Doctor reconnecting with his own family, so I can’t begrudge it. Apart from my reservations on the unintended consequences of the scenes at the top of the tower, I think this is a neatly presented little Christmas package. Give me humany wumany over timey wimey any day.
Next Time: Pond Life