“It got a bit clinchy in the middle there, but it sort of worked out in the end. Story of my life.”
– The Doctor
The annual tradition of a Doctor Who Christmas special continues with this latest excellent outing, The Doctor, The Widow and The Wardrobe. These specials have tended to be more stand alone episodes rather than a strict continuation of the heavily serialized season. That said, there are still nods to how The Doctor left things at the end of the sixth season.
The basic premise of the special revolves around a woman, Madge Arwell (Claire Skinner), recently widowed in 1941, as her husband was reported missing in action during World War II. She then decides to keep her husband’s death a secret from their two children, Lily (Holly Earl) and Cyril (Maurice Cole), as she doesn’t want to spoil their Christmas. The Doctor (Matt Smith), who was previously helped by Madge years earlier, intervenes as he attempts to make Christmas the best yet for the family, all the while inadvertently getting them caught up in one of his time traveling missions.
It’s a typical Doctor Who principle that in his attempts to help, he frequently puts those he cares for in danger. The episode is also filled with allusions to C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, not only in title, but in a Christmas gift box that opens up to reveal a Narnia-esque reality. In borrowing from such well-known source material, it creates a shorthand for this latest adventure that is quite handy for only an hour’s worth of television.
The special not only makes reference to Lewis’ seminal work, but also serves as a sort of environmental parable. The hidden world they find themselves in is one of trees about to be harvested and destroyed by acid rain. The Doctor has always seen those he encounters, whether they are aliens or other non-humans, as beings that deserve respect and consideration. The trees that are in danger are no exception and as communication is established, the environmental overtones become more obvious, particularly as a Mother Nature figure features prominently.
Although the special does a nice job of inserting these other thematic levels into the story, the heart of it is still The Doctor and his struggle to balance his desire for companionship with his history of putting his companions in danger. The Doctor as played by Smith is equal parts silly, awkward, enthusiastic, and protective. His energy is contagious throughout his seasons and the Christmas special is an extension of his animation. It’s easy to see how The Doctor’s attempts to make Christmas spectacular could backfire – particularly to those familiar with his past adventures – but he is always well meaning and it’s the nature of his calling as a time traveler that he is drawn into so many conflicts, and in turn, those around him are, as well.
While the adventure in the Christmas box is the main plot, the love story between Madge and her husband, Reg (Alexander Armstrong), is also integral to the special. Her grief drives the motivation behind having a memorable and happy Christmas holiday. However, her desire to keep his death a secret also leads to conflict with her children who eventually learn of their father’s death at the seemingly most inopportune time.
Doctor Who, particularly Steven Moffat’s version of Doctor Who certainly never shies away from death and disaster as a consequence of The Doctor’s actions. The Christmas specials do have a bit more hope to offer, generally, and this latest one was especially successful in its eventual payoff. As with many of Moffat’s Doctor Who episodes, The Doctor’s seeming emotional detachment is only a measure of self-protection. In including a moment with Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) and Rory (Arthur Darvill), The Doctor also gets his own version of a Christmas happy ending and it is one of the more touching moments in the series. Smith and Gillan have an easy chemistry that makes their closeness particularly believable and their brief scene together is especially welcome.
The DVD release includes a one and half minute prequel, that serves as more of a commercial for the Christmas special than anything else, as well as three “Best of” Doctor Who featurettes: “The Best of The Doctor”, “The Best of the Companions”, and “The Best of the Monsters”. These are a nice addition to the DVD as they include contributions not only from former guest stars, but also from well-known fans, such as Chris Hardwick, Paul F. Tompkins, and Amanda Palmer.