Matt Smith gives us all a Yuletide treat as the 11th Doctor returns for a special that's a little more...well, special than previous seasonal outings.
It’s fair to say that Christmas specials have never been Doctor Who’s strong point. The festive season demands a certain level of whimsy and silliness that would smell a little too strongly of cheese at another time of year, tying up disparate plot threads in a disappointingly neat Yuletide package within the space of an hour. Inevitably, genuine drama is usually in short supply.
Last year’s edition – the first Christmas episode to star the 11th Doctor (Matt Smith) -- even managed to, ahem, ‘rework’ A Christmas Carol, which is enough to bring out anyone’s inner Scrooge. After a disappointing and overly convoluted sixth series, it was difficult to expect too much from 2011’s effort. For all that, though, The Doctor, The Widow and The Wardrobe somehow pulled off the tricky task of injecting magic into the annual special. A few loose ends and missed opportunities aside, this was by far the most successful of the seasonal episodes since the revitalised Who’s return in 2005.
Initial signs weren’t promising. Once again, current showrunner Steven Moffat found a family classic to dig up and recast, and this time it was Narnia’s turn. Not literally, of course, but the absence of lions, witches or indeed wardrobes did nothing to conceal the enormous debt owed to C. S. Lewis’s tales of talking animals and curious kids. Curiously, it all worked. Maybe it was just the chemistry between the actors, maybe it was another bravura performance by Smith, or maybe I’m just getting soft in my old age. Whatever it was, it did the trick.
The opening sequence launched us into the action, and the Doctor into space...without his Tardis, which was something of a problem. After escaping from an exploding spacecraft – we never really found out whose it was or why it mattered, which, after all the plot contrivances of series six, was oddly satisfying – the Doctor ends up plummeting to earth. The last we see of him is as he just manages to avoid a fiery encounter with earth’s atmosphere by wriggling into a stray spacesuit. Physicists, look away now...
Luckily, and in time-honoured Whovian tradition, the Doctor lands on Earth just before the onset of World War II, where we are introduced to plucky mum-of-two Madge Arwell (Claire Skinner) and her dashed decent and dependable husband. Madge finds the wandering Doctor in his spacesuit, is eager to help him in a way that may surprise anyone new to this series and its particular brand of anachronisms, and sees him back to the police call box, which, for once, is blending in with its surroundings very well. The Doctor promises to return the favour if ever he gets the chance.
Fast forward a few years, and Madge is a devastated war widow, unable to tell her children that their pilot father will not be coming home for Christmas after his plane went missing over the English Channel. When a strange, overly enthusiastic man in a tweed coat turns out to be the caretaker at the rambling old property the family is evacuated to, we know that things are, somehow, going to be okay. Even when the Arwells, along with the mysterious stranger, are transported to a seeming winter wonderland in which a heartless alien conglomerate plans to destroy the living forest.
Confession time: I didn’t enjoy series six of Doctor Who. With the exception of the magnificent, Neil Gaiman-penned ‘The Doctor’s Wife’, few of the standalone episodes stood out, while the overarching plot tied itself in knots that finally had to be swiftly cut by a twist of galaxy-shredding proportions. I did, however, love series five, and Christmas 2011 took us right back to everything that made Smith’s first run work so well. Let the doubters wait for his inevitable departure to Hollywood to whinge. They’ll miss him when he’s gone. Still bonkers, still with the eyes of a thousand-year-old man in the face of a very young one (how does he do that? It’s not acting, it’s magic), still working your great-grandad’s clothes while babbling with the giddy wonder of a teenage science buff on a sugar high.
That’s our 11th Doctor, and boy, can he carry an episode. Shorn of his usual sidekicks – well, until the inevitable, and slightly unnecessary, lachrymose coda, that is – the Doctor is unstoppable, a ball of nervous energy whose madcap tour of the fantastical house he’s adapted for his new friends is the highlight of the episode. Eleven is, oddly, most reminiscent of Doctors One and Two, William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton, in his sheer alienness. The darker, harsher Doctor so prominent in series six is missing here, though: it’s Christmas, and he’s the perfect house guest. Apart from the whole ‘getting the kids lost in a killer forest’ bit, of course, but hey, this is Who.
Crucially, he has strong support: Claire Skinner excels as the determined Madge, while her Outnumbered co-star, Alexander Armstrong, plays her husband once again in a sweet role as the apparently doomed airman. For once, the kids aren’t too saccharine, and the emotional moments are well-handled; Skinner conveys the desolation of a sudden loss with considerable skill as she struggles to hold it together for her blissfully ignorant children at Christmas.
One major disappointment is the woefully underused comic element here. Bill Bailey’s casting as the leader of the clueless harvesters of Androzani was a big draw in the publicity for this, yet he hardly makes an impact in a bizarrely brief appearance. Sadly, he and Smith never get to share a scene. This is a perennial problem with the Who specials, reliant as they are on stunt casting that has backfired badly in the past. Bailey, however, should have been one to remember; why waste him on such a trivial – and not even particularly funny – role?
Overall, though, this one’s a winner. Viewed outside the Christmas period, it may lose a little of its sparkle, but a dazzling performance from Smith should provide quite enough lustre for the rest of the year. More of the magic for series seven, please, Mr. Moffat.
DVD extras are, as usual with Doctor Who releases, slightly underwhelming: a brief prequel to the episode and three ‘Best Of’ segments covering the monsters, companions and top Doctor moments of the Smith era so far.