An Unsung Who Hero: Madge Arwell
Guest contributor Lee Garrett on why Claire Skinner’s companion was an unsung hero.
Stern, caring and somewhat unsure of her own ability are perhaps not the best descriptors for an unsung hero in Doctor Who, but they are three qualities that made up what was so great about Madge Arwell.
The companion for 2011’s Christmas Special ‘The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe’ (TDTW&TW), Claire Skinner had the task of carrying the special alongside Matt Smith and as Madge, the actress did well for her one and only 60 minutes in the role. Not wanting to spoil her children’s Christmas due to the “death” of her husband Reg, Mrs Arwell puts herself second at the holiday period and tries not to spoil the festivities for her children – it’s something that any parent could empathise with and understand the reasonings. It’s pure parental selflessness; the mourning put to one side in favour of her own children’s happiness.
Putting herself second to others was not something new to Madge though who did what she could to help out the “Spaceman who fell out of the Sky”. Helping was just something about her, almost inherent you could say; a war torn wife doing her bit to help out a fallen person who dropped out of the heavens. Even just writing that sounds so pleasant on her character and it’s something that I find is overlooked when TDTW&TW is looked upon as an episode. There is only one familiar character in the Doctor for the most part in the episode and he isn’t the most relatable of men, so for Skinner to make Madge likeable and believable inside the opening few minutes is no mean feat at all.
It is of course her kindness that leads to the Doctor repaying a favour to the whole Arwell family and shows what an impact she had upon the Time Lord. He often thanks others, but very rarely offers them repayment like this. She is special.
Skinner gives quite a restrained performance for the majority of the episode and this is where I have seen criticisms before in that her impact isn’t massive on proceedings. However, subtlety and a restrained manner of ways is just more real if you ask me and make for a nice tonal change to Karen Gillan’s loveable and bolshie Amy Pond. Madge really did feel like a mother who could be your own mum actually helping out the Doctor. It’s strange but good at the same time. She is a stern mother and tries to warn both Lily and Cyril away from the Time Lord which is understandable – it is another thing that hasn’t been seen in a while and again added to the nice change that was seen on screen. The concerns were very deep within the character who was clearly still coming to terms with her loss.
It is this drive and determination to keep her children safe that means Madge takes no nonsense from the “caretaker” and openly criticises the Doctor for putting lives at risk. I think deep down she knows the Doctor is only doing things for fun and thrills, but it is that motherly instinct that makes her wary and unsure of the bizarre man in a bowtie. In a strange way, Madge is almost like the female reflection of Arthur Darvill’s Rory. She is the voice of reason and like the Doctor’s respect for Rory, the Time Lord clearly admires her caring ways.
When needed to be at the centre of the action however, Skinner’s fun side, shown in the sitcom ‘Outnumbered’ comes through as a twinkle in her eyes lights up when Madge is operating the Androzani ship – it’s the one time her mask of sensibleness vanishes as she’s clearly enjoying the moment, but it is all for the children again. Her one aim is constant throughout and with the British mantra of “Keep Calm and Carry On”, it is something that is conveyed very well on screen.
Building up to the episode’s key moment of her being under the control of the Wooden King and Queen, the vulnerability comes back and in what I think is one of the best moments of acting from a guest star since the 2005 revival, Skinner acts brilliantly as Madge is left with the heartbreaking reveal of Reg’s demise in front of Lily and Cyril. It’s not full blown out crying, but it is the choking up with emotion noises that get me every time as the widow becomes the guiding light to save her husband from certain death across the English Channel. It’s a touching moment and one of the few times I’ve cried watching Doctor Who, so it must have meant something deep down. It’s such a memorable scene for me and the heartbreak and anguish is believable all round. For a one-off character to have that effect on me I think says a lot about both the writing and Skinner’s performance in the episode.
Madge is a reluctant hero without a doubt and with her Reg “restored”; Mrs Arwell’s twinkle reappears at the episode’s close as her motherly tendencies reappear as she basically commands the Doctor to see his friends and family in the form of the Ponds. Not many characters could do that I think and with a simple kiss on the cheek as thanks, the Doctor knows that too. The mother knows best in this instance and being alone at Christmas is no real option, not even for the Doctor.
So, for a wonderful 60 minutes (ish) of loveliness and realism, Claire Skinner deserves her dues for a performance that held together an episode. Her mixture of emotions made Madge feel like a real mother and with a twinkle in her eye every so often and that very persuasive voice of reason, Madge’s impact as a character may not be memorable to many, but to me, she is a great unsung hero in the show who shouldn’t be forgotten. Kind to the last: Madge always meant well…