The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe Review

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Clint Hassell reviews The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe, the 2011 Doctor Who Christmas special.

The cold open of “The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe” is rousing, featuring the Doctor defending the Earth from an alien invasion – something we’ve seen Eleven do only in series premieres. I enjoyed seeing Eleven-as-action-hero; thus far, stories have been written toward Matt Smith’s comedic strengths.

However, seeing the Doctor not only survive, but making sounds, in the airless vacuum of space is ridiculous. Further, the Doctor should have burned up in the Earth’s atmosphere, or been splattered into smithereens by the force of impact. But, it’s Christmas, and for once, Steven Moffat tried to offer an explanation for his seeming plot hole, so I’m gonna let this one slide – even if said explanation (the Doctor is wearing an “impact suit” that is repairing his damaged body, which is why he cannot remove the helmet, thus hiding his face from Madge, and leading to the events of the episode) is a bit contrived.

Though, I must ask: if the TARDIS is in London, then how did the Doctor get on board the invading alien ship?

I love the scene where Madge and the Doctor find a phone box that isn’t the TARDIS – a favorite joke cribbed from The Sarah Jane Adventures episode, “The Temptation of Sarah Jane Smith.” (Long-time fans will recall from “The Survivors” that the TARDIS lock could never be picked with a hairpin, for fear of melting the lock’s interior.)

As Madge awakens from her nightmare to an empty bed, the episode is remarkably affecting. That’s good, because, seeing as it’s Christmas, you know that the kids aren’t going to lose their father – the BBC probably has editorial mandates against that somewhere – so, the episode needs to lay it’s emotional groundwork here. It largely succeeds. The shot of Madge, eyes closed, fervently willing her husband back into existence as her children, in the background, make a wish, is inspired.

Though, how does the Doctor receive her wish? Via psychic paper, à la “Night Terrors”? Are we already ripping off tricks from just five episodes ago?

And, what about her wish caused the Doctor to modify Uncle Digby’s house into a Wonka-fied world of pure imagination? It is obvious by the look on the Doctor’s face that he was not aware of Reg’s disappearance until questioned by Madge, so . . . lucky guess? Mad whim? Plot hole?

And, once he does know of Reg’s disappearance, why doesn’t the guy with a time machine just go rescue the pilot and his crew? It seems like a lot less trouble than a sitting room of hyperactive chairs, and with a better end result.

And, where is Uncle Digby’s caretaker, Mr. Cardue?

It was at this point that I finally put my finger on something I’ve been subconsciously pondering for many months: I feel that Moffat writes Doctor Who, not to entertain his inner fanboy, but as a gift for his young sons. It’s a beautifully sweet gesture, but it means that story logic is written to appease a ten-year-old. I want more. I hope the next showrunner is more of a fan, less of a father.

Speaking of gifts, I appreciate how the Doctor’s present to the Arwells is wrapped in TARDIS-blue paper and just “blue box”-y enough so that it isn’t surprising when it is revealed to be bigger on the inside. However, the Doctor leaves an open, two-way portal to an alien world, wrapped only in paper, in front of curious young children, at Christmas?! What, was the store sold out of handguns? This man borders on the criminally negligent. Even Lily realizes that, and chastises the Doctor, “It’s just irresponsible!” The revelation that the Doctor meant for this to be a safe, Christmas trip references how the TARDIS crew ended up trapped inside Two Streams in “The Girl Who Waited.” It’s a wonder Cyril doesn’t end up with Chen 7.

The wintry forests of Androzani Major were breathtakingly beautiful, and felt cold and desolate. This was definitely one of the best recreations of a heavy snowfall that I’ve ever seen. I really wish that the vapor from the characters’ breaths was visible, to complete the effect.

So, the giant spire at the center of the forest is a tree house? With a glass dome, and an electric light, and a seemingly-metal door with an Aslanian door knocker? And it’s capable of flying through space and time like a rocket – but it’s all made from wood? Uh-huh. Riiiiiiiight.

Of course, Madge is perfectly capable of driving a complicated piece of futuristic alien technology – she flew with her husband. Once. But, Madge loves her kids, and you can blow up an invading army of Cybermen with love, so, why not? (rolls eyes) Incidentally, it was right at this moment that my friend, Richard, seeing Madge pilot a giant, yellow, alien harvester, said, in his best Sigourney Weaver voice, “Get away from her, you birch!” – my absolute favorite line of the evening.

And then, Steven Moffat makes a very naughty double entendre by putting a lot of wood inside that nice lady. I guess I should be happy that Steven decided to embrace “girl power,” this Christmas. Had this been an episode from the regular series, Madge probably would have been abandoned, replaced by a replicant, and had her children turned into Ganger goo, or programmed to become a psychotic killer, and then left to rot in prison for a crime she didn’t commit.

Which brings us to the not-at-all-surprising ending. You ever get a paint-by-numbers set? The resulting picture is pretty enough, but you could see it coming all along, because the outline has been there from the beginning, just waiting to be filled in with the most basic of colors. That was this episode. Of course, we were going to save Father, and Madge was going to do it, and it would be because she’s a great mother. Granted, I wasn’t expecting it to be via a time rotor grown from trees, but whatever. Madge uses her emotional pain as a beacon, guiding her past the milestones of her relationship with Reg – like all those times that he stalked her as she walked home, and that time that threatening to continue following her until she married him. Ah, romance in Doctor Who! (I’m pretty sure I do not wish to know how Moffat courted his wife.) Jokes aside, I do think that it’s sweet that Reg once again follows Madge home, and I really enjoyed the sensible resolution of Reg’s plane getting pulled through the rift in spacetime created by Madge’s love-controlled trip through the vortex.

The end result of the tree souls? Why, they are out, shining amongst the stars – now, somehow able to survive outside of a living host, defying a major plot point from earlier in the episode. But, hey, at this point, they’re no longer important, so they’re hastily shoved into the nearest plot hole, never to be seen again.

Notice that the Doctor mentions repeatedly that “Your mother is flying a forest through the time vortex! Be a little impressed.” The lines are an attempt to create drama, because there’s not a villain or really much of a threat in the episode. The harvesters are merely doing their job. The tree saplings are just trying to survive. There is never any doubt that Reg will be saved. In fact, the once source of danger in the episode is the Doctor’s irresponsibility.

It was at this point that I finally put my finger on something else I’ve been subconsciously pondering for many months: Doctors One through Seven had a kindly, grandfatherly/fatherly/favorite uncle quality to them. They nurtured in a parental-type way. Eight through Ten behaved more like an impossibly-dashing boyfriend. Eleven acts like a child. Yes, this is an oversimplification, and, again, I feel that this is mostly due to stories being written to cater to Matt’s comedic strengths . . . but I miss the Doctor being an adult.

So, ostensibly, the Doctor repays Madge for her favor – only he doesn’t do much except endanger her kids and clog the kitchen plumbing with lemonade concentrate. And, despite having a time machine, he doesn’t save her husband. No, Madge does that because she’s a strong woman and a loving mother. Which is fine, I guess, because, really, the entire episode is a set-up for Madge, a woman who knows all to well what it is like to spend Christmas thinking that a loved one is dead, to convince the Doctor to visit Amy and Rory – thus concluding the Doctor-has-to-reveal-himself-to-the-Ponds-as-NOT-being-dead plot line not one full episode after it started. Well, that was fast, though I guess expected, if we are to believably have Amy and Rory rejoin the TARDIS (or is that “re-re-re-re-rejoin”?) in Series 7.