Doctor Who complete reviews: The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe
|REVIEWS - DOCTOR WHO|
Oh Lord, John...can this be the (temporary) end of two years of Complete Doctor Who reviews...?
It's two days after Christmas and having recovered after the annual bloated festive hoopla, it's back to the sofa for the lucky repeat of this year's festive Who offering. It begins with a great big flamey bang – coming straight after the repeat omnibus of EastEnders, I'm convinced that somehow slimy freak Yusef has survived the devastating inferno at Patrick Trueman's B&B and gone on to wreak pyromaniacal havoc aboard a spaceship. We're never told, but The Doctor's in big, big trouble here – the only way out is to grab hold of a handy protective spacesuit and float towards the Earth like a futuristic version of the Bullseye mascot.
And so begins a Christmas special so festive it makes your eyes turn into tinsel. The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe follows the same sort of lines as the previous year's Christmas Carol in a number of ways. For one thing, it draws on a familiar literary source. Take away Dickens' A Christmas Carol and swap it with CS Lewis' The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe. In a sense, this literary borrowing echoes the two approaches favoured by the two main Tom Baker producers. Philip Hinchcliffe (along with faithful sidekick Robert Holmes) chose to pay homage to some of the great horror film classics in his stories, ranging from Hammer Horror greats to The Masque Of The Red Death and The Manchurian Candidate. When Graham Williams chose to take over the producer's seat, a good chunk of his stories took inspiration from written stories and poems, whether it's The Ballad Of Flannen Isle (Horror Of Fang Rock), Prisoner Of Zenda (The Androids Of Tara ) or even quoting from Beatrix Potter (The Creature From The Pit).
Compare that to the two approaches to the Christmas specials. Russell T Davies, for the most part, looked to familiar movies and movie genres for his Crimbo tales – Independence Day for The Christmas Invasion , screwball comedies for The Runaway Bride and The Poseidon Adventure (or any other disaster film that you'd care to mention) for Voyage Of The Damned .
"Moffat's stories really go for the jugular when it comes to Christmas"
So it's an interesting change of tack by Steven Moffat to look to classic novels instead. Maybe this accounts for Moffat's Christmas specials feeling just that more traditional. Good as they were, the Davies-helmed specials only offered token references to Christmas, and concentrated instead on providing action-packed blockbusters. Moffat's stories on the other hand really go for the jugular when it comes to Christmas – in the case of The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe, we have the superficial Christmas magic, not only in the great big tempting package, but in The Doctor's brief stint as a Caretaker.
Having ousted Mr Carew from his duties as caretaker at Uncle Digby's country house, The Doctor has grabbed the role with both hands, installing moving chairs, lemonade on tap and hammocks! I know! If ever dreary cheapo home makeover show Changing Rooms makes an unwelcome return to the BBC, someone should make The Doctor head honcho. Ratings would sky-rocket.
So just to rewind, The Doctor's taken the position of caretaker three years after crashing to Earth back to front in his space suit. He's been rescued by kindly Madge Arwell, who's fully embraced the 'Goodwill To All Time Lords' mantra and taken the shaken Doctor back to the refuge of his TARDIS. Now this is an incarnation who is always inclined to return favours, so a few years down the line, he's decided to give the Arwell family a Christmas to remember. And it couldn't have come at a better time, given that Madge has received the devastating news that her husband Reg has been killed – the latest casualty of the Second World War.
This is another example of Moffat following the same lines as A Christmas Carol. Maybe it's just the festive spirit, but Moffat pulls heavily on the heartstrings in his Christmas stories. Whereas A Christmas Carol drew on the salvation of Sardick in moving fashion, Moffat goes one step further with the very human reaction to pain and loss. Madge cannot bring herself to tell her two kids Lily and Cyril that their father will not be returning for Christmas because she does not want to ruin the festivities. It's only when Madge becomes the literal 'mother' of the tree people's Mother Ship, that she is forced to come clean to the kids that their father is dead. But after Madge has piloted the mother ship into the time vortex, she can only get back home by picturing her home, her life and everything that matters to her – which includes her Reg. And during this process, she manages to steer Reg's plane away from fiery oblivion back home. Meaning a happier Christmas than ever imagined for the Arwell family.
"Alexander Armstrong delivers some real poignancy to his apparent death and also to his touching reunion with Madge and the kids"
OK, so the big denouement is a familiar Moffat staple. Remembering people back to life was the same sort of deal with the conclusion of The Big Bang. Everybody Lives. Yet Again. I've lost count of the amount of times that Moffat's done this, going all the way back to The Doctor Dances . But somehow, despite all my cynicism, the ending is still rather moving and also rather wonderful. It's that simple emotion of seeing your loved ones again, and it's done with sensitive dialogue from Moffat, and some fine acting from Claire Skinner and Alexander Armstrong.
One of the reasons that I had a change of heart about A Christmas Carol was down to Moffat actually producing real, three-dimensional characters rather than smug cutouts. And that's the deal that you get again with the characters in The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe. Madge, in particular, is very well defined. There's nothing particularly special or original about Madge. She's just your archetypal 1930s mum and wife, fussing around making the meal and dealing with the kids' complaints. But it's that good-natured persona that makes her the crucial linchpin. In her own way, she's just as important a hero as The Doctor – she helps The Doctor back to safety. She's willing to protect her kids from the truth about Reg's death. She even manages to move a whopping great excavation walker to help save everyone from the imminent acid rain downpour. No wonder she's the chosen one to pilot the mother ship into the time vortex. Claire Skinner's better known for playing the hapless matriarch in Outnumbered (not a favourite comedy of mine by any means), but she's the perfect choice for Madge, adding a lot of subtle pathos to the part and making her a tough but likeable sub-companion. She manages to trick the Androzani harvesters with the age-old crying routine, uses that old Dunkirk spirit to move a futuristic ship that she can't even begin to comprehend and also gives as good as she gets when it comes to standing up to The Doctor.
Some of the other characters aren't that well defined, but that's the fault of the 60-minute limitation. With so much going on in the story, something's got to give, and so that means confining some of the big-name guest stars to limited cameos. So we get a great big stocking full of familiar greats such as Bill Bailey, Arabella Weir and good old Mr Smith himself, Alexander Armstrong. All of them do well however – Armstrong delivers some real poignancy to his apparent death and also to his touching reunion with Madge and the kids. The three Androzani harvesters are well defined – Ven-Garr (good performance from Benidorm's Paul Bazely) is the blubbing jessie, Billis is the feisty poster girl for Women's Lib, while Droxil is the world-weary Captain. The problem is though, despite the talents of Bailey, Weir and Bazely, they aren't given anywhere near enough screen-time as they should have been given. Maybe they'll get the opportunity to return in the future – especially since they're harvesters from Androzani Major, a canny reference that probably made the die-hard Whovians squee in delight.
"Both Lily and Cyril are good, well-acted characters, echoing the wonder of the kids taking their first tottering steps into the snowy wastes of Narnia"
The kids fare a bit better though. It may be the one thousandth and thirty first example of having kids in Doctor Who, but both Lily and Cyril are good, well-acted characters, echoing the wonder of the kids taking their first tottering steps into the snowy wastes of Narnia. Maurice Cole and Holly Earl are good finds, and do well as the earnest kids, making them valuable assets to the story rather than irritating brats.
Overseeing all this madness is of course, Matt Smith as The Doctor. The Eleventh Doctor is still relishing his role as an intergalactic Santa Claus/Jimmy Savile. He's fixing it for other people to have a Happy Christmas – albeit with a few teething problems. Like his salvation of Sardick, The Doctor's special present of a time portal to a forest wonderland isn't what it says in the brochure. It's memorable, but maybe not a holiday experience full of awe and wonder – The Doctor's Time Travel brochure conveniently misses out the bit about getting cornered by scary tree people and nearly getting fried to a crisp by acid rain. But it's still a nice return to the well-meaning but bumbling Eleventh Doctor, coming so soon after the recent darker trials.
Matt Smith is as good as ever as The Doctor, full of goofy charm and yonks-old authority. He even manages to make the last scene genuinely touching rather than cheesy. Paying a special Christmas visit to Amy and Rory (Amy's back in shouty mode again, incidentally), he's truly moved by the fact that his old friends have set a place for him at the dining table (a neat nod to the equally moving goodbye to The Brig in The Wedding Of River Song ). And as he closes the door, Happy Tears fall down his face. Yucky slush on paper but a lovely coda on screen, thanks to the ever-reliable Smith who's undoubtedly made The Doctor his own. Hopefully he'll stick around for a good few more stories to come.
"Even the lesser examples of Doctor Who put most TV programmes in the shade, and let's face it, no other programme comes close to matching the quality, longevity and most of all, fun"
Overall, The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe is a magical experience. It's not wholly perfect – break the plot down and the majority of it seems to be one great chase in a forest. In fact there's more chasing in this story than 10 weeks' worth of Duncan Norvelle stand-up routines. Some of the cynics may not like the fact that the same old Moffat elements rear their heads, such as everybody living, kids and remembering people back to life. But on the other side of the coin, it's comparatively simple, smug-free and highly entertaining. The evacuation of the tree life forces equates well with the notion of evacuating kids during the war. And a menagerie of witty lines, the main great forte of Moffat's - “I'm usually called The Doctor. Or the caretaker. Or 'Get Off This Planet'”. “Fairyland? Oh grow up Lily. Fairyland looks completely different”. “Got a bit clinchy in the middle there, but it sort of worked out in the end. The story of my life.”
Farren Blackburn does a very good job of directing the story (also check out Blackburn's work on the sleeper hit of 2011, The Fades). Interestingly, the story's much smaller in scope than A Christmas Carol – there are notably fewer sets, but it still looks mighty fine thanks to some lovely production values and some highly accomplished directorial touches from Blackburn.
And any story that champions pulling a water pistol on annoying carol singers can't be all bad.
So The Doctor's come a long way from shooing away meddling teachers in an old junkyard. Many companions have come and gone, many aliens have tried and mostly failed at defeating the main man, but Doctor Who has still managed to entertain, terrify and enlighten kids and adults for nearly 50 years. Even the lesser examples of Doctor Who put most TV programmes in the shade, and let's face it, no other programme comes close to matching the quality, longevity and most of all, fun.
With that in mind, it's Bon Voyage from me with the Complete Doctor Who Reviews – well, at least until the new series kicks off later in 2012. It's been a real blast scribbling pithy gibberish about everyone's favourite Time Lord. Thanks to anyone who took the time to read any of my reviews – and even bigger thanks to those who said nice things about what I wrote. Big thanks to the Shadowlocked team, in particular, Luke, Gabriel, Caleb, Richard and Marcus for their encouragement – check out their articles elsewhere on Shadowlocked if you haven't done so already – they're very good, you know.
Special thanks to the main man Martin, who offered me the gig in the first place and provided many words of advice and praise, not to mention a pretty impressive website which continues to go from strength to strength. And of course, lots of special thanks to my wife Alison, who encouraged me to go it alone in the big freelance writing world in the first place and has always been there for me with lots of love and support.
So until Autumn 2012, It's The End But The Moment Has Been Prepared For, Feels Different This Time, While There's Life There's..., I Don't Want To Go etc etc. That's all, folks!
IF YOU ENJOYED THIS ARTICLE, PLEASE HELP SUPPORT OUR SITE, AT NO COST WITH ONE CLICK ON THE FACEBOOK 'LIKE' BUTTON BELOW:
If you're interested in writing for Shadowlocked (disc and screening reviews, etc, or just getting some extra coverage for your extraordinary writing talent, get in touch with us.