Doctor Who, 2011 Christmas Special, “The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe”
Written by Steven Moffat
Directed by Farren Blackburn
Aired Christmas at 9pm (ET) on BBC America
This week, on Doctor Who: The Arwell family’s Christmas present from the Doctor goes predictably awry
One of the biggest problems with the episode is its lack of focus or narrative throughlines. After a brief prologue establishing the family, both before and during the war, we shift to following the Doctor, as we watch him channel his goofy side. Then we shift to Cyril as he explores the Doctor’s Christmas present- a trip through a tidily wrapped dimensional portal. Then we’re with the Doctor and Lily as they search for him. Just when we’ve begun to assume Madge will be sitting this one out, she’s back in the picture, looking for her kids. Perspective ping-pongs for a while until the group meets up and Madge becomes the focus for the last third of the episode. Trouble is, we don’t know or care about her, beyond a generic pity that her husband is dead and some appreciation of her spunk.
There is a brief, though entertaining, interlude with some foresters which, in hindsight, makes even less sense than it does upon initial viewing (they teleport up and leave their entire ship behind- why were they there in the first place?), but while Bill Bailey is a welcome addition, he’s utterly wasted. The unreadable creature design for the King and Queen is initially visually interesting and impressive, but this forces young Maurice Cole to sell the weight of the situation, as Cyril is the only one able to understand and hear the, “screaming” of the trees. This moment, which is highly reminiscent of Donna’s hearing the Ood song in series four’s, “Planet of the Ood”, (which Catherine Tate knocked out of the park), doesn’t even register. By the time Madge has taken Cyril’s place, the King and Queen are nearly insignificant, as Madge is center stage, and the entire creature design and concept feels like little more than an excuse to pay off the recurring Sonic, “It doesn’t do wood” gag.
Perhaps most frustrating of all is the fact that Moffat has proved himself very capable of pulling off just this kind of a story, in series one’s fantastic two-parter, “The Empty Child”/”The Doctor Dances”. That story, also set in WWII England, dealt with similar familial loss, introduced an incredibly strong female guest star, and featured a rare, at that point at least, tidy and convenient happy ending. Of course, Moffat and Blackburn aren’t helped by Murray Gold’s incredibly over the top reunion music, but more than anything, the family we get here doesn’t feel nearly as real or relatable as the ragtag bunch from series one, or even just Nancy, that story’s Madge.
For many, this is just the Christmas episode they are hoping for, a light diversion from the holiday and a welcome shot of Who before the long wait ‘til next fall. It’s far from the worst of the series’ Christmas specials and, actually, is probably in the upper half. Having seen what this team is capable of, however, from writing, to production, to acting, one can’t help but feel disappointed that they decided to settle for a light diversion.