Hello, and welcome back. Did everyone have a nice Christmas/holiday season? Ready for some Doctor Who? Good, because “The Doctor, The Widow, And The Wardrobe” was pretty much a double-barreled blast of Who, giving us wild fantasy concepts, the Matt Smith Doctor at his sprightliest, and humanistic uplift, all of it tied to a Christmas theme. And tied tightly. The Russell T. Davies era of Doctor Who didn’t want for Christmas specials but Stephen Moffat clearly takes the idea of doing a Christmas episode seriously, using Doctor Who explore the themes of the holiday and the feelings it stirs in those who celebrate it. The same can’t be said for “The Christmas Invasion” or “The Runaway Bride” (though it probably can for “The Next Doctor,” now that I think about it). That’s no small challenge, though I think Moffatt has now risen to it twice, first with “A Christmas Carol” and now with the inventive, and moving “The Doctor, The Widow, And The Wardrobe.”
We begin where the online prequel left off, with The Doctor aboard a ship that’s about to explode. Which, as he points out, is good in the sense that he’s once again saved the Earth and bad in the sense that he’ll probably die in the process. He doesn’t, escaping to the accompaniment of klaxons and a computer voice sounding an “intruder alert” and then only just making it inside a spacesuit—backwards, we learn in short order—in time to crash land safely on Earth. It feels like the exciting climax to an adventure we’ll never see (I’m guessing). It also feels a bit, well, boilerplate. It’s a fun, brashly staged, cliché. But that’s pretty much where the clichés end during this special.
The Doctor, as it turns out, has landed in Britain—which he generally seems to do—on the eve of the Second World War. He’s discovered by the seemingly unflappable Madge (played by Claire Skinner, a veteran of Mike Leigh movies, though not the recent ones.) “I found a spaceman in a field… Possibly an angel,” she tells her kids. By the episode’s end, she’ll be proven right on both counts. But for now she’s the one in the business of rescuing and, after seeing him to his TARDIS, she probably assumes she’s seen the last of him. But she can’t see the future. Talking to her husband as he reads a newspaper about the gathering storm in Europe she asks, “If people keep reading about the war it will actually happen. And then where will you be?” Cut to three years later. Cut to an apparent disaster over the English Channel. Cut to a grieving Skinner deciding to keep the news from her kids until after the holiday.
I wasn’t sure what to make of what happened next. The episode seems to be aware of how problematic Madge’s decision not to tell her kids what’s happened to their dad is, but I wasn’t sure The Doctor seemed aware of it, with his policy of intense distraction. And the space he’s created for the kids is about as distracting as anything a WWII era child could dream up. (Personal aside to parents: As a new dad it left me thinking that toys of the era stimulated the imagination in ways videogames and talking dolls or even all the licensed toys I played with as a kid just don’t. Then again, I think kids tend to project their fantasy lives on whatever’s around them, however tacky.) But the idyll doesn’t last for long: Lily decides to explore the off-limits area where The Doctor has kept his TARDIS, Cyril decides to open a special present a little too soon, and the adventure begins in earnest.
It’s a familiar-looking adventure. Even if the title didn’t evoke the first of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books, the first foray into a snowbound fantasy kingdom would surely have started most viewers thinking of Lewis. But there’s more than Narnia in the planet the Doctor and the kids explore. The tower could come from Tolkien or Stephen King’s Dark Tower books. Cyril looks a bit like Harry Potter. And the soldiers look a lot, at first at least, like Star Wars stormtroopers. In the broad strokes it looks like a tribute to fantasy lands past and present, but the particulars of the story belong to the world of Doctor Who.
Particularly the Moffat era of Doctor Who. It begins as one sort of story—a trip to a Christmas tree planet where baubles literally grow on trees—and then shifts, becoming a kind of ecological redemption tale that never loses sight of its Christmas themes. As usual, when a Moffat episode works—and some work better than others—it’s the Moffat voice that unites the disparate elements. About halfway through the episode I started to wonder if the Doctor even needed to be there for the story to work. The kids could easily have moved toward their destination without his guidance—and in a proper fantasy story, they probably wouldn’t have had much of a guide—and it’s ultimately their mother who saves the day. It’s not that the Doctor is just along for the ride, but this isn’t his most proactive adventure. But he does need to be there, to explain things, sure, but also to deliver lines like “Why is there honey in a honeytrap?” and my favorite: “It’s a big universe. Everything happens somewhere.”
And, in one last reveal, we learn that the story is as much about him as any other character. We reach a happy ending, an even happier ending than we might have suspected, and The Doctor cries. They’re real, happy tears too, in spite of what he said earlier in the episode: “I’m older than I look and I can’t feel the way you do. Not anymore.” Is he, in more than just appearance, younger than that now? Then, one last surprise: The man without a home goes home and we get to see a reunion with Amy and Rory. They know it’s coming, and they’re still a little peeved he disappeared in the first place, but everyone’s too overcome with emotion to care. He enters and it’s a Merry Christmas all around.
Moffat had his work cut out for him with “The Doctor, The Widow, And The Wardrobe.” Topping last year’s “A Christmas Carol” was never going to be easy, but I think this episode can stand beside it proudly. The tree creatures are creepy before they become moving, the kids are endearing, and both the ending and the epilogue pack a wallop. It’s both a fine episode of Doctor Who and a fine piece of Christmas television in which death and despair get defeated by hope and love. And with that, let’s say happy holidays and agree to meet again soon.
• But not too soon. It looks like we won’t be getting any more new episodes until late 2012.
• And it promises to be an eventful season, too. Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill will be leaving and Amy and Rory, naturally, leaving with them. Companions come and go on this shwo, of course, but their departure raises a couple of issues. 1) They’re both really good in the roles and their characters will be missed. 2) The Moffatt era has been about bringing The Doctor, Amy, and Rory closer and closer until, by this point, they’ve formed a makeshift family. It’s going to take a big story to pry them apart.
• Finally: “Hot, cold… lemonade.” Who wouldn’t want that?