The Christmas Specials, I think we all agree, work differently to your normal episode of the world’s greatest television show™. We’ve come to expect certain things from them as Team Who have to produce a piece of work that is palatable/understandable on the biggest day of the televisual calendar to many more who don’t normally tune in every Saturday (in the UK, at least).
The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe works very well in this context. I’m sure the extra millions who tune in will thoroughly enjoy it. I’m sure, in fact, that many fans will enjoy it too. I’m guessing that you can see where this is going (and, you’ve probably just looked at the rating below anyway).
This is not a good episode of Doctor Who.
In fact, I’d go so far to say that it’s almost poor, verging on dull in parts. But let me start with the good things – of which there a great many, it has to be said.
Matt is in great form as The Doctor, most notably in the early scenes where he introduces the family to their new home. Smith’s energy and exuberance is fittingly festive and utterly delightful. As always, his Time Lord shines brightest when in the presence of children, and the kids here adore him.
The young actor and actress perform superbly (continuing the SteeMo trope of memorable kids), particularly Holly Earl (the daughter of the story, Lily Arwell), who spends much time with the Time Lord. One hopes that somehow she can return as a permanent companion – Matt’s interactions with her are incredible and unlike any relationship between Doctor and Companion in a very long time. Most refreshing.
Claire Skinner, the mother Madge Arwell, is solid if slightly whelming – never amazing, just stout and pleasingly pitched. Sadly, the trio of Paul Bazely, Arabella Weir and Bill Bailey don’t fare so well. Their Outer Space Park Patrol characters come off out of place due to the overly comedic nature of the roles. Their schtick is very Monty Python and jars with the drama at hand (again, it’s Christmas so they’re forgiven).
Bailey especially is horrifically underutilised and someone as beloved as he is, someone who is on most fan lists to appear on the show (including mine) should have been gifted a larger part. It’s sad to think that his talents and personality have been wasted on such a forgettable and uninteresting role. Sad, also, as it means we won’t see him again in the near future. But back to the good.
It is beautifully shot and the Christmas~esque world will delight your eyes. Director Farren Blackburn’s first Who outing is a visual triumph and he sets no foot wrong; ranging from the whimsical openings (yes, plural – there’s a couple), the childlike romp through the house to the wonder of the forest and the mystery of the Trees. Blackburn is most welcome back for 2012.
Likewise the CG work is very good in parts; augmenting the Tree beings subtly to great effect. The design work, however, is slightly derivative in parts: the space suits, worn by Bailey & Co. and the Harvester (evoking both The Empire Strikes Back and Aliens – not a bad thing mind), for example. Though full marks for making the room in which the last third takes place give a huge nod to UK Eighties game show, The Crystal Maze.
But my biggest gripe come in the form of the story itself. It’s a mess. A big Christmas mess. It’s not really a story – the narrative, as we have become accustomed to of late, has been dumped by the wayside. The hour is constructed of moments, some remarkable as I have alluded to, but there is a palpable disconnection present.
It’s hard to care or get involved with the Trees or their plot (which includes an incredibly well trod and outdated ecological message). The appearance and subsequently rapid disappearance of Bailey & Co. also highlights the segmential style of storytelling going on (and make you wonder why they bothered getting talent like that in for such a cameo). For me, though, the biggest “crime” of The Doctor, The Widow & the Wardrobe is its denouement.
I’m not going to spoil it for you but once the final scenes kick in, you’ll see what’s coming up a mile off. Now predictability is not the issue I have, just to be clear. Knowing what’s coming up can be, after all, incredibly satisfying. But it’s the content and style of the resolution that, once again this year, left me frustrated and annoyed.
Moffat’s Who, of late, has seen characters thinking themselves, and others, into existence (just by remembering); love saving the day (frequently); and the power of thought defeating an enemy. For me, it’s a bit too magical and esoteric. And unsubstantial. This ending is a retread of some of these ideas and, at best, groan~inducing. Or tear~inducing – depending on how emotional you get on Christmas Day.
As I opened with, some may very well be happy with this. I wasn’t too keen on last year’s A Christmas Carol but it pleased the majority. And, again, it’s Christmas so I won’t be too concerned with my doubts. The Doctor, The Widow & the Wardrobe has lots going for it and one can’t help but feel that a little more time and care on this story could’ve ironed out some issues, fleshed out some characters (or got rid of some) and even changed the ending.
Most disappointing is the fact that it’s just another episode from 2011 I won’t be coming back to.