Summary Judgement: Slow to start with a payoff that will likely be satisfying for fans but bewildering for any viewers attempting to use this episode as an entry point into Doctor Who.
Here we are, 2012 and yet again the world did not explode. Chalk up one more point for reason and sensibility in the face of apocalyptic crypto-prophecy. Since everybody is still alive and eating cake, let’s talk about the Doctor Who Christmas episode.
The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe doesn’t rate particularly high as a stand alone Doctor Who adventure or as a holiday special. Steven Moffat set a very high watermark with last year’s A Christmas Carol. Even my mother, who couldn’t tell a Klingon from a Dalek, enjoyed that story. After about fifteen minutes of this year’s special, my girlfriend turned to me and asked if the BBC had let an intern write the screenplay.
It’s a harsh criticism but one that rings true considering the abysmal pacing at hand. The plot follows a sort of logarithmic curve that stays flat for most of the episode only to suddenly spike toward the end. It’s also the sort of episode that requires a rather generous dose of disbelief suspension as the doctor bails out of an exploding starship in Earth orbit wearing nothing more than his usual duds. Granted he manages to get into a space suit during his atmospheric entry, but only after sucking a couple minutes of hard vacuum. Let’s call it a Festivus miracle and move on.
Much like the Narnia book from which the episode takes its name, the story uses a wartime retreat to the country as its setting. At the home of a distant relative, the Arwell family, sans their father, a MIA RAF pilot, meet an eccentric caretaker who is intent on giving the two Arwell children the best Christmas ever. It’s all meant to be safe and fun until, like so many of The Doctor’s plans, things go a bit wibbly. One of The Doctor’s presents sees the family teleported to a seemingly innocent planet where trees grow organic ornaments. Too bad said baubles turn into tree monsters.
Devotees will readily understand that the Doctor’s over the top attempts to make the children happy are likely a response to his own emotional turmoil. We know The Doctor lost his family, likely due to his use of “The Moment” during the Time War. Yet, Smith’s actions seem more like the motions of a mad hatter than those of a father whose old wounds are slowly opening up before him. At least give The Doctor a fez if he’s going to bounce off the walls like a twelve year old on a sugar binge.
Very gradually, the episode starts to even itself out. The Doctor embraces his self appointed title of “Caretaker” as the three Arwells become stranded on the forest planet. There are even some delightfully funny moments as Madge Arwell’s (Claire Skinner) quest to find her lost children leads to a confrontation with miners from Androzani Major, who are intent on burning the forest to the ground while working through some mommy issues. The story also maintains last season’s tendency to explore family relationships and the nature of motherhood. However, I’m not sure if I particularly like the story’s take away message that a mother’s love is somehow grander than that of a father’s. At any rate, the main story, despite dragging through its first movements, resolves itself aptly enough.
The true salvation of the episode manifests in its last few minutes. The Doctor’s unexpected arrival at Rory and Amy’s house allowed him the opportunity to genuinely connect with his emotions. I can count on one hand the number of times that Matt Smith has had the chance to show The Doctor as anything other than a mad man with a blue box. The Doctor abides; it is his nature to do so. The Doctor brought to tears is a completely different man. That is a man who, standing at the door of the Ponds’ house, the house of his mother and father in law, has found a new family. And that is very interesting, indeed. While the Doctor remains humanity’s protector in the general sense, he now has a tangible connection to the Earth.
It remains to be seen what will come of this relationship, especially in light of Karen Gillan’s and Arthur Darvill’s imminent departure from the show. Whatever happens, hopefully it means more writing that allows Matt Smith to deliver a depth to The Doctor that has been woefully understated for the last few years. I’ll conclude with a question. We know that The Doctor was willing to sacrifice Gallifrey, his family, and countless other worlds to end the Time War. What situation could now move him to sacrifice his new found family?
+3.0 for writing that lets Matt Smith add depth to The Doctor
+1.0 for a few laughs
-1.5 for awful pacing
-1.0 for overplaying “Mom” power
Overall Score: +1.5