Despite the presence of naturally occurring Christmas trees, a self-spinning Christmas tree, a bona fide Christmas miracle and a big blue box that isn’t the TARDIS but still transports people to a distant planet in the far future, the 2011 DOCTOR WHO Christmas special really didn’t feel all that…Christmas-y to me. Not that I minded; I still enjoyed “The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe” immensely. The Doctor wanted this to be “the best Christmas ever,” but that title still resides with last year’s “A Christmas Carol.”
Set in the English countryside in 1941, TDTWATW saw the Doctor (Matt Smith) posing as the eccentric caretaker of a manor to be occupied by Madge Arwell (Claire Skinner) and her children, Lily (Holly Earl) and Cyril (Maurice Cole), who are avoiding . Madge has been resisting telling the children that their father, Reg, was lost flying a mission over the Channel, for fear of ruining the holiday for her children forever.
The Doctor had planned on using a dimensional portal disguised as a big blue box to take the Arwells on a trip to a forest planet, but Cyril opens the package early and gets lots in the snow-swept wilderness on the other side. The Doctor and Lily pursue him, exploring a planet of natural Christmas trees and creature made of wood, while Madge falls in with harvesters from Androzani Major who are poised to destroy the forest (and all living inhabitants) with artificial acid rain.
The parallels to C.S. Lewis’ “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” are numerous and intentional: children sent to the country to avoid bombing in London discover a magical doorway to an enchanted, snow-covered land of strange creatures. Scriptwriter Steven Moffat knew exactly what he was doing, and managed to replicate a similar (but scaled-down) sense of awe, and more immediate and relatable sense of dread and danger. Is the Wooden King friend or foe? What about the menacing Wooden Queen? What are those lights in the forest? And exactly why shouldn’t you open presents until Christmas morning?
I enjoyed the lighthearted tone of the story from the moment the Doctor appeared as the caretaker in all his fast-talking, nonsensical glory. (The idea was, the Doctor would repay Madge for an earlier kindness by giving her family “the best Christmas ever.”) His ideas about what constitutes the ideal child’s room — the Magna Carta? Windows disguised as mirrors and mirrors disguised as windows? Hammocks instead of beds? — reveal as much about the 11th Doctor’s personality as his dismissal of Madge’s grown-up bedroom as “boring.”
Once again, we see the Doctor’s special ability to bond with children by thinking exactly like them — well, if they were Gallifreyan children, I’m sure — and the Doctor’s role in this story was an absolute tour de force for Smith, from the pratfalls of the teaser to the tears of the coda. I could barely keep up with the barrage of words bubbling from his mouth as he conducted a madcap tour of the mansion he had retrofitted to his own desires.
As a longtime fan, I really appreciated the Easter eggs Moffat slipped into the Christmas script, including references to the Forest of Cheem and Androzani Major — but would it have killed the Doctor to mention that one time he got into a spot of bother on Androzani Minor?
How about that ending… A bit sentimental, to be sure, but completely appropriate. Not only does Madge manage to rescue Reg back in 1941, the Doctor goes to visit Amy (Karen Gillan) and Rory (Arthur Darvill), whom he hadn’t seen in over two years — from the Ponds’ perspective. The Doctor’s tear was the perfect way to underline his half-human side without trumpeting it from the hilltops. If you caught the reference, great; if not, you probably just thought the Doctor is an old softie. (Which he is.)
In contrast to the quiet close, the opening of TDTWATW, which directly picked up on events seen in the online prequel, was as exciting a teaser as any I could imagine for the Doctor: trying to wriggle into a spacesuit before roasting alive as he fell from orbit while a battle cruiser disintegrated around him? Who says this isn’t the greatest TV show of all time? I know it is!