Each day leading up to Christmas and ‘The Husbands of River Song’, we will be looking back at the Doctor’s previous festive adventures with a different TGT writer reviewing each episode.
In Britain during the Second World War, a young child is evacuated to a large house in the countryside. Discovering a seemingly ordinary object that’s bigger on the inside, the child enters to find themselves stepping into a magical, snow covered forest where time passes at a different rate.
So far, so Chronicles of Narnia. But far from being ‘always winter and never Christmas’, The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe – like A Christmas Carol before it – draws on a classic literary tale to deliver an episode that not only wholeheartedly embraces the spirit of Christmas but does so in a way that, despite its inspiration, is quintessentially Doctor Who.
“…I found a spaceman in a field, possibly an angel…”
It certainly doesn’t get more Doctor Who than the bombastic pre-credits sequence, in which we see the Eleventh Doctor doing a frankly rubbish job of staying under the radar following the events of The Wedding of River Song. It’s always fun to meet up with the Doctor mid-adventure, especially when exploding alien ships are involved, but this moment (as well as the episode’s prequel) also serves to let us know of the Doctor’s loneliness following his separation from Amy and Rory.
Enter Madge Arwell (Claire Skinner), who steps into the companion role for this episode and, in doing so, joins an ever-growing list of companions who could have been. Right from when she discovers the Doctor in a giant crater with his spacesuit on back to front, she displays so many different qualities that make her potential companion material. Madge is eminently unflappable in dealing with such an odd situation, very kind in making sure the Doctor is unhurt and gets to where he needs to be, and resourceful when picking the lock of the police box – even if her driving skills are rather more questionable! It’s no wonder the Doctor takes an instant shine to her and offers to do a good deed for her in return – and with Britain on the cusp of war, it’s an offer she has to take him up on sooner rather than later…
“I’m usually called the Doctor. Or the Caretaker. Or ‘Get Off This Planet’. Though strictly speaking that probably isn’t a name.”
Three years later it’s all change for Madge Arwell and her family – with husband Reg (Alexander Armstrong) lost in the war, it’s up to Madge to give her two children Lily (Holly Earl) and Cyril (Maurice Cole) a happy Christmas whilst concealing the sad truth from them until the festive period is over. Arriving at an absent relative’s house in the countryside to escape the bombing, the remaining Arwells encounter the Doctor, who has assumed the role of caretaker and has been busy making ‘improvements’ which he proudly shows off in a whistlestop tour. Matt Smith provides a wonderfully comic turn here as with breathless excitement his Doctor points out lemonade taps, armchairs that move by themselves and the plethora of weird and wonderful objects available in the children’s bedroom – all of which no doubt would have enthralled children watching as much as it did the two Arwell siblings – culminating in a hilarious moment of slapstick whilst attempting to get into a hammock.
“Every time you see them happy, you remember how sad they’re going to be, and it breaks your heart. Because what’s the point in them being happy now if they’re going to be sad later? The answer is, of course, because they are going to be sad later.”
It’s a sudden shift in tone from what’s come immediately before, but one that’s beautifully handled not just by writer Steven Moffat but also Smith and Skinner. Dealing with difficult subjects such as loss and heartbreak seems to have become a mainstay of Moffat’s Christmas episodes and this one is no different, and with all of the Arwells being particularly easy to warm to the loss of Reg and Marge’s subsequent dilemma is one that’s keenly felt by the audience as much as it is by the Doctor himself.
“It was supposed to be a treat. This is one of the safest planets I know. There’s never anything dangerous here… There are sentences I should just keep away from.”
In the spirit of making the Arwells happy for now, the Doctor has organised a Christmas surprise for them. Waiting under the Christmas tree in a blue box that’s bigger on the inside (wonder where the Doctor got that idea from?) is a portal to a distant, wintry planet – Doctor Who‘s version of a sort of Space Narnia – in the far future, complete with trees that grow their own baubles. Once an insatiably curious Cyril opens up his present ahead of time it’s not long before the Doctor and Lily step through in pursuit of him, but with the discovery of an extra set of footprints they realise that they are not alone.
It’s at this point that The Doctor, the Witch and the Wardrobe dangles the expectation of a genuine threat in front of us, only to snatch it away on more than one occasion. Whilst the beings creating the extra footprints are revealed to be a pretty sinister and imposing Wooden King and Queen, ultimately their intentions are not malicious – the lifeforce of the forest is in danger and trying to evacuate.
In another instance we’re led to believe that Madge, who has has followed her children into the forest, might also be in trouble when a giant tripod rocks up and three intimidating Stormtrooper-like figures emerge. The twist is that they’re in fact an affable trio of Androzani Major rangers – Ven-Garr (Paul Bazely), Billis (Arabella Weir) and Droxil (the criminally underused Bill Bailey) – who are part of a team about to unleash acid rain on Space Narnia in an attempt to access the incredibly valuable fuel within the trees. Whilst the three bounce off each other well and are fun to watch, it’s yet another moment of potential tension that has no real payoff. Having created such a well-rounded and likeable set of guest characters in the Arwells, the decision not to confront them with a genuine threat feels like a missed opportunity and is ultimately unsatisfying.
“You and I, Cyril, we’re weak. But she’s female. More than female, she’s mum.”
Another major misstep in The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe is the way the situation on Space Narnia is resolved. Amongst everyone who’s entered the forest, the only one capable of transporting the forest’s lifeforce to a place of safety is Madge. Not, however, because she’s proven herself to be brave, or kind, or determined – as indeed she does throughout the episode – but because she’s a mother. Although the feminist sentiment is well-intentioned and to be applauded, its execution is clumsy almost to the point of being patronising. Not only have female companions in Doctor Who in recent years been celebrated for their skills, bravery and compassion rather than their gender, but in addition the women of Madge’s era – many of them mothers – made a vital contribution to Britain’s to the war effort, stepping into traditionally male roles to keep the country going using their knowledge and expertise. To reduce Madge down just to her status as a woman and a mother therefore does her a disservice on two fronts, and it would have been a lot more gratifying to have seen a resolution that relied more on Madge’s postive personal qualities.
As Madge flies the forest through the Time Vortex, however, the episode somewhat redeems itself by shifting its focus to relationships. Madge’s role as a mother might be what allows her to save the forest, but it’s her love for her husband that saves him. As a series of flashbacks show Reg following Madge home to win her affection, present-day Reg is able to follow his wife home one more time – it’s another ‘everybody lives’ resolution that might irk some viewers, but within the context of a Christmas episode feels entirely right.
Once the Arwells are safely reunited and enjoying their Christmas together, there’s a chance for the Doctor’s own loneliness highlighted at the beginning of the episode to be addressed. Madge at last realises that the odd caretaker is her very own spaceman angel from a few years back, and after thanking him for a favour returned insists he needs to go and visit his friends, because ‘no one should be alone at Christmas’. The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe therefore ends on the most heartwarming of notes, as the Doctor finally turns up on the Ponds’ doorstep only to realise that not only did they know his death at Lake Silencio was a fake, but that they’ve been setting a place for him every Christmas since.
“Crying when you’re happy. Good for you. That’s so human.”
Falling between the complex story arcs of Series 6 and the emotional departure of Amy and Rory in Series 7, The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe stands out as a moment of welcome lightness, filled with real heart, and of course unashamedly humany-wumany – incongruous in a regular series of Doctor Who, perhaps, but perfect for Christmas.
Next up: Join Sophie as she revisits a story of killer snowmen, a blue box high up in the clouds, and a certain Impossible Girl…