The Shepherd
The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe Reviewed

First things first, a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all and sundry. We had a good time. The kids actually slept in until 7:30, and they were delighted with their Santa gifts. Christmas dinner was a quiet time with just us, the kids and grandma Rosemarie and grandpa Michael. We had stuffed chicken breasts, sweet potatoes, potatoes and mushrooms and a green salad. Dessert was a trifle that Rosemarie put together.

The kids are off school for the next two weeks, and Erin is off work as well. Ironically, this may mean that we’ll be busier than ever. I still have work to do, Erin still needs to write, and the kids will need some activity. Still, I’m looking forward to this time. 2011 was a good year, and I’m looking forward to what 2012 has to offer. So I hope the same is true with you.

In other news, my latest column for the Kitchener Post is now up over here. As you may have guessed, the first GO Train to Toronto dominated this week’s news cycle.

And now for that (six-year running) Christmas tradition: reviewing the Doctor Who Christmas special. With the exception of The End of Time two years ago, the Christmas special is a time for fans to kick back, enjoy a stand-alone script, and not worry too much about how the story fits into the ongoing canon. The stories tend to be lighter and fluffier, and their contributions tend to be the beginning of things rather than a culmination (again, The End of Time provides an exception to that rule).

Until last year, the task of writing the Christmas special had fallen to show runner Russell T. Davies. Steven Moffat took over the job when he became producer and he arguably took the special back to its Christmas roots with A Christmas Carol (it had been slipping away from those roots with Voyage of the Damned). The current story, The Doctor, the Witch and the Wardrobe, clearly alluded to a Narnia-inspired story. But did it deliver?

Well, I think it did, though not quite in the way I was expecting.

A spoiler-full review continues after the break.

The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe

The Doctor hasn’t exactly being lying low, has he? Or maybe he’s tried, but when a gigantic spaceship appears in Earth’s orbit around 1938 and targets the planet, the Doctor is still able to come on board and blow the living hell out of the thing. Unfortunately, he’s blown out into space doing so. Fortunately, he gets access to a space suit. Unfortunately, said space suit descends to Earth on a ballistic trajectory. Fortunately, the suit is built to handle such stresses.

And so it is that Madge Arwell (played by Claire Skinner), a young mother of two children (Cyril and Lily) happens upon the Doctor in the middle of a crater somewhere in southern England. Being a kind soul, she helps him to his feet, whereupon the Doctor discovers he’s gotten into the spacesuit wrong, and his helmet is facing back to front (this proves to be more important a plot device than you’d think). He’s quite all right, thank you, and only needs to be walked to a conveniently located police box, which Madge opens with a hairpin.

As an aside, I kind of wish that the police box that Madge opened with her hairpin had been the actual TARDIS, and not a real police box. The latter is a valid plot choice which prolongs the comedy, but the former could have hinted at Madge’s unique abilities. Also, given what we’ve seen in The Doctor’s Wife, one can easily imagine Idris in the background muttering, “Oh, for goodness sake, has he gone and hurt himself again? Honestly, he can’t even find the key this time. If it weren’t for me, he’d be dead thirteen times over. Fine, just this once, I’ll open the door for him. But don’t think I’m making a habit of this!”

The Doctor, wishing to repay Madge’s kindness, offers to do her a favour whenever she needs it. When she asks how she’ll be able to reach him, he suggests that she make a wish. Madge finds this charming (and a little bit silly), but accepts the gift, not knowing that she’ll need it in less than three years time.

Jump to 1941, and a British bomber over the English channel. Madge’s husband Reg (played by Alexander Armstrong) is the pilot on the plane, and he knows things aren’t going well. The engines are cutting out and the thing is going down in bad weather. It looks pretty grim and, sure enough, we jump to poor Madge, asleep on her side of the bed, clutching the dreaded telegram in her fingers.

As the family is evacuated to the countryside, Madge keeps the news of Reg’s disappearance secret from her children, because Christmas is coming, and she doesn’t want her kids to associate Christmas as a time when their father was taken away from them. But arriving at a country mansion, they’re surprised to discover a strange caretaker in the estate’s employ (the Doctor, of course, but since Madge never saw the Doctor’s face, she doesn’t make the connection). He knows Madge’s predicament, and is rather desperate to try and help — not by fooling around with the time streams, but by giving Madge’s children the most magical Christmas they’ve ever known.

Of course, this being Doctor Who, not everything goes to plan. One of the presents the Doctor has been saving up for the kids starts talking to Cyril, drawing the boy through a dimensional portal into a Narnia-esque winter wonderland. The Doctor and Lily, followed by Madge herself, stumble into the forest in pursuit, and discover that things aren’t what they seem in the peaceful forest the Doctor intended to show them.

Sometimes the simplest stories are the most beautiful, and after a hefty season of thirteen continuity-heavy episodes, Steven Moffat’s decision to step back a little and tell a story on its own merits pays off, I think. There is a lot of heart in this tale about a mother grieving for her lost husband and doing everything she can to protect the kids. There’s a lot of anguish in the Doctor’s attempts to try and take the sting off of the tragedy that’s about to follow, but it’s important to note that though the Doctor cares deeply, he doesn’t take the steps he needs to truly erase the tragedy.

Is this the same Doctor we’ve come to know in A Christmas Carol? Is this the same Doctor who dove into Karzan’s life, rewriting it from the ground up, all to prevent the deaths of 4003 passengers on board a falling spaceship? I think, yes, it is. The difference is that this Doctor is older and wiser, having been burnt by the events of the previous season. He realizes he’s become too big for the universe, and he is trying — truly trying! — to lay low. But he can’t do it. He can’t stop caring.

The interesting dynamic here is Moffat’s work. The chemistry and the anguish that we read in Madge and the Doctor is the work of the actors. Matt Smith puts on a wonderful performance here, delivering much with expression and inflection that a lesser actor simply could not do. He is matched by Claire Skinner, who makes Madge outwardly flighty, but inwardly passionate and stalwart. She pilots a walking tank from thousands of years in her future on the sheer force of motherhood alone, which is a stretch for any imagination, but Claire makes it work.

The children acquit themselves well, with young Maurice Cole playing the role of Cyril and Holly Earl playing the older sister, Lily. Cyril does not get much to do in this episode, other than to follow tracks around a snowy forest, walk up a flight of stairs, and get a circlet put on his head. Lily, on the other hand, ends up serving as the companion for most of the story, showing a good rapport with the Doctor. Both Cyril and Lily shine when they confront their mother on the fact that she hasn’t told them about the fate of their father.

I like the fact that it’s Madge upon whom this story turns. The Doctor is, at most, a catalyst for events, but it’s Madge who rescues her children by sheer force of motherhood, and it’s Madge who interferes in the time streams to bring her husband home. It’s consistent with the lower-key approach this Doctor is trying to take, and it also helps enhance the sense that the real strength of the Doctor (albeit one inconsistently portrayed) is not his own abilities, but his ability to make the ordinary people around him do extraordinary things.

Finally, there is the last scene, where the Doctor obeys Madge’s orders and reveals to Amy and Rory that he’s not actually dead (discovering, to his chagrin, that River Song has blurted the secret to her parents already). Again, Matt Smith’s acting skills come to the fore in a scene that’s almost without dialogue, enhancing the Doctor’s image as a very lonely man in a universe that wants to welcome him. I wonder if this is the thread Moffat is going to follow through the seventh season. Will the eleventh Doctor’s desire to lie low come into conflict with his need to care for the universe he so loves? Well, only time will tell.

There is a lot of heart in this small, self-contained story. Clearly, Moffat knows what influences to mine. The title may pay homage to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but the story itself bears elements of The Shepherd. Of course, The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe has its own tale to tell, and it does it well. It works on a visceral level, and if there were cracks in the plotting or in the script, I didn’t notice them. One might argue that Moffat was writing like Russell T. Davies, except that (with the exception of the opening teaser), the story was far less over the top.

So, in total, I’d say that The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe was a satisfying holiday feast. It has a luscious script and fantastic acting all-round, and a solid, self-contained story with a lot of heart. On Christmas Day, really, what more could a fan ask for?

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