This year’s Doctor Who Christmas Special feels like it’s the kind of thing that would polarize fans, with your opinion of it dependent on how much you agree with Steven Moffat’s take on the character. Luckily for me, I wholeheartedly do, so “The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe” was exactly the kind of festive treat I’d been hoping for.
The episode felt, in a lot of ways, like a continuation of a throughline from “The Eleventh Hour” and much of the show’s fifth season, with the Doctor less a science fiction character and more like something out of a fairytale. There was a lot of magic logic on show in this episode, whether it was the idea of being able to wish someone to appear and help you (Another shout-out to “The Eleventh Hour,” come to think of it; Amelia did the same thing there), a forest being able to grow a people trap building, or the overwhelming, unchallengable power of the mother figure. For that point, there was a lot of unscientific thought, too: Since when could the Doctor not only breathe in space, but survive re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere (without his spacesuit seemingly burning up, either)? But to hold onto those problems, to find those a barrier into the episode, was to miss the point, I suspect: Moffat’s Who is a much more imaginative version of the series than earlier ones, in the sense of imagination and wonder trumping everything else – It’s a Doctor Who that cares so much more about what should be possible than what is possible, even within science fiction rules.
As ever with recent Who, the visuals of the show were half the joy of this episode: Cyril’s thick glasses, giving him the look of permanent surprise, or the over-decorated rooms as the Doctor tries to overcompensate and make it the Best Christmas Ever. The performances, too, were a lot of fun, particularly Claire Skinner’s quietly heroic Maude, charming and disarming in a way not unlike Matt Smith’s Doctor – similarly scattered, but made of more stern, strong stuff deep down. If she somehow ends up making a return before the end of Smith’s stay as the Doctor, I’ll be a happy man.
(Also something fun, re: the visuals – The many shout-outs to other genre staples, from the opening Star Wars shot, to the Doctor’s crash-landing on Earth, which looked like a scene from Superman: The Movie. The title may have been cribbed from CS Lewis, but this episode was a magpie, stealing from everything in sight, it seems.)
But, as with almost everything written by Steven Moffat, the real star of the episode was the story. How much fun was the Doctor, trying to make everything festive and not quite understanding what Christmas was all about until the end (I found myself more thankful than I’d expected to see Amy and Rory again, I admit)? Given the weight of the last season, how nice was it to have such a simple, optimistic, romp again? I can understand those who prefer Who to be something darker and more complex, but what “The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe” offered was something that was wholly sentimental and impossible and, above all, kind: There was danger, yes, but a danger that came with the idea that everything would be okay at the end of it all, because it was Christmas, if that makes any sense. Isn’t that what Christmas episodes should be? And even the danger was… Well, if not necessarily not dangerous, as such, then a different kind of adventure for the series – A rescue mission, as one where the Doctor was pretty much a well-intentioned bystander for the whole thing, interestingly enough, as if to empower the viewer to try to be the type of person Maude was: Generous, open and loving, all qualities that enabled her to save a world.
As far as Christmas episodes go, I still think I prefer last year’s “A Christmas Carol,” but “The Doctor, The Widow and The Wardrobe” was yet another episode that demonstrated that, when Doctor Who is on, it’s pretty much unbeatable as genre television goes.
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