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On Christmas Eve, 1938, Madge Arwell comes to the aid of an injured spaceman as she cycles home. He promises to repay her kindness - all she has to do is make a wish. Three years later, a devastated Madge escapes war-torn London with her two children for a dilapidated house in Dorset. She is crippled with grief at the news that her husband has been lost over the English Channel, but determined to give Lily and Cyril the best Christmas ever. The Arwells are surprised to be greeted by a madcap caretaker whose mysterious Christmas gift leads them into a magical, wintry world. Here, Madge will learn how to be braver than she ever thought possible, and that wishes really can come true...
In common with the previous year’s A Christmas Carol, The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe is written by showrunner Steven Moffat, and once again it’s a more Christmassy affair than any of the Russell T Davies Doctor Who Christmas specials starring David Tennant. The plot is not merely set during the Christmas period, but features a planet of living Christmas trees, which naturally grow baubles on their branches. “Is it Fairyland?” asks teenager Lily (Holly Earl). “Fairyland?” cries the exasperated Doctor (Matt Smith). “Oh grow up, Lily! Fairyland looks completely different.”
Once again, Moffat’s plot takes its cue from a famous work of prose fiction, screen adaptations of which are commonly trotted out at Christmas: C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The wardrobe in this instance is the TARDIS, though it is a giant Christmas present that leads to the Narnia-like other world. Anyone who thinks that C. S. Lewis has no place in the world of Doctor Who should remember that one of the inspirations for the TARDIS when the show was created in 1963 is the “magic door” of the Narnia series.
The widow is Madge Arwell (the excellent Claire Skinner), a resourceful, no-nonsense character, whose mothering instincts are explored more fully than Amy’s were during Series 6. It’s amusing to imagine Skinner’s Outnumbered co-stars playing the other characters... but then the wood creatures would probably have been more frightened of the children than the children are of the wood creatures! Instead of Hugh Dennis (who might have been good in the role actually), Reg is played by Alexander Armstrong, who succeeds in making his performance as the wartime pilot completely different from his more familiar RAF character in The Armstrong & Miller Show - respect! Less successful is the casting of star names Bill Bailey and Arabella Weir, who are frankly wasted in their bit parts as harvesters Droxil and Billis.
The episode also raises some awkward questions, such as: is it all the Doctor’s fault, the family’s almost fatal trip to the alien planet and possibly even Madge’s bereavement? That’s a tough one to answer, but the next two are easier. Naysayers have pointed out that the Doctor should not be able to breathe in the vacuum of space at the beginning of the episode. To them I say that he cannot (which is why he needs the spacesuit, of course), though he can hold his breath for several minutes (as he has done several times before). Others have wondered why the TARDIS is on Earth when the Doctor is aboard the spaceship. The episode’s prequel (more on that in a moment) suggests that the Time Lord has become separated from his time machine, so maybe he snuck aboard the spaceship via an alien scout vessel or something like that (there’s a whole adventure there that we only see the climax to). Alternatively, perhaps the TARDIS starts off aboard the spaceship, but homes in on the nearest planet following the craft’s destruction (as shown in another Christmas special, Voyage of the Damned), which would explain why the Doctor seems uncertain where to find it.
Never mind all that, though, because on the whole The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe is undemanding family fun with plenty of excitement, laughs and human interest. The tree people are wonderfully creepy yet also beautiful, in both appearance and voice - and is it possible that their spirits might one day evolve to become the Forest of Cheem (who get a name check)? Humour is present in just about everything the Eleventh Doctor does and says - except when we get to an emotional bit. The most moving moments for me are the lovely surprise at the end (well, it was a surprise at the time of broadcast) and the Doctor’s “What’s the point of them being happy if they’re going to be sad later?” speech to Madge. “The answer, of course, is that they’re going to be sad later.”
The disc also includes a one-minute prequel scene, which adds to the pre-credits sequence’s already ample sense of “how the heck is he going to get out of that?”, and three 45-minute Best of Doctor Who clip shows, Best of the Doctor, Best of the Companions and Best of the Monsters. Originally broadcast on BBC America in between the two halves of Series 6, these documentaries pick out and discuss highlights from Matt Smith’s first 21 episodes. They are surprisingly enjoyable, managing to be less self-congratulatory than the 2009 Greatest Moments programmes, thanks to the intelligent and often irreverent commentary from talking heads such as blogger Chris Hardwick and comedian Paul F. Tompkins (who will probably be more familiar to US viewers than those in the UK). The language barrier poses occasional problems, such as when one of the commentators refers to the Doctor wearing suspenders (that’s braces for you British viewers!) and the fact that in America fish fingers (as in with custard) are called fish sticks. Generally, though, these episodes are a worthwhile addition to the DVD.
The disc itself is a worthwhile addition to your wardrobe - or whichever cabinet or shelf you happen to store your DVDs.