Warning! Spoilers Ahead!
Christmas morning is all about anticipation — that big payoff after the long wait that is bolstered by the risk of it all, because it could be rubbish or treasure under that tree, and you are about to find out. The Doctor Who Christmas Special is usually a safer bet than your average wrapped trinket, but, sadly, this year’s version is a bit like that scratchy sweater that your Aunt Sally knitted for you: too fuzzy, un-returnable, and all you’ll get for a good long time.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that this episode fails completely. Anything with The Doctor and the TARDIS can’t possibly find a way to do that, but it just feels so hollow. Actually, hold on, forget Aunt Sally and forget the scratchy sweater. The Doctor, The Widow, and The Wardrobe is an empty box. From the war-affected family and the matriarch with a heart-breaking secret to the journey through the forest and nearly all its inhabitants. The package is there, oh sure, a Time Lord wandering through a world that would make C.S. Lewis proud, but by episode’s end we don’t know much at all about Madge, Lily, and Cyril and we don’t care about the nauseatingly tidy ending to the episode. Or, well, at least I didn’t.
The Doctor flies, literally, through space, reaching for a space suit that looks like a BioShock cosplay getup, and lands in a great big crater of his own making. Made all 6′s and 7′s by the great spaceman thud, The Doctor stammers around a bit while being helped back to the TARDIS by Madge in pre-war England. As a sign of gratitude for this simple act, the helmeted, and thus view-obstructed Doctor offers to repay Madge for her (oh so) simple kindness, and tells her to only make a wish.
Cut to 3 years later, and Madge’s husband Reg (who we met briefly) is lost over the Channel at the height of the war. Devastated, Madge gathers her kids (Lily and Cyril) and brings them out to the country for Christmas. One last Christmas where they still have, within them, the hope that they will see their father again. I know, I know, I just punched you in the heart and it wasn’t at all fair, but just you wait for the whizzbang surprise at the end.
Once in the country, Madge and company meet an odd, but funny caretaker who gives them a tour of the manor, complete with dreamy weamy bedrooms and a mysterious present that is to be opened on Christmas.
Naturally, young Cyril opens the present early and goes into the forest that is within the portal that was within the box, finding himself smack dab in the middle of
Narnia a forest that is within the portal that was within the box.
Worried about the bespectacled ginger child, who looks a bit like a mole rat with glasses that are the exact circumference of the lost moon of Poosh, Lily and The Doctor pursue Cyril into Nar… the forest. Madge later follows separately, and with different, albeit needless results.
I’ll take a moment to critique the performances here before we go in for the big finish, and the musical number. Matt Smith is his usual blend here — gentle, as he is prone to be around children, but later his performance lacks that bite and darker shade that he pumped into his portrayal of the Doctor during the last half of this past season. A change in approach, that in my view, finally began the process of Smith taking over the role and putting his own stamp on it. Claire Skinner, as Madge, does enough with a role that simply doesn’t give her much to do. Madge is stiff and a bit unlikable despite her charge, desperately trying to keep herself and her kids Christmas in tact for just a little bit longer. It’s a more sentimental version of Grace is Gone, really, a parent fighting so very hard to keep innocence alive, and it’s something most of us can envision someone doing, if only for a little while. The kids are fine; kids are always fine unless they’re terrible, and then you look like a mean person for picking on children. The kids are fine.
As for the rest of the adult cast, well, they were in it and their names did appear, and that’s all I’ve got. The most stunningly pointless turn though? Bill Bailey, who plays a man in a robot suit with no purpose other than to be on screen for about 5 minutes. Bailey may be a familiar face to those Americans whose gateway drug to Anglophilia is the Wright-Frost-Pegg stable of projects like Spaced (where he played Bilbo) and Hot Fuzz (where he played a Desk Sergeant). He’s done so much more though, and you should look him up, because he is utterly wasted here and it’s awful first impression for those of you who are meeting him for the first time.
Alright, now it’s time for the big finish (when you read that in your head I ask that you pretend there are echoes coming off the words, “big finish”, no go back and do it again.) Ready? Okay, when last we left our hero, he and Lily were lost in Nar…the forest, looking for Cyril, who is similarly lost, and Madge, who is similarly searching, but who has also discovered Bill Bailey and his unfortunate, brief performance.
The resolution to all of this, which is more frustrating than the lack of exposition, occurs rapidly. There are these tree aliens, a King and Queen who… well they have a ship, and that’s really their only purpose: having a ship where The Doctor, Lily, and Cyril wait for Madge, who has used Bill Bailey’s ship (oh, THAT’s why he’s there!) to get to her family. Once the family and the loony Caretaker are re-united, Madge is crowned, “because she is strong”. Slightly offended that he wasn’t deemed strong enough to be crowned earlier, The Doctor quickly realizes that Madge’s strength comes from the fact that she is a woman (unlike previous crown-wearer Cyril and crown reject, The Doctor) and a mother to boot. Madge is now the main cog of the “mother ship” and as all the “souls” of the trees inhabit her mind she becomes the pilot of that ship as it zips through the time vortex, powered only on her thoughts, both good and bad, but all visible to her children until they arrive “home”. Once there, the tree spirits and the King and Queen are explained away with a bit of Doctor gibberish and Madge is forced to own up to the secret she’s been trying to keep from her children until… hold on, gee whiz, their lost flyboy father found his way home by following the Madge-ship’s lights through the time vortex all the way into her arms.
Now you’re thinking, “That’s your view of nauseatingly tidy? Are you, yourself, as empty as a dead tree-king?” and to you, hypothetical question asker, I say nay. The “nauseatingly tidy” moment comes after The Doctor has left Madge, Reg, Cyril, and Lily. The Doctor, The Tear, and The Doorway to Pond Manor.
Now yes, of course it’s nice to see Rory and Amy; after all, we won’t see them, or the Doctor again until the fall, but we already knew that they knew about The Doctor’s ruse, and no one needed to be reminded that The Doctor has people who love him, least of all The Doctor himself.
- It was an episode of Doctor Who on Christmas.
- The manic Doctor, taking the children and Madge on a tour of the house. Matt Smith’s enthusiasm in the moments when he is meeting new people, and specifically children, is something he does quite well.
- Bad special effects. From the poorly done spaceship in the beginning and the Doctor’s thoroughly unconvincing fall to earth to the lackluster design of the tree aliens and the OG Clash of the Titans feel that “Madge’s” ship displayed while climbing through the forest. I have to ask, where did the budget go? This year was among the most graphically impressive, and every year seems to raise the bar, but if this is what Who will look like when it comes back, it will be hard for the BBC to deny the implications of their tight fiscal situation on Doctor Who.
I can’t watch a Doctor Who Christmas Special without thinking back on some of the past ones. Was this as overtly sentimental as “A Christmas Carol”? No, but at least in that one, we cared about the people who were in jeopardy. Basically, this one is beneath “Carol” in every way, and the overall direction of the piece leaves me cold to Moffat’s Christmas sensibilities.
I liked “Carol” despite its Dickens tie, and I think I actually disliked this episode despite its “Narnia” connection. Frankly, there is a lot that the Doctor could do in a world like that simply wasn’t done last night because Moffat forgot the principle established by Davies razor sharp, non-sentimental, non-homagey Christmas Specials. Make it a good episode that takes place during Christmas, not a Christmas episodes that tries to be good. Oftentimes the worst gifts are the ones where the gift giver tries too hard.
Love It? Share It!
Written by Jason Tabrys (@jtabrys)
The former editor-in-chief, Jason still reappears in the rafters of our fair site from time to time but he now spends his days leaping from one place to another, trying to put right what once went wrong. You can still find his words across the toxic constellation that is the… More »
What did you think? Comment below!
Comments are closed.