“The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe” – Review: Redux

Madge “I don’t know why I keep shouting at them.”

Doctor “Because 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.”

The Doctor The Widow and The Wardrobe

Ah, the next Christmas episode review. Always feels a little odd watching Christmas episodes of any show out-of-season is a little bit odd, although to look at the commercial channels these days, you’d think Christmas was just around the corner anyway. The prequel to this story ties in so beautifully to the opening Star Wars-ey/ Hitch-Hiker-y pre-credit sequence, that it makes you wonder why it wasn’t included in the episode proper. And, to be frank, had special effects worthy of any Hollywood blockbuster that the TV channels would wish to throw at us in our post-Christmas Cake haze, with the un-named aliens getting ready to do untold things to an unsuspecting Earth below. In previous Christmas tales under RTD’s tenure we tended to get planet-wide threats like this and it looked for the briefest of moments like we might be getting another one, but instead, following on from the prequel scene released in the weeks running up to Christmas, this particular alien threat was dealt with immediately.

After the titles, we were treated to a change of pace with some domesticity in war-torn England in the form of Claire Skinner’s Madge Arwell, her husband Reg, and two children, Lily and Cyril. First we got to see Madge’s compassionate side as she helped out the crash landed Doctor. Steven Moffat’s dialogue sparkled from the off, to wit: Madge’s “How do I contact you?”, The Doctor “Make a wish”, Madge: “Does that work?”, The Doctor “It did for me… you’re here aren’t you!”. And then we get to see just enough of the other characters to give us an insight in to their lives and loves. It was no secret prior to screening that Reg would be meeting his end quite early on in the episode and it didn’t take a great deal of dramatic intuition to work out that he would be somehow saved by the end of things. I found this to be slightly disengaging at times as the whole thing seemed to lose some of its tension. Also, knowing that Amy and Rory would be there for a cameo (as revealed at the Series 6 DVD launch) didn’t help either. This might be where I have the biggest problem with this episode. As a fan, I knew in advance effectively how the episode would end and, therefore, lent back and let it wash over me, whereas, had I remained in the dark, it might have had more oomph. The object of the episode was to appeal to its target demographic, which in the case of this seasonal special is to engage with the more casual viewer rather than the fan, which, if I’m being honest, is the only sensible way to play things in a Christmas special after all.

The extra 15 minute running time that is afforded the festive tale, meant that the story-telling could be at a more relaxed pace than we might be used to. This was put to excellent effect here. In order for the story to work we needed to be emotionally engaged with the previously unseen Arwell family, and we were given just enough time for this to happen. It wasn’t until more than 17 minutes in to things, that the box, which was a doorway into the forest, was opened. However, by this point we knew enough about all the Arwells to happily play along and have a little empathy towards them.

It’s always a risk to put a lot of focus of an episode on the shoulders of child actors but Maurice Cole and, notably, Holly Earl played a blinder and they came in to their own in the forest scenes. As the inquisitive Cyril headed off following the creature that had just hatched from the naturally growing Christmas tree decorations, to discover the tower grown from wood with the king at the bottom and queen at the top (Are you following this?), Lily pursued him accompanied by the Doctor who themselves were being followed by Madge. This set-up and its consequent resolution formed the meat in the sandwich of “The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe” and was entertaining enough. I wasn’t sure about the whole “life-force” thing when I first watched, it perhaps reminded me of the dreadful “midichlorian” (sp?) nonsense in the Phantom Menace, but on second showing it all became a bit more clever… well, less literal at any rate.

The Androzani Harvesters were a nice comedy aside and gave Madge the chance to shine as she fooled them with a nice double cross allowing her to arrive in the nick of time to save her children and the forest too. By the by, anybody who still doesn’t think that Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who is a new take on a fairy tale hasn’t really been paying attention. From here on in though it’s all about getting to the conclusion: Madge saving her husband and then Madge teaching the Doctor what he needs to be concentrating on at Christmastime, i.e. the people that love him, is the crux of things. So it’s off to the Ponds for the epilogue and potentially a nice lead in to Series 7 with a reason for the Doctor, albeit temporarily, to hook up with his travelling companions again. This was another little scene that played better on the second run through for me as I picked up on some of the themes from earlier in the ep. On the original broadcast, I missed not having the next episode title revealed at the end or a little montage of forthcoming clips but there’s nothing that could’ve been done about that given the move to an autumn schedule for the next series. With no Torchwood or  Sarah Jane Adventures, the period from 25th December to 1st September, was an awful long wait to get to the Asylum.

Highlight: Nice to have a gentle, seasonal relaxing episode

Lowlight: A lack of behind the sofa moments

Talking Point: The splitting of the seasons and the wait for episodes is getting longer and longer. Why?

Demon’s Run Rating: 13 out of 20

Original BBC1 Broadcast: 25th December 2011

Marathon Status: The final lap

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