Doctor Who #900: The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe

"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."
TECHNICAL SPECS: All Doctor Who stories from this one to The Name of the Doctor are included in the 7th Series DVD set. First aired Dec.25 2011.

IN THIS ONE... A Doctor Who riff on Narnia, i.e. the planet of the Christmas trees.

REVIEW: Steven Moffat couldn't possibly meet the expectations he created with A Christmas Carol the year before, and didn't. At the time, Wardrobe seemed to me a little ordinary, but more than that, a collection of missed opportunities. The Narnian title seemed to promise the TARDIS as a strange world (a winter wonderland desktop theme?), but instead the portal to another world is a TARDIS-blue present and doesn't get much of an explanation (even the dimensional time difference is odd, as if this were another reality, but no, it exists in Androzani space). Arabella Weir and Bill Bailey feel wasted in such small roles, when their connections to the Whoniverse should have made them full-on guest stars. And the 1100-year-old Doctor should be able to see the historical loophole in Reg Arwell's "death" and make THAT the gift, instead of, what, a visit to the Christmas tree planet meant to be opened AFTER the forest was melted? There was a perfect plot in there, and Moffat missed it by this much.

On second viewing, that all dropped into the background, and I was able to enjoy the episode's qualities. To start with, it's incredibly witty, in a P.G. Wodehouse or even Oscar Wilde kind of way. Madge is a mistress of understatement, for example, and more annoyed at the Doctor's ridiculousness than amazed. Her kids didn't fall too far from the tree either, and both Cyril and Lily get some cracking lines. Bill Bailey gets too small a role, but he's funny in practically every moment, from asking whether his cohorts' sensors can differentiate between wool and side-arms to his look of fear when he realizes Madge is a mother looking for her children. The Doctor is also very funny, and not just in dialog. His idea of a perfect house is very amusing. This is a Christmas comedy, as should have been obvious when that ship blew up as soon as it announced its intention to attack Earth in the teaser. Going back to classical theater, it ends like comedies should, we characters reuniting. It's also got its fair share of fantasy, with lovely-looking "tree-folk", a child exploring strange spaces, etc.

And it's moving. Madge's plight, needing to keep her husband's death to herself so it doesn't ruin her children's Christmas (and all future Christmases) is a touching one, and the reunion's tears well-earned. Where Wardrobe takes a perfect turn is when Madge tells the Doctor it's not right for his friends to think him dead on Christmas. In fact, he's really keeping his head down, historically. The Arwells will never speak or write of a magical "Doctor", because he's "The Caretaker" to them. So he goes back to the Ponds', for whom two years have passed, and they're all ready for him, of course, just in case, and he sheds his first tears of joy. Is that true and verified? Who cares? It's a great little moment, and plays well into the Doctor's loneliness, and brings Amy and Rory back into the fold the way they SHOULD be used, as the companions who have left, but whom he can still visit because their bond was so strong.

In a prologue available on the DVD, the Doctor leaves Amy a voicemail message before the ship from the teaser explodes. This must happen in the 200-year interval, because he doesn't expect Amy to think him dead.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium-High - Medium WATCHABILITY, perhaps, but REwatchability? The humor and human moments trump whatever problems the production might otherwise have (and a lot of those were based on expectations anyway).


Anonymous said...

Madge is exquisite, not quite companion material but all the right ingredients just baked into something different. But what I love is how this episode establishes its rules -- nearly as inviolable as the laws of physics -- and honors them to the story's conclusion.

Rule 1: Madge finds those who are lost and makes sure they get home.

Rule 2: Reg follows Madge.

Rule 3: Madge's heart can endure anything, and will do so, to make things right.

Rule 4: Madge can drive any vehicle anywhere with exactly equal capability (up to and including the inevitable crash).

Rule 5: You don't get to be dead on Christmas.

This business about establishing rules and then sticking to them ... when we eventually get around to "The Day of the Doctor", this point's gonna come up again. Mark my words.

Siskoid said...

That's a great decoding of what's going on and I'm jealous I didn't see it.

Anonymous said...

The thing that just now dawned on me is, this episode is a bookend to "Closing Time" -- the power of fatherhood vs. the power of motherhood, the Doctor's decision to go to his death vs. his decision to "return to life".

Siskoid said...

Another good take! You guys are making me feel inadequate!

Andrew Gilbertson said...

"On second viewing, that all dropped into the background, and I was able to enjoy the episode's qualities."
Ah, Siskoid, I was starting to despair... but perhaps I'm not the only fan of this episode on the face of the Earth? Okay, maybe the only one that thought it was the new contender for best episode of New Who ever produced on its release (its since mellowed a bit after multiple rewatches; greatly enjoyed, but not in the top 10 anymore)... but at least not the only one who enjoyed the humor and emotion of the episode. And heck, for the sheer adrenaline-silly-fun of it, the teaser, mayhaps? Well, I did, at least. :-)

(That is a fairly pathetic addition to the comments after the genius of the anonimi, admittedly...)

Anonymous said...

Andrew - singular anonymous for those comments (plus this one (and probably 90% of the anonymii posting here)), and I thank you for the praise, though I'd be hard-pressed to call my comments "genius". I just look for Moffat patterns because I know he puts them in there for my benefit as a viewer.

And I'll say it, even after multiple viewings, this may be my favorite New Who episode. Honestly, I think it's Madge more than anything that charms me -- the entirety of time and space laid out before her, and it's all secondary to taking care of her family. That's what makes her great in this episode, but that's also why she'd make a poor companion in general.


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