This review contains spoilers.
The fact that the last series of Doctor Who only finished in October means that we’ve not had the traditional wait of several months for the annual Christmas special. And, perhaps as a consequence of that, it feels as though expectations for it have been a little lower. That it might just be being taken for granted a little bit.
Leave it to Steven Moffat, then, to issue a warm reminder of just what a lovely part of the festive celebrations the annual Doctor Who special can be, with a pretty much standalone story.
As it turned out, The Doctor, The Widow And The Wardrobe was, for all of its wonderful production work, quite a contained tale, that of Madge Arwell.
Madge, played wonderfully well by Claire Skinner, is faced with putting on a brave face for Christmas, for the sake of her children, Cyril and Lily. Her conundrum is that the story is set during the war, and Madge has received a telegram, informing her that her husband is missing, presumed dead. Her plan to withhold this information from her children, to ensure they have the best possible Christmas, is a haunting and loving one.
But naturally, any plan where the Doctor crashes into the midst of it is bound to veer off course.
So it proves, in an opening 20 minutes or so that demonstrates just how wonderfully well Matt Smith plays comedy. For the last few episodes of series six, Smith’s Doctor was carrying the weight of what was to come, and there are still nods to what he’s been through, and what he now faces, through Steven Moffat’s script. However, there’s also a sense that he’s been given something of a day off, and the way that he rips through the guided tour of the house, with particular focus on the best children’s bedroom you could wish for, was gloriously good fun.
The Doctor Who Christmas special, as both Moffat and Russell T Davies have noted over the years, is a slightly different beast. Accepting that a large bulk of people watch it after a bloated day, and not short of either sugar-laden or alcoholic beverages, its tone tends to be just a little lighter. Moffat works that very much in his favour, but doesn’t shy away from the darkness in the background. Madge’s choice is never far away.
It’s the Doctor operating without a companion for the duration of The Doctor, The Widow And The Wardrobe, too, and this also seems to free him up just a little. The closest he gets to sidekicks are Cyril and Lily and, not for the first time, Moffat writes his younger characters wonderfully well. The economy of dialogue for Cyril proves to be a great choice, as young Maurice Cole conveys more in a wide-eyed look than any collection of words could. Credit, too, to director Farren Blackburn for bringing the most out of the younger members of his talented cast.
It’s the first half of the episode where it’s arguably at its strongest, but that doesn’t mean there’s too much to pick at once the children crawl through the mysterious present (where did it come from, incidentally?) and head into Doctor Who’s nod to the land of Narnia.
Here’s where the screen fills with some enchanting visuals, not least trees that appear to grow Christmas baubles. It’s almost a pity when the slightly more traditional Doctor Who story kicks in, when ‘monsters’ appear and the threat escalates. But this is Moffat-era Who, where apparent monsters have reasons for what they’re doing, and the nature of just who the actual monster is, once more, is called into question.
The creatures this time, made of wood, I found eerily effective, although the least interesting part of the episode. I think, though, that’s because the Arwells are just far more intriguing people to be around, and the moments where the focus shifts away from them are felt.
If you were being picky, which I suppose I am, then you could say that the reasoning behind the desire to flee the forest is a very straightforward one. Yet it services the story well enough. I do think it’s a real pity that the trio of troops weren’t used more. When I first heard that Bill Bailey in particular was appearing in Doctor Who, it was a good day. Sadly, he just doesn’t get enough screen time here, and I’d dearly have loved to see more of him.
The most divisive part of the episode, and bringing back slight memories of The Next Doctor, is when Claire Skinner gets at the controls of something left over from one of Michael Bay’s Transformers movies. It’s deliriously daft, and for me it works, because before anyone can take the whole thing too seriously, the thing does a pratfall onto the ground.
It’s all building up to a warm, emotional ending, of course, and this was handled logically and well. Most of us, I suspect, felt that Madge might find a way to save her husband by the time The Doctor, The Widow And The Wardrobe drew to a close (it is Christmas, after all), and so it proved. It meant that the episode didn’t shirk the moment where the children realised that their father might be gone, but allowed the Arwell’s story to end on a warm, rather than a tragic note.
This all left space at the end for the Doctor to find his own happy ending of sorts, where we learn that two years have passed since he saw Amy and Rory last. The moment on the doorstep, with the Doctor and Amy refusing to hug each other, was a lovely touch, well played. And it seems fitting that the loneliest man in the universe got some well deserved Christmas lunch at the end of quite a tumultuous year for him.
The Doctor, The Widow And The Wardrobe marks the last time we’ll see the Doctor until next Autumn, and he’s in an intriguing place. Most people think he’s dead, his time with the Ponds appears to be growing ever shorter, and there’s still the big question of who he actually is remaining unanswered.
For now, though, it was a treat to have a gentle, well told, standalone story, that proved you don’t have to veer away from an emotive and adventurous story, just because it’s Christmas time.
A lovely piece of television, and a smashing way to spend a Christmas night in front of the telly. Pass the turkey sandwiches…