Now that another season of Doctor Who has come to an end with “The Wedding Of River Song“, wrapping up the emotionally intense Silence arc that dominated most of Series 6, it’s about time for the show to wheel out another breather episode: something light, fluffy and festive for the holiday season. Steven Moffat has gone on record that he always enjoyed writing the annual Doctor Who Christmas special, because it gave him a chance to write a different sort of episode than he usually would: a sentimental, feel-good yarn that would almost always ruminate on the nature of Christmas and what the holiday brings out of people. Bridging the gap between Series 6 and Series 7, “The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe” is Matt Smith’s second Christmas special since he landed his lead role as the Doctor in Series 5.
Like “A Christmas Carol“, “The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe” is inspired by a famous piece of British literature, “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” by C.S. Lewis -where a bunch of British kids are sent to live in the countryside to escape the horrors of World War II, and wind up discovering a fantastical new world in the most unlikely of places – except this Christmas special has even less in common with the novel that inspired it than “A Christmas Carol” did. Since the Doctor dropped his two best friends, Amy Pond and Rory Williams, off at home near the end of Series 6, so they could move on with their lives without him, Matt Smith’s Doctor is officially flying solo in this episode. He’s mainly accompanied by a few one-off characters: Madge Arwell and her two precocious young children, Lily and Cyril – which gives Steven Moffat an opportunity to write another sweet, standalone story for the holidays about how the Doctor manages to make the lives of the people he encounters just a little bit brighter.
After the events of Series 6, the Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith) is still traveling the cosmos on his own, trying to keep a low profile so the rest of the universe will think he’s dead, though he still keeps a watchful eye on the Earth, his favorite planet, in the meantime of course. On one Christmas Eve night in 1938, he saves the Earth from another alien invasion and winds up getting injured in the process, but he quickly gets back on his feet thanks to the kindness of strangers. Madge Arwell gives him a helping hand in his time of need, so he decides to repay her – and without even knowing it, he returns to her and her family during one of the hardest times of her life.
The Doctor pretends to be the caretaker of her family’s country estate, so he can give them a wonderful Christmas, and he shows off all the upgrades he’s made to their humble abode in a montage that is so hyper and so over-the-top that you honestly start to wonder if he’s been doing crack cocaine in his spare time. Still, the Eleventh Doctor has always been a child at heart, so he knows how to wow a few kids, and shortly afterwards, we’re treated to a lovely little scene where the Doctor decides to give Madge some advice, parent to parent, about how she should break the news to her kids that they’ve lost their father. The Doctor, being the Doctor, never does anything in a small manner, so he gets a bit too carried away with his plans for the Arwells. He intends to take the family on a trip to another world in the distant future, so he can give them all a fun Christmas present, but one of Madge’s kids discovers the portal early, putting himself and everyone else in a considerable amount of danger – because there’s a massive exodus currently going on with the native species of the planet.
The Doctor spends most of this episode running damage control, trying to get Madge and her kids back home safe and sound in time for Christmas to make up for his reckless mistake, and thankfully, it all works out well in the end. At the end of the day, the Doctor helped to heal a broken family, he made their Christmas special, and he practically became their guardian angel. Now, Madge Arwell is a family oriented woman – after nearly losing her husband, she understands the value of keeping your loved ones close to you and treasuring every moment you get to share with them – so once the crisis of the week has been sorted, she insists that the Doctor should go and be with his own family on Christmas, and it really doesn’t take much prodding to convince him to do so.
So he goes to visit his two best friends, Amy and Rory, and if it wasn’t already clear from “The Wedding Of River Song”, things between the three of them are cool again. As much as he might get frustrated and fed up with humans at times, there are a few traits that the Doctor admires about humanity, like their sentimentality (something he admits to Lily, mid-episode). In the coda, the Doctor finds he might have a few more things in common with his favorite species than he thought, when he finds himself shedding a few tears of joy, because he’s finally found a place where he belongs, a place where he’s loved. The Doctor sharing Christmas diner with the Ponds is a beautiful, heartwarming note to end this special on: it provides an extra bit of closure for the Series 6 arc, and it sets up the main arc for Series 7A by establishing a new status quo where the Doctor will wander in and out of Amy and Rory’s domestic lives periodically.
Madge Arwell (Claire Skinner) is the main supporting character of this episode, and the sadness of her subplot helps to ground a whimsical Christmas special that would otherwise be overly sweet and comical. Madge’s husband, Reg, is drafted into World War II and lost overseas, leaving her a widow who now has to find a way to break the news of her loss to her children. She decides to spare them their innocence for a little while longer, so they can enjoy one last cheerful Christmas. She’s still grieving, but she can’t let her sadness show as she tries to stay strong for them in difficult times.
The highs and lows of being a parent was a major recurring theme in the previous season, and Series 6 was filled with stories about paternal love triumphing over adversity. “The Doctor, The Widow And The Wardrobe” is a story about a mother’s love for her children, and how you should never underestimate the lengths a mother will go to for her family. In one scene, Madge manages to get the drop on some futuristic tree harvesters so she can pump them for info, then she commandeers their mecha tank so she can find her kids, and then she winds up flying a spaceship with her mind so she can get everyone back to Earth. During their voyage home, the ugly truth about Reg comes to light, and after burying her own grief for weeks, Madge has to confront the brutal reality that her husband is gone for good when Lily and Cyril have questions. Except, a Christmas miracle happens. Because of the circumstances of her time-traveling adventure with the Doctor, Reg vanished a few weeks into the future, just when he was on death’s door. Madge not only saved her kids, and the Doctor, and a whole forest of sentient tree-people, but her husband too. The Arwell matriarch truly becomes the heroine of the hour, and it’s a happy ending that’s well-deserved.
Madge’s kids, Lily and Cyril Arwell, are your typical sibling characters that you would expect to see in a sitcom, who are constantly bickering about something, though the two of them do grow increasingly likable as the weird events of this story steadily unfold. Cyril is a proud, eccentric, nerdy kid and a budding astronomer, who has a sense of wonder to him. He’s very interested in life beyond Earth, and he takes a lot of the weirdness of this episode in stride – a trait he clearly inherited from his mother. His sister Lily is a curious, outspoken and impetuous young girl, who can be a bit sassy and is quick to call a spade a spade when the adults around her screw things up – like when the Doctor accidentally gives her brother the opportunity to get lost on an alien planet.
Most of the action in this Christmas special is set on a wintery planet in the distant future, populated by sentient tree people. Their world is being threatened by human colonizers who want to destroy the forest with acid rain for resources, leaving the land barren. The trees have created their own spaceship so their souls can evacuate the planet: they just need a human host to pilot it, and Madge Arwell is just the woman for the job. There’s a nice environmental message in this episode about the consequences of human greed and the sort of wanton, thoughtless destruction it can often bring. The latter half of this adventure also champions the raw strength and durability of Mother Nature: throughout history, no matter how much damage human beings do to her for their own self-gain, she always find a way to endure and she always get a little of her own back. The way Steven Moffat handles the sentient tree people subplot in this episode actually reminds me a lot of the living sun in “42“: it’s just the sort of weird, bonkers and insane idea that I like to see in Doctor Who from time to time.
“The Doctor, The Widow And The Wardrobe” is directed by Farren Blackburn, and upon first glance, you would honestly never know that this is his first time directing an episode of Doctor Who, because his vision for this episode is consistently spell-binding and grandiose (with the aid of some gorgeous CGI shots from the Mill), and at times, quite intimate and warm. There are a few scenes in particular where Farren’s direction especially shines: like the opening sequence where the Doctor destroys a ship in space and then hastily tries to get his spacesuit on as he falls down to Earth, or the prolonged scene where Cyril steps back and forth between two worlds, journeying through the magic present sitting in his living room, or the climax where Madge manages to fly a spaceship through the time vortex.
The bulk of the episode is set inside a dark, snow-covered forest that stands in for an alien planet, and these scenes were filmed in the Forest Of Dean (the same location where the show previously shot “Flesh And Stone“), giving us some of the most beautiful natural scenery that you’ll find in the Matt Smith era. Murray Gold’s score for this episode is quite honestly fantastic and very underrated: it’s festive, wintery, adventurous, mysterious, heroic, foreboding, and filled to the brim with wonder – putting a lot of new twists on old material such as “I Am The Doctor”, “The Mad Man With A Box”, “The Doctor’s Theme Series Four”, “All the Strange, Strange Creatures” and “Little Amy”. It’s no wonder Murray’s music from this Christmas special is reused so much throughout the latter half of Series 7, because it is a goldmine. Standout tracks include “Geronimo“, “Madge’s Theme“, “Into The Present“, “Baubles“, “The Queen“, “Interrogation“, “You’re Fired“, “Flying Home For Christmas“, “Safe Landing“, “Never Alone At Christmas” and “Friendship“.
“The Doctor, The Widow And The Wardrobe” is a pretty sweet and wholesome holiday tale that kicks Series 7 off to a rousing, heartwarming start by showing the Eleventh Doctor doing what he does best: helping out families and giving them a little bit of hope.
* “Ow! Did we just bump into something?” “No, no” “We seemed to bump into quite a lot of things” “Well, a lot of things get in the way. It’s hardly my fault”.
* “Do you want me to do it with a pin? I’m good with a pin” “Multi-dimensional, triple encoded temporal interface. Not really susceptible to pointy things” “Got it!” “Okay. Suddenly the last nine hundred years of time travel seem that bit less secure”.
* “Why do we have to come here?” “Because of the bombing, stupid” “I like the bombing. It’s exciting” Cyril, honey, no.
* “I don’t know why I keep shouting at them” “Because very 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”.
* “You were lying about the panthers” “Famous last words”.
* “Where are we?” “In a forest, in a box, in a sitting room. Pay attention!”
* “I don’t understand. Is this place real, or is it fairyland?” “Fairyland? Oh, grow up, Lily. Fairyland looks completely different”.
* “Crying’s ever so useful, isn’t it?” “If you say so. But there’s nothing you could say that would convince me you’d ever use that gun” “Oh really? Well, I’m looking for my children!”
* “How can trees grow into a building?” “Never underestimate a tree, Lily. I met the Forest of Cheem once. One of them fancied me”.
* “Yes, I know, it’s wood! Get over it!”
* “What is that?” “Life force. Pure life force, just singing” “It’s beautiful. Doesn’t it make you want to cry?” “Crying when you’re happy. Good for you. That’s so human”.
* “Aliens made of wood! This was always going to happen, you know!!!”
* “Come on, Madge, you can do it! You go, girl!” “Oh, shut up, you ridiculous oaf!”
* “Caretaker?” “Yes?” “You’re fired!”
* “How dare you leave the house? Cyril, what have I told you about opening your presents early?” “Sorry, mummy” “Something like this was bound to happen” Girl, what?
* “How else does life travel? The mother ship!” Bad puns are bad.
* “Can’t you fly us home?” “I don’t have a home to think of. And between you and me, I’m older than I look and I can’t feel the way you do. Not any more. And you really need to feel it, Madge. Everything about home that you miss until you can’t bear it. Until you almost burst”.
* “No stars to light the way, Madge? There was one. There was you. Madge Arwell, who flew a whole forest though the time vortex, plus one husband. He did it again, Madge. He followed you home. Look what you can do: Mother Christmas”.
* “Thank you” “Oh, you did it all yourself, Madge Arwell. But thanks for thanking me”.
* “Oh, caretaker? What if I require you again?” “Make a wish”.
* “What the hell was that?” “Oh, that was just the caretaker returning to the time vortex. It’s a lovely place. I’ve been there myself. Shall we go downstairs?”.