The Doctor is caught in a compromising situation.
When I first started my weekly column looking back at all the episodes that Steven Moffat has written since 2005 there was only one that I recalled and thought to myself “Do I have to write about that?”
This episode is that one. The 2011 Christmas
It’s like Steven Moffat’s heart wasn’t in it when he wrote this. He just had a box to tick – write an episode for Christmas Day – so he bashed one out in a couple of hours and had done with it. It’s like he knew it too, throwing in a token reference to Androzani so that people would subconsciously associate their feelings for this episode with how they feel towards one of the greatest Who stories of all time. It doesn’t work but you have to hand it to him for trying.
The trouble is that this episode is geared too far towards the younger section of the audience and the lack of anything even resembling a villain doesn’t help matters.
Even from the word go you know that this story will be of lesser quality when the pre-titles scene is taken straight out of Moonraker – there’s a problem when you have to look for inspiration towards James Bond In Space – but thankfully the scene lasts little more than a few minutes. Maybe it won’t be so bad when the story gets going?
Sorry, I’m afraid not.
In terms of plot, a family in 1941 Britain is forced to evacuate due to the war. The father has (so it seems) died in combat whilst serving with the RAF. The mother hasn’t told the two children but she does tell the Doctor, who is posing as a caretaker. He presents them with a present that, as if by magic, transports them to another planet, but the boy Cyril decides to open his presents early (That’s a surefire way to get on the naughty list next time – Idiot!) and the Doctor must go after him, because. Then the mother Madge goes on behind them and it’s ultimately her who saves the day by the power of being a mum, as if women somehow only have any value if they’ve squeezed a couple children out. Then it turns out that the father is alive after all – do I really need to explain why that’s rubbish???
If The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe sounds like the most wafer-thin of stories then that’s because it is. It is every bit as awful as it sounds. It's like the story idea was made up on the spot because the BBC demanded Doctor Who’s contractually obligated Christmas Special. There’s literally no reason for this episode to exist. There’s definitely not an hour’s worth of material here, which is why we get ten minutes of filler with the Doctor going mad around the house with motor-operated beds and the Magna Carta. Matt Smith is always able to present Doctor 11 as fun and energetic and it always adds to the story, but not here, here it’s just obvious filler because there’s no real plot and we have to fill the time with something.
There are some good things though. As soon as he’s with the kids the Doctor’s bouncing off the walls, hands waving in the air, and enthusiastic. Smith brings a youthful free-spiritted performance, one which is immediately contrasted when he’s alone with Madge and delivers the beautiful “they’re going to be sad later” speech – if you want to see what defines the numerically11th incarnation of the Doctor look no further than these two moments. Another plus is how gorgeous and visually stunning the tree planet is. Even the most cynical of viewers can see that their license money has gone to good use creating that environment.
The problem is that these are the lone good bits in a sea of mediocrity. Take the Arwell family for instance. Madge, played by Claire Skinner, doesn’t tell the kids that their dad has died. This concept is interesting, I actually know a family were the parents found out the day before going on holiday that the grandparents had died but waited to tell the children until they got back. This is a real issue and a real thing that can and does happen so it’s good to see a family show address it. The trouble is that these characters are so flat and empty (two empty children - shudder!) that you don’t feel the emotion you should be experiencing. Instead you just give a big festive shrug of ‘Who Cares?’ and go to get some more leftover turkey from the kitchen while questioning what’s gone wrong – is this really the same show that one year earlier delivered Christmas Perfection with a Dickensian story? I guess C. S. Lewis’s Narnia books don’t lend themselves to sci-fi reimaginings quite so well as Dickens does, or maybe it’s just that the similarity stopped at the title this time so the magic is ‘lost in translation’ so to speak.
It’s a shame that this should be such a turkey because the cast is great. Bill Bailey and the Doctor herself Arabella Weir are both inspired casting but are totally wasted and bring very little to the story beyond adding two big names to the cast list and the token Androzani reference. Alexander Armstrong is only in this, I suspect, because his work for The Sarah Jane Adventures was cut short when Liz Sladen was so cruelly taken from us. Claire Skinner is stuck with an extremely one-dimensional character, basically a cardboard cutout of her Outnumbered character minus the fun. The two children are not as irritating as certain other children from this show (*cough* Maebh & Courtney *cough*). At least Matt Smith is brilliant but then he’s always brilliant so we tend to just take that as a given.
There are some who think that this episode’s distinct lack of quality shouldn’t be considered. “It’s just a Christmas Special”, they cry, “why does it matter?”
Well, it DOES matter and here’s why: this is not just for the fans. This is an episode explicitly designed with the intention of being viewed by casual once-a-year viewers. The production crew are given this as a platform to show off Doctor Who to people who don’t watch Doctor Who, so serving up something as bad as this is not excusable. Christmas is the one time every year when they HAVE to get it right, so when they fall short it’s even worse than it would be if it was part of the regular run of episodes – especially on this occasion, given that the next episode wouldn’t come along for just over 8 months. They need to get the Christmas Special right but in 2011 they definitely did not.
File under: episodes I have no intention to watch again.
A shame because Steven Moffat is probably my favourite writer in all of Doctor Who, up there with the likes of Robert Holmes. This is the one time that the usual high standard we should expect from Moffat was not reached, though the fact that a high standard is something we’ve come to expect says a lot about him. When he steps aside (for the man behind Cyberwoman!) I think that he will be sorely missed.
When he's not obsessing about Doctor Who whilst having I Am The Doctor play in his head, Dr. Moo can usually be found reading up on the latest in Quantum Physics. As you do when you're a physicist.