The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe

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    Craig @craig

    The Christmas Special 2011. During World War II a family of Blitz refugees, Madge Arwell and her two children, Lily and Cyril, have had to relocate to Dorset, where they meet the Doctor.

    PhaseShift @phaseshift
    Time Lord

    OK – I still think Christmas Carol and Snowmen are better, but watching this again made me remember how strikingly different this is, and why I do enjoy it.

    It helps to watch it shortly after the madness of Wedding of River Song, rather than have a gap. This is quite a good understated Coda to that episode, with the Doctor obviously keeping as low a profile as possible for someone who’s blowing up spaceships.

    It all feels low key and intimate. After Christmas Carol, with a bad man who can be redeemed, we have an episode without a real enemy at all. The comic relief of the Androzani characters are the nearest you get, as the inept faces of commercial exploitation (and I still think the slight satire of saving the forest at Christmas is quite sly).

    It’s Matt’s show though. He’s hilarious as ever, but it’s the scenes where he quietens down that can stop you in his tracks. His combination of sudden awkwardness and empathy as he explains to Madge why she’s getting so angry are fantastic. I also love the final scene with the Doctor “going home” to the Ponds. It’s emotional, but I think veers well clear of the rocks of mawkishness.

    Oh – and can I just say that, like Christmas Carol and Snowmen, this is a visual treat.

    There was a short prequel to it that went out, which I’ll embed below. It doesn’t add that much, but in the absence of a confidential, what the hell.

    Bluesqueakpip @bluesqueakpip

    You can read the original Guardian blog comments here. Broadly, they divided into two camps; those who loved it, and those who thought it was a pile of over-sentimental twaddle. I can only guess that the second camp spend Christmas muttering ‘Bah! Humbug!’ and chucking orphans out into the snow.

    I was in the first camp; I really liked it. It was sweet, very Christmassy, and about ‘the best Christmas ever’ – that is, the one where the kids got Daddy back alive, by a special Christmas miracle. I also enjoyed Moffat’s not-so-subtle dig at the bloggers who insist in the face of all the evidence that he’s a misogynist. The men were ‘weak’, the women were ‘strong’ – and by and large, that’s exactly what they were.

    In terms of long running themes; the Doctor’s lack of family, again. He can’t rescue the trees; he’s got crap parental instincts and he’s got no home to think of, so he can’t pilot the ship. Children, again. The Doctor puts children in danger. He doesn’t mean too, he doesn’t want to, he wants them to have a fun time. But what he does either puts them in danger or damages them badly.

    Then there’s the story of the Doctor’s life: things get a bit clinchy in the middle, but sort of work out in the end. I think we’re solidly in the clinchy bits right now.

    And finally, my favourite lines:

    The Doctor: This is one of the safest planets I know. There’s never anything dangerous here.

    {the forest shakes}

    The Doctor: There are sentences I should just keep away from.

    janetteB @janetteb

    I too was in the first camp and I think those of the second camp should be  chucked out into the snow. I loved the episode. It wasn’t Dr Who normal but Dr Who wrapped up in Christmas paper, all colourful and glittery with a surprise inside. Matt is always at his best when acting with children, (with perhaps the sole exception of NiS”) as he is able to engage at their level, to reveal in his own childishness. Moffat likewise has a good understanding and willingness to expolit the strong bond of a parent for his/her child. I don’t understand why some viewers just don’t get that or view it as sentimental twaddle after all, while we don’t all have children we all have parents. (well mostly) We have experienced at least half of that relationship.

    Madge was a wonderful character with real strength and who better to have on our screens at Christmas than Manny in a spacesuit. Moffat deftly handles the political angle here, and interestingly it is one of the few stories in AG Who where the humans are the cause of the trouble though he doesn’t really explore that. This is meant to be a feel good, after pudding and brandy story. It gives us a happy ending for the end of a happy day. When it comes to writing Christmas stories Moffat is a true discipile of Dickens.



    Anonymous @

    Y’know, when I think about this episode, I remember many things, but I had completely, utterly forgotten what an amazing opening it has.  That was cinematically awesome.

    Then quick-cut to the (relatively speaking) tranquility of Madge falling off her bike.

    People have already said much about this Christmas special, over at the G and here, so I’ll just throw in a few extra titbits.

    I wasn’t familiar with the name Farren Blackburn (the director) so looked him up.  He has quite an eclectic CV, ranging from soaps (Doctors, Footballers Wifes, Waterlood Road) to serious, hefty stuff like Luther and Panorama.

    I’m mostly familiar with Claire Skinner from Outnumbered, which I know a lot of people have ‘issues’ about, but I really loved the first couple of series.  (Then the kids got too old and too play-to-the-camera jaded.)  She has a kind of ditsy voice which contrasts so well with the steel at the core of Madge.

    I love Lily’s line to/about Cyril: ‘He’s always making up things.  And breathing.’  What an economical way to illustrate a loving but frustrated (i.e., utterly normal) sibling relationship.

    The comedy with Matt in the backwards helmet is the kind of slapstick where you expect every gag you see (walking into the lamppost etc) but it’s still endearingly amusing to watch.

    What I find interesting about the sequence of the Doctor welcoming the Arwells to the house, and showing them around, is thinking if this could have been done better by another incarnation of the Doctor.  I think McCoy could have got the manic fun of the moment; but Tennant would have been too OTT, and somehow not as believably excited by his own work.  Troughton could have done it well but with a different level of arm’s-length away from the Arwells.  Eccleston would have had the Arwells running for their lives back to London being blitzed!

    And this scene is key to the story for me – the Doctor obviously needs people around him, and this incarnation needs to please this small group of people, make them happy with what he thinks are the gee-gaws that would excite them, to engage them and make them appreciate his genius – all in a fairly sad reaction to having lost his former life, and his need to ‘be small’ for a while.  Except, he just simply cannot be ‘small’ – so he tricks up the Arwell’s house in the most grandiose fashion.

    It’s odd for the Doctor to have that extremely empathetic reaction and conversation with Madge about the children being happy now, but sad later.  I say ‘odd’ because we’ve seen 11 react too many times in ways that illustrate his complete infamiliarity with normal human emotions.  It was this conversation that made me re-think a lot of what we’d seen 11 do – how he was with Craig in The Lodger, getting kissed by River for (what he thought was) the first time, fighting off Amy when she made a pass at him, etc.  It made me think that all of his awkward reactions might actually have involved a teensy bit of ‘acting’ in a way to avoid a situation he didn’t want to make disagreeable.  But here, when it mattered, he showed that he did indeed understand how human emotions work.

    Bluesqueakpip @bluesqueakpip

    It’s odd for the Doctor to have that extremely empathetic reaction

    @Shazzbot – agreed. I think, myself, that it’s a callback to the First Doctor – travelling with his granddaughter.

    So what happened to her parents? I think he’s so extremely empathic here because Madge is in a situation he does understand. He’s been there as well; having to let a child be happy while knowing that – very soon – he’s going to have to sit down with her and explain something that will make her sad.

    As to the ‘fighting off Amy’ – I’m deeply convinced that the ‘alien, not understanding this’ was simply because Amy had just told him she was getting married in the morning. He was trying to stop her making a very big mistake. I’m sure that when he later told River that story, his version was along the lines of ‘and I should’ve got a medal for my self-restraint!’  🙂

    Anonymous @

    (Hope no one minds me wandering in five years late just to maunder.)

    A Doctor wise in the ways of children gives them a house of wonders: hot and cold running water, and lemonade! Hammocks instead of beds! And of course a world of marvels for Christmas morning. Cyril and Lily are suitably awestruck.

    Madge, of course, not so much. She has the terrible telegram right there in her hand. Her world has just been jerked out from under her. She can’t understand why she wants to shout at her children.

    This Doctor, though, is fresh from Lake Silencio. He knows. He can comprehend. How can you let others be happy when a dreadful future looms? And yet, how can you not?

    The story leads through that world of wonder soon lost, with silly humans, and surprising creatures of wood and forest. Leading to the greatest wonder of all, that the truth of the telegram can be un-told, and the terrifying event un-made.

    Then the terror—rising in the children and already there in Madge but ruthlessly suppressed—can be released, and gotten rid of. Reg is alive, Reg is home, and it’s Christmas morning. Tears turn to joy, and the Doctor observes happy tears, that human phenomenon.

    After which Madge shows her own wisdom, and sends him on his way. Amy is predictably strong-willed at the reunion, and Rory naturally tells him to come on. Because he has a place at their table, a place with them. He always has a place.

    And so the Doctor who thought he had to be dead to his loved ones discovers he is not just alive, but his life is with them, and a human phenomenon becomes a Time Lord one as well.

    My father died before I finished growing up, died while I still needed him…as I will always need him. I can never forget that first Christmas without him…and every Christmas without him since.

    For me Christmas is always tinged with sadness, because of who is missing, who is absent, and how I miss them.

    And yet Christmas is always a time of joy, because of who is present, and how I love them.

    This is my favorite Christmas special, and always will be.

    Merry Christmas to you all!

    Anonymous @

    @kevinwho  You liked it didn’t you? I can tell.

    So did I. It was warm, humorous and summed up the spirit of Christmas which is both happy and sad. Sorry you had to encounter the sadness too early in your life  but glad you have blessings to count now.

    As I say I enjoyed it but there’s one point where I always start shouting at the telly. When Madge goes up to the attic in a short sleeved blouse! No! Just no! Houses were just too darn cold before central heating.

    Sorry,Mini rant over. I loved it too.

    Anonymous @

    @margaret-blaine – Just goes to show that if you get enough right and really right, no one really minds if you get a little wrong. 🙂

    Anonymous @

    Quite so. And if you love a show you can actually let it get quite a lot wrong before you need to start kicking and screaming. (I suppose that’s true of people really too. Mmm. Quite deep for me. I’d better go and have a lie-down.)

    janetteB @janetteb

    @kevinwho Yes. My youngest son, (r.3), and I were just discussing this yesterday, after I finished watching Doctor Widow and the Wardrobe in fact. I love all the Christmas Specials but I think Moffat really captures the sadness that underlies the joy that is Christmas. I have a small collection of Christmas cards from friends and family who have passed away that I put up every year. They will always be part of Christmas for me and none more so that my aunt and uncle.

    R.3. was remarking that though there are many episodes that don’t really add up story wise there are “those moments” of sheer brilliance that made up for the shortcomings. The Husbands of River Song is a prime example. The transformers robot is rubbish and I don’t like the depiction of River Song as a psychopath. She play it up but I always feel that is an act but that moment when she says that the last place the Doctor would be is by her side and looks at CapDoc is worth a whole series of misfires.

    Doctor, Widow and the wardrobe is magical and it brings tears to the eyes, both sad and happy tears. It is just what the heart needs at Christmas.





    Anonymous @


    And if you love a show you can actually let it get quite a lot wrong before you need to start kicking and screaming.

    And if you find you’re getting yourself depressed as I did yesterday, well, I stopped focusing on what was upsetting me and started thinking about something that gave me joy, like this! 🙂


    I have a small collection of Christmas cards from friends and family who have passed away that I put up every year. They will always be part of Christmas for me and none more so that my aunt and uncle.

    That is absolutely wonderful.  It’s been so long for most of those I’ve lost that I don’t have much left in most cases – except memories.  I always have those.

    …but that moment when she says that the last place the Doctor would be is by her side and looks at CapDoc is worth a whole series of misfires.

    You’re absolutely right.  I really didn’t like Husbands when it came on; even though the Doctor couldn’t remember Clara, and so couldn’t miss her, I could and did, and I just could not get into the lightheartedness.

    Then I saw it again after a year or so had passed, and could appreciate it.  And yes, that “Hello sweetie” will cover a whole boatload of sins. 🙂

    Cath Annabel @cathannabel

    I loved this one.  It helped that it referenced in so many ways (starting with the title) The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, which was a huge part of my childhood.  I do also recall having a lengthy and fractious discussion on The Other Place about whether the narrative was attributing a mystical power to maternity, or whether ( as I argued) that in this particular case, with these particular aliens, maternity was a source of power.  Yes, the ending is cheesy, if you want to be cynical, but it was Christmas Day and who the heck wants to be cynical on Christmas Day?

    Anonymous @

    @cathannabel – Hear hear!  I’d much rather dish up some cheese on Christmas than cynicism.  Cynicism is too easy, it’s what frustrated idealists like me fall into all the time.

    I always felt that, rather than mystic motherhood, that, yes, this story established that this life force needed to be held by someone who could carry life force around, as mothers do (and as Lily could have if she were older, I thought, even if not yet a mother).  I personally liked it – it’s always a good idea for the Doctor to remember that he or she can do a lot, but there’s always something someone can do better, even a mere human. 🙂

    winston @winston

    @kevinwho    I have been re-watching all of the Christmas episodes in order as I get ready for the big day and this is one of my favorites. It is so sweet and hopeful it can’t fail to give you the “feels”. Happy crying. For me the story was about how far a Mother will go to protect her children. Madge is my hero, she disarms her keepers and goes on to drive the big machine through the acid rain to get to her kids. I think because she is so willing to give of herself for others that the trees know she is strong enough, brave enough and kind enough to carry them get home. I love a happy ending at Christmas and this one is very happy. Good old perplexed Reg.

    The Doctor is lovely and whimsical in this episode and his upgrades to the house are wonderful and magic, all the things you need at Christmas.

    @janetteb   This time of year can be bittersweet, reminding us of those we have lost but little things like putting out their Christmas cards or their favourite ornaments can help us remember  days spent together. I have my Dads carolers and my Moms snowmen on display as well as hanging stockings that belonged to my wee dogs. Sad but happy.

    Anonymous @

    @winston – So glad you feel that way too.  When I’ve seen polls of favorite Christmas episodes, this one’s always near the bottom, which perplexes me.  Oh well, everyone values different things.

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