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“The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe” Review (SPOILERS)

Happy Everything, Everybody!!

The word “special” is used too often anymore for things that don’t deserve it, much like the word “epic,” for that matter, but that’s for a different article. A lot of times when television shows have Christmas specials, they really don’t earn the word. Mostly they’re just episodes that take place at Christmas. Even the first few Doctor Who Christmas specials, going all the way back to 2005, were just regular adventures that just happened to land on the holiday, so there were the trappings of Christmas, but that’s really as far as it goes. Last year’s special, A Christmas Carol, was touted as the most Christmassy Christmas special of them all, turning Dickens’ classic story into a fun, touching science fiction adventure. This year’s special, The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe, trumps even that. Focusing exclusively on the power of family, togetherness, and love, this episode might be the most Christmassy of all. Moffat’s just a big ol’ softy, ain’t he?

Now, officially, the title foregoes the Oxford Comma, but I just can’t do it. I’m sorry. From the title, we know the episode gets its inspiration from the C.S. Lewis novel, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I have never read any of the Narnia books nor seen any of the films, so if there are some obvious references I don’t mention, please don’t hold it against me. I see the correlation between the TARDIS (and the present) to the wardrobe, given that the Doctor calls it that, and I’m told there are tree people as well. Is that right? Other than that, I saw nothing that seemed very Narnian. I didn’t feel my lack of knowledge of the material lessened my enjoyment any, so that’s really the best kind of reference; too subtle for people who don’t know to know they’re missing.

There’s a lot to like about this special. I love how it began with the Doctor yet again saving Earth from an enormous extraterrestrial threat, only this time it’s the late 1930s and everyone on the planet is none the wiser.  When he crashes after having put an impact suit on backward (in the UK again, what are the odds), he meets Madge Arwell (Claire Skinner) who seems completely nonplussed by the fact that a spaceman (or angel) happened to fall from the sky. I quite liked Madge. She was a bit dotty but overall she was a fantastically grounded and believable character. Three years after she helps the Doctor, we find her having just received the news that her husband, a WWII pilot, has crashed and died. She doesn’t want to tell her children, Lily (Holly Earl) and Cyril (Maurice Cole) on Christmas for fear of ruining the holiday for them forever. She then makes a wish, one that the Doctor hears. I like the idea that this Doctor can somehow respond to people’s hopes, fears, and wishes. It happened during Night Terrors with the weird alien kid as well. It’s not fun all the time, but once in a while, I like that the Doctor can tell when he’s needed.

Trying to escape the bombing, Madge takes her children to a big old house in Dorset where a weird man who calls himself “The Caretaker” has made the house a veritable wonderland for the Arwell kids. Since the Doctor is basically a giant kid himself, he knows better than anyone what kids would find fun. I particularly enjoyed the lemonade tap and the clockwork Christmas tree (I know). He also gives them a special package which no child could resist. Madge isn’t too pleased with the Caretaker, but it’s perfectly understandable why.

In the night, the children leave their hammocks; Lily finds the Caretaker up in the attic with his “wardrobe” and Cyril tricks them, using the old bear and duvet, and opens the large blue package and enters a snow-covered forest. What look like ornaments begin to form on the tree and Cyril takes one down. It begins to grow and hatches, and whatever’s inside grows further. Lily and the Caretaker chase after him, 20 minutes behind, and later Madge goes after them as well.  Cyril tracks the tree thing to a large tower wherein he finds the king of the Treeple sitting in a throne and at the top, he finds the Treeple queen holding a metal crown, which she attempts to put on the boy. Lily and the Caretaker enter and see the trees are forming stars, which Lily finds so beautiful she begins to cry. Apparently, only humans cry when they’re happy. They then try to enter the top room to aid Cyril, but, wouldn’t ya know it, the sonic screwdriver still can’t do wood.

Elsewhere, Madge runs into three guys from Halo, led by Bill Bailey.  They ask what she’s doing in the forest and she begins to cry.  He tells her they’re from Androzani Major (best classic series reference ever) and that the forest will soon be subjected to acid rain to melt the trees down into a powerful energy source. Unfortunately, this whole thing will happen in five minutes so, once the video game guys get teleported away, it’s up to Madge to pilot the weird, three-legged machine to the tower to retrieve her children. In the tower, the Treeple tell the Caretaker that they’re looking for someone to hold their energy to transport them away from the acid rain. Cyril won’t do, and neither will the Caretaker. They’re too weak. Lily is strong but too young, apparently. Once Madge enters, it becomes clear that she’s perfect cuz she’s a woman… and a mother…. She puts on the crown and absorbs the entire forest and then the top of the tower takes off like a spaceship and ends up in the time vortex.

In the vortex, the Caretaker tells Madge that she must think of home in order to go home and they are all shown the memories of Madge and Mr. Atwell meeting and falling in love and stuff. Then she sees the night he died and her children are finally cued in on what has really happened to their father.  Suddenly they land outside the Dorset house and the children demand to know the truth. The Caretaker comes out, but comes right back in with good news. Seems flying through the time vortex gave Mr. Atwell and his plane enough of a light to follow to safety. Again, people cry when they’re happy, and the Caretaker says “humany wumany” which is the kind of line I’m pretty damn tired of. Still, it was a nice moment. Madge goes up to the attic to find the Doctor ready to leave again in the TARDIS. She then twigs that he was the silly spaceman from three years earlier. Through their conversation, she convinces him that it’s not right for his friends to think he’s dead and he oughtn’t to spend Christmas alone. So lo and behold, the Doctor goes to the Ponds’ house.

As I said earlier, there was a lot to like about this episode. First and foremost is Matt Smith as the Doctor/Caretaker. You’d think I’d get tired of singing his praises, and yet I never do. He’s perfect in the role, plain and simple. Claire Skinner was likewise pretty wonderful as Madge. She came at the craziness of the situation from such a refreshingly naïve angle that I couldn’t help but chuckle, especially at her line about knowing what it’s like to be a forest. The kids were also pretty good. Bill Bailey, Paul Bazely, and Arabella Weir as the Androzani people, while not in it very much, were pretty hysterical in their function of being a plot point.  The story itself was pretty imaginative, and I liked the design of the Treeple. In all the other Doctor Who Christmas specials, the Doctor has had to save a whole planet from an enormous threat, and even last year saw him having to save Amy, Rory, and a whole ship full of people. This year, however, was really just about the Doctor trying to make one family happy. I really liked the un-epic nature of the story while still maintaining a very fantastical and magical atmosphere.

If I have any complaints, weirdly and surprisingly, it’s with the plot. It was very contrived and designed to do nothing else but tug on the heartstrings. That type of stuff doesn’t really work on me.  I also think it’s funny how Moffat’s attempt at being wholly unsexist results in a pretty darn sexist story. Men are stupid and useless and weak, don’t you know.  It puts all the characters into very specific gender roles which it really didn’t need to. There could have been a better way to have Madge be the one to shepherd the Treeple’s consciousnesses away. I’m also slightly tiring of the “Everybody Lives, Rose” style of storytelling. Happy endings are fine, but not at the expense of narrative flow. This one was explained better than some, but it still was a bit of a cop out. Not that I wanted a scene of children crying about their dead father, but there’s lots of kids whose parents weren’t saved by time vortexes who’ll be watching the episode. Also, do you think it’s a responsible move for the Doctor, who faked his death to go into hiding, to visit his last known companions on the most conspicuous day of the year?

Despite these nitpicks, though, this episode succeeded in being a truly Christmassy and special Christmas special.  Even the bits I didn’t really like only stuck with me for a moment. The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe is an episode, like A Christmas Carol before it, that can truly be enjoyed by the whole family. It’s both timey and wimey without giving anyone a headache and, like a glass of eggnog and a Santa-shaped cookie, it can be imbibed, digested, and leaves you with a pleasant feeling in your belly.

The only sad part is that now we have to wait until next August for another new episode. Egads.

-Kanderson’s always pulling the old bear and duvet. Follow him on TWITTER

Image: BBC

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  1. Chuck W. says:

    Would you say the episode was Christmassy Wistmassy? Sorry I couldn’t resist.

  2. Kirby Bartlett-Sloan says:

    Thank you for the “Oxford comma”.

    That is the way it should be!

  3. DJ Jarak says:

    I think this was THE BEST Doctor Who Christmas special to date. Simply brilliant!

  4. VCEden says:

    I am surprised by this mostly positive review. I was totally unimpressed with this episode. There were a couple funny/memorable moments (the tour, Madge begging not to see the dad’s death, visiting the Ponds, the happy tear) but overall it just sort of fades into the background. I was disappointed.

  5. Am I truly the only one to have detected in Cyril and Madge Arwell what appear to be deliberate traces of an hommage to Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) and his mother (Melinda Dillon) from the classic Bob Clark film version of Jean Shepherd’s A Christmas Story, set in the snowy American Midwest circa 1940, at about the same time as both Lewis’s book and this episode? It was the big thick round eyeglasses that first clued me in, and then I began to notice how alike the mothers were.

  6. Lincoln says:

    Ought naughten be

  7. Dean says:

    I agree that the plot was pretty contrived, but the stuff I did really like was few and far between. I was tired and sort of drunk so that may have been a contributing factor, but by Moffat written/Xmas episode standards it was quite boring and that’s not something I’d normally say about either. Bill Bailey was wasted as well, but I will say that Claire Skinner was great and so was Alexander Armstrong in his scenes.

  8. Pandaemoni says:

    You thought Madge was nonplussed by the spaceman/angel? As in perplexed and at a loss of what to do? I thought she was strangely unaffected by it, rather than nonplussed.

  9. For me, this episode proves that Moffat needs to focus less on over arching plot threads and more on making great stand alone episodes next series. Keep the overall plot arc there, but in the distant back round so that it doesn’t detract from great individual episodes.

    Besides, the plot arcs will mean less to people dipping in and out of random episodes on watch in a few years time. Keep a theme running through them, but make sure they’re repeat friendly.

  10. Chris says:

    I loved this episode, was a bit worried because I wasn’t a fan of “A Christmas Carol” last year. Favourite moments were Maggie begging not to see her husband die (that pulled at the heart strings) and the Ponds.
    As for Narnia references, I’ll start at the most obvious and certain ones and go to questionable and pulling a long bow ones.
    – Escaping to the country because of the war
    – Doctor took on the Professor role
    – “What do they teach in schools these days?”
    – The gateway
    – The living trees
    -The fact that it was a winter wonderland, that was what Narnia was like the first time the kids visited
    – time going at different speeds between the worlds
    – The coming of 2 Sons of Adam, 2 Daughters of Eve (if you include the doctor and the mum) was foretold
    – In Prince Caspin, Humans had come and taken over the land, stopped the trees from talking.

  11. Brian E. says:

    Like Kyle I know next to nothing about LW&W but that took nothing away from my enjoyment. Loved this I was initially disappointed that the dad lived but like another pointed out we got the impact already so his real death would add little.

    LOVED the Androzani reference. I’m going to pop in that DVD tomorrow 🙂

    And the final 5 REALLY tugged on the tear ducts. Beautiful.

    PS Smith doing the tour of the house is so re-watchable.

  12. Brian E. says:

    Like Kyle I know next to nothing about LW&W but that took nothing away from my enjoyment. Loved this thoroughly. I was initially disappointed that the dad lived but like another pointed out we got the impact already so his real death would add little.

    LOVED the Androzani reference. I’m going to pop in that DVD tomorrow 🙂

    And the final 5 REALLY tugged on the tear ducts. Beautiful.

    PS Smith doing the tour of the house is so re-watchable.

  13. Brian E. says:

    Ugh… so good! Like Jyle I know next to nothing about the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe but that took nothing away from my enjoyment. Loved this thoroughly. I was initially disappointed that the dad lived but like another pointed out we got the impact already so his real death would add little.

    LOVED the Androzani reference. I’m going to pop in that DVD tomorrow 🙂

    And the final 5 REALLY tugged on the tear ducts. Beautiful.

    PS Smith doing the tour of the house is so re-watchable.

  14. Jeff F says:

    I think that this episode is the first time we see the 11th Doctor tear up. Am I right? I remember David Tennant teared up in The End of Time. It seemed like the 10th Doctor became the most “human” right before he regenerated. Then Matt Smith comes along with his own quirkiness. Do you think that this episode represents the 11th Doctor beginning to be more wise, sentimental, or both?

    I loved the episode btw!

  15. scott says:


  16. scott says:

    My brother clued me into this but doesnt anyone realize that moment at the end when the doctor wipes a barley visible tear , Is the FIRST TIME IN DOCTOR WHO HISTORY THE DOCTOR HAS BEEN TRULEY HAPPY (a tear is either a sadness or the most extreme happiness one can expierience) I wonder if this will tag along with the new season in some fashion. Very bold choice by moffat i must say! And very well done with the “bad guy”

    If i am incorrect about the crying happiness moment in who history please let me know with a sonically driven slap 😀

  17. Robin BUrks says:

    I’m a girl. I love that tugging on the emotional heart strings. It’s really why I love Who so much. Sure, it’s science fiction, but it’s also very human, too. For me, it works. My own glowing review will be up on my blog tomorrow.

    Episodes where we really get to see Matt Smith at work are my personal favorites. He’s a great Doctor, but I don’t think we’ve still seen a lot of that with all the focus on River Song and the Ponds. It’s episodes like this one that makes me think what a fantastic Doctor he really is.

    I got a chuckle reading Kyle’s referral to the Halo guys. That is EXACTLY what I thought, too. I think one of them might have been Master Chief.

  18. Dillon says:

    Well, he is at least 200 years older.

  19. Candice says:

    I really loved his reunion with the Ponds. And how Amy was getting ready to water pistol carolers. The Doctor’s “happy tear” was so sweet. Not sure if I liked the rest of the story. I’m pretty fond off the Davies action packed episodes. By 9pm on Christmas day, I’m pretty much through with “tidings of joy”. As for the new season starting in August, I had read October, so that is good news to me. Give Moffat a break. He is doing this and Sherlock and raising a family. Would you rather wait for a really great season or have a half assed season in May?

  20. Nic says:

    Did anyone else think Matt looked a little strange in this episode? Older possibly?

  21. Lokey says:

    I have to admit that last four or five minutes of the show really did some tugging on the old heart strings. Especially that bit about always setting a place for The Doctor.

    With the wishing bit I took it as the TARDIS’ doing that The Doctor usually ended up where he was needed. That conversation in “The Doctor’s Wife” where The Doctor complains that the old girl never takes him where he wants to go and the TARDIS replies she always takes him where he needs to go.

    I truly love these reviews, Mr. Anderson. They get my own brain gears turning and I notice things I didn’t catch while watching the episodes. Keep up the “epic” work, sir.

  22. Scott S says:

    I don’t think it’s unreasonable to hold the fact that Kyle hasn’t read the Chronicles of Narnia against him. You didn’t need to for this episode, but really, what have you been doing your whole life? Time to write about Doctor Who, but not enough to get around to some C.S. Lewis?

    I was hoping the Androzani deal would factor in more, but I guess it was just a throwaway.

  23. oakley says:

    Once the mom flew through the wormhole, I called that Dad will actually won’t be dead when they land. But I didn’t the visit to the Ponds coming. That too was my favorite part of the show. Oh, and the bedroom with hammocks and lemonade tap. 🙂

  24. Sin Greaves says:

    I loved it, it was highly Doctorish on all levels. After watching everything in his universe die, saving as many lives as he can should be important to him. And the light the pilot followed home, guided by the only star he could see, his north star, his wife, I thought that was a great twist. It was the power of love, right there.

    This episode kind of broke the ice for me, like so many others, I’m having trouble letting go of My Doctor, but I had the same issues with Baker and I got over them too. So slowly I’m getting used to Matt and his over the top quirky ways, and egads, that face. Not My Doctor.

    And August!!?? What the ….? Are they weaving them on tapastries first, telling the whole season in brail, one needle punch at a time? August!!?? I think the sound I want here is an indignant snort, but I can’t spell it.

  25. Scott S. says:

    The Narnia references are actually actually pretty few and far between. The only real similarities are a few minor plot points (escaping the blitz in London, entering a snow-covered forest) and a few lines (What do they teach you in schools these days?).

    That being said, it was still a pretty good Christmas special, although personally I preferred “A Christmas Carol.”

  26. John says:

    I thought the last five minutes with Amy, Rory, and the Doctor was the best thing about this episode. All the actors played their parts well in the scene. The idea Amy is spraying carolers with a water pistol made me LOL. Smith did a great job reacting to the news that Amy was still setting a place for him even after two years.

    All in all it was an okay episode, bring on Series 7!

  27. Krysta says:

    I don’t think I”d call it the “best” Christmas episode. Personally I still love “Voyage of the Damned”. And last year’s “A Christmas Carol” was far too cheesy and the whole shark pulling the sleigh thing was a bit too much, not to mention that the Doctor went back in time and completely altered a person’s past… This year’s was however probably the second best in it’s simplicity and overall heartwarming story. I can’t imagine anyone not crying after watching this one. Of course I cry at every episode. I LOVED the Doctor’s tour of the house, “I repaired it!”. And that final scene where the Doctor does the humany wumany happy crying tear thing just before closing the Pond’s TARDIS blue front door finally made me accept Matt as being cool, after having had trouble letting go of David. Did anyone else notice that the Doctor knocked on the Pond’s door 4x? (twice)…

  28. CXRengel says:

    Best Christmas special that makes excellent use of Matt Smith’s skills as the Doctor. Steven Moffatt was right in that it would bring you to tears.

  29. Ian Boothby says:

    Yep, Moffat just doesn’t seem keen on killing characters in his episodes. There was enough of the impact death has in the episode that actually having a real one wouldn’t have added much. I’m just worried about those poor kids not ageing at all in three years.