This story in a nutshell: Lemonade on tap, presents to another world and a man following a star home to Christmas with his kids. It’s the Doctor Who Christmas Special!
Mad Professor: If there was ever proof that Matt Smith went off the boil as the Doctor during his rein then you need look no further than this Christmas special that sees him handed a script that sees him reduced to a series of cute quirks rather than the complex character that he was handed in his first season. It’s such a dumbing down of the central role it is one of the few times where I would say that the Doctor is a little embarrassing to be around, and that is a very rare occurrence (The Underwater Menace, Nightmare of Eden, Mindwarp, Paradise Towers and The Happiness Patrol have their moments too). It’s the ultimate example of portraying him as a completely child friendly gimp, all hand waving, sonic madness and toothy grins. There’s no substance to his portrayal, no way of engaging with such a goofy sonofabitch. He’s wearing his impact suit backwards so gawp at the Doctor walking in a funny way all back to front because that would simply be hilarious. Note the sarcasm. Maybe the Doctor shouldn’t be companionless at Christmas because it rarely ends well for the quality of the story being told (The Next Doctor, The End of Time Part One, this abomination, Twice Upon a Time). The Doctor is then presented as the supreme fun time caretaker who skips about an old house pouring lemonade from taps, tearing doors of hinges and ripping off Narnia wardrobes with giant presents. Oh my, what happened to this character? It’s just a bit of fun, Joe, I hear you cry. Only this isn’t fun. This is Mary Poppins as told by a socially awkward, self-knowing geek. And in the most knowing winks at the audience Matt Smith grins at the camera and says ‘I know!’ as if he’s telling us THIS IS FUN! When the Doctor starts itemising the super fun things in kid’s rooms (‘The Magna Carta!’) I wanted to reach into the screen and strangle him with my bare hands just to shut him up. Should I ever want to do that? Even when he was trying to kill Peri I was kind of on the fence because she was so whiny. I’m so so so so fun! I’m the funnest fun Time Lord ever! Oh fuck off, Moffat. Also, the eleventh Doctor looks so tailored these days whereas he looked such a wonderful old scruff in his first year. Smith has gone Hollywood, Doctor Who style. What The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe tells us is that with Moffat at the reins, Matt Smith had shown us everything he could do with the Doctor at this point. There isn’t anything that we see here that he hasn’t done smarter/funnier/more commanding elsewhere. Another season of hand waving and he’ll be gone.
Dreadful Dialogue: I could put the majority of the script in this section but here are a few examples of the agonising self-parody…
‘Is it fairyland?’ ‘Fairyland! Oh grow up, Lily! Fairyland looks completely different!’ Don’t rise to it, Joe…
‘I have mother issues, sir. It’s all on file.’
‘Aliens made of wood! This was always going to happen, you know!’
‘What have I told you about opening your presents early?’ Really?
‘It’s Christmas Day, my love! Where else would you be?’
The Good: I’m not sure if this belongs in the ‘bad’ section but the opening few seconds which depicts (another) attempted attack on the Earth by alien interlopers is by far the most interested I was in this story. Before long the Doctor is spat from the impressive looking spaceship and treading water in the atmosphere as he screams towards the Earth and goofing about on the streets at Christmas but for five seconds or so I got a Christmas Invasion type vibe about the story that looked as though we were going to get something much more gripping than we actually do. Never let your audience take a peek at a story that is much more sophisticated looking than the one you are actually going to show them. Amy and the water pistol ready to squirt carol singers. Worthy of the one point I gave this story.
The Bad: Doctor Who has a very bad grasp of understanding of how the vacuum of space works. Don’t get me wrong this is science fiction (emphasis on the fiction) but it is still quite a stretch to fundamentally change how the laws of science work. The effects of the Doctor dancing with the spacesuit are desperately unconvincing – you never had that trouble with Jon Pertwee in Frontier in Space! Is there anything more annoying than a child in a Steven Moffat show ran episode? Let’s take a look at the evidence; Angie and Artie (kill me now), George (wimpy), Mels (so smug), young Kazran (pure as the driven snow), young Danny Pink (insufferably cute), all the children from In the Forest of the Night (literally the most agonising cast of children every to be committed to film)…the only exception is Young Amelia who thanks to a engaging performance manages to actually warm the heart a little. Otherwise it is like the creche from hell and Cyril and Holly are no exception. They never manage to emerge from their roles as cute as a button kiddiewinks and as such I just want to gouge my eyes out with a rusty fork every time they are on screen. Whoever chose to put Cyril in this thick rimmed specs that give him the additional hindrance of looking completely gormless too deserves shooting. The scenes of Reg flying his damaged plane over the Channel lack any sense of danger whatsoever. Partly because we haven’t spent any time with this character and haven’t been given any reason to care about his death and partly because the scenes are filmed in a dreamy, fairy-tale kind of way that plagued the Matt Smith era and reduced some potentially gripping scenes to cartoonish nonsense. There’s no real drama surrounding Reg not coming home to his kids because it is presented in the most unimaginably twee was possible, with cute as a button one dimensional characters hanging around waiting for him at Christmas. Is this really the same writer who wrote stories as dark as The Empty Child and Heaven Sent? Remember when Moffat stated in The Girl in the Fireplace that you have to keep throwing in visual curveballs to keep the audience interested (some people might say that is the job of an engaging story but I digress)…well overscheduling his talents has clearly exhausted his imagination. Huge Christmas baubles! Living trees! Presents that are a gateway to another world! Just saying that characters have come from Androzani isn’t enough to impress me…it’s a throwaway reference to a far, far superior story (you know, when Doctor Who used to good) and the characters are so aesthetically different from anything in The Caves of Androzani that I can’t make the visual link anyway. Like so much of this story, it’s a misguided attempt to impress in the wrong way. The dialogue between the three characters from Androzani is like some terrible old sitcom version of Doctor Who where everybody talks in a hideously self-knowing way. Monsters that barely have any dialogue, child characters I don’t give a damn about and a bunch of trees that are under threat of acid rain…why should I give a damn about any of this? People said that the Cyber King from The Next Doctor was absurd…how about Madge getting into a piece of futuristic hardware and riding successfully through the forest? The ending is a loathsome metaphor for Mother Earth (Madge being able to save the day because she is a woman and has the strength of a mother’s love…or something) and a parody of the stars lighting the way for the Wise Men (Madge providing a star for her husband to follow to get home for Christmas for his children…or something). It’s a conclusion that uses sentiment as logic and abandons reason and intelligence. It’s an ending in a self-knowing Christmas special that knows it has to have a happy ending…and so it does just because. It’s the laziest ending to a Doctor Who story that I can remember. Everything’s alright…because it should be. Oh vomit.
Result: ‘This Christmas is going to be the best Christmas ever!’ You need to be careful when you scripting words like that. A fatigued writer, trying to out-Christmas his previous year and ending up dousing the series in syrup and producing one of the least effective scripts in the shows long history. Some people will give this episode a pass because it is a Christmas special (and you know, they’re never supposed to be very good…until they are like The Christmas Invasion and Last Christmas) but there is no point where Doctor Who should be this unengaging, this lethargic in its attempts to impress, this reduced to cliché and sentimentality and this lacking in incident, relatable characters and memorable moments. I know Russell T Davies hates this word when it comes to describing writers, but this script is just so lazy. None dimensional characters (I include the Doctor in that) trapped in a dreary alien landscape, monsters that fail to raise an eyebrow (even visually), and a score that beats you to death with how golly gosh fun this is all supposed to be. This is the story that reduces the grief of losing somebody to something chokingly twee, offbeat and repairable. Yeah, that’s a message you should be promoting at Christmas, Doctor Who. I lost count of how many times I wanted to kill myself during this rewatch and I recall falling asleep long before the credits when I first watched it…something that has never happened before or since. This could be held up as the cure for insomnia or the piece of television to be studied by those who are entering into the medium to warn them of how not to make a seasonal spectacular. I hate how horribly self-knowing the show was during this period too (‘we’ve gone through a dimensional portal little girl from the Second World War’), taking everything for granted and refusing to present anything as fresh and original. Oh wait, that’s because nothing here is fresh or original. It’s a hackneyed piece of old SF tat, the visual equivalent of watching paint atrophy over a millennium and about as creative as a lecture entitled the future of plumbing. The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe has all the key ingredients of Christmas but it is being put together by somebody who fundamentally doesn’t quite know how to pull off the festivities. Imagine going to a family Christmas where everything is present and correct but it winds up being a funless bore. That’s this story. And to waste Claire Skinner, Alexander Armstrong, Arabella Weir and Bill Bailey in one story is nothing short of indecent. How Moffat recovered (and survived) from this obscenity I will never know: 1/10