Wednesday, 6 June 2018

The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe written by Steven Moffat and directed by Farren Blackburn

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?
‘Mother Christmas!’
‘It’s Christmas Day, my love! Where else would you be?’
‘Humany wumany.’

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


Guy Grist said...

A piece of unmitigated rubbish if you ask me. It's sad Moffat's era started so well with series five but after that it became a complete train wreck with only a handful of good episodes scattered throughout his run at least for me.

Anonymous said...

A rare (fortunately) failure in the otherwise outstanding Matt Smith era. Also the only performance from Smith which feels *forced*. Smith was exemplary in delivering nuanced and highly detailed performances week in and out. This seems like he just decided to throw that out the window and channel the mugging of David Tennant at his most obnoxious. An oddity of an episode on so many fronts, although the cinematography was exquisite. There is at least the beautiful final scene. I wonder if there were other issues at play at the time? At least it is nowhere near as dreadful as the very very lower depths of Tennant's tenure. Give me this any day over The End of Time, Planet of the Dead, The Next Doctor, The Doctor's Daughter, Fear Her, Daleks in Manhattan etc. Peter Capaldi only really has one 'stinker' of an episode too across his tenure - Sleep No More - but really not a single weak performance. Quite an extraordinary run with series 10 just nudging series 5 as the pinnacle of modern Who, but on balance, Smith's is the better run overall and undoubtedly Capaldi is the single greatest actor to ever grace the role, so let's call it a draw between the glorious Moffat era doctors!

The waste of potentially great guest stars has unfortunately been a fairly common fault in modern Who from both Moffat and Davies. Something I hope of which Chris Chibnall will be cogniscent.

All IMO of course and other views may vary.

Guy Grist said...

Well I'm glade someone got something out of Capaldi's tenure. I only enjoyed three episodes across his three series mostly because Clara drove me up the wall. For the episodes vired between boring or unwatchable.

dark said...

With a couple of rare exceptions EG vincent and the doctor and murder on the orient expresss I've hated Moffat's "everybody lives, kiddy kiddy magic" version of Doctor who with its obnoxiously smug female characters, childish plots and deus ex solutions that go no where. This episode is pretty much an encapsulation of everything I hate, the only thing it doesn't have is a smug, overly sexual female predator.

Give me russel at his worst any day.

I actually missed the entirety of series 9 and 10, and what was worse is I didn't care.

I am nurving myself to start the Chidnal era and see if I can actually get some semi decent doctor who back on Tv.

Tango said...

Yeah, the last scene with the 11 Doctor in the house of the Ponds was the only good thing about that special and I wish the story had been about that. The episode is strange but harmless, "Hell Bent" deserves all the hatred, I did not think it was so bad after seeing the depressing and dark Series 6

To Dark: Watch Series 10 and you will be surprised how innocent and friendly Bill Potts is, and Nardole is a God, of the smug Rose and Clara (at least Amy's attitude was justified because the Doctor ruined her life) and even River Song is the saving grace of Capaldi era after Clara's poison.

Anonymous said...

Very much in agreement with this review.

"The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe" - Worst.Episode. Ever.

Tiresome in the extreme. Makes the likes of UNDERWORLD, TIMELASH and TIME AND THE RANI look like masterpieces in comparison.

In fact I cannot think of any other DR WHO story that I find so difficult to love (although maybe THE WEDDING OF RIVER SONG and KILL THE MOON come close).

dark said...

@Tango I probably ought to nerve myself to get through 9 and 10, though the days when I assiduously collected every new Dr. who series on dvd ended with season 5.

Sorry I really couldn't stand! amy. From the night when she runs out on her actually really nice husband before his wedding, to her virtually sexually harrassing the doctor, to her generally smug self satisfied attitude, I'm not sure who I dislike more Amy or miss Oh I'm going to lecture him week and run his life because I@m miss perfect Clara.

River Song didn't fair better with all the nonsensical mystery box dropped moffat plots and overly sexual nonsense (really if a male character behaved like that we'd be calling him a creep), though to her credit she had a couple of appearances where she did work, indeed i really enjoyed her introduction in silence in the library.

I also have been remarkably surprised how well she's worked on audio, though that's essentially been by jetesening all the bits of River Song that didn't work, ie the typical moffat female character traits of unresolved plots and ammeter innuendo, and just keeping her as what she mostly seemed to be in silence, ie, a super awesome competent archaeologist with mysterious powers who turned up and helped people not unlike the Doctor himself.

I might check out 9 and 10 if I can ever watch them for free, but as it is methinks I'll just wait to see what Chidnal has to offer, The Moff has disappointed me all too often, and I was getting tired of seeing such a potentially great character as Capaldi's doctor constantly cut off at the knees.

maybe if Chibnal does a good enough job it'll urge me to go back, but we'll see, ---- I confess with the way that female characters have been written under moffat I'm a little wary of what will be done with a female doctor.

I actually like the idea of a female doctor in principle, especially if they could get a lady with real gravitas and presence for the roll, but with the way doctor who (and Moffat particularly), has dealt with writing most female characters I'm a tad suspicious.

Still, just as Russel's era lead to a major change in tone, and I'm afraid to say in my view mostly a severe dip in quality for the series, hopefully Chibnal's era will do the same and even if not there is always Big finish.

Anonymous said...

I'm with dark, gimme anything from. The ETD era before Moffat smugness, although I love the Capaldi Doctor and series 10 TARDIS crew is the best of the Moffat era. I can't stand Amy and Clara was likeable but too unaffected by anything

Anonymous said...

Gosh I so completely agree with the last comment of @dark, I cannot stand the women in the Moffat era, all the sexual innuendo, the jokes, the flirting, etc. I don't utterly dislike River because Alex Kingston makes her likeable in the hands of a lesser actress she would be totally unwatchable. Also agree with the female doctor under Moffat *shudder* I didn't like the fact that as soon the Master is female the first thing she does is song the Doctor and call him his boyfriend. I wish Moffat had left at the end of the Matt Smith era and another showrunner had given Capaldi scripts worthy of his talent

dark said...

#Totally agree on your view re Capaldi there anonymous.

Seeing any potential for conflict, development, or hell just acting anything like the doctor cut off by little miss smug can do no wrong Clara, aka Steven Moffat's creation was frankly depressing and is one reason I've never bothered going back to see the end of the run.

Ironically I'm finding myself rethinking a few of Russel's excesses in light of this. yes, seeing all of the mythologising of the Doctor in something like Voyage of the damned is cheesy as heck and strains even my love of Doctor who, but hay at least russel remembered that the program is Doctor who, not the Clara/Amy/river/missy/insert Moffat's own creation here show.

Tango said...

To Dark:Oh dear, how time changes things. Watch an episode of Series 11, anybody, and I do not blame you if you think Bradley Walsh is the Doctor and that blonde is just an extra who acts badly. No, the Moffat era was very focused on the Doctor (maybe too focused on Series 6 but the show was still Doctor Who, no the Rose Tyler show of the RTD era) and say what you say about their female companions but at least they were strong women and not ignored extras like Yaz (Jesus, Amy was more credible in a scene as a police officer than Yaz was in a whole season!!!). For me, River Song is the true thirteenth Doctor.