Monday, January 2, 2012

"The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe"

I don't want to go so far as to say that the 2011 Christmas special was utter rubbish but a nagging feeling in the back of my mind tells me that it certainly wasn't entirely out of the scrap heap. Doctor Who shouldn't have Christmas specials, as I've said before. Either they're insubstantial drivel like the Tenth Doctor's yuletime encounters or they're too deep and complex for Christmas viewing, as we encountered in 2010. After giving us the one example for the second category, Moffat seems to have largely retreated to the foundations set by his predecessor by giving us something which, while not as teeth-grindingly infuriating in its deliberate ridiculousness and proud in its own stupidity as an RTD Christmas special, is nonetheless, slow, meandering, thinly-plotted, insubstantial and pointless.
We start with a spaceship headed for Earth but that's not nearly twee enough so before you know it the spaceship gets blown up and the Doctor's swimming through space to nick a suit from a corpse. Of course all the exciting stuff happens in the opening. Heaven forbid any of the "casual" viewers and mainstream audience think they're watching science fiction. As such we then get shoved back to New Who's tiresome placeholder of World War Two and straight into the really boring bits. You know, sometimes I think I actually completely despise the revived series and that I'm lying to myself about the alleged "good" parts and that the show is generally just such idiot-pandering nonsense that I'm insulting my own intelligence by watching it. But that's only sometimes.
Anyway the Doctor crash-lands to Earth with his helmet on backwards and comes to the attention of Madge Arwell, aka the mum from Outnumbered, who helps him to the TARDIS. It was a pretty conventional set-up. The Doctor's been introduced to a stranger with a family of supporting characters, husband Reg goes off to the Second World War and is missing presumed dead, Madge and kids toddle off to escape the blitz and lo and behold here's the Doctor again, inexplicably having done up a rather fancy old stately home for their convenience. This was all a rather plotless and long-winded segment of set-up, with the decked out manor house being given rather needless attention. The Doctor shows off all these "cool" gizmos he's added and Madge complains that he's being excessively frivolous given that she's fretting over revealing her husband's alleged death to the children. To be fair, he shows off this "funny stuff" he's put in and says "I know!" to their bemused looks far too many times to be funny.
Matt Smith's a much stronger actor than I think Moffat is regularly giving him credit for at the moment, and occasionally I think the writing for the Eleventh Doctor plays up his zaniness and eccentricity in a way which obstruct segments of episodes from having any integrity of plot. It's especially noticeable here where the Doctor doesn't seem to be present or involved for any reason beyond fulfilling a "wish" of giving Madge and her kids a good Christmas. While that's all very nice, it feels a bit like a piece of background information or the plot of a spin-off rather than something upon which to base an entire one hour Christmas special. Anyway there's this intriguingly large present in the living room and of course very old-timey-named son du jour Cyril sneaks off and discovers it's a portal to another world, much like The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
To be honest the Narnia links aren't especially strong. There's certainly not the same kind of laboured Christian allegory C.S. Lewis would like to serve up. While I think that's a good thing it does seem a little pointless as a reference or plot device. Anyway, the Doctor and daughter Lily follow Cyril into Narnia and eventually Madge follows suit, having gotten up to look in on the children for no obvious reason. Really, Moffat comes up with some fairly bogus reasoning to get all these characters into the alien environment.
On thing I will compliment this episode for is its aesthetics. The alien forest looks very nice and realistic, and I liked the alien king Cyril sets free from the trees. The big wooden tower with the golf ball on top is a bit more take it or leave it but overall it's nice looking. Similarly I appreciated the contrast between the very pristine forest and the grimy appearance of the Bill Bailey-led Space Marines who confront Madge soon after. This brings me to another quibble, however. Bill Bailey and his team are absurdly throwaway, appearing it what essentially constitutes two scenes and despite some nice performances giving us very little besides exposition. With such a limited cast for so much of the episode their presence was incredibly refreshing but they disappeared too quickly and we never got to see a Bill Bailey-Matt Smith encounter, which I think could have been great. I understand how the good old "bottle episode" with few characters can work but in this Special the main ones we were given, the Arwell family, were simply not developed enough, and consequently it felt thin and flimsy, and the appearance of the Androzani Harvest Rangers was so frustratingly brief as to ultimately make the whole thing look even more anaemic.
As just mentioned, Androzani Major was name-dropped rather pointlessly, perhaps in the hope from Moffat that a reference to an all-time classic Fifth Doctor serial would give his own story slightly more cred. If nothing else it was a Classic Series nod to counterbalance the annoying bit where the Doctor, talking about alien trees, felt the need to mention how the Forest of Cheem from the very second Eccly episode "fancied" him. The Doctor shouldn't notice, remember or care about being fancied! Honestly, I'd have gone without the Androzani mention if we'd lost that too.
Anyway the trees know their forest is about to be harvested so in a textbook piece of magic thinking they all forsake their physical bodies and use a special telepathic crown to invade the minds of initally Cyril but then Madge. There's really not a lot of drama. With Madge's help they escape and everything's perfectly fine. There are some dumb bits where Madge cries to trick the Harvest Rangers into helping her and later pilots their giant walking futuristic platform just because her husband once took her up in a 1940s era plane and it really feels a lot like some pretty wishy-washy set pieces strung together. Of course Madge is the perfect one to rescue the forest because she's a mother.
There's some pretty dodgy stuff from Moffat here, where the tree people describe males as "weak" and females as "strong". Also, Ven-Garr of the Harvest Rangers mentions that he has "mother issues". Sometimes I must hesitantly agree with the suggestions which occasionally get bandied about that Moffat himself has some kind of Freudian neurosis in his writing where he seems to hate his own gender and bigs up the other in a way which is almost condescending. Frankly it just doesn't entirely make sense. What's the point of saying men are weak and women are strong? Why is Billis the rational Harvest Ranger while the two men are untrustworthy? Perpetuating these kinds of gender divides is exactly the kind of thing Doctor Who shouldn't be doing. It should be looking for reconciliation.
Anyway Madge uses the power of wishful thinking to fly the golfball into the time vortex and she reveals her husband's apparent death to the kids as she holds onto memories to lead her home. I did appreciate that the Doctor made an attempt to explain the departure of the trees scientifically as part of a "sub-aetheric waveband of light" to suggest that they weren't really souls at all so I hope people took that away from it. Now what do you know? Husband Reg survived and it's happy families all around. Marge chastises the Doctor for ditching his friends at Christmas and he pops in on Amy and Rory.
As much as I like Amy and Rory, Moffat needs to let them go. Their departure would have been infinitely more effective if it had occurred succinctly and simply at the end of "The God Complex" and while I would have been happy to see them again if Moffat could have made it make sense I want to feel like they've moved on. The Doctor's been a man of many companions before and I hope the Eleventh Doctor gets a chance to riff with another character. Hopefully this was just a cameo and the Doctor will be off on his own again by the time of the next series.
But since the proper start of Series 7 is so far off, what did this Christmas Special leave us with in the meantime? Well nothing really happened, there was no real danger or drama, the few characters weren't developed enough, it didn't really even say anything particularly significant and ultimately it felt incredibly stretched over the one hour timeslot. There was a shred of an idea running through about how humans cry when they're happy, and while this wasn't nearly enough to carry an episode at least it was something suggesting a paradox of joy which was interesting but could have been developed more. Nonetheless, seeing the Eleventh Doctor wipe a single tear away at the end somehow managaed to avoid being cheesy for me. I actually thought it was a rather poignant ending and given his character, especially his rather overplayed wackiness in the rest of the episode, it was much more effective than the old routine of forcing David Tennant to bawl his eyes out every other week. Nonetheless it didn't say much. Still, it's nice to see the Doctor not being deliberately mopey and lonely for once in the New Series, or acting as if his companions are all jerks who ditch him.
This certainly wasn't up to the standard of "A Christmas Carol" but that was largely because of how incredibly limited it was. I really don't understand why Moffat put together something so padded out and overextended unless money was a concern. Of course they haven't even started filming Series 7 proper yet so there was no trailer or anything. It's going to be a long wait until the Doctor's return and I hope it's altogether more triumphant than this.

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