“Oh, this is marvellous. Really quite wonderful,” gasps war widow Madge Arwell, and she has a point. For anyone sick of overcooked gloop in Christmas TV specials – and Doctor Who itself is sometimes guilty – showrunner Steven Moffat’s latest confection gets all the ingredients in just the right measure.
I’ll admit I hit the play button for my rough-cut preview somewhat gingerly, but I’m pleased to report that The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe is one of the most satisfying specials yet. Moffat has surpassed himself, and for once the storytelling formula is a gentle A to C to B to D, rather than his vexing Z to WTF via Q and A.
It begins spectacularly with a gigantic spaceship looming over Earth, in what has to be a homage to The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy. But the drama really centres round the Arwell family, a widow and two children, who have been evacuated to an imposing house in the English countryside in 1941.
Here the Doctor, travelling alone, just happens to be caretaker. Matt Smith is as usual utterly beguiling, and funny, while Claire Skinner is heartbreaking as the resilient Madge, a world away from the frazzled mum she plays in Outnumbered.
There are nods to Narnia: the episode title, obviously, and a portal that leads from the house into a snowy forest, but here the allusions end. CS Lewis won’t be revolving in his grave. The wartime stiff upper lip and cosy period detail lend a terribly British glow, while the trappings of Christmas – prezzies, trees, baubles – are imbued with a sense of menace and magic.
The guest monsters, brilliantly realised, are made of wood. Bill Bailey, Arabella Weir and Benidorm’s Paul Bazely provide gentle comic relief as incompetent harvesters. (Die-hards should listen out for a reference to a 1984 story.) And Maurice Cole and Holly Earl play the Arwell children, Cyril and Lily, with great conviction. Where do they find these young actors?
I’m not letting anything else slip, apart from a few lines of dialogue: “I got dressed in a hurry”, “Why does a forest need people?” and “Happy crying…”
Christmas specials past
So how does this 2011 special stack up against the Whovian treats of yore? In this year’s Radio Times double issue, Moffat mocks the popular assumption that the Time Lord’s yuletide presence is a longstanding tradition, adding that only a few years ago his predecessor, Russell T Davies, laughed at “all the papers referring to the traditional Doctor Who Christmas special – ‘It’s only the second one!’”
I’d counter that view and assert that the good Doctor has had a long association with Christmastime in the hearts of fans – if not always in a dedicated special on the big day itself, then certainly as a massively rewarding seasonal treat.
Way, way back in 1963, the Daleks made their TV debut on Saturday 28 December. A year later, the thrilling finale of The Dalek Invasion of Earth was shown on Boxing Day (and was lapped up by 12.4m viewers). In 1965, the 12-part epic The Daleks’ Master Plan paused for a peculiar episode shown on Christmas Day itself, with first Doctor William Hartnell ad-libbing an extraordinarily disdainful remark about Arabs, then breaking the fourth wall to wish “a Happy Christmas to all of you at home!”
Second Doctor Patrick Troughton had run-of-the-mill episodes shown in the Christmas week in the late 60s, and it wasn’t until the 70s that fans saw their treats properly restored with “complete adventure” repeats of their favourite stories.
Forty years on, I still remember the delight of sitting down with my family and grandparents on 28 December 1971 to watch a 90-minute version of creepy Jon Pertwee classic The Dæmons. The next year was even more exciting for the young fan: an omnibus repeat of The Sea Devils (27 December) and three days later the start of The Three Doctors!
Davies and Moffat’s 70s predecessor, producer Barry Letts, delivered many memorable Christmasses. 1974? A rerun of Pertwee’s swansong Planet of the Spiders on 27 December (gaining 8.6m viewers for a 2:45pm slot!) followed by Tom Baker’s debut the very next day (10.8m). I think I’ve made my point that Doctor Who and Christmas have had an enduring association in the minds of fans and general viewers.
I’ll skip over K•9 and Company (28 December 1981), a lacklustre spin-off teaming the robot dog with Sarah Jane Smith, and bound ahead 24 years to Doctor Who’s triumphant relaunch in 2005. This is when Russell T’s Christmas Day specials got off the ground, with David Tennant establishing himself immediately and brilliantly as the Time Lord in The Christmas Invasion.
Over subsequent Christmasses, and with variable results, we saw Tennant teamed with Catherine Tate (2006), Kylie Minogue (2007), David Morrissey (2008) and Bernard Cribbins (2009).
Last year, Moffat took over Santa’s reins and we saw Matt Smith alongside Michael Gambon and Katherine Jenkins. Although I enjoyed A Christmas Carol, I was beginning to baulk at a dollop of festive excess once in every 14 episodes. How about forging a “traditional” Halloween special, I thought – extra-scary, late at night, which the kiddies have to beg to stay up for? One can only dream…
Will The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe be savoured as a fine vintage yuletide Who in years to come? I reckon so. For now, enjoy, wallow and prepare to be moved!
See photos from The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe (airs 7pm, Christmas Day, BBC1)
In the Christmas issue of Radio Times, head writer Steven Moffat tells the story of how Sherlock Holmes saved the Doctor – plus, Matt Smith gets into the Christmas spirit. On sale now!