Friday, January 6, 2012

Day Late and a Dollar Short -- Doctor Who Christmas Special

So it's been a hectic Holiday season at the Stress Cave Secret Hideout.

Now that things have calmed down... a bit... it's time to start writing again on all sorts of geeky stuff. And of course, what would Christmas be without the Doctor Who Christmas Special.

2011 saw "The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe" -- an obvious play on C.S. Lewis's classic book The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. So how did this year's installment stack up? Let's take a look....

First of all, it should be said that the BBC did post a short "prequel" on their website that takes place before the episode opens.

In truth, it doesn't really add any necessary information and if you saw last season's finale then you already knew that Amy and Rory were no longer traveling with the Doctor.

So that being said, here's the rest of the plot:

The Doctor escapes from an exploding spaceship... the hard way... without the TARDIS... and lands... badly... in a sleepy English village. He is found by Madge Arwell who seems kind if a bit... scatterbrained. Madge takes the Doctor (whose face she never sees) to the TARDIS and in gratitude the Doctor tells her that if she ever needs his help to just "wish".

Three years later, on Christmas Eve, Madge learns that her husband, an RAF pilot, has apparently been lost in WW II. She hides this fact from her children and takes them to a relative's country estate to enjoy the holiday away from the bombing. She hopes to give them a happy Christmas before she has to tell them the truth.

At the house Madge and her two children discover a new caretaker for the empty old place -- a rather strange and manic young man who has redecorated the house for Christmas, transforming it into a wondrous place of play for the children. There is also a large present under the tree wrapped in TARDIS blue paper....

Late that night, Madge's son sneaks out of bed, opens the present, and finds it a gateway to another world. "The Caretaker" and Madge's daughter follow as does Madge but this "present" proves to be far more dangerous than the Doctor anticipated. Now the family is in for the Christmas of a lifetime... if they can survive it.

My Take: Sadly this story was only 'mediocre'. Doctor Who has a reputation for pulling out all the stops for grand and action packed Christmas specials -- or at least deeply moving, emotional stories -- but this one sort of fails on both fronts.

The bones of the story are good and sound -- the attempt to use the delights of the season to drown out the deprivations of war -- the rationing, the loss of life, etc. -- is interesting and has the potential to resonate well from an emotional stand-point but the execution feels too rushed.

The story does a good job of establishing Madge and her two children but when we get to the alien world nothing else is as well developed. There is a lovely special effect with two alien beings -- a wooden "king" and "queen" -- but we learn nothing about them. They exist and they spout some cryptic exposition and that's it. The special effect seems wasted on them. The native inhabitants of this alien world are also given short shrift as we learn nothing about them, their society or culture. Again, they exist but that is pretty much it.

We also meet some invaders who provide a bit of comedy relief but here they're really not very funny being instead insultingly incompetent and existing to spout exposition... then leave. Arrrggghhhh!!!! It's like the whole episode is made up of characters who are merely "Captain Exposition"!

On top of all of that there are plot holes abounding -- all of which could have been easily fixed... but weren't and unexplained events that are handwaved away without even the good grace of an attempted technobabble explanation.

And all of this probably sounds like the episode was more 'bad' then 'meh' BUT it has a few graces which save it from being outright terrible:

The sets and locations are lovely and there are some great special effects here (and a couple of pretty poor ones but we'll let that slide).

The story of Madge struggling to hide the loss of her children's father just before Christmas is compelling as it means she must constantly swallow her own grief and deal with the knowledge that this will "ruin" Christmas for her children for years, if not a lifetime, to come.

Matt Smith again turns in a bravura performance. His manic Doctor whirls with childlike glee and we see again the mixture of the old soul with the young eyes. He connects with the children on their own level and he becomes joy personified. And yet he also is able to sympathize and understand Madge's struggle. And in the end he struggles with his own connections to humanity and the Christmas season and what they mean to him.

Steven Moffat seems to be keeping true to his word at the end of last season of the Doctor deciding to try to maintain a low profile. In past Christmas adventures the Doctor has often stormed in, loudly proclaiming who he is and his intention to 'save everyone'. Here, he never speaks his name, allowing Madge's family to continue using his alias-away-from-alias "Caretaker" (more on that next) and the one time he tries to take control of the situation he is rebuffed and must take a backseat to another. This is a Doctor who is quickly learning his lesson and discovering that sometimes 'less is more'.

Finally, I adore the Doctor's temporary new 'name' here. "Caretaker" could almost become his new alias if the show wasn't "Doctor Who" and had been for nearly 50 years now. The Doctor may be playing the role of the caretaker of the manor house but it is quickly apparent that he sees himself as the 'caretaker' of Madge and her family as well. And the name can even apply on a more global and galactic scale as the Doctor has proven himself to be the 'caretaker' of the Earth and even to a large extent the 'caretaker' of oppressed beings across multiple worlds and eras.

To wrap (heh) things up: "The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe" was kind of like the blind gift exchanges at work. There's always a price limit and since no one knows who their gift is going to they try to pick out something blandly neutral that could go to anyone. So the gift you end up with is something unspectacular without any personality or personal touches to it. Yeah, that's this episode. It is, however, all we're getting until the fall. Settle in for your "long winter's nap" and peruse some older episodes until the return of Amy, Rory and the 11th Doctor!

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