Doctor Who: The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe

The 2011 Doctor Who Christmas special, “The Doctor, The Widow, and The Wardrobe,” is full of all the magic one expects from a Doctor Who Christmas special. If you have yet to watch it, do not read on (but do click through and watch the prequel before watching the episode, since it depicts the moments immediately before the episode starts, and it really is useful to have seen it first).

The Christmas special itself is full of surprises and they should not be spoiled. Spoilers do lie ahead.

The episode starts at a quick pace. An enormous spaceship appears in space approaching Earth, and barely manages to point its guns and threaten the Earth with destruction before an alarm begins going off warning of an intruder – and then it starts to explode. The Doctor flees the ship (no atmosphere needed?!) and manages to grab a space suit that allows him to crash to Earth safely.

Those who’ve read previews will know what happens next. The Doctor had put the spacesuit on backwards, and so the woman, Madge Arwell, who helps him doesn’t see his face. She is seemingly untroubled by the fact that she has found a spaceman or an angel (she is either not sure which or is open to the possibility of an entity being both), but as usual, if you approach this episode expecting realism rather than an exploration of profound aspects of human life and emotion through a story that is quite literally fantastic and unbelievable, then you will find it disappointing. This is not the realm of science, even fictional science, but a world of magic.

Or to quote the Doctor, “A fairy land? Oh, grow up. A fairy land looks completely different.” The viewer needs to have the discernment to realize that they are in fact watching a fairy tale for grownups, not a realistic depiction of the possibilities of time travel or space exploration.

Madge entertainingly helps the Doctor to a police box, as he asked her to, and despite his protestations that she can’t possibly pick the lock with a hairpin, she succeeds in doing so. When it turns out that that is in fact an actual police box, it is very amusing.

Having been helped, the Doctor later returns to help Madge and her family after she has received a telegram of her husband’s plane having been lost over the English Channel. He poses as the caretaker at a home to which they have moved in order to flee wartime bombing in London. The Doctor has turned the rooms of the house into impressive playrooms for the children.

He also has a surprise for them, in a blue box. No, not that blue box. But he has set up a portal to a world with naturally-growing Christmas trees complete with ornaments. The explanation given for the seeming impossibility of this is that everything happens somewhere in the universe – but given that it is possible to exit the universe’s edge and enter others, the universe in Doctor Who doesn’t seem to be infinite, making this “explanation” for the seemingly magical implausible. But who cares? Doctor Who is about magic, despite the protesting of various regenerations of the Doctor that matters are otherwise. (Fans of the classic series will like the reference to the world being Androzani Major). The trees are in danger from an operation planning to turn them into fuel, not caring that these trees have “souls.” This too is given a quasi-scientific explanation, but the Doctor quickly abandons technobabble for what is classic terminology related to human spirituality.

Fortunately, the trees have foreseen the coming of this day, and of salvation in the form of Madge (with some help from the Doctor).

I’d say the most poignant moment is when Madge begins to tell her children that their father has died. The Doctor moves to leave, saying something like “I’m sure you’d prefer to be alone,” to which Madge replies, “I don’t believe anyone would prefer that.” And I love the reference to focusing on home not merely with all one’s might but “until it hurts” – emphasizing the point I noted in connection with Earthshock recently, that becoming attached and suffering as a result is a more rewarding existence than avoiding attachment.

A fun story, a happy ending, and a good time is had by all. And after the Doctor has commented distantly on tears of joy as a human phenomenon, the ending is all the more poignant – although presumably not evidence that the Doctor is going to actually be viewed as half-human, with human eyes, as the TV movie suggested. But if nothing else, it suggests that the heart of the show is human emotion, more than anything else.

I’ll avoid saying anything spoilery about the ending, even though I gave spoiler warnings above, just in case someone read on.

What did you think of this year’s Doctor Who Christmas special?

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  • Rossoiii

    I was frankly underwhelmed by this one, nowhere near as powerful and transcendent as last year’s Christmas Carol. I wanted to smash the screen when the dad came back, and I saw this coming as soon as Madge was on the tree-throne having her vision. But it had its moments.

  • Casper Denck

    I am sure it was due to too much food and drink but I was underwhelmed. Managed to watch as far as the introduction of the ‘Ents’ and then fell asleep to wake up to Amy Pond answering the door (if only it were true!!).

  • Ken Brown

    Well I’m an old softy, but I loved it, and the fact that it was predictable didn’t make the dad’s appearance any less enjoyable to me. All around I thought it was fantastic.

    It was also the first time my son (3) has watched Dr. Who with me, and he also enjoyed it a great deal, though he said at the end: “I didn’t like the bad guys; I runned away.” Which he did, but he came back. 😉

  • Just Sayin’

    Your description makes me glad that I didn’t watch it.

  • Just Sayin’
  • Beau Quilter

    I loved this show, and I found myself particularly enamored by the character of Madge, who is, at turns, both surprisingly emotional and surprisingly practical. I would love to see her as a Doctor Who companion, but I think it would require (as in this episode) that she be thrown into Tardis adventures against her will. She’s far too practical and devoted to her family to gallivanting off through time and space of her own volition.

    • Beau Quilter

      … that is “to go gallivanting off” …

  • cameronhorsburgh

    Like others, I wasn’t particularly taken by this one. I found the characters very one dimensional, there was little conflict, the plot was predictable and the ‘solution’ was just cheesy. I mean, wouldn’t the Doctor normally confront the harvesters and give them a chance to not commit genocide? The question of the morality of harvesting sentient trees wasn’t even asked.

    That said, my kids loved it. Even though there was no real conflict, there was lots of creepy music and the threat of horror, so the thin plot didn’t bother them so much. I’ve heard a similar thing in a couple of places—I didn’t enjoy it, but it was a great intro to Dr Who for children.

  • Helenablaze

    Well I have just watched it and I absolutely adored it, just what’s needed for Christmas! The dad HAD to come back, it’s Christmas! Oooh! I usually fall asleep during the programme if I try and watch it on Christmas Day, (exhausted from all the cooking and the eating!), so I’m glad I put it off this year!