In the 2011 Christmas Special of Doctor Who, The Doctor helps fulfill a Christmas wish of a grieving widow, but in the process, he sort of screws everything up. Just a bit. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Doctor Who.
There are two things in “The Doctor, The Widow, and the Wardrobe” that I have come to enjoy on my own terms, but had I seen this five years ago, I probably would have been an asshole about it. For many years, I did not like Christmas. I realize this is blasphemy, BUT HEAR ME OUT. I grew up poor for most of my childhood, and Christmas for a while held a very specific meaning for me: that was the day I felt inadequate to everyone else around me. Everyone else had mounds of presents, and I didn’t have anything close to that. When I grew out of that notion of needed lots of presents, though, it wasn’t much longer before I ran away from home and was supporting myself through high school. This meant that I spent Christmas day as a temporary member of families who always sort of kept me at a distance. It wasn’t that I was disliked or anything, but I wasn’t part of their family, not in any significant sense. So Christmas started to remind me of my fractured family, my atypical upbringing, and it all just made me so sad.
Not long after this, I realized I was an atheist and this firestorm of experiences and ideas made me want to swear off Christmas forever. I was being a bit of a bitter asshole about the whole thing, but the truth is that Christmas didn’t hold the same meaning to me as it did for most of my peers. However, I feel like I’ve come around the last couple years to enjoying the holiday again, knowing that I finally have the power to make Christmas mean what I want it to mean. It’s a chance to decorate a pine tree! (OH GOD I LOVE THAT SMELL Y’ALL.) It’s a chance to see my immediate family and be silly and catch up on the stuff I’ve missed. THERE IS SOY NOG AND ALL IS RIGHT WITH THE WORLD. I had peach pie with vanilla ice cream this year. My mom got me a LEGO spaceship that SPINS and MAKES NOISE, and my brother got me that ridiculous Tantive IV LEGO set that will allow me to partially replicate the opening of A New Hope in my bedroom whenever I damn well please. I got to see my adorable nephew; I got delicious food, saw friends I’d not seen in a while, and enjoyed myself.
AND IS THAT NOT WHAT THE CHRISTMAS SPIRIT IS FOR?
On the same token, I went through a super heartbreaking and conflicted period with C.S. Lewis, especially after I read Mere Christianity and wanted to bang my head into the wall. I’m sure all of us have gone through this: you worship and adore someone who creates art, then you learn things about their personal life or beliefs, and then everything is destroyed and you’re lost and there is no meaning in life for a while. It happened to me with H.P. Lovecraft (HOLY RACISM) and Joseph Conrad and Metallica and Orson Scott Card (F U DUDE, WILL NEVER FORGIVE YOU). And it’s a genuinely difficult thing to deal with! First, you start wondering if you’re that poor of a critical thinker. Then you feel betrayed, as if you were tricked into liking something that was racist or misogynist. Then you get really fucking mad. Like, “HOW DARE YOU WRITE THIS I AM GOING TO WRITE YOU AN ANGRY LETTER WHICH WON’T DO ANYTHING BECAUSE YOU’RE DEAD.”
I don’t want to turn this review into a post about C.S. Lewis or Mere Christianity, but suffice to say that I am greatly displeased with both, more so the latter for being ridiculously prescriptivist, misogynist, and downright foolish at times. Plus, when I was a child and I read the Narnia books, I did not pick up on a single Christian theme at all. Reading them again after reading Mere Christianity caused me to see everything I missed!
But I’m at a point in my life where my own thoughts on this sort of stuff aren’t so black-and-white, either. I’d like to think that because of what I’ve done on Mark Reads and Mark Watches, I’ve been able to find ways to enjoy things that are immensely problematic. It’s a personal process, first of all, and while I personally find a lot of what C.S. Lewis believes to be revolting, I can’t deny how wonderful the Narnia books were to me. I can engage with that series on whatever level I want. And you know what level that is?
TOTALLY GEEKING OUT ON ALL THE NARNIA REFERENCES IN THIS EPISODE. Because taking C.S. Lewis’s beliefs aside, the world he created in Narnia is just so goddamn wonderful and magical, and there will forever be a soft spot in my hedonist, atheist heart for those books. I love just how well these references work in a Christmas story as well. What could be more magical for the holidays than being able to crawl through a box and travel to a planet where Christmas trees are harvested in 5345???? VERY FEW THINGS, THAT’S WHAT.
And I’ve found my favorite thing about a lot of the Doctor Who Christmas specials is how the various writers have been able to create these bittersweet, emotional family dramas amidst the joy and celebration of the holiday. That’s not to say there isn’t a problem with this story (and I’ll get to it), but there really is a lot to like about “The Doctor, The Widow, and The Wardrobe.” It’s easy for me to say that Madge Arwell sells this story so completely. I didn’t anticipate how sad the opening of this special would be until it jumped forward to World War II. But I know that my face lit up the second Matt Smith’s bizarre mug appeared on screen, and I knew that I HAD MISSED HIS FACE SO MUCH. It made me wonder what he’d been doing in all that time since the close of “The Wedding of River Song.” What adventures had he been getting into? How was he concealing his identity in the process? These questions aren’t answered, of course, but the episode reminds me why I’ve grown to love Eleven so much.
He cares. He cares so much, so completely, so wholly, that it shows in every action of his. When Madge helps him back to the TARDIS and he tells her that she can call on him for help, he makes sure to fulfill that promise. It really is heartbreaking to see Madge fear telling her children the bad news about their father, so when they arrived at Uncle Digory’s estate, it made the Doctor’s appearance so much better. I honestly think that the entire scene where they all meet the Doctor and he shows them how’s he’s made the house the most perfect Christmas environment imaginable is going to go down as one of my favorite segments with Eleven. We got to see him interact with children a lot in series six (STORMAGEDDON!!!!), and there’s truly a unique type of energy he has when he’s doing something…well, childish. And I don’t mean immature when I say that! But the dude strung up hammocks for the kids to sleep in! LOOK AT HOW AMAZING THAT HOUSE IS.
Of course, Madge doesn’t recognized the Doctor and has no clue that he is helping her with her wish for a good Christmas. Instead, this man’s just a bizarre and kind of presumptive caretaker who’s doing just a bit too much. However, there’s a subtext to Madge’s reaction: she’s overwhelmed. She’s overwhelmed by the death of her husband; she’s overwhelmed by the thought of possibly ruining Christmas for her children; she’s overwhelmed by her situation as a widow during World War II; and she’s overwhelmed by the fact that despite all of this, someone just did something nice for her, as if it’s all a cruel joke.
But she obliges her children once she sees how happy they are here, even if they are mistaken in believing that their father is on his way to them. The Doctor’s done an undeniably good thing here. But…well, he makes mistakes, too, and this one is a doozy: Cyril discovers that the giant Christmas present underneath the tree is a portal to a planet of Christmas trees. Look, y’all, I just think that set is so goddamn gorgeous, one of the coolest things this show has ever done. The bulk of this episode is also dimly lit, something that’s rare for the show, and I love the wintery color tones that permeate the screen. This is how a Christmas special should look.
There are so many awesome details that make up this world, from the hilarious Harvest Rangers, to the fact that these are ANDROZANI TREES, to the Wooden King and Wooden Queen WHO LOOKED FANTASTIC. The giant robot looked so silly and magnificent in that place. AND WE GOT TO SEE THEM TRAVEL IN THE TIME VORTEX IN THE ACTUAL EPISODE. Plus, there was this brilliant line:
“Everytime you see them happy, you remember how sad they’re going to be. And it breaks your heart. Because what’s the point of them being happy now, if they’re going to be sad later? The answer is, of course, because they’re going to be sad later.”
Steven Moffat, just whisk me away, I swear.
I didn’t really find anything in the episode that I didn’t like, which was nice. However–and you knew that was coming–something just felt off about this episode. It felt incredibly short, as if an entire plot had been removed or a bunch of scenes were cut. Which is not to say it wasn’t good, or that I didn’t enjoy what I saw on screen. I thought it was a very Doctor Who Christmas special, about what I was expecting from it. Yet there does seem to be something missing from this, and I can’t quite put my finger on what it is. Perhaps the story just seemed rushed to me because I watched it without commercials, or maybe in my brain I thought the Christmas special was 90 minutes long.
That being said, as much as I enjoyed the story of a mother saving her children and an entire forest of trees and her husband just from her sheer courage, the final five minutes of “The Doctor, The Widow, and the Wardrobe” destroyed me. No one had spoiled the fact that Amy and Rory appeared in this episode at all, so when Amy opened to the door to see the Doctor standing there, a look of fear and reluctance on his face, I was simply undone. Also, can we talk about the fact that Amy Pond, in all her brilliance, thinks it is perfectly acceptable to shoot carolers in the face with a water gun? Bless her heart.
The truth is that….look, there are problems with season six. I know that. But I missed Amy, Rory, and the Doctor being together. This is such a tender moment for these two, though, because Amy never knew if the Doctor would return to her. He’s supposed to be dead to the universe, yet he’s standing right there on her doorstep. Moffat doesn’t let the Doctor off the hook, though, and it’s the reason Amy doesn’t leap into the Doctor’s arms. Yes, he had to do what he had to do, but it’s been two years since they’ve seen him at all. I mean, how crushing is it that Amy and Rory always set a place for the Doctor for Christmas?
I seriously just wanted to roll into a ball of cuddly cuteness and never leave once they hugged each other. Oh god, you all, these three characters bring out so many feels in me that it terrifies me sometimes. The year-long wait for a new episode will be agonizing, for sure, but those last five minutes? That’s a pretty fine image to go out on.