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DOCTOR WHO ‘The Doctor, The Widow And The Wardrobe’ Review

The Doctor repays a debt by giving the Arwell family the Christmas of a lifetime.

Episode Title: "The Doctor, The Widow And The Wardrobe"

Writer: Steven Moffat

Director: Farren Blackburn

Previously on "Doctor Who"

Episode 6.13: "The Wedding of River Song"

Story:

High above the Earth, an alien race begins to send a message to mankind telling them that they stand alone. Of course that's not quite true, as moments later, The Doctor (Matt Smith) triggers an explosion that rips through the spaceship… nearly taking himself with it. As he is sucked out of the ship into space, The Doctor spots a spacesuit and he wildly chases after it while falling towards the Earth. And on Earth itself, it is Christmas in 1938. As she rides her bike home, Madge Arwell (Claire Skinner) hears the Doctor's crash to Earth and she finds him stuck inside the spacesuit with his helmet on backwards.

Returning home briefly to borrow a neighbor's car, Madge takes the Doctor into town to find his TARDIS and he is so impressed by her generosity that he tells her to just make a wish if she ever needs a favor. Back at home, Madge returns to find her husband, Reg Arwell (Alexander Armstrong) reading about the unfolding Second World War in Europe. Three years later, Reg is flying a battle plane home to the U.K. which appears to be lost without its instruments and by the lack of stars in the sky. Madge soon receives word that her husband has gone missing in action and she resolves to keep the news from her children, Lily (Holly Earl) and Cyril (Maurice Cole).

Hoping to seek shelter for her family from the German blitz, Madge relocates herself and the children to a house in Dorset. There, she fails to recognize The Doctor posing as the caretaker of the house. To brighten the family's spirits, The Doctor makes the home into the ultimate children's playground. Out of earshot from the children, Madge chastises The Doctor for his apparently frivolous ways and she says that she is withholding word of her husband's demise from her children until after Christmas. In response, The Doctor urges Madge to let her children be happy now.

That night, Cyril finds himself drawn to the large blue box left by the Doctor underneath the Christmas tree. Cyril opens the box early and crawls through it before emerging in a vast forest covered in snow. Back in the house, Lily finds the Doctor in his room attending to the wiring of the TARDIS when he realizes that Cyril is out of bed. The Doctor and Lily arrive just in time to see Cyril leave through the box, but because time flows differently on the other side of the portal, they are twenty minutes behind him. They also don't witness Cyril touching an apparently natural Christmas bulb that transforms into a tree-like humanoid. Lily and The Doctor follow Cyril's trail and they note that the humanoid is growing larger.

Back at the house, Madge notices that her children are missing and she finds the open blue box and enters it as well. On the alien world, Cyril comes across a lighthouse-like building where the wood creature sits like a king on his throne. Meanwhile, Madge is confronted by three armed futuristic soldiers who quickly figure out that she's a time traveler. Madge lulls the soldiers into complicity by faking tears before she draws a gun on them and forces them to help find her children. Back at the lighthouse, The Doctor and Lily arrive too late to prevent the wooden "Queen" from placing a gold crown on Cyril's head.

On the alien mech belonging to the soldiers, Madge learns that the forest is set to be destroyed by a destructive acid rain that will kill any living thing. She also bids the female soldier to use the ship to locate her children and she hears the audio of  their conversation with The Doctor. Inside the lighthouse, the alien trees speak through Cyril and explain that they are scared and need a human vessel to transport the life force of the forest. But neither The Doctor, Cyril or Lily are suitable hosts. On the mech, the three soldiers are beamed out of the ship as the acid rain begins.

The Arwell children are convinced that their mother will come for them and they refuse to leave until she arrives. Madge gamely uses the alien mech to walk to the lighthouse before crashing it just outside. Once reunited with her children and The Doctor, the aliens place the crown on Madge's head and she proves to be a perfect vessel to hold the souls of the forest. As the forest is destroyed by the acid rain, the top floor of the lighthouse transforms into an alien ship and Madge is used as to pilot it through the time vortex. At The Doctor's urging, the aliens give Madge an opportunity to bring herself and her children home by focusing on her love for Reg.

Through the alien viewscreen, Madge's memories of her husband are visible to everyone. But Madge becomes inconsolable when her memories bring her to the night her husband died. Inside his plane, Reg notices the strange lights from the alien ship. Madge successfully makes it back for Christmas day and the aliens depart for space. But just when Madge prepares to break the news of Reg's death to their children, The Doctor beckons her to come outside and witness a true Christmas miracle: Reg and his men survived by following the alien ship through the time vortex and they landed just outside the house in Dorset. The Doctor also marvels at the human trait of crying when happy.

Satisfied that he's done enough for the Arwell family, The Doctor tries to sneak off. Madge catches up to him and she realizes his true identity when she recognizes the TARDIS. Madge invites The Doctor to stay for Christmas dinner; which he politely declines and he notes that his only friends think he is dead. Madge insists that The Doctor visit his friends for their sake not his. On Christmas day, 2013; The Doctor appears outside the house of Amy (Karen Gillan) and Rory Pond (Arthur Darvill). An awkward reunion ensues; in which Amy states that her daughter, River Song told them about The Doctor's survival and that it has been two years since the Doctor's "death" at Lake Silencio.

But ultimately, the Ponds welcome The Doctor back into their lives and they invite him to Christmas dinner; before noting that they always set a place for him. Left alone for a moment, The Doctor is briefly moved to tears before joining his surrogate family for Christmas.

Breakdown:

There's something almost supernatural about Matt Smith's ability to play against children in "Doctor Who." Maybe it's Smith's relative youth, but he comes off like a big kid himself when The Doctor leads the Arwell family around the modified Dorset house. The sheer delight on Smith's face doesn't seem to be an act. Similarly, Smith spends most of his screentime opposite Holly Earl's Lily and he doesn't seem to play down to his much younger companion. Instead, Smith's Doctor seems to treat Lily like she's already one of his grown companions.

As usual, Steven Moffat delivered the goods on Christmas with some really hilarious one liners for The Doctor; particularly this comment "Just do what I do. Hold tight and pretend it's a plan." But the crowning moment of the episode came at the end when The Doctor revisited the Ponds and he was briefly overcome by tears of joy… which he thought himself incapable of earlier in the episode. We've seen The Doctor at his moments of great despair, but we rarely get a glimpse of the Time Lord so truly content. This may be the happiest ending that The Doctor has ever gotten for himself during the revived series.

We may have been spoiled by having Michael Gambon in the last "Doctor Who" Christmas special, but the emotional undercurrent of "The Doctor, The Widow and The Wardrobe" never quite lives up to "A Christmas Carol." Claire Skinner's Madge Arwell certainly has her moments, but Madge's grief for her husband doesn't rise beyond the scripted lines into a truly believable emotion. Weirdly, Skinner is also given the companion credit in the opening sequence despite sharing very little screentime with The Doctor himself. 

That said, Skinner's early scenes with Smith's Doctor are a lot of fun and it was interesting to see that The Doctor couldn't just shrug off Madge's demand that he go see Amy and Rory. Madge's ability to quickly accept the souls of the forest and the reality of time travel was also refreshing. It almost leaves the impression that Madge could have been a great companion for The Doctor before she settled down and had kids. And even that probably wouldn't stop her.

After two seasons on the show, it seems odd that neither Amy or Rory has had a large part in either Christmas episode that they've appeared in. The Ponds are overdue for a holiday adventure that doesn't sideline them from most of the action, but it doesn't seem likely to happen before Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill leave the series next year. Bringing the Ponds back for at least the cameo at the end was the right decision and it gave The Doctor a real emotional connection to the story that he otherwise lacked. As a plus, the Ponds actually looked and acted like they were older than when we last saw them. And I did love the way that Amy planned to deal with annoying Christmas carolers.

The only real weaknesses in this Christmas special was the underdeveloped nature of the threat within the forest, both from the three futuristic soldiers and the forest aliens themselves. The entire angle felt like a really weak hook to hang the story upon.

Regardless, it was good to have The Doctor and his friends back for one more episode before a very long hiatus ahead. I just hope that there's another special planned for next year; because it just wouldn't be Christmas without "Doctor Who."

Crave Online Rating: 8.5 out of 10.