The Doctor sabotages a gigantic spaceship on a mission to destroy Earth, only barely getting a spacesuit on in time to ride to the planet’s surface amid the ship’s debris. Amazingly, he survives re-entry and the landing, but he has to enlist the help of a woman named Madge Arwell, who believes he’s either a spaceman or an angel.
Three years later, Madge Arwell has completely forgotten the otherworldly visitor. Days before Christmas, she receives a telegram informing her of her husband’s death in an RAF fighter during the war. Worse still, Madge and her children, Cyril and Lily, are evacuated to a country house to avoid the air raids. The Doctor is waiting for them, having renovated the house in his own unique way. Under the tree, a gigantic present awaits, but the Doctor insists that it remain unopened until Christmas. Naturally, Cyril opens it early and climbs in, finding himself in another world. When the Doctor learns of this, he and Lily follow, and the Doctor explains that it literally is another world, one where the trees grow their own organic Christmas ornaments. Huge footprints in the snow reveal that Cyril wasn’t alone here. The Doctor and Lily find Cyril in a domed, castle-like structure where a king and queen carved from sentient wood are sizing the boy up as a host body for the collected consciousness of the forest outside – a forest which will soon be clear-cut by acid rain induced by human harvesters from Androzani Major. But Cyril isn’t up to the task, and to his own surprise, the Doctor is judged unfit for the task as well.
That’s when Madge Arwell shows up, having followed the Doctor and her children to this world through the gift-wrapped gateway. She’s also managed to drive the crew from Androzani off-planet and commandeered their harvester. And the trees decide she is their ideal host, but she already has the weight of the world bearing down on her: she hasn’t told her children that their father has died in the war, until it’s revealed for her by the trees.
written by Steven Moffat
directed by Farren Blackburn
music by Murray Gold
Cast: Matt Smith (The Doctor), Claire Skinner (Madge Arwell), Maurice Cole (Cyril Arwell), Holly Earl (Lily Arwell), Alexander Armstrong (Reg Arwell), Sam Stockman (Co-Pilot), Bill Bailey (Droxil), Paul Bazely (Ven-Garr), Arabella Weir (Billis), Spencer Wilding (Wooden King), Paul Kasey (Wooden Queen), Karen Gillan (Amy Pond), Arthur Darvill (Rory)
Notes: Androzani Major was the site of murderous political intrigue in 1984‘s The Caves Of Androzani, at the end of which the fifth Doctor was forced to regenerate. This story doesn’t make clear if the forest snowscape is on Androzani Major or not. Actor Alexander Armstrong has a long association with the Doctor Who universe, having provided the voice of Sarah Jane Smith’s alien computer, Mr. Smith, for the entire run of The Sarah Jane Adventures. The set of Sarah Jane’s attic also makes an appearance here, heavily redressed as the attic of the house where the Arwells are celebrating Christmas. Arabella Weir also has a voice-only Doctor Who connection; she starred as the Doctor in Big Finish’s continuity-busting Doctor Who Unbound story Exile in 2003.
LogBook entry & review by Earl Green
Review: A more intimate take on a Doctor Who Christmas story, The Doctor, The Widow And The Wardrobe isn’t perfect, but it succeeds in ways that A Christmas Carol didn’t – it gets back to inviting the viewer to invest deeply in the emotional state of its one-night-only protagonists, and avoids the timey-wimey stuff until the very end of the story. The 2010 Christmas special was so wrapped up in its own time-hopping that it interfered with that investment; this time, the tone’s just about right.
The cast is top-notch here. Even the obligatory Light Entertainment guest stars are on fine form, with the three Androzani harvester crewmembers providing menace and comic relief at the same time. Why Steven Moffat decided to invoke the ghost of The Caves Of Androzani, aside from simply getting longtime fans to sit up and say “What??!?“, I have no idea. The obligatory alien creatures for this episode are spooky, but they’re quite literally wooden, and don’t seem to do much other than just looking creepy.
It would be easy to dock points from this episode for yet another “power of a parent’s love” story, but I’ll let this one slip through for the same reason I let Closing Time get by with its borderline-cheesy resolution. And frankly, being a Christmas episode, perhaps one shouldn’t be expecting too much from The Doctor, The Widow And The Wardrobe. It’s hard to make this annual special a vital part of the storyline when it may be the only time some viewers sample Doctor Who all year – it’s got to be all things to all people. That there’s even a hint of an ongoing plot thread – namely the return of Amy and Rory – is a bonus for those interested. (For me, the reappearance of some of the Doctor’s worst-handled companions – see the review of The Wedding Of River Song for more details there – only served as a dash of cold water at the end of a story that had more honest emotion to it than the Ponds’ entire TARDIS tenure combined. The Amy and Rory reunion could’ve waited until the 2012 season opener.)
A fun little story with an almost-fairytale feel to it, The Doctor, The Widow And The Wardrobe made for an unexpectedly enjoyable Christmas present.