The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe

Story No. 246 Androzani transport
Production Code Series 6, Christmas episode
Dates December 25, 2011

With Matt Smith, Karen Gillan, Arthur Darvill
Written by Steven Moffat Directed by Farren Blackburn
Executive Producers: Steven Moffat, Piers Wenger, Caroline Skinner.

Synopsis: The Doctor assumes the role of caretaker of a mansion in order to help a family deal with loss.


A Review by E. John Winner 7/4/12

The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe was one of the most hyped Who episodes of the past few years, its story carefully guard from public view until unveiled, with the exception of approved leaks and brief previews. And after the beautiful, brilliant Christmas special last year, A Christmas Carol, I for one was waiting breathlessly, expecting the best.

So, was it worth the wait?

Well, in a word: no.

There are multiple problems with this episode, but for me here is the most important. The first thirty minutes forms the start of what should be an epic adventure; the final thirty minutes could well be considered the finale of an epic adventure. That means, between the first thirty minutes and the final thirty minutes, we should expect an epic adventure, at least an hour long; but it isn't there. Worse still, the adventure that we don't get should have been used to unravel the issues of the first half-hour into the resolutions of the final half-hour, but, lacking that adventure, it's hard to figure out, watching the second half of the story we do have, how we got from that begining to this end.

Perhaps this was most noticeable to me because matters made it necessary for me to watch the episode in two parts; so my viewing of the first half ended on something of a cliffhanger with Madge pulling her revolver on the Androzani. And I loved the show up to that part. It moved a little erratically, but was filled with charming set-pieces and interesting characters worthy of development. A number of critics have complained about the Doctor's free-fall to earth at the begining, but I accepted it as sci-fi fantasy magic, appreciating it for the humorus set-piece it clearly was intended to be. That Madge accepts the spaceman on his own terms and helps him find his Police Callbox with no questions only underscored the humor and helped introduce a character I felt would be very interesting to know. That she suffers widowing during the War, and must find some way to make Christmas possible for her children despite that; that she encounters the spaceman again as the 'caretaker' of a technologically enhanced old country estate; that the caretaker intends to help her make Christmas possible for the children... This is all touching, well-developed buildup to a possible grand adventure, which seems to be realized as the young son of the family opens his Christmas gift too early and enters an alien landscape where pine trees seem to be giving birth to something, from what appear to be Christmas ornaments...

But when I returned to the episode the next day, I watched in frustrated bewilderment as the story I had anticipated fell completely apart. The Androzani the widow confronts apparently exist only to announce an oncoming acid rain storm and to lend a rather awkward spacecraft for the widow's transport so she can arrive in the nick of time like the calvary in old B Westerns. The great tower the Doctor and the children find so mysterious in the first half only holds two secrets: rather boring anthropomorphized trees wanting their life force (say what?) taken to another planet and a vortex travelling space craft powered by human will (huh?). Meanwhile, the Doctor staggers around waving his sonic screwdriver in the air aimlessly, while blathering the worst excuse for technobabble I've ever heard. (This was Matt Smith's worst performance, painfully like a rank amateur improvising in a fan film.)

Finally, we end up back in England where we find that the widow isn't a widow after all. So now we don't have to deal with any messy real-life issues, and the Doctor is free to visit Amy and Rory for Christmas dinner and, like some American politician, pretend to shed a tear.

And... I'm supposed to feel what about that? Touched? Emotionally drained? Enlightened? Joy to the world? Actually, I felt bewildered, horrified and, finally, numb. Something one might feel in church listening to a well-loved priest suddenly disrupt his sermon by going crazy and ranting 'Yes, I did it, I sodomized young boys in the confessional! And I'm not sorry for it; Satan rules us all!'

All right, it wasn't quite that bad, but considering how high my expectations had been raised, it came awfully close. Certainly, the second half of this show was a complete disruption of the story developing in the first half; it was crazy and rant-filled, and nearly satanic in its seeming delight in rushing to the end as quickly as possible, narrative logic be damned.

What went wrong? My guess is that Steven Moffat came up with a story that he realized he couldn't develop in a sixty-minute episode, but rather than ditching it and coming up with a proper sixty-minute episode, he went ahead with what he had, hoping that a rapid pace, special effects, and general Christmas cheeriness would hide a multitude of narrative and dramatic sins.

He almost pulled it off for the professional critics, who have given the episode guarded praise, but most fan reviews I have read have expressed profound disappointment and obviously this is one of them.

I confess I never cared for the direction in which Russell T Davies took the series, but at least both his direction and the stories he wrote to further it were consistent, even in those episodes I didn't like; that many of those episodes were popular among their intended audience shows that he knew what he was doing.

But consistency is not a virtue with Steven Moffat and no episode so clearly demonstrates the dangers of that than this one. Moffat seems to think that, having redefined the Doctor as part Peter Pan, part superhero, part cosmic James Bond, he can do anything he wants without losing the interest of his target audience. But his work has become so erratic that one isn't sure who he thinks his target audience is anymore. As a long time Doctor Who fan, I hope he figures this out and submits his ideas to the discipline that demands, or the show may lose its audience all together, which would be a shame.

This hammock has developed a fault! by Evan Weston 22/6/19

Clearly looking to replicate the massive success of A Christmas Carol, Steven Moffat went back to the same basic formula for The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe. But while the ingredients - loose literary adaptation, existential threat, companions removed, dark and snowy setting, death by flying transportation - are generally the same, the proverbial lightning failed to strike twice for the Moff. This is a solid episode, to be sure, but it's more around the level of Voyage of the Damned or even The Runaway Bride in terms of a Christmas quality comparison.

The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe does a lot less with its source material than A Christmas Carol, eschewing anything about Narnia except for the "portal to another world" thing, which isn't all that foreign to science fiction anyway. Instead, our story concerns the Arwells, displaced from their home by the war and without their head of household. I'm not totally sure how the Doctor managed to know where they were or why he became their Caretaker, but there's your setup. Some of the best parts involve the Doctor simply interacting with the Arwells: you can tell the actors are enjoying the experience, and Matt Smith is unusually bubbly even by his standards. His tour of the house is extraordinarily fun, and he even takes the more somber moments and makes them tolerable.

The Arwells are all good, which is a blessing considering how risky child actors can be. Holly Earl as Lily is really quite excellent; she gets the most time with Smith out of the main cast, and, while she's no Caitlin Blackwell, her work with the Doctor is very good indeed. Young Maurice Cole doesn't have quite as much to do as Cyril, but he's suitably adorable and awestruck when he's on screen. Claire Skinner also turns in a lovely guest performance as Madge. She's a bit dark at times, though I suppose that's justified considering her character's husband is dead and her children are missing and presumed gone forever on a frozen alien planet.

Man, is this dark. It's darker than A Christmas Carol or any Christmas special before it, unless you count The End of Time. This is a story in which an entire forest is coldly incinerated, children are kidnapped by walking wood and Skinner spends half the episode either crying or screaming. It's not very Christmas-like, I suppose, and, while I can't technically hold that against The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe, it does feel a bit overboard even for a regular story. It's also very tedious in its darkness - nothing really goes right until the very end, and the Arwells feel like they're in a spiral that will never end. It's astonishing that the Doctor ends up as beloved as he is by the end of the story. But we'll get to that.

The story proper is fine in terms of pace, but not much really happens. I could recount the events of the story within four or five sentences and not leave out too much detail, which says something about how droopy this episode is; Moffat has admitted he wrote it with the drunken uncle of the family in mind. Things happen in a smooth order and there aren't any plotholes, which is something of an achievement for Moffat at this point, but things are thrown in just to beef things up. The harvest rangers subplot with Madge goes nowhere, the tree creatures are pretty arbitrary in their movements...

But they're so attractive and inventive! There's so much creativity here that I find The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe difficult to dislike, despite its heavy-handed tone and thin plot. The Androzani trees are absolutely beautiful, not to mention brilliant (naturally growing Christmas trees!), and the wooden creatures are such achievements of makeup, prosthetics and CGI that I can't help but swoon every time they appear on screen. There are so many incredible concepts on display: the harvest ship is awesome, the Doctor's changes to the house are hilarious, and the wooden tower is unmatched in both concept and execution. It's an incredible episode to look at, perhaps the most lavishly produced thus far in the show's history, and that deserves praise when combined with Moffat's ingenuity.

So it's got story and tonal problems, but the basis of the thing is enough to give The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe a passing grade. It's not as if it's boring, even though it's slow, because there are so many fun concepts and lovely performances keeping us occupied. It also tries to shore up its tone issue with the ending, returning Madge's husband through the time vortex. I'm not entirely sure that The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe earned this ending - though you knew he had to live at the end, it seems as if it ended happily because that's what a Christmas special is supposed to do (despite A Christmas Carol's sad ending). And that's how this story operates... but then the Doctor goes to the Ponds' for Christmas dinner, and I melt again. Not fair, Steven. You got away with this one.


"Where's the story-erasing crack when you need it?" by Thomas Cookson 28/11/19

It seemed beneath me to even need review this story, beyond occasional snide remarks. I couldn't work up the effort to hate this, nor muse over why it happened. Like Terminus, it seems scandalously awful during viewing, but afterwards becomes quickly, mercifully forgotten. Its shoddy mess of a plot visibly disintegrates on-screen before doing the same within the viewer's mind. But how could the writer of Blink produce this drivel?

Series 5 had a sense of craft that demanded patience. Occasionally requiring repeat viewings to fully grasp and appreciate, but was usually incredibly rewarding for it. Sadly, many fans used to their immediate fix of RTD's emotionalist spectacle never gave it a chance or second look, whilst assuming casual viewers to be even less patient or forgiving, having no faith younger viewers would understand or appreciate it, or rewatch for its rewards. Instead fandom started collectively dying inside of shame, fearing it was all lost and a second cancellation was coming. I dismissed such doomsaying. But then came Series 6, which was something Who hadn't been since 1986. A season straight from development hell, where evidently the 'soul' hadn't made the trip.

Afterwards, the show felt tired. Its once dynamic, exhilarating characters now seemed emotionally dead, functioning only on autopilot and the occasional meds shot. Crafting Series 6's overriding arc seemingly left Moffat creatively burnt out, and only capable of mustering enough creative energies to write this flatly uninspired drivel.

After Series 6's machine guns, melting gangers and Rory's blood-soaked, misogynistic death threats to Amy, this felt a Season 24-esque, forced, sanitized attempt at reasserting the show's kid-friendliness. Reminiscent of squeaky clean Westlife being promoted in contrived backlash to Prodigy reaching number one.

My residual fondness for Matt Smith made me inclined to want to like this, but the strain to do so was painful. Overwhelming my threshold for cheesy Christmas schmaltz horribly. Fans often say Moffat's a good writer, but not a good showrunner. This is him trying to be a showrunner. Contriving trailer-fodder spectacle to hook viewers and top what's come before.

These obligatory Christmas specials demonstrate Moffat's limited vision. Always revolving around riffing a popular Christmas film and fitting the Doctor into it somehow. Here trying to ape the excitement buzz of 2005's Chronicles of Narnia. The wonder of entering the wardrobe into a new, unexplored world.

Essentially Moffat's pitching the selling point as doing what Doctor Who's always done. It's always been about the journey into stranger worlds, with the TARDIS as its wardrobe.

Any viewers intrigued how Moffat's ever going to fit these two mediums together are probably half-expecting him to fail. Indeed the whole exercise never achieves any self-justification. This pseudo-Narnia ultimately has less substance or exploration value than Meglos. As a C.S. Lewis pastiche, it's a particularly lazy, witless one, requiring Matt telling Lily the TARDIS is a wardrobe as a flimsy excuse for justifying the 'slutty title'.

The Empty Child demonstrated Moffat's love for C.S. Lewis. Using WWII's setting and evacuee children as starting point to tell a different story. It became its own separate beast, with an honest, layered, faithful approach to its scenario. Becoming a vivid compelling portrait of war. This is just witless, superficial rip-off. Demonstrating how barren Moffat's muse is when he's completely uninspired and utterly shameless in his derivative plagiarism. Left only with memories of the Narnia films' iconography to draw on.

Despite promising to keep a low profile, Matt makes a loud entrance (though wasn't his fault this massive alien threat decided to invade Earth and he had to covertly blow them up). Matt decides to thank Madge for helping him find the TARDIS by stalking her, finding where she's spending Christmas and becoming her caretaker. He designs the children a present that's a portal to somewhere in the Universe unknown and unsafe. Even Davison's Doctor wasn't this much a dangerous liability.

It's tailored toward first-time viewers. But this seemed the worst time to restart the series on an interrupting clean slate, when Series 6 still felt emotionally unresolved. Perhaps Moffat assumed children would think Amy and Rory growing up being best friends with River was so cool, it instantly cancelled out the pain of losing their baby, hence he didn't think it needed emotionally resolving. That's where Moffat making this purely for kids, ignoring wider audiences who wanted something more emotionally relatable, became worrying.

In fact, Matt becomes an unbearable avatar for Moffat. Thinking the solution to a bereavement storyline is manically, aggressively bombard the kids to distraction in the most empty, obnoxious way. Insensitively riding roughshod over Madge's more tender, sensitive efforts. I smiled at the 'lemonade tap' but everything else was unpleasant loud overkill.

Madge confiding why she's lied to keep the children happy, was nice. But Madge's first instincts should compel her to think the Caretaker is a completely unsafe lunatic, given his frighteningly pathological Peter Pan syndrome. He doesn't apologise for undermining her fraught efforts to be a mum, nor consider how it made her feel seeing him showing off and outdoing her.

Claire Skinner has a talent for playing highly-strung women and gives the part her all, taking it all devastatingly seriously as a struggling mother who provokes our sympathy, respect and admiration. In fact I'd have welcomed Madge teaming up with Matt again. Something I couldn't say about RTD's mother characters. However, the sexist humour about Madge's driving was indefensible in act one. It becomes insufferable in act three.

So, long set-up to get us into Narnia's forest. A long trek to the lighthouse. Holly Earl (from Skins: Season 6's one great episode) provides nice companion material. But by the halfway mark the suspense and momentum completely vanishes. The reveal that the lighthouse and stairwell framing was grown entirely of wood was indigestible. Exposing how terribly inorganically and craftlessly put together this forced, superficial story was.

It's middling viewing until Bailey, Bazely and Weir's intolerable comedy trio arrive. Subjecting us to belaboured, moronic crass jokes about gender stereotypes, crying and mother issues. I wouldn't say it was insulting particularly to men or women. It was insulting full stop.

The moment Madge reveals her crying was a deceptive womanly ploy, comes off almost written by a MGTOW, yet strangely Skinner makes it triumphant. However, her "I'm looking for my children!" feels like a taunting self-indictment of Series 6b's heartless characterization.

E. John Winner highlighted the first half seeming an intriguing set-up for a story that never materializes. The story actively gets emptier as it goes on. It's ripping off the journey into Narnia, but there's nothing substantial populating this setting. We're told there's a population of tree spirits, but immediately upon learning this, they're already removing themselves from the story, evacuating in the distance. Sparing Moffat any need to utilise them. He seemingly tries hiding this lack of substance in empty steals of a better story's set-pieces.

DWM allowed viewers to send mail to Moffat. After Matt's farewell, fans asked how the Silence destroyed the TARDIS, or whether Smith's regeneration in erasing The Name of the Doctor's events undoes the entirety of Clara's arc.

I could probably easily answer both off top of my head. One unseen suicide bomber Silent sneaking in could've blown the TARDIS up, whilst the Trenzalore paradox was likely accommodated and managed by the Time Lords (see Neverland).

But Moffat's disingenuous replies made him resemble a mad hubristic creator lost in his fiction and ego, convinced only children could be baffled by his plots, so he talked down to them patronisingly. The first line of his responses was a dumb-founding "I've often wondered that" or "Who can say?", before proceeding to be absurdly evasive with answers and joke his way out of it.

Now, his opening lines aren't necessarily as odd as they sound. I've attended writer's events where authors described how they sometimes let themselves become immersed in their creative process and fiction. Surrendering control to its events. When that happens, writers can find unplanned events and developments happening spontaneously in the fiction. It's then their duty as writer to translate it honestly, treating those changes and repercussions they must now deal with as challenges to stretch their skills.

It's where writers reach a point in their craft where story events and character actions are writing themselves like a living world, leading to shocking things happening without anticipation. That's when you've got something good and challenging that keeps you as an author alert at finding inventive ways around. It's why JNT's shopping-list approach often produced leaden, contrived rubbish.

Previously, Moffat's stories had that live, real spontaneity to them. But here he seemed under greater pressure to deliver to deadline, like he kept being interrupted and drawn out of his creative process prematurely or forced to finish things off early (essentially repeating The Big Bang's 'she wished everyone back' ending). Frankly, it's the first Moffat story I remember finding depressingly predictable, thirty minutes in advance.

I recall already knowing the first police box the Doctor and Madge found would turn out not to be the TARDIS. It became quickly obvious the human host for the spirits needed to be female, making the Doctor seem idiotic for not spotting it. I knew the flying lighthouse was going to retroactively save Reg. Yet again, a show that once dealt frankly with death's harsh realities, now cheapening that, teaching delicate, immersed young viewers to make-believe the dearly departed can simply be brought back by timey-wimey. Conditioning them toward unhealthy degrees of denial.

Whilst RTD sometimes did this too, it seemed to happen in spite of this show's death-laden universe, rather than being a case of Moffat rewriting its universe entirely to his sanitized, infantile whims.

Why do the themes of last season have to so dominate it feels the entire special's orchestrated around the Doctor's faked death being mirrored by Madge receiving the wrong telegram about Reg? It feels a cumbersome effort for no real point. But also frustratingly hints that Moffat isn't really dealing with his loose ends properly. There's no masterplan that becomes clear later. Just each new story having to inherit the last one's mess.

The resolution about strength of womanhood came off as Moffat trying too hard to appease tumblr feminists in a manner that felt insincere, cheap and condescending. I gagged when Elizabeth Sandifer suggested older fans only hated this story for its pro-woman message.

RTD often complained of older male fans being stubbornly unreceptive of his more female-centric episodes, but his writing rarely outright told us this in-fiction, but simply felt like an enriching, exhilarating feminine spiritual experience. This rather clunkingly tells us it's been one, with all the enthusiasm of someone who clearly hates having to do this for his petulant feminist critics.

(For me, Who's best feminist heroine remains Dalek Empire's Susan Mendes.)

This wasn't a personal, mythical journey that found natural catharsis in the power of maternal strength. Rather it presents us with obnoxious mouthpieces and infantile conundrums to hammer us over the head with the supremacist 'trash' of feminism, that the blokeish audience apparently wouldn't 'get' otherwise.

It brings no cathartic change to the characters. Nor makes them rethink their prejudices or worldview. There's no chauvinistic antagonist to justify who the point's made against. The Doctor's already an enlightened figure. The children already think the world of mum, and only learn motherhood's superior on that planet's ecosystem. So what?

Fortunately, this side-track adventure doesn't really affect the overall canon, and can be easily ignored. In fact, the Ponds' subsequent divorce would've made more sense as a natural outcome from The Wedding of River Song's events, without this story. Even though their appearance here is the only decent, heart-warming scene.

Ultimately, an utterly unrewarding story that ends in a stupider, emptier place than it started. The story elements and characters just don't connect together. Like Moffat's myopic DWM replies, there's no connection made with an audience Moffat doesn't really 'get' anymore.