Posts Tagged With: doctor who christmas special

I Believe in Father Christmas

It’s funny how, in putting this together, I had to go back and explore some of my least favourite stories.

Doctor Who at Christmas is an opportunity. Statistically, it’s the episode of the show that’s most likely to be watched by people who don’t normally watch it, existing as it does as a notch on the TV schedule at a time when most people are actually watching TV, accompanied by cheese and crackers and what’s left of the Christmas Eve gammon, and sandwiched somewhere between the BBC’s seasonal animation and a Two Ronnies compilation. Visiting family members perch awkwardly on the sofa, not quite sure what to make of this strange spectacle – a show that they might have watched in their childhood but haven’t seen since Tom Baker fell off the radio tower, or perhaps have never watched at all – as the resident enthusiast explains the basics. Or perhaps that’s just our house. Is it just our house? Please tell me it isn’t.

It’s therefore a crushing disappointment when they get it wrong. I suppose the sporting analogy would be taking your partner along to his or her inaugural game and have your team play an absolute damp squib instead of a blinder. They’ll wonder what on earth you see in this sort of recreational activity and you’ll find yourself prone to similar sudden introspection. The DW Christmas episode is, above all else, all about potential conversion and creating a story that’s accessible for the new or casual viewer (and it’s not just me, Peter Capaldi agrees). It’s not a time for endless continuity references and the resolution of complicated, series-long plot points: that sort of thing isn’t easy to stomach after a hard day’s feasting, unwrapping and shouting at the kids. I’d rather have something I can just watch and enjoy. (Judging the show’s seasonal installments in this manner, ‘The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe’ is a roaring success, while ‘The Time of the Doctor’ is a dismal failure.)

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My feelings on Christmas episodes are, at least within the context of this blog, well-documented (I’ll get a ‘Christmas’ tag done at some point, but if you’re really curious, check out some of the reviews or hover around the December point for each year of the archives). Externally, I wrote a little something for Metro a couple of years back that had earned the wrath of a few people who thought I’d got it totally wrong. Such is the cost of ranked lists, occurring as they do not within an objective vacuum but tainted by the personal views of whoever’s writing it, even if said personal views actually belong to a committee. In my case, I approached a recent Red Dwarf task by canvassing the opinions of various other people on Facebook, and coming up with a definitive order that reflected their views as much as my own. “Dude clearly wasn’t a red dwarf fan who made this post,” wrote one reader. “How can you not include quarantine. Rimmer in a gingham dress and MR flibbles!” To which my (unposted) answer is obviously “Because it’s my list, and not yours. Now bugger off.”

All the same. There’s something magical about even the worst of New Who when you view it out of context. The sleigh ride in ‘Last Christmas’. The lethal tree in ‘The Christmas Invasion’. Even those ridiculous snowmen. Taken as parts of lackluster episodes they’re tedious, but sandwiching them together seems to work. And there are many golden moments. Last year’s River Song episode was occasionally patchy, but the chemistry between Kingston and Capaldi far outweighed anything she’d achieved with his predecessor, and the moment when they’re standing on the balcony overlooking the Singing Towers is one of my favourite scenes in the Twelfth Doctor’s run.

I’d been toying with the idea of a Christmas montage for some weeks; it was just a question of picking the right song (copyright, as much as any artistic consideration, is a potential barrier). I’d just about chosen a track that I felt was appropriate (I’m not telling you what it is; I may use it in a year or two). Then Greg Lake – one third of the much-overrated prog rock tour de force that was Emerson, Lake and Palmer – died, and while his death was distressingly premature (2016, the year that just keeps on taking) it did at least make the song selection easier. Actually I think the end result is better than the video I would have made otherwise, which is about the only good thing I’m able to snatch from his death.

This probably won’t be my last post before the 25th – you’ll have to wait a few days for that – but it’s arguably the most Christmassy, and if we don’t speak again until the reindeer have eaten the mince pies, I hope your holiday season is peaceful and joyous, however you choose to spend it. And with that I’m off to watch ‘A Christmas Carol’ with Daniel, who’s been pleading for it since Saturday morning. If we’d waited until tomorrow it would have been the shortest day of the year, but real life, it seems, is never quite so neat and tidy. Still, that’s what makes it interesting.

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Review: ‘The Husbands of River Song’

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Spoilers follow.

I’ve thought for a while now that River Song is a little like Marmite. You either want to absorb her entirely, lusciously spread on toast, or burn her alive. You love or hate her and there is comparatively little middle ground.

While taste is always subjective, it’s a thing that doesn’t happen often. Few fans would argue, for example, against general conviction that Melanie Bush is an irritating carrot-obsessed fitness freak, at least on TV (Big Finish tells a different story, of course), or that Adric was a general twerp. On the other hand most people love Ian and Barbara. Still, River’s apparently ubiquitous presence in the seven years we’ve known her – and particularly in the last five – has generated as many detractors as it has fans, which is presumably why last night’s Christmas special, ‘The Husbands of River Song’, while actually being quite good, presumably had a good number of people pulling their paper cracker hats down in front of their eyes even before the opening credits. There is no middle ground with River, just as there is no middle ground with processed yeast extract. You either eat it by the jarful or you involuntarily gag as soon as it swims into view.

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But upon reflection, I don’t think it’s that simple. I think it’s possible to have your toast and eat it too. I’d had more than enough of River by the time we’d wrapped up ‘The Angels Take Manhattan’, but getting her out again for ‘Husbands’ seems to have paid off. The plot – such as it is – revolves around an attempt to rob the despotic, disembodied King Hydroflax, who happens to be carrying a priceless diamond in his brain. It’s the excuse for the ridiculous sight gag of a head in a bag – almost as ridiculous as River’s sonic trowel (although it is a nice plant, if you’ll excuse the pun, for the inevitability of the Doctor’s Christmas gift). The honour of playing the head of Hydroflax goes to Greg Davies, who is almost as uptight as he was in Cuckoo, and just as much fun to watch.

Essentially ‘Husbands’ is exactly the sort of romp that you need after a heavy series; the sort of story that ‘Last Christmas’ really ought to have been, and wasn’t. Neatly compartmentalised into three locations, with differing moods in each, it calls upon Moffat’s stock trade of sinister, nondescript monsters (this particular one has a head that unzips), pathos-drenched love scenes and general wibbly wobbliness. There is a crashing starship. River and the Doctor have dinner (twice) and argue over who gets to drive. It’s like one of those middle-aged romcoms that are vehicles for Robert De Niro or Barbra Streisand. It shouldn’t work, but it does.

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The central conceit is that of poor communication – something (to paraphrase Verne the turtle in Over The Hedge) that families do very well, and perhaps rendering this more appropriate for Christmas than it would be at any other time of the year. River doesn’t recognise the Doctor simply because she’s never met this version, and the Doctor’s irregular attempts at telling her the truth are met by interrupting sidekicks, sudden explosions or knocks on the door of the TARDIS. There’s a kind of arrogance to her assumption that there would be no loophole to the Doctor’s twelve-regeneration limit, but the real problem River faces in ‘Husbands’ is that she stopped buying breakfast cereal in 2013, and the free ‘collect all twelve’ fact cards that she’s been accumulating are from an older set that’s now two years out of date. Or perhaps it’s headcanon in action: there are, I’m sure, various Who fans who gave up on the show after ‘The Time of the Doctor’ (or significantly before that) because they couldn’t accept the idea of new regeneration cycles. Why can’t River be one of those?

Moffat teases this out for as long as he possibly can, largely to milk its dramatic / comedic potential to saturation point. This is equivalent to a disguised Shakespearian protagonist wandering about the stage in a dodgy false beard observing the outrageous behaviour of allies or enemies: the jokes come thick and fast (even if they don’t always work) and the dramatic irony goes up to eleven. The Doctor visibly blanches as he reflects on River’s apparent bigamy, callous disregard for life and financial ruthlessness (all qualities we already knew she had, so the bigger mystery is surely why he’s so surprised?). Twenty minutes in, the Doctor has to pretend he’s seeing the inside of the TARDIS for the very first time, which gives Capaldi the opportunity to ham it up like a loon. “OH MY GOD!” he shouts. “MY ENTIRE UNDERSTANDING OF PHYSICAL SPACE HAS BEEN TRANSFORMED! THREE-DIMENSIONAL EUCLIDEAN GEOMETRY HAS BEEN TORN UP, THROWN IN THE AIR AND SNOGGED TO DEATH!”

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Such big speeches work well when they’re played for laughs, but like many of River’s other episodes, ‘Husbands’ suffers when it’s trying to be too serious. The story has its share of misfires, but the monologue that precedes River’s realisation that the Doctor is standing right next to her is simply embarrassing. I’ve never really bothered to find out whether Kingston can’t do dramatic speeches, or whether she simply can’t do dramatic speeches while playing this character, but either way it’s a low point. As low points go it’s not quite up there with the one at the end of ‘Wedding’, but it’s a top three.

Things are a little less clunky – although only just – come the end of the story, and it’s here that we realise that ‘Husbands’ is essentially a fifty minute build-up to get the Doctor and River to the Singing Towers. It’s Moffat finally writing the story he alluded to in ‘Forest of the Dead’, his own procrastination, perhaps, finding its way into the script when Kingston mentions that when it comes to the Doctor taking her to dinner, “You always cancel”. Or perhaps procrastination had nothing to do with it, and perhaps Moffat had always planned it this way. We’ll probably never know. Nonetheless, chronologically this is their last encounter before the Library, although the fact that a night on Darillium is twenty-four years long does rather sweeten the deal.

Indeed, the assumption here is that River will be back, either on Dirillium (which must have a Wyrmm’s nest somewhere, or at the very least a cave system containing frozen Ice Warriors). If Moffat had a theme song, it would be ‘Never Can Say Goodbye’ (or, if you like, ‘It’s My Plotting And You’ll Cry If I Want You To’). Or, as Gareth puts it, “If this ‘last night’ is 24 years long, I assume that there’s no need for it to be their final meeting or final night together. As they can go off and meet lots and get back still during the same night.”

But given the manner in which it concludes, this is a story that couldn’t have happened before ‘Hell Bent’, and the lesson the Doctor learned about going too far resonates throughout his final speech. For all Kingston’s blustering about finding a way out, it’s a touching scene, expertly lit, the romance bubbling beneath the surface while being kept at bay by some pleasant, almost understated performances – particularly from Capaldi, who is always at his best when he’s turning it down. It helps that the two leads have a chemistry that Kingston never managed with Smith – perhaps it’s an age thing, but this feels far more natural than it ever did when the Doctor wore tweed. These are two people who give the appearance of being in their twilight years (the fact that the Doctor is clearly not is, for the moment, irrelevant) and this lends their love scenes a sensibility that grounds them even in the more overwrought moments. On balance, it works. ‘The Husbands of River Song’ lacks the accessibility of ‘The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe’ and the narrative oomph of ‘Voyage of the Damned’, but it substitutes an emotional core that winds up – just for a change – being far more than the sum of its parts. Of all the available Doctors that could have taken River to the Singing Towers, I’m glad it turned out to be this one.

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Categories: New Who, Reviews | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Review: ‘Last Christmas’

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There’s an episode of Buffy that’s always got to me. It’s called ‘Normal Again’, and within it Buffy has an encounter with the Trio and is left believing that her existence in Sunnydale as a Slayer has been a delusion experienced during a stay at the psychiatric institution in which she still resides. Within the ‘delusion’, Buffy becomes increasingly confused and Willow tries to get her to drink the antidote. Back in ‘reality’, her mother is still alive and married to her father, and a kindly doctor is trying to explain that the reason the stories have become so ridiculous lately is because the delusion is breaking down, which almost feels like an apology. The episode cuts back and forth between the two until it’s established that the institution is a hallucination, and order is restored. Or is it? Tellingly, the very last scene of the episode shows a catatonic Buffy seated in her hospital room, while the doctor examines her unresponsive pupils and admits that “We lost her”.

‘Last Christmas’ was a story about layers of reality. It established the concept of false reality painted to look real in order to entrap the viewer. Having dealt with this fairly early on, the story then throws a curve ball when the Doctor reveals (and then reveals again, and then again) that what we believe is real is actually another layer of the dream. Thus characters believe themselves to have woken from a nightmare only to find that there’s another one still going on. This is, perhaps not surprisingly, all tied up with the presence of Santa. ‘Last Christmas’ also broke the mould by becoming the first episode of New Who that I’ve actively decided not to show my children, although more on that later.

Things open on what we assume is Christmas Eve, and a scene that most of you probably watched on YouTube. Clara is awoken by a noise from outside her house and finds Santa on the rooftop, arguing with two of his elves (Misfits‘ Nathan McMullen and semi-regular Dan Starkey, bereft of the Sontaran makeup but still playing the comic relief). Before we have the opportunity to examine just why Clara was almost on the naughty list at the age of nine, the TARDIS materialises and the Doctor whisks Clara away to the Arctic, although not before asserting that “No one likes the tangerines” (which, by the way, is really not true, at least in our house).

The bulk of the narrative takes place in an Arctic base that deliberately (and quite self-consciously) rips off The Thing. Indeed, the entire story is basically a homage to a number of different horror movies, Ridley Scott being the most obvious example – the awakening dream crabs are a cross between the facehugger from Alien and the adult form of the egg that it hatches, with teeth to match. As is now traditional with a new monster under Moffat’s reign, the crabs have a metaphysical twist: they are only active when they’re either observed or being thought about, leading a surrounded Doctor and Clara to frantically screw their eyes closed while Emily shouted “BLINK!”.

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If the crabs are reasonably frightening, the fantasy in which they dump Clara is positively sugar-coated, although this is presumably all for effect. The production team soften the lighting, Murray Gold’s score becomes annoyingly intrusive and Moffat gives us the farewell scene between Clara and Danny that he presumably thought we wanted to see. It wasn’t enough to have them sobbing in a graveyard before he exploded over London; we now get to see Samuel Anderson wearing a Santa outfit (which will give the fan-fiction writers something to do, I suppose). It’s all very tear-jerking, although it’s more about Clara dealing with her grief than actually saying goodbye to Danny, given that she’s effectively talking to a hallucination. The net result is really not like Ghost; it’s more like A Beautiful Mind. (That’s not a compliment, by the way.)

In more quasi-fan pacification, the nature of Jenna Coleman’s hesitancy over her contract with the BBC is handled with one of Moffat’s false endings: the Doctor arrives back at Clara’s house sixty-two years late, the sort of cock-up with repercussions that would make even the Ninth Doctor wince. This is, as it turns out, still Only A Dream, but just for a couple of minutes, we’re led to believe that it’s the end of the road. It’s really an excuse to reverse the cracker scene from last year, and that in itself works quite well – but it’s a shame that the makeup used to age Coleman is so utterly unconvincing, leading Emily to remark “Ooh, it’s Yoda!”. Well, not quite, but Yoda is arguably an improvement.

The remainder of the episode is a bunch of characters that warrant minimal emotional investment, seeing as they are mostly plot devices. Shona is by far the most interesting – clearly potential companion material, presumably in the mould of someone as delinquently troublesome as Ace or Leela. Michael Troughton is as good an actor as his father, but is given little to do except read from an instruction manual and chew up the scenery. Said scenery is admittedly impressive, the closing flyover echoing any number of Christmas classics, while the Arctic base is claustrophobically rendered in muted tones. Likewise, the dream crabs have clear action figure potential, even if – as a friend of mine pointed out – their hosts look they have Brussels sprouts on their heads.

“Oh, not sprouts. I hate sprouts.”
“Oh, will you stop whinging Eddie! Nobody likes sprouts.”
“Then why are we having them, then?”
“BECAUSE IT’S CHRISTMAS!”

The most ridiculous thing to happen in ‘Death in Heaven’, of course (besides the Cyber-Brigadier, which still makes me angry) was the appearance of Nick Frost at the door of the TARDIS. Moffat plays on this during ‘Last Christmas’ by making the entire story one long knowing wink: Santa arrives at the Arctic base just in the St. Nick of time (or not, as it turns out) with an army of slinkies and toy robots, riding a reindeer like the Lone Ranger mounted Silver and handling a tangerine like a grenade. Meanwhile, Starkey has an orange balloon gun. It’s purposely silly, and indeed the appearances of Santa in the episode have a whiff of the absurd about them: Santa the action hero, Santa the gunslinging hero, and Santa the saviour of humanity.

Actually, that’s the problem. Because the presence of Santa in ‘Last Christmas’ becomes something of a litmus test: in other words, as the Doctor assures his companions, they know they’re dreaming because Father Christmas himself is there to put things right. We may assume, indeed, that the entire last scene of the series finale was itself a dream, presumably one that Capaldi had after watching too many Russell T Davies episodes. Somewhere between that first low-angled establishing shot and the final rescue in the snow, we’re told in no uncertain terms that Santa is – at least in this case – a group hallucination made flesh, a gestalt entity that drops out of the sky in what I have no choice but to label sleighus ex machina.

That’s fine. But at the risk of sounding like Mary Whitehouse, has anyone stopped to think about the children? Look, I’m not opposed to the idea of dramatic presentations where people don’t believe in Santa. Miracle on 34th Street constructed an entire narrative around the concept (a reference that Moffat openly admits to, when he has one of the surviving characters unfold a sheet of paper that contains her Christmas TV schedule and the writer’s apparent influences for the episode, presumably to avoid having to stick ‘The works of H.R. Giger and John Carpenter are acknowledged’ in the credits). There are plenty of grumpy people who grew up too fast and become the voice of cynicism in such festive tales, refusing to believe even the evidence of their own eyes.

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But here’s the thing: even if I manage to describe the various dream states and layers to my seven-year-old so that he knows whether the characters are asleep or awake (“This is an episode,” said Emily, “that they’re just not going to understand at all”), how the hell do I explain the deliberate fictionalisation of a character he still believes in? Santa’s existence here isn’t just something that’s contested by the stuffy grown-ups before he reads off their Christmas wishes from behind his Google glasses; his status as something we’ve dreamed up to help us is more or less concrete. And no, an ambiguous tangerine on a windowsill doesn’t count.

It’s possible, of course, that I’m going to re-read this tomorrow and decide that I’ve got the whole thing wrong. Even then, the opening scene on the rooftop makes for uncomfortable viewing, with Clara suggesting that her “Mum and Dad” were the ones who delivered presents. I don’t think that’s yet occurred to any of my children, and if the episode had stopped there, with doubts about Santa then quickly rebuffed, then that would have been fine. But then making the whole story about this seems not only unnecessarily metaphysical but also downright unpleasant somehow, with Clara’s final affirmation that yes, she believes in Father Christmas, but that “he looks a little different to me”, frankly a little insulting. I’d accept that our interpretation was perhaps skewed by a cynical take on Moffat’s writing, but an episode of a family show that questions the existence of Santa on so many levels, irrespective of their resolution, seems to be entering dodgy territory.

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Of course, the tangerine has two possible meanings, and choosing between them is obvious. Presumably we’re supposed to infer that it’s the calling card for a real-life Santa Claus, because the alternative is another layer of reality: in other words, this is still a dream. It’s far less ambiguous than the ending of ‘Normal Again’,  I’ll grant, and this is ironic given that the dream state isn’t actually as unattractive a proposition as you might think. If nothing else, it would explain why the story was so preposterous and downright confusing.

Come to think of it, can we track the beginnings of the head crabs back to the ending of ‘Kill the Moon’, when Clara telephones the entire planet? Or perhaps ‘Listen’, with its ridiculous Gallifreyan lullaby? Actually, can we just write off the entire last series as a lucid dream and start again from the moment Capaldi staggers out of the TARDIS at the beginning of ‘Deep Breath’? I know I complain about narrative tangents, but to be honest, that’s a twist I could handle.

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The Christmas Special, and why it matters

In the first instance, this.

It’s less than a fortnight until the Christmas episode, and we still know bugger all about it. Here’s a quick fact check:

  • ‘Last Christmas’ (and you didn’t say that, you sang it) sees the Doctor meet Santa, who seems to have turned up in time to put wrong things right, like a sort of bearded Mr Pink-Whistle, without the cat. He’s accompanied by two elves (one of whom is Dan Starkey, usually seen surrounded by prosthetics, serving tea for the glory of the Sontaran empire).
  • In the clip above, Santa chats to Clara for a while, before the Doctor shows up, whereupon the two drop into the sort of intense, absolutely serious conversation that made Airplane! so intentionally amusing.
  • We have no idea yet what the Doctor is going to face, although it looks like the designers have taken inspiration from H.R. Giger.
  • There is a tangerine, which has already been labelled an object of Deep Significance.

It’s the first time we’ve actually seen Saint Nicholas actually appear onscreen, but on the other hand –

 

Look. I don’t want to be all Captain Grumpy again. But at the risk of pouring cold water over this roaring hearth of publicity, the episode is already in potentially murky waters based on that Children In Need clip alone. I’m alluding, of course, to the suggestion that many people believe Father Christmas is fake. Yes, there’s a lot of clever-clever winking and cries of “Of course he’s real!”. But Clara’s assertion that her annual yuletide benefactors were ‘Mum and Dad’ is going to raise awkward questions, at least from the youngest of viewers. Normally I have to stop my children from watching Doctor Who because the monsters were too frightening; only in recent years have I had the cause to worry about sexual content, but at the risk of overreacting I’ve already made the conscious decision not to show the Children in Need preview to any of them until I’ve seen what follows. The implications contained in this scene alone make ‘Last Christmas’ sound like a story that we’ll have to watch on our own first, which surely isn’t the point of a family show.

That may sound overly harsh, if not a little cantankerous (although let’s be honest, that’s more or less what you’ve come to expect from me). But just this once, there’s a reason for it. Here’s something that might not have occurred to you – and apologies if you’ve read the ‘Doctor, Widow, Wardrobe’ review, but I’m going to repeat myself – watching a Doctor Who winter special is, to a certain extent, rather like going to church on Christmas morning.

Why is this? Well, one thing consistent church attendance has taught me is how we cater for people at different times of the year. And there’s something in particular about Christmas where church gets perhaps a little more accessible. Or at least it should. Because the fact is that some people come to church at Christmas and then that’s their fix for the next twelve months, apart from the occasional wedding. And perhaps because of that we need to make things a little easier and more comfortable, and a little less automatic. We need to give context, explain things and show that we’re not entirely stuck in our ways: cut off, exclusive, or inapproachable.

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The Christmas Special has become, to a considerable extent, Doctor Who for people who don’t normally do Doctor Who. It’s an episode viewed by people watching with relatives or friends, dragged in because The Gruffalo’s Child has finished and the remote is buried beneath mounds of wrapping paper. Elderly aunts and uncles may watch out of pure curiosity, having not seen the TARDIS materialise since Pertwee.

That we are now in this position is a bone of contention for some, but it is what it is, and when it comes to December 25 it can go both ways. Some stories (‘Voyage of the Damned’ springs to mind) are immediately accessible, generally occurring at pivotal, transitional moments where the Doctor is between companions or arcs. Others (‘The Time of the Doctor’, ‘The End of Time’, ‘The Snowmen’) are nigh-on impenetrable for newbies or visitors, relying heavily on knowledge of previous stories. (The first example above is particularly guilty in this department, hearkening back as it does to stuff that happened in 2010, and haphazardly tying every single plot thread together in a jumbled, confusing mess.)

Perhaps it doesn’t matter. But it should. It matters because there’s an ambassadorial aspect to being a Doctor Who fan. You’ll often find yourself in the position of having to describe or even defend the show to people who haven’t watched it in years – if they’ve ever watched it at all. Christmas is a chance to do just that. They watch the Christmas special and perhaps they’ll tune in to the next season. Then they might go back and explore Tennant or Smith. Then you convince them that actually, the original series is not only worth a look, it surpasses everything they’ve done since the revival. Before you know it they’re watching recons and downloading Big Finish audios by the terabyte. But it’s hard to actually get the non-fan interested if all they’ve got to go on is an inaccessible story. And more than this, you don’t want to spend half an hour on Christmas night actually answering the rhetorical “I don’t know what you see in that…” when you’d rather be getting drunk and playing Pictionary.

Seriously, Steven. You owe us. It’s been nearly three years since the last decent Christmas episode, and goodness knows we could do with a bit of light relief after watching the stilted farewell between the Doctor and the increasingly irritating Miss Oswald (right after her dead boyfriend turned into a firework). I know I place too much value on what folks say online, but it would be nice, to be honest, if I could switch on my computer on Boxing Day and read comments from people saying “I’ve not watched Doctor Who in years, but I switched on last night and was pleasantly surprised – it was lighthearted, appropriately seasonal, and it didn’t take itself too seriously. And Peter Capaldi really was very good.”

Although presumably his initial response to the sight of Father Christmas will be “Jeff?!?”.

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Things to do on a Saturday evening

WARNING: I wouldn’t call them spoilers, but the screen grabs below have plot components and also details of returning characters, so if you want to go in totally cold, stay out of the way. And yes, I ‘m a vindictive pedant. But THIS STUFF MATTERS.

 

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Review: ‘The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe’

For most of my adult life, I’ve been a regular churchgoer. This has sometimes been out of a genuine, heartfelt desire to go, and sometimes because I feel I ought to be there. I was brought up with religion, then I rejected it, and then it found me again and wouldn’t let go. Until it did. These days, it’s very, very hard: I am paying lip service, going through the motions, and clockwatching. I don’t think I’ve stopped believing in God, but beyond that nothing much is certain.

This is not the place for an account of my spiritual journey, but one thing consistent attendance has taught me is how we cater for people at different times of the year. And there’s something in particular about Christmas where Church (note the capital ‘C’) gets perhaps a little more accessible. Or at least it should. Because the fact is that some people come to church at Christmas and then that’s their fix for the year, apart from the occasional wedding / funeral / christening. These are good, ordinary people and aside from religious beliefs there is comparatively little difference between us. It would be lovely if we could see some of them at other times of the year, but that’s the way it goes.

In any event they come at Christmas, and that’s when we have to do things a little differently, and perhaps make things a little easier and a little less automatic. Things we do every week without thinking about them are explained. The story is recapped with simplicity and clarity. We reassure people that they’re welcome to do whatever makes them comfortable. We avoid rituals that might make them uncomfortable. All this is with a view to show them that the Church can be welcoming and can adapt itself to the people who are attending – that we’re not entirely stuck in our ways, cut off, exclusive, inapproachable.

It struck, me, reading some of the comments online this week, that Doctor Who is a little like this. Because the Christmas special – a staple of the seasonal calendar since the 2005 revival (and not something they did in the show’s original run) – has become, to a great extent, Doctor Who for people who don’t normally do Doctor Who. At Christmas, when you’re sitting in front of the TV and The Gruffalo’s Child has finished, and the beer is all spilled and the whiskey is flowed, it might be something you do that you don’t normally do. So the Christmas specials are a little different. And whenever you’re judging an episode like this you need to have that at the forefront of your mind.

Why am I writing about all this in particular? Well, it’s because reading some of the commentary online over this past week has frankly made me lose some of my seasonal cheer. It’s reminded me that for the most part, all we do is complain. W.H. Auden might as well have written “Bring out the coffee, let the mourners come”, which would have detracted somewhat from the sombre tone of ‘Stop all the Clocks’ (or whatever it’s called, no one I know seems to be able to make up their mind), but it’d work if you were trying to describe a post-Who Guardian Comment is Free thread. It is in the pages of the Grauniad, indeed, that such debates are at their most acerbic, acidic and downright scornful, with the left-wing intellectual neo-atheist snobbery shining through (and yes, I say this as an out-and-out Guardian reader). But the Independent was no better – although it didn’t help, in this instance, that the review of the show was once more written by Neela Debnath, who appears to have minimal knowledge of the show and absolutely no writing ability whatsoever. There is much good journalism in the Independent, but sadly none of it is by her.

(Multiple spoilers follow.)

Snow-sprayed forestry (in August).

Here’s the thing. If you’re going to judge ‘The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe’ by the standards of a normal Who episode, it will be found wanting. Structurally, it was all over the place. It opened with a plane in trouble, and Alexander Armstrong (recognisable as the voice of Mr Smith in The Sarah Jane Adventures) murmuring “I’m sorry, my love” as his plane appears bound for oblivion – an exact repetition, you may remember, of the words of River Song as the TARDIS exploded at the end of ‘The Pandorica Opens’. And that ended well, so we instantly knew – on some level, at least – that Armstrong was coming back from the dead, or would be spared death by some sort of last-minute intervention.

Because Moffat does that. He’ll give us one ending, and then tell us the rest of it later, as it transpires that what we saw earlier was an incomplete scene, designed to give us certain preconceptions before pulling out the rug from underneath. It’s by turns clever and infuriating. Sometimes, indeed, it’s infuriating simply because it’s clever – we want a simple narrative, rather than the convoluted prancing of something like ‘The Wedding of River Song’, which jumped around through history, tied up several loose ends and featured a cameo from Simon Callow while somehow delivering far less than the sum of its parts.

There was one clever-clever moment in this Christmas special, but aside from that it was a straightforward romp through a forest where the trees appear to grow baubles on demand. Claire Skinner played (very) recently widowed Madge, who had earlier helped the Doctor (whose identity was at the time unknown to her, given that he was wearing a space helmet the wrong way round, having put it on in a hurry) back to his TARDIS – except, of course, it wasn’t the TARDIS at all, but an actual police box. It was as shamelessly predictable as the TARDIS’ materialisation between two storage crates at the beginning of ‘Fear Her’, but no less amusing for it.

He put it on in a hurry, apparently.

Three years after the encounter with the impossible astronaut, Skinner and her children (neither of whom appear to have aged at all) are checking into an old house in the middle of the country, where they’re greeted by a lanky twenty-something who says he’s the ‘Caretaker’. The house is full of gimmicks and gadgets (including hammocks that drop from the ceiling, which I think I want in my space-deprived bungalow) but the ‘magic of Christmas’ scene that introduces them all goes on far too long, and Smith’s constant boyish cries of “I know!” are immensely irritating. In any event: there is, of course, a big blue box in the lounge. And of course the children open it in the middle of the night, instead of on Christmas morning, which the Doctor had intended, in order for it to be ‘a supervised trip’. And before we know it, Cyril (he with the ridiculous glasses) is lost in the woods, and the trees appear to be moving.

Cyril. Amazing glasses.

Dan Martin, in his review, pointed out the major plot hole: “While the Doctor berates the children for opening their present – a potentially hazardous trip to another planet in the far future – he also knows,” he says, ”that every normal child would have done the same. Really, the whole thing was his fault.” Except, of course, he doesn’t know anything of the sort. Not really. Because the Doctor’s not human. At least this one isn’t. He’s almost as alien as they come, exceeded only by Baker (i) and Troughton. Not noticing the way humans behave is part for the course. He didn’t notice Elliot wandering off in ‘The Hungry Earth’. He was oblivious to the ins and outs of Craig and Sophie’s relationship – and the former’s infatuation with the latter – throughout ‘The Lodger’, at least not until the point at which it really mattered. Leaving a mysterious parcel in the middle of the lounge and then expecting them to wait until morning before opening it is exactly the sort of thing the Eleventh Doctor would do. He’ll take things to the brink and then come up with a solution, producing all his best work under immense pressure, but he thinks very much on his feet, and consequences are not always at the forefront of his mind – as is beautifully vocalised in the closing fifteen minutes when, as the tower collapses around the protagonists, he suggests that they “hold tight and pretend it’s a plan”.

The kids are good; Skinner’s better. She basically plays Madge as a brisk 1940s version of Sue from Outnumbered. Her reaction to the three colonists in the middle of the forest, her subsequent mastery of the platform and, indeed, her ability to completely understand and accept the situation have been criticised as unbelievable by some (this, in a show about talking trees) but again that’s missing the point – which is surely to subvert the traditional inter-generational relationships that companions have endured since 2005. Traditionally (and I use that word loosely, seeing as before the revival the Doctor’s friends didn’t even seem to have tangible families of their own), it’s the companions’ willingness to be open-minded that enables them to become companions, while the reaction of their parents, when the truth is inevitably discovered, ranges from scepticism to worry to downright hostility. Madge doesn’t go into shock at discovering the world inside the blue box, nor is she fazed by the appearance of the Androzani colonists (more on them in a moment), and indeed when she is reunited with her straying children (straying child, I suppose, if you’re going to be picky) her reaction isn’t one of outrage towards the Doctor for dragging Lily and Cyril into danger, as you might have expected from Jackie Tyler. Instead she hugs them and then delivers the funniest line in the episode, when she says “Cyril, what have I told you about opening your presents early? Something like this was bound to happen…”

Wondrous Madge, with a forest in her head.

Indeed, Madge doesn’t just accept the situation into which she’s been thrust – come the final reel, she’s the one who saves the day, through an ability to improvise, keep her head and simply by virtue of being a woman. You might suggest her openness to the alien world stems from a staunch unwillingness to deal with the death of her husband, and the two are neatly (if rather glibly) tied together when Madge is forced to directly confront the fateful moments over the English Channel – available as conveniently recorded footage – in order to fly the ship home. Of course, in doing so she also nips back in time and saves Reg. It’s a sickly sweet moment, necessary perhaps because it’s Christmas, and nice things happen at Christmas, but it’s the episode’s weak spot. (There’s also the fact that the Lancaster bomber sitting on the lawn outside the mansion presumably still contains, come the end of the story, the co-pilot and injured gunner, both of whom are wondering why their commander’s taking such a bally long time to go and get directions.)

Reunions on the lawn.

Elsewhere, we have Bill Bailey, Arabella Weir and Paul Blazely, whose sole purpose in the episode is to be funny. Their enhancement of the narrative is minimal and could easily have been provided by the Doctor himself or some other underling – the establishment of such big names is there only to ensure a big draw, and it’s understandable that people might feel a bit cheated if they expected the episode to revolve around the colonists. They’re there to simply blunder about and make jokes about wool – Dan Martin’s review complains that “we don’t see nearly enough of them”, apparently missing that this was clearly supposed to be a pitbull cameo, and I suppose that you’ll either enjoy the dialogue and love them, or loathe the dialogue and find their inclusion pointless.

The comedy trio. Am I mad, in a coma or in a scene from Halo?

When I emailed Gareth to talk about the episode, he not only loathed the sequence, but also took issue with the fact that the colonists were from Androzani. “It served no purpose,” he said, “and I don’t understand the point of such references – new viewers won’t get it, and surely most fans would find it jarring and irrelevant.  (Maybe a few might go “yay!” at an old-Who shout-out, but why?) I don’t understand how it appeals to fanboys, even though I saw a ‘SQUEEEEEE’ about it earlier.  I would rather see a story involving Androzani Major (or rather ‘hear’, since I expect Big Finish would do it far, far better than Moffat) than have a random mention of its name. What’s the point?  ‘Oh, let’s mention, um, the Voord for no reason.’”

He is basically right, but Moffat does that with annoying regularity: drops in little references to Old Who for the fanboys to spot. I have a feeling that many people are far more tolerant of it than Gareth, and to be fair to Moffat, Davies was doing it years ago by (amongst others) having the Doctor introduce himself as James McCrimmon in ‘Tooth and Claw’. It is, however, symptomatic of the New Who trend of parody and self-reference that even I find annoying at times – the show has become (a la Wes Craven) deliberately self-aware, and perhaps modern audiences need that, but sometimes it just gets in the way of the narrative.

I mentioned earlier that the structure was somewhat uneven, and nowhere was this more apparent than the closing minutes, which felt rather tacked on, and the only part that would have been unfamiliar to a new audience (I had to explain who everyone was to my dinner guests, none of whom have watched the show since Tennant departed). It was sweet to see the Ponds again (and didn’t you, like me, just read that and think “No, it should be the Williamses” before correcting yourself?) but the ending served to tie up loose end that really ought to have waited for the next series. However, one thing the scene did quite well was to keep the mawkishness to a minimum by having the Doctor acknowledge his ‘happy tears’ with a single wipe of an eye, and a smile of cautious, then unbridled joy. Davies would have had Smith actually speak the line, and it would have killed it stone dead. (The same thing happened earlier in the episode with a reference to C.S. Lewis’ Digory Kirke, when Smith lamented “What do they teach you in schools these days?” – which, in the hands of Davies, would have become a repeated gag that lost all sense of worth come its second, third and fourth appearances.) The Doctor had never looked more like a little boy than when he was entering Amy and Rory’s hallway, and Moffat’s comparative restraint ensured that while it was trite, and sentimental, it somehow didn’t matter.

And perhaps you could apply that to the episode as a whole. Because it strikes me that the people complaining about ‘The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe’ are spectacularly deluded as to what exactly the episode set out to achieve, which (and I’m second guessing the writer here, but isn’t that all we ever do?) was surely to provide fun family entertainment on Christmas Day.  It would be nice, as Gareth pointed out to me, to have a special episode of Doctor Who at Christmas, rather than something that was vaguely Who-ish, but I pointed out in turn that Davies’ idea of a special episode of Doctor Who was ‘The End of Time’, which was unparalleled shit.

Happy tears.

I opened this review talking about the Church, and it strikes me that the parallels with Who don’t end with the concessions made by the Christmas episode. The truth is that the established members of the Who fanbase – i.e. the people who watch the show regularly – spend so much time bickering and arguing about it that anyone watching from outside is going to be utterly perplexed by our behaviour. We split into factions and disagree about what’s canon and what isn’t, and what works to us and what doesn’t (and usually that’s just a matter of what we like personally, rather than what’s actually best for the show) that I honestly can’t fathom out how some of us could call ourselves fans. And I will put my hands up here and concede that this probably applies to me as much as anyone else. At the same time, I can’t help thinking that we’re so precious about what the BBC have done (or not done) to ‘our’ programme that we’re unwilling to acknowledge outside influences, different demographics or the simple fact that not every episode of Doctor Who is going to be tailored to you and you alone. So you didn’t like ‘Love and Monsters’? No, neither did I. But my six-year-old son did. I’m also one of the people who enjoyed ‘The Lodger’, even though a great many considered it the low point of series 5 (an accolade I’d much rather award to ‘Victory of the Daleks’). I love Smith, but Tennant and Eccleston both had their moments.

The bottom line is this. On Christmas night I was gathered round the TV in the lounge with five others. One of them was my wife, who is a regular viewer. The others were house guests who, as I think I mentioned earlier, don’t watch the programme. And every one of them enjoyed this episode. Even my mother-in-law, who is sceptical of its cultural value (and not entirely approving of my decision to show episodes to a six-year-old) appeared to have enjoyed it. So I had a roomful of people who’d spent an hour in unfamiliar territory and come away with their appetites sated. Now, look me in the eyes and tell me that’s a bad thing. We can complain about the episode’s narrative inconsistencies and mawkishness until we’re blue in the face, but I think in doing so we’ll miss out on the potential we have to bring it to other people and say “Yes, this was quite good, but have you seen….?”. This isn’t going to work with everyone – I have read comments from people who said “I watched it for the first time tonight and thought it was rubbish” – but the opportunities are still there. We might want it to be a gourmet platter that caters exclusively for our tastes, but Doctor Who at Christmas ought to be, perhaps, like a seasonal cheese selection: fruity, flavoursome, matured and simultaneously fresh, and preferably with something that everybody can enjoy.

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