Dec 25 2011 9:35pm

It’s a Big Universe, Everything Happens Somewhere: Doctor Who: “The Doctor, The Widow & The Wardrobe”

Doctor Who: “The Doctor, The Widow & The Wardrobe”

Doctor Who has a dual and contradictory appeal; do we love it because it’s childish or because it subverts its inherent immaturity and becomes greater than a sum of its cheesy parts? Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” certainly has a fair amount of cheese, though it’s not a children’s story and is instead a story for everybody that children can enjoy, too. To a lesser extent, C.S Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is similar insofar as anyone regardless of age can probably get something out the story, whether it be spectacle or layers of literary intent.

The new Doctor Who Christmas special takes elements of Christmas, C.S Lewis, and itself, but unfortunately chooses the worst parts of each. Because the only way to really get something out of this Who Xmas special is to be a very young child.


The Doctor always seems to have an explosive Christmas, and this year is no different. The story starts out with a bang with what is essentially a non-sequitur teaser. The Doctor is on a large, exploding spaceship in Earth’s orbit and barely escapes with his life. Defying physics and everything we know about space, he jumps into the void chasing a lone empty spacesuit as the title sequence begins. The next we see him, he’s lying in a crater in the spacesuit (an impact suit, specifically, and it’s repairing him from a fall that should have liquefied him) being discovered by a woman named Madge, a nice 1940s British gal who trades jibes with him about his space helmet being on backwards. She helps him find where the TARDIS crash landed and suddenly it’s Three Years Later.

Three Years Later is a bleak place. It’s World War II and we’ve just watched Madge’s husband die in a bomber crash after his instrumentation went out. We’ve also just watched Madge haul her two precocious children, Lily and Cyril, to an estate in the English countryside. An estate that, unbeknownst to Madge, the Doctor has been sprucing up. Shades of C.S. Lewis are apparent here as the Doctor introduces himself as “the caretaker” and proceeds to bounce around the house showing the children all sorts of magical rooms. The sequence brings to mind every “frabulous magical room” scene you can think of, be it from Dr. Seuss books to Mary Poppins to Doctor Who itself. (Regarding the toys coming alive in the recent episode “Night Terrors.”) Madge initially is annoyed, but for whatever reason, relents and the family stays as Madge promises the children they will have the “best Christmas ever.”

Doctor Who: “The Doctor, The Widow & The Wardrobe”

However, Cyril soon discovers a present near the Christmas tree which transports him into a very Narnia-like forest. And like Lucy, his counterpart in C.S Lewis, Cyril goes forward into the strange world inside-of-a-box for seemingly no reason. The Doctor and Lily also figure out Cyril is missing and enter the forest world. The Doctor tells Lily that the box has actually acted as a dimensional door to another planet, one the Doctor is familiar with. Lily asks “is this Fairlyland?” And in what is one of the better jokes of the episode the Doctor replies, “Fairyland! Grow up! Fairyland looks totally different than this.”

Madge has also entered the forest-world and is immediately confronted by a group of people clad in Halo-style spacesuits who reveal themselves to be from Androzani Major. (This is of course a reference to the same planetary system where the 5tyh Doctor met his end in “The Caves of Androzani.”) And like in that episode, it appears the production of an important element in the Androzani system is central to what these future-humans are doing in the forest. The Doctor tells us the Androzani trees are source of important fuel in the future and as such, the Halo-spacesuit people (seriously, we never get a name for them) are planning on burning down the forest to convert the trees into some sort of raw material they can use. But the trees are alive! (Er, more so than, um, usual.)

Doctor Who: “The Doctor, The Widow & The Wardrobe”

The Doctor, Cyril, and Lily all discover a kind of hierarchy in which the trees are controlled by a “Queen-tree.” Inexplicably, the “escape plan” the intelligent trees have devised involves putting their entire existence inside the mind of a human, specifically a woman, a mother figure. At this point Madge has commandeered the evil tree-destroying ship from the Androzani people and finds the Doctor and her children just in time. With the aid of a weird crown/mind-link she takes the entirety of the forest into her brain, and then flies the escape craft through the time vortex. During this time, though it’s not revealed until the end, she manages to save her husband from dying in his plane crash. Everyone is happy. It’s Christmas!

The episode ends with Madge chiding the Doctor for convincing his friends he is dead and encourages him to tell them immediately. We’re then treated to an epiloque in which the Doctor visits Amy and Rory on Christmas. They reveal that River already told them he wasn’t dead, and the Doctor cries, Rory breakdances (we wish!), and it’s all actually genuinely touching.

Doctor Who: “The Doctor, The Widow & The Wardrobe”

Which is something that the rest of the episode never managed to quite pull off.

This comes off as a bit of a tired effort. Everything felt phoned-in and generic and despite a few well-placed jokes and nice references to other eras of Doctor Who, nothing was really all that great. The first 3rd of the actual episode seems to mostly be about showing off how zany and confusing the Doctor is to ordinary people, a conceit which we’ve seen before. This isn’t to say this kind of behavior can’t carry an episode, because it has before in “The Lodger” or “Night Terrors.” But, because none of the other characters feel remotely real and the stakes of the story aren’t made clear to us, all of the “funny Doctor” stuff comes across as a caricature of itself.

The “fairyland looks totally different” joke works because it’s classic Doctor, but also funny out of context. Similarly the line “it’s a big universe, everything happens somewhere” is also nice and a reminder of the sense of universal wonder that makes Doctor Who so charming. But the rest of what we’re given is essentially the worst kind of Hallmark card. A very generic British family from WWII gets reunited through the power of love all while saving an outer space forest from evil outer space acid rain.

It would be nice to accuse the episode of being heavy-handed with some kind of ecological message about Christmas trees, but the Doctor is not exactly the space-Lorax, and the conflict with the trees dying is so confusing and briefly addressed that the viewer isn’t given time to get upset about anything. In last year’s Christmas special, the stakes were clear: the Doctor needed to reform a certain person’s character or his closest friends would die. This year, um…a little kid is lost in forest that is inside of a present in the living room? How did the present get there? We’re never told.

Doctor Who: “The Doctor, The Widow & The Wardrobe”

However, if you were a child around the same age of Cyril, this episode was most likely a tour de force. Presents that lead to other worlds, journeys that end with you becoming king, your mum tromping a huge robot through the woods... This episode very strongly reflects the imagination of a child. The notion that a child’s present on Christmas day holds an entire world of adventure is a positive one. It also compliments nicely the notion of the wardrobe that leads to Narnia, or the phone box that leads to, well, the Doctor. All of this, in a sense, can be seen as metaphors for books: an entire world of adventure awaits you if you just open the cover.

The best scene in the episode easily comes at the end when the Doctor goes and visits Amy and Rory. After jumping around the snow with stock storybook characters and aliens who borrowed their voice from the robots in “The Girl in the Fireplace,” it was nice to see truly human, genuine characters we care about. Karen Gillan’s less-than-five minutes of screen time were better acted and more interesting than anything else in the whole Christmas special. I could have easily watched 45 minutes of Amy, Rory, and the Doctor just having Christmas dinner and bickering about time travel ethics.

Doctor Who: “The Doctor, The Widow & The Wardrobe”

Our current incarnation of the Doctor seems to be the one most tailor-made for children, but his development as a character seems to have vanished. Instead of being central to the action, the Doctor here only seems to be present on the edges, popping in to make a joke or offer a solution, then popping back out again. Sometimes that can work, but what’s made Who so great in the past is its ability to relate to a wide spectrum of viewers.

Both the original Dickens and Who “Christmas Carols” had something in it for both children and adults. But this year’s episode, minus the epilogue, felt very much like a kids-only story.

Unfortunately that leaves adult fans, like Amy and Rory, feeling a little left out this Christmas.

Ryan Britt is the staff writer of

Chris Lough is the production manager of

1. DoctorFU
Uhhhh. I'm an adult and I was moved to tears by this Doctor Who Christmas special, as well as the previous one. Does that make me a child and/or some kind of moron? I think not. It makes you a typical, loathsome, contrarian reviewer. Merry Christmas!
Ryan Britt
2. ryancbritt
@1 I'm glad you liked the whole Christmas Special. I only liked parts of it, which is a bummer for me, because I like Doctor Who. But the parts I did like, I made a point of mentioning above. Thanks for reading the review. I assure you I am not loathsome. :-) (Nor typical! Though I will cop to being contrarian!)
I really liked last year's special too.
3. Rhodesy
nah, I gotta go with DoctorFU's theory that you're being so hypercritical of a sweet little story because perhaps you feel as a reviewer you must be contrarian. Let go of the cynicism and perhaps you'll find an enjoyable experience instead. Phoned in? baloney.
4. AlBrown
Dear Reviewers,
I think, perhaps, that you need a visit from the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future, so you can put this 'bah humbug' attitude behind you. The special was fine, lots of fun, and the little meeting with Amy and Rory was just a nice little bit of lagniappe on top of an already satisfying affair. Like others above, this is one more adult who though the special was just fine as it was.
Merry Christmas!
Ryan Britt
5. ryancbritt
@3 and 4
Fair points all! Though I suppose I did have a visit from the Doctor Who x-mas special last year and it was much better than this one! Hypercrtical? Not sure. Critical. You bet. :-)
6. Zenspinner
Aww, I loved this one! I thought it was worlds better than the last one. And that one with the Titanic and the stupid angels. I was just thinking that they were starting to get good again.
Ashe Armstrong
7. AsheSaoirse
While I agree with certain points, I do think maybe you were a tad rough on the episode. Though, there were a few points in particular that kind of yanked me out of things for a moment. The first being the "eggs." Clearly, we only needed one...and yet we see more. Bit odd, especially when the trees start sending their lifeforce out. The second was the wasted use of Bill Bailey. I mean, really. That's all we get out of him? I felt a bit cheated after the DW facebook page making a big to-do about Mr. Bailey's appearance. The third the hell did the TREES jump into the Time Vortex? Is there a rule for that I don't know about in the old series? The whole strong/weak point I picked up immediately but that worked and didn't bother me much. Overall, it was a decent story and fun and definitely a family romp.

The epilogue though...that was genius. And it provided a nice counter to the Doctor's behavior for the episode. All manic and making with the whimsy and all that and then...and then crying with happiness. It honestly made me wonder why the Doctor doesn't gather up his past companions together for Christmas each year in the TARDIS. Don't tell me there isn't some sort of dining room or party room or something in there (or that one couldn't be generated). Ah well.
Ursula L
8. Ursula
How did the present get there? We’re never told.

Sure we're told, although not directly. When the Doctor and Lily enter the box and the forrest, he tells her about it being an interdimensional something-or-other. When the ornaments grow on the tree, he comments how it was supposed to be a brilliant Christmas trip.

But Cyril entered the box early - so they wound up in the forrest at a different time when the Doctor planned.

The box was wired to the TARDIS - that's why the Doctor was rewiring his "wardrobe" when Lily found him.

And the TARDIS made the box flash, luring Cyril when it did.

The Doctor wanted to go to the forrest at a nice, safe time to give the kids a wonderful Christmas trip. The TARDIS took them there when they needed to go, both to save the forrest and save their father.

Because the Old Girl always takes the Doctor where and when he needs to go.
nat ward
9. smonkey
Ryan and Chris,

I'm with you on this one.
Boring, phoned in and more mother issues from Moffat.
You watch this one, the one with the ww2 kids with gas mask faces back to back and you'd think Moffat was abandoned by his mother and forced to fend for himself in the Blitz.
(not to mention the whole Amy as Mother plotline that dominated the whole bloodly season.)
Lyle Caldwell
10. Tower_of_Ganja
Ryan and Chris,

Spot on. Especially in comparison to last year's Carol this episode falls flat. You hit the major points, no need for me to rehash.

In Moffat's defense, he has created a really difficult job for himself - he's a very clever man who is writing for two characters who are supposed to be beyond genius: The Doctor and Sherlock Holmes. And as the fans of these shows tend to be on the brainy side, the bar is very very high. So, well, I'm sorry, so very sorry, but occasionally the episodes don't rise to the occasion.

So be it. Overall both modern Who and Sherlock are excellent, more than occasionally outstanding, and rarely miss the mark completely (this episode and the black spot garbage being examples).

Moffat's a great writer and show runner, but this one wasn't very good.
Lyle Caldwell
11. Tower_of_Ganja
And if Moffat reads this, we need more episodes with Amy in the police girl outfit. Thank you.
12. omega_n
I think I fall somewhere between the OP and "Sure, it was cute." I liked the epilogue; I really liked "humany wumany." Moffat has clever one-liners down to an art.

But. Moffat needs to take some serious lessons in writing plots for his lively female characters. Can characters who are mothers please have a motivation/source of strength/plotline besides "PROTECT MY BABIES RAWR!!"? Because I like Amy, and River, and Madge for that matter. I just hate the stories Moffat sticks them in.

Also: following a woman home from her work every day and telling her you won't stop unless she marries you is not sweet and romantic. It's coercive and rapey. This is the second time Moffat's used that ("Blink"), and I might well be forgetting other times.

I agree, as well, on the total waste of Bill Bailey.
Iain Cupples
13. NumberNone
Yeah, I'm going to have to defend Ryan and Chris here also. Their review here is fair. In fact I'd suggest it's a little generous, if anything. 'Phoned-in' is one term for the writing: 'by-the-numbers' would be a kinder one, maybe, but either is accurate. There was a definite sense of just hitting the usual notes without much real thought, for at least half of the episode.

It's also true to say that Bill Bailey and his two companions were wasted, that the whole 'women-are-strong-because-they-carry-life, isn't-that-jolly-amazing' theme came off somewhat ham-fisted and a bit patronising, and that there was no actual tension to be found. After all, contra the review, we didn't see the father die in a bomber crash: he just went missing, after which everyone seems to have instantly assumed he was dead. (Along with his crew, who weirdly don't even get a background shot, let alone a mention, at the end. Not even the badly wounded one. Did he die? Who cares, Alexander Armstong got to play with his kids on Christmas day!)

Seem to have digressed a bit... anyway, the point was that I felt no tension about the fate of the father. Even if you thought he was dead, the narrative isn't constructed to make this situation tense. Nor is there any real tension about the fate of the children, the Doctor, or the mother. So it was kind of hard to get drawn in, particularly as the character in most 'peril' was Cyril, who was horribly underdeveloped. (A huge pair of glasses and an interest in astronomy do not constitute a character.)

On the plus side, there were some very cool visuals, some decent performances and one or two clever lines. The quality of the production was fine - but the quality of the writing was not.
F Shelley
14. FSS
Count me in with the more negative reviewers. I really loved Season 5, but Season 6 fell flat for me, and this special did, too. Who knew the Doctor can apparently survive minutes of vacuum, even breast-stroking in space (was Gallifrey in the orbit right next to Krypton)? I really didn't feel like anyone was in danger, just as I really didn't feel the Doctor was in danger the whole season.

Now the noises coming out of Camp Who are that Amy and Rory's time with the Doctor will meet a tragic end. Whatever. As if anything could be worse than having your daughter taken away right after birth and raised by psychos. I know, I know, they seem to be all familial by the end of the Season. I'm a father of 2 girls. No, that wouldn't make it right. And given that Moffat lies, it makes this the most unlikely scenario out there.

One final complaint about Season 6 and Moffat - it is NOT clever, at all, to show a scene where the viewer sees an interaction that lasts, oh, 10 seconds, then have a "reveal" later where there is an additional 10-30 seconds of dialouge/action.

At any rate, it is always good to get a Christmas helping of Who. It also seems that BBCA didn't cut the episode or speed it up (it lasted an hour and 20 minutes per my DVR's information on the episode), so hooray for BBCA. I've heard we have a long wait until Season 7 kicks off. Here's to hoping it makes me forget about Season 6 and reminds us all about what is so awesome about our time traveling Doctor!
15. Dr. Thanatos
Once again, the critic's job is to analyze and opine. I agree with their analysis if I don't agree with their opine-ation. I rather enjoyed the episode, although I am the first to admit I don't watch Dr. Who to see Shakespeare .

One disappointment for me: we were this close to my bucket-list scene:

Dr. and River Who sitting down to Christmas dinner with the in-laws and the kids (The and Jenny Master) and little Susan gets to carve the roast beast...
16. Christopher Sait
Didn't the Doctor at one point mention how a tree fancied him at one point? Am I right in thinking that he's talking about the tree-queen-woman-thing from the second episode of the modern show where they go to see Earth die on that space station?
Del C
17. del
Madge, a nice 1940s British gal

1930s. Only Americans have a 1940s with WW2 in the future.

Why are Cyril and Lily unchanged after three years?
Ursula L
18. Ursula
I enjoyed this episode, but I thought it was problematic. And I think this review really missed the way in which this episode failed.

Sadly, it's a good story weakened by the touch of the misogyny fairy. And weakened ia way that is too common in Moffats writing, which writes men and the Doctor as human, but women tending to be superhuman in ways that grow from the ways in which institutionallized misogyny in society stereotypes women, and particularly mothers, as needing to live up to the role of "supermom."

The sad thing is, with the "mum as superhero" Moffat touched on something interesting, but missed the most fascinating aspect.

To a young child, a parent, particularly a good and loving parent, is something between superhero and god. The parent is the one who provides daily bread, whose forgiveness is wanted and needed when you've done wrong, who has the power to do things that a child can't begin to imagine doing on their own (driving the car, using the stove, etc.) and who works in mysterious but necessary ways.

And the story certainly played with that idea.

"Night Terrors" worked with this idea as well. But while the Doctor started out seeing the solution as the child facing and overcoming his fears, the resolution came simply by the parent being an ordinary, good parent who rushes to comfort their frightened child.

But the episode dropped the ball here, because it lost sight of the fact that parents who seem like superheros and gods to the children they care for are still ordinary people.

The idea of parents, and mothers in particular, being superheroes, is problematic in society. It places a huge amount of unrealistic expectations and demands on mothers, to be that "supermom" who can care for the children, run the house, have a full time job and still make the effort to look fabulous. It pressures mothers to neglect caring for themselves in order to try to live up to impossible expectations in how they care for others -- and then to fail at reasonable expectations of how they might care for others, because they're worn to exhaustion.

This could have been a fascinating episode that explored the mother's situation and the family dynamic. Yes, she wants to protect her kids from having Christmas ruined, and is dreading telling them that their father is gone. But there is much more going on with her than that. She's just lost her husband, and she's got to deal with that for herself. She's got financial concerns - how will she support her family, particularly in a society that still limited women's opportunities as much as it did in the 1940s, even with the expanded options from war work? What about her in-laws, who have lost a relative as well? What about her family, her parents and siblings, who might be a source of support? What about the difference between the older daughter and younger son, with the daughter at an age much more able to understand what is happening than the son?

Instead of seeing children who naturally see their mother as "superhero" and an ordinary mother trying to do right by them, we saw children seeing their mother as "superhero" and the mother actually functioning as a "superhero."

Which is actually a less interesting story.
Teresa Jusino
19. TeresaJusino
Ursula @18 - Yours is the first thing I've read that has made me reconsider - though not get rid of entirely - how much I love this episode.

First, allow me to say that I love this Christmas special MUCH more than "A Christmas Carol." It felt more "Christmassy" to me, for some reason. I think it's because of the children. It's funny that the reviewers say that you can't get something out of this unless you're a small child, when the reason why Doctor Who works so well is BECAUSE it's a show children can watch. Children feel like they are taken seriously, and adults can remember how much smarter and braver children are than they are! It's that appeal that makes the show work, and a lot of the problems people had with the previous season have to do with Moffat's writing being more interested in the puzzle-box of his own plots than in the child-like emotions that are universal to all of us and that the Doctor deals with so well.

Also, flying Sharks are cool, but carrying a whole forest inside you? Much cooler.

However, Ursula, I disagree overall with your assessment. The fact that she HAD to deal with her husband's death in order to save the trees, rather than keep a "stiff upper lip" for the children until after Christmas was Moffat's way of allowing her to deal with herself. She was a superhero not because she held her feelings in, but because she let them out and dealth with them. She functioned as a "superhero" because she let herself deal with herself rather than JUST as a mother. That was the key to the whole thing. The whole episode she's worrying more about her children than herself, but it takes her dealing with her own grief head-on to get them where they need to be.
Teresa Jusino
20. TeresaJusino
Christopher Sait @16 - YES! I noticed that, too. That's definitely what he's talking about, and I loved the reference. :)
Ursula L
21. Ursula
Teresa, my thought on the mother dealing with her feelings to save the trees and her husband, was that it seemed to very much tap into the "supermom" phenomanon. Because she's a woman and a mother, her emotions are shown as extraordinarily powerful, and powerful in a way that is a power to serve others.

Madge is special because she's a woman and a mother, not because she's Madge.


You also saw, again, Moffat writing a couple where the relationship began when the guy is following the girl around, and keeps on following her, even when she asks him to stop. And this is presented as romantic, rather than potentially stalkerish. (This happened to the young woman who was sent back to the 1920s in "Blink.")


And this is coming after a two-season arc which was about Amy - but which ended with her husband being tossed keys to a house for them and for his favorite car. While she's told, by the Doctor, that she'll find her adventure from now on in domesticity, in the home her husband was just given the keys to.

I doubt Madge's definition as wife and mother would bug me as much if we hadn't just seen Amy defined to wife and mother, in a way that really didn't take into her choices or her nature.
22. Janice99
NumberNone's point about the two other men on the plane bothered me too. We are never told what happened to them. The pilot flew the plane and it landed apparently undamaged. So is his co-pilot still inside sitting with a dying crewman while Daddy parties with the wife and kids? Or did they fall into the ocean? Or what? Sloppy, sloppy, sloppy.

And we won't even talk about surviving prolonged exposure to vacuum.

The whole thing had a deal of faux wonder & awe but no real bones to it. The final scenes with Rory and Amy are the only part worth watching again.
Jordan Wright
23. Anthropocene
I think the last two Christmas specials have been utter nonsense. Even if the feel of this episode was supposed to be about 'whimsy' then it shouldn’t make it SO ridiculous that it pulls you out of the story line. First, starting out the episode by the Doctor falling through space without a suit detracts too much (imho) from the intelligent audience that most likely winced in unison by the thought of it. FSS @14 seriously is this krypton!? Why not just have him put the suit on before he fell out of the ship? Second, the children not aging after a 3 year time period was a major oversight. For a show that deals with time travel I spent the better part of the next 15 minutes waiting for an explanation why they didn’t age. Third, what about the trees? Christopher Sait @ 16 Yes the reference to having a crush on Jabe, a tree of Cheem. And you would think for a guy who understands trees so well he wouldn’t just let an entire forest be burned to the ground by acid rain! So much for that beautiful x-mas world…

Of course the other things that people are griping about here didn't seem to bother me so much- like where the present came from...? what happened to the other passengers on the plane...? why the trees made ornament(s) when they only needed one...? how did they all get flashlights so easily...? kidding...

Last year’s episode was detracted by the fact he kept going back on the same timeline- over and over- something I think everyone mentioned is a major no-no for a key premise of the show. Not the first paradox in doctor who, but certainly detracting from investing oneself fully to the episode.

All in all, cute story this year. The Halo space suit was a ‘cute’ crash landing, @ Ryan I like how you referenced it as the suit Bill Bailey was wearing (different suits) which is a nice homage to the ‘space suit’ that was the plot device for the last season…

Doctor Who definitely needs a reboot, can’t wait for a new season.
Ursula L
24. Ursula
the children not aging after a 3 year time period was a major oversight. For a show that deals with time travel I spent the better part of the next 15 minutes waiting for an explanation why they didn’t age.

I just took that as a necessary side effect of how filming an episode works. They can't film the first scene and then wait three years to film the second scene. So they can either try to find slightly younger actors to play the single scene, and hope they look close enough to pass as the same children, or they can use the same actors but try to indicate the passage of time by changes in hair, clothing, etc.

Overall, I think the same actors with different styling is the better choice, as they are identifiably the same person. If they'd used different actors, half the audience would be wondering where the other children were.

You've got to suspend disbelief one way or the other, based either on a lack of change in apparent age or different actors for the same character. I find using the same actors with different clothes/makeup/style to be easier to follow.

It's the same thing with Amy and Rory at the end. It has been two years for the characters, but mere weeks or months for the actors. So we see differences in clothing, makeup, style, etc. between the Ponds when they were traveling with the Doctor and the Ponds at this Christmas. No, they don't look a few years older, but they look like the same people, slightly different.
Iain Cupples
25. NumberNone
@21 Ursula:
Madge is special because she's a woman and a mother, not because she's Madge.

Yes, this about sums up why the episode is problematic to me.

You also saw, again, Moffat writing a couple where the relationship began when the guy is following the girl around, and keeps on following her, even when she asks him to stop.

Were we actually told that she asked him to stop? My memory's not the best, but I don't think this was explicitly said. Still, it was a rather creepy note.
26. Raskolnikov
Ah, finally a Tor review of Dr Who that hits the spot. Not to be too critical overall, Doctor Who has produced a lot of great and good episodes, but this latest was extremely weak. It kind of fails as a heartfealt story about loss when nothing is actually lost (except the other people on that plane, apparently, they seemed to vanish when the plane was moved. Sucks to be them!). And pretty much everything else about the plot and characterization was beyond contempt. I've soured on Amy as a Companion and the whole hiding-my-survival motif, but the ending scene was fairly nice.
27. Lesley A
I thought the "following Madge home" thing was more a chap too shy to ask her out properly than creepy and stalker-y, myself - kind of the lost puppy following her home.

A Lancaster bomber had a crew of 7. When the tree capsule crashlanded, everyone inside was knocked unconscious, and we don't know for how long they were out of it. The Lancaster, however, landed safely, so the crew were not unconscious. I kind of assumed that the pilot sorted his crew out and sent them back to base, and then waited with the plane (which wouldn't be able to take off again until a ground crew had repaired it).
Ursula L
28. Ursula
Were we actually told that she asked him to stop? My memory's not the best, but I don't think this was explicitly said. Still, it was a rather creepy note.

Madge's exact description, as she was flying the tree-spaceship, was:

"He followed me home. I used to work in a dairy, he kept following me home. He said he'd keep on following me home 'til I married him. Didn't like to make a scene."

Which has all sorts of layers of creepy, while being presented as romantic. He's shown following her home, and they're alone in the woods - she's vulnerable, no one is around to hear if she calls for help. He indicates he's going to persist in this. And she, like many women, has been socialized not to "make a scene" - but if she had wanted to stop him, there is no way to do so except by "making a scene."


I also find it interesting that the father is shown as a bomber pilot. Particularly in contrast to that other Moffat WWII story, The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances. He's off doing to other children, in other cities, what we saw from a child's-eye perspective in that story. Thinking about these two stories, back to back, happening at nearly the same time, is odd.
Ryan Britt
29. ryancbritt
@28 Ursula
If you're interested in checking out how many other SFF characters and Doctors are hanging out in WWII, check out this article we did a while back:
Evan Langlinais
30. Skwid I the only person who saw the above-the-line picture and thought "Moffat just goatse'd us!"
Ursula L
31. Ursula
Ryan, I remember that thread. It's the specific mirroring between the two Moffat stories that I find interesting - the same type of violence, shown from opposite sides. In one story, the bomb-targets are the protaganists, in the other side, the bomber pilot and his family.
32. aetherical
Ok.... for all those who question the bit of him going into space without a suit, it's canon that Time Lords can withstand the vacuum of space for an extended period, though they can only hold their breath for so long....

I thought it was a wonderful episode, and my 7 year old asked me why I had tears.....
Cait Glasson
33. CaitieCat
I thought it was okay, but I'm with Ursula on Moffatt's ongoing problem with writing women characters who are something to the story other than "stuff the real people - i.e., those with penes - get to react to and do stuff to, so that we (the real people) get a story".

As to the timeline, the newspaper Dad's reading at the beginning of the show referred to Germany starting mobilization, which puts the beginning of the show in late 1938, and the second part at Christmas of 1941.
Ursula L
34. Ursula
The entire family seemed to have odd characterization - archetypes rather than individuals. They're very much defined by their relationships with each other.

The Doctor also sees them that way - Madge gets the boring grownup bedroom, without consideration of things that might make the space special for her, and the kids get a child's wonderland bedroom to share, but it's packed with cool stuff rather than items selected to appeal to them specifically.

I can't really think of anything that really defines or motivates any of them as individuals.
Ron Hogan
35. RonHogan
"we won't even talk about surviving prolonged exposure to vacuum."

In one of the early Season 5 episodes, they establish that the TARDIS creates a buffer zone around itself that enables its occupants to go out into the vacuum of space? Granted, the implication in that episode was that the buffer zone doesn't extend VERY far outside the TARDIS, but in for a penny, in for a pound, I suppose.
Sam Weber
36. Slither
Count me in on the "hated it" bench.

First, the parts I liked: I liked the ending, with the Amy/Doctor reunion. I also liked the scene right at the start which contrasted the Doctor's enthusiastic craziness to Madge explaining that she is being cross with the children because her husband is dead and she hasn't told the children yet. Both scenes had real people in them, with real emotions.

But the rest was dreck. (Disclaimer: just introduced me to the Plinkett movie reviews, which I've just watched, so pardon me if their subtlety, tact and gentility influences my writing style.)

First, there was the stupidity. First, the trees are being converted to fuel by having acid dumped on them. Right. So, are they going to then use giant mops to soak up the disolved trees? How is this supposed to work? Is it all just a set up for the "The rain outside is frightful" joke? And then there is the building turning into a rocket and blasts off into "the" time vortex. What time vortex? There was no time vortex moments ago, just a box! And why do they want to go into this vortex anyway? Why not have the rocket land them back at the box, so they can go home? Of course, then there would be no deus ex machina saving of the husband. And, if Madge was all that concerned about finding her kids, then why wasn't she calling for them, instead of silently tromping through the forest? And what, exactly, did having the tree souls enter Madge accomplish? They left her after their rocket crashlanded, so she didn't seem to need to do anything. Did they just need to Madge to reach a high-enough altitude, or what? And, why didn't the inept-military people think to check out that strange building that was just a few hundred yards away? (After all, a little boy sauntering through the woods couldn't have gone very far.)

And, then there was the sexism. Why, exactly, do trees care about the gender of humanoids? If the only way to save the souls of everyone in a major city was to put them inside a tree, do you think it would matter whether or not the tree was a conifer? But, no, apparently the entire universe agrees that mothers (only) are "strong". (What do you think would have been the audience reaction if in the episode a man was called "strong", a boy "strong but young", and both the girl and the woman called "weak"? Why is it okay to do the opposite?) The most coherent message of the whole story seems to be "Mothers are super-heroes", stated in the most ham-fisted, but condescending fashion. Madge's behaviour seems to be, at best, irrational -- pulling a gun on the friendly idiots she meets before even asking them for help and then, having reached the tower, wasting time joking and running up a long staircase without having any clue about how to get everyone back home before they are all dissolved by acid. Is the message supposed to be that mothers become overwealmed with uncontrollable emotion when they don't know where their children are?

And, finally, there is the story-telling. Who, exactly, is the protagonist supposed to be? Certainly not the kids: the boy seemed either clueless or hypnotized for most of the entire plot, while the girl didn't do much at all. Not the doctor: he seemed to do little more than explain the plot to all the other characters. The mother? But she was off-screen most of the time, and her only accomplishment was to get to the tower. She didn't decide to rescue the forest, but was hypnotized into putting on the circlet-thing and was asleep when the tree-souls departed. She only accidently saved her husband. In fact, her personal growth -- coming to accept her husband's death -- was undercut by the fact that her husband was not dead, which makes her story-arc rather pointless. What kind of story construction is this?

And the sad fact is that the contrast between the majority of the episode with the bits at the beginning and the end which DID have characterization and emotion just emphasized the pointlessness of the whole thing. *growl*
Ryan Britt
37. ryancbritt
@31 It's a solid perspective Ursula, and one I hadn't really considered.
38. a-j
Enjoyed it myself. Not as good as last year's A Christmas Carol but still fun and Christmassy.
Point of information: it was established in Peter Davison's second story (Four to Doomsday) that time lords can survive in a vacuum for a short period though it is a reach to expect Nu Who viewers to know that (like Joshua I am old and stricken in years and have been watching Who since Pertwee).
Agree that Moffat is not brilliant in his portrayal of women, this can be seen in his pre-Who series Jekyll and I also worried about the stalkerish behaviour of the father and the lack of follow-up about the rest of the Lancaster bomber crew.
Note to non-UK readers: I suspect that Alexander Armstrong was a bit of stunt casting as he is well known here for a series of sketches where he plays a wartime RAF pilot who speaks in contemporary juvenile 'street' language.
39. Lesley A
Slither was talking about pouring acid rain on the trees, and how this doesn't make sense.
When potatoes are harvested conventionally, they are first sprayed with sulphuric acid, which makes the green tops die down quickly. I discovered this when signs went up along a local public footpath warning walkers not to bring their dogs into that field for 48 hours after spraying because the dogs were likely to burn their paws on the acid soaked ground.
So the acid rain didn't seem too much of an oddity to me.
40. AlBrown
I'm not sure the bomber crew was exposed to a vacuum. I don't think we know enough about time vortexes to know whether or not they have an atmosphere inside of them.
Like much science fiction, Doctor Who has a fair amount of plot-driven natural laws, in other words, things work the way they do (such as FTL drive) because it makes for a better story.
"Good God, Doctor, how can that be possible?"
"Well, in this case, the plot kind of needs it to work that way. What part of timey wimey wibbley wobbly don't you understand?"
Jordan Wright
41. Anthropocene
Well this humany wumany thought it was barfey garbagey.
Alain Fournier
42. afournier
I have to admit I was dissapointed with this episode. From the letters I have to curse my DVR for cutting off the episode before the Amy and Rory scenes. My issues with it are laid out in a more articulate manner in previous letters so I won't reiterate them. One thing that wasn't mentioned and I don't know if its a function of the fact that I did not care for the episode but the Dr seemed a bit dickish to me especially to Lily.
43. Kevbayer
Loved it. Fun, silly, and highly illogical, improbable, and impossible at times requiring loads of suspension of disbelief - but an all around good time with some tear-jerker moments.
Dave Bell
44. DaveBell
The episode cannot have happened earlier than Christmas 1942, since the bomber was a Lancaster. (They used NX611 "Just Jane" at the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre)
Ursula L
45. Ursula
The details of when the main part of the episode took place are tricky.

1. The Doctor initially crashes at Christmastime in 1938 - from the newspaper, we know that the war hasn't started yet, but they anticipate war.

2. The bulk of the episode happens "three years later." That would be Christmas of 1941.

3. The details of the bombing don't fit that timeline. As mentioned above, the type of bomber is wrong. In addition, the air operations by the British in December of 1941 don't fit having them fly back over the English channel at night and having the plane go missing on 20 Dec.

I expect that the details were deliberately fictionalized. It would be a problem if someone were to call and ask about why they were glorifying the bombers who killed 6-year-old Great-Aunt Inga, if they chose a real-life air raid from later in the war, to fit their choice of planes.
Kathy Routliffe
46. kaffyr1
After last year's special, which I hated with a great, noble, and abiding passion, this year's was a glorious revelation. (It may be the first one I've liked unreservedly since The Runaway Bride - and since I initially was uncomfortable with Donna, this one probably tops that.)

Moffat does indeed have difficulties and tics when writing women, but he wants to get it right, and I appreciate that, as clumsy and slow at change as he might be whilst trying. Madge impressed me as a three-dimensional person - I was impressed by her complete and practical acceptance of the wonderful and undworldly before I was touched by her love for her kids.

And I adore Moffat's strengths; he doesn't look down and patronize children, and the children he writes feel real to me because of that. He is a fairy-tale writer, rather than an SF or fantasy writer, and when I look at his stories with the internal fairy-tale logic of The Goose Girl, Thumbelina, or Puss in Boots everything works perfectly.

I think a long-lived franchise like Doctor Who can afford to spend some time as fairy-tale, before evolving into something else, which it will inevitably do as showrunners and other things change.
47. Crzytxgirl23
Although I understand the different points of view on this subject there was a certain element that no one has discussed up to this point. During the show he saw Lucy crying as she saw the beauty of the trees. He said something like "Crying when you are happy, that is such a human thing to do." And then when he saw Amy and Rory and realized that his family didn't hate him for lying to them about his death and instead have been waiting for his return every year by placing a spot for him at the table he did what humans do and cried. In that moment it surprised him and maybe made him realize how human-like he is becoming. He has always loved humans for their way of handling things and always rejoiced when the did something he considered to be something so us. And yet he always told them that what they did was human-like meaning he wouldn't or couldn't be like that. He has always tried to space himself from certain emotions in a sense believing that as a Timelord he was either above or seperate from what we humans do but also appreciating what makes us us. In that moment we got to see that The Doctor is becoming partly human as he has become a part of us.
48. Seryddwr
I'm sitting on the fence with this one. It all went rather slack in the middle, and too many plot points were introduced and then left dangling at the end. Bill Bailey and the criminally underrated Arabella Weir got a bare three minutes of screen time and a couple of jokes, and then an unsightly elbowing off stage. In short, I've seen better. Nice ending, though.
49. Novashannon
The big gift box was a present from the Doctor. He did not introduce himself as "the Caretaker;" that is an assumption made by Madge and assimilated by the Doctor.
As a mother myself, I thought the whole encounter between Madge and the tree-killlers was great. When Madge produced her gun, and the leader of the tree-killers said that he didn't think she would use it, and she replied, "I'm looking for my children!" That was wonderful. That is such a mother thing. (Someting oddly lacking in Amy Pond). I am so glad they did not cloober us with a forced ecology message. I also thought that Madge being a stronger vessal (in this case) than the Doctor or young children was good and made sense. Women carry life.

I found the episode whimsical and enchanting, and I am considerably older than a child!
50. c3
tailor made for children.. and this is bad
m. christmas ...
51. don3comp
This is by far my favorite of the Christmas episodes. The Christmas episodes have never been quite as substantial as those in the regular seasons, but this one imaginatively used "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe" as a point of departure to create an engaging world. I also found the Widow's (and the Doctor's) efforts to give her children a merry Christmas in spite of the loss very moving, and I liked the fact that her actions saved her husband's life.

For me, some of the episodes in the last season were a bit too esoteric. "Doctor Who" works best when the plots are a bit simpler, and most important, have heart (a la "Vincent and the Doctor.")

In sum, put me in the "loved it" camp.
52. WeepingAngel5
Karen Gillan’s less-than-five minutes of screen time were better acted
and more interesting than anything else in the whole Christmas special., ok.

This is easily my favourite Christmas special. I didn't miss Rory or Amy at all. I loved Madge and I hope to see her back. Claire Skinner was brilliant.
53. Morhek
Dear people of the past.

How could you be so very wrong? This episode was the most over-wrought patronising load the show's ever produced, and this coming from a series that produced Fear Her with a spaceship fuelled by love. Christmas special or not, reviewers exist to be critical, to highlight the good and the bad - nothing gets a free pass. If you enjoyed it, fair enough, taste is subjective. But no way was this in any way a good episode, and next to such episodes as A Christmas Carol and The Runaway Bride, it was a shadow of what it should have been.

Sincerely, the year 2014.

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