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.”
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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 Tor.com.
Chris Lough is the production manager of Tor.com.