It’s been, amongst other things, a disaster movie, and A Christmas Carol, but despite the title this is only superficially a visit to Narnia. We’re not faffing about with Christian analogies and talking lions, we’re dealing with the big stuff; plundering the depths of the human heart, relearning that the price of love is grief and being reminded why we love and treasure our mums.
The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardobe is classic Steven Moffat, funny, inventive, shot through with razor-sharp observations and guaranteed to make you feel very ‘humany-wumany’.
I love that this man starts an episode with the Doctor at the explosive end of an unrelated and unexplained adventure (though there is a prequel which gives you a little context and is incredibly poignant). It’s ludicrous to show the Doctor falling towards the Earth in pursuit of a spacesuit and then cut to the titles – but it’s perfect too.
Madge Arwell (Claire Skinner) is easy to like. She’s brave and kind, intelligent and sensible, practical and not phased by an injured spaceman-angel who seems to have fallen to Earth and needs help finding a police telephone box.
I don’t know whether the scene where we first meet the rest of the Arwell family was meant to be a nod to Outnumbered, but it’s the only time you might mistake Madge for Sue Brockman. And I love the gag where she explains in detail why she’s going out to her son Cyril (in the best glasses ever) so he can tell his father, only for dad Reg (Alexander Armstrong) to get a one-word answer when he asks where she went: “Out”.
The double-rug-pull with Madge picking the lock (“it’s a multi-dimensional, triple-encoded temporal interface – not really susceptible to pointy things”) and making the Doctor question the security of his Tardis, only for it to be an actual police box is executed perfectly.
In the same way that Skinner can not be extricated from Sue Brockman, Alexander Armstrong will be eternally linked to Armstrong and Miller’s RAF pilots. There’s nothing funny about putting him in the pilot’s seat of a bomber lost over the Channel in 1941 though. Or in watching Madge lie to her children about Daddy coming home for Christmas, postponing the horror so that Christmas isn’t tainted forever for them.
But no tears (happy or otherwise) yet, first there is the matter of the Doctor aka the caretaker (or Get Off This Planet) and his ‘repairs’ to the house in Dorset that Madge and her children have escaped to from war-torn London. His whistle-stop tour reveals lemonade on tap, his sleeping quarters (“stay away, beware of panthers”), the best bedroom in the world (in addition to all the incredible things the Doctor lists and HAMMOCKS, I adore the monkey portrait above the fireplace – not so much that I want one, mind you), and the main sitting room with the best Christmas tree ever and a mysterious blue box beneath its rotating boughs.
Like all the best blue boxes this one is also bigger on the inside – a portal to a forest world, covered in snow, one of the ‘safest planets I know, there’s never anything dangerous here’. (Ground shakes. The Doctor: “There are sentences I should just keep away from”). Unfortunately when Cyril decides to open his present early (this was always intended to be a Time Lord-supervised visit), things go a little bit wrong.
The trees appear to produce their own baubles. The baubles hatch Something. Cyril follows its increasingly large footsteps through the snow. Luckily a worried Doctor, with Cyril’s sister Lily, is on his trail – and it isn’t long before Madge goes looking for her children too.
While the Doctor and Lily track Cyril to the top of a building (well, trees disguised to look like a building, a big wooden trap in fact) and face the creepy-looking wooden King and Queen, Madge gets stopped for trespassing by three people in the sort of full-body armour you see in games like Halo – albeit a lot more weathered.
I didn’t think I could love the fact that the soldiers’ technology has difficulty telling the difficulty between wool and side arms anymore – but having got the Androzani Harvest Rangers to put down their weapons by crying (Bill Bailey is wonderful, of course: “Please stop crying ma’am. This is a military engagement. There is no crying in military engagements.) – Madge pulls a pistol on them.
As she discovers that the forest is about to be melted for energy by acid rain – burning anything it falls on – and the Harvesters are beamed away to safety, she listens to her children and the Doctor at the top of the tower (while they discover that the souls of the trees are looking for a human mind to house them so they can escape to safety).
We also note that the Doctor thinks crying when you’re happy is a very human trait – ‘very humany-wumany’ in fact, and a slap on the wrist to any grown-up who didn’t cotton on straight away as to who needed to act as the relay for the trees. You can call it sentimental, or you can dismiss it as a gesture on a day when mums often work harder than ever for their families’ happiness, but good mothers are strong and it’s nice to have it acknowledged.
And you have to love the callback to all the times the sonic screwdriver has been defeated by wooden doors (“Aliens made of wood. This was always going to happen you know”) – still at least they’re nice aliens, keen to chat rather than destroy the universe.
As the acid rain starts to fall, Madge hears the faith that her children have in her coming for them, and steers the incredibly unwieldy Rangers transport through the forest, towards the tower. It’s a magnificent moment (full of nods to reality TV), punctured beautifully by her crashing at the last moment.
And now it’s Madge in the spotlight, spouting Mum-isms (“How dare you leave the house? Cyril, what have I told you about opening your presents early? Something like this was bound to happen.”), taking on the relay, hosting a planetful of trees and steering the mothership home (Lily: “What’s happening?” Doctor: “No idea. Do what I do – hold tight and pretend it’s a plan.”) through the time vortex by thinking of home, really feeling it – including all the pain and grief of losing Reg.
I have to confess I assumed the Doctor would pop back to save Reg at some point, but it’s much lovelier that Madge gets to save him instead. And then she saves the Doctor a little too by persuading him to go and see the Ponds. It is frankly astounding how much emotion, especially love, three actors and one writer pack into that tiny closing scene – but you would have to have a heart of stone not to weep (again) as the Ponds knock the wind out of the Doctor’s sails and move even him to a happy tear.
Sentimental yes, but I love a good weep at Christmas and I adored this. It’s going to be an incredibly long nine months as we wait for series 7 to air and see what lies in store for a Doctor feeling a little bit humany-wumany…
Posted by Jo the Hat