While it seems odd to be reviewing a Christmas Special on the 29th of December, it’s been a hellish week of travel and task – so better late than never, I say.
It’s going to be a while before we see anymore of Matt Smith and his bow tie, so this is going to have to tide us over until something in late fall. The Christmas specials have been something of a mixed bag, with last year’s effort starring Michael Gambon probably the best of the lot. This year’s special is loosely a homage to the C.S. Lewis “Narnia” trilogy but solidly steeped in Doctor Who mythology and chock-full of show runner Steven Moffat’s trademark blend of bleak melancholia and sentiment.
This year’s special finds us in 1938, where the Doctor makes a highly implausible escape from an exploding spaceship (he seems to be the cause of said explosion) and crash lands near London in a spacesuit with the head on backwards. He’s aided in his distress by Madge Atwell (Claire Skinner), who seems rather more plucky and open-minded than one might expect. Always one to pay his debts, The Doctor engineers a meeting with Claire and her children Cyril (Maurice Cole) and Lily (Holly Earl) three years later, after she’s just received news of her husband’s death in the war, his bomber having crashed into the English Channel.
What follows is pretty inventive, starting out as a rather wistful fantasy with a lavishly decorated (by The Doctor, now calling himself “The Caretaker”) country estate in Dorset. Rather than a wardrobe, the portal to another dimension in this house is a giant gift box The Doctor had planned to use to transport the children to a magical (and safe) world of naturally occurring Christmas trees, complete with ornaments. But things take a sharp turn for the worse, and Madge is forced to come to the rescue. It seems that The Doctor just can’t help putting humans in danger, even when he’s trying to take them on holiday.
There’s a sub-plot about the souls of the forest escaping a nasty “harvesting” via acid rain and a trio of misfit corporate hired guns who generate a few laughs. Mostly though, all this is an excuse for a Christmas miracle for the Ardwells, and a long reflection on Moffat’s favorite topic – the loneliness of The Doctor. As you recall from the season finale, he’s engineered his own “death” and planned for no one to know, but River has blabbed the truth to her parents. So they’re not surprised when The Doctor shows up unannounced - shamed into doing so by Madge – on their doorstep, two years after their last meeting. When he discovers that a place has been set for him at the table for the Ponds’ Christmas dinner – and that a place is always set, just in case he shows up – The Doctor reveals a little bit of his human side.
It’s been made clear that Amy and Rory are going to be smaller players in the upcoming season, and eventually be written out of the show altogether. In that vein, there’s some dark foreshadowing here, and the last sequence has a very typical Moffat feel to it. He loves to muse about how alien The Doctor is, then show him as very human – an interesting dichotomy but not a direction I’m sure I really like. Christmas specials don’t always play into the best instincts of Doctor Who writers, and this one is a mixed bag for me. The whole drama surrounding the Atwells felt a bit overwrought and predictable to me, though there were some bright comic moments and the material clearly played into both Moffat’s sweet spot as a writer and Smith’s as a performer. In the end it was modestly entertaining and met the threshold for a “Who” Christmas special, ending on a heart-tugging note.