Nobody wants a long “Doctor Who” review to read at Christmas – you’ve got left-over turkey to finesse into new and terrifying culinary forms (or, like me, the veggie alternative – sprout surprise a-go-go!) and post-Christmas sales to hunt bargains in. Time is tight – even when you’ve got more of it than usual.
So, I’m going to try to keep my thoughts on the special episode short and devoid of annoying,over-entitled, sub-grad school bobbins, if that’s okay with you. Cool.
This year’s “Who” saw the Doctor paying back a favour and getting into all kinds of ecological bother quite by chance – his efforts to give a grieving widow and her children a magical Christmas being upended by a case of mass planetary asset stripping.
The first thing to say about the episode is that the distinct Narnia vibe you might have gleaned from the promotional pictures before the episode aired was barely present in the televised episode. Once we went through the Doctor’s magical Christmas portal – no sniggering, internet pervs – everything on the other side was a bit snowy, wintry and fantastical, but there wasn’t even so much as a hint of C.S. Lewis-style, unsubtle Christian allegory.
The story itself was fairly straightforward fare – Moffat didn’t take the opportunity to mess with the minds of Christmas telly viewers too much – and that was probably the right choice. After a day spent cooking, unwrapping gifts, cleaning up the detritus of the big meal and trying not to lapse into a gravy-induced coma, I’m hard-pressed to imagine the all-important mainstream audience for this episode handling anything more complex than what was offered – and what was offered was just fine.
Matt Smith was reliably excellent throughout, going from goofy alien clown at the beginning of the story to the ancient, all-knowing Timelord we know and delight in through the middle of the episode to imploring, oddly human picture of desperation as he exhorted Clare Skinner’s grieving mum to pilot her family home during the events of the climax. It was a tour de force for him – and I find myself dreading the day that he leaves.
The rest of the cast was fine – I’ve not seen Claire Skinner in much else (I don’t watch her show “Outnumbered” and vaguely remember her from a Mike Leigh film back in the Nineties – apparently, she was also in “Sleepy Hollow”) but she did good work here, managing to embody motherly concern for her kids, suppressed, stiff upper lip shock at the apparent loss of her husband (Alexander Armstrong) and initial mistrust of the strange lanky caretaker leading her family astray. She had a pivotal but in some thankless role – being the sensible adult who tries to stop the Doctor from doing the things that we want him to do – but held the centre of the story together, even during the odd lull.
Speaking of which, if anything disappointed in the episode, it was the appearance of Bill Bailey and Arabella Weir – or should I say, the way in which they were utilised.
I suppose that you don’t want your guest appearances to upstage the main actors in the piece, but it seems odd to me that such prominent comic actors were given roles which gave them so little to do and barely any funny material to work with. There was a neat juxtaposition between their futuristic battle armour – part Master Chief, part Warhammer 40K space marine – and the woodland ranger responsibilities that their characters actually had, but their appearances were so brief as to make little if any impression.
Bill Bailey’s funny – give him a chance to prove it!
I feel that the core story and the reason that everybody was on the planet ultimately didn’t make a whole heap of sense – it was certainly more dealing with the ’emotional relationship fantasy’ side of recent “Doctor Who” than anything else – but I didn’t mind it particularly. There were plot holes that you could have driven a transformed Optimus Prime through – what happened to the bomber crew when Madge dragged them home through the vortex – but I doubt that the non-Whovian audience cared too much for that.
This was a warm, family friendly tale about Christmas, snow, trees, baubles, family, togetherness and the horror of being alone at this time of year – the Doctor, being the ultimate outsider, got to reunite with the closest thing to a family he has in the closing moments of the episode. It was sweet, underplayed and got Team Pond-Williams on-screen in a most welcome way. Probably my favourite bit of the whole hour, to be honest.
Ranking things doesn’t really sit well with me – who really cares whether an episode is a place higher than another episode in an entirely arbitrary list? – but I have to say that I enjoyed last year’s Christmas episode a bit more. And that had Katherine Jenkins in it, whose music I can’t abide. This wasn’t by any means a disaster of an episode but it didn’t manage to fully hold my attention all the way through.
I’d be interested to see what next year brings us – would it be insanity to hope for a truly creepy festive ghost story from the pen of Moffat?