Well than another year, another Doctor Who Christmas Special! And as usual, the normal rules of the show are somewhat altered by the festivities. For as I have previously remarked (see Doctor Yule - Christmases in the TARDIS), having a prime spot in the Christmas Day schedule means that the now traditional hour long episode must be geared up for an audience sated with food, drink and general merriment.
When he brought the show back our screens and netted the honour of an extended episode to go out on December 25th, Russell T Davies was very clear that a Christmas special should be, well, Christmasy. And this is something that Steven Moffat has maintained as now the festive episode of Doctor Who is something of a tradition and so every year we enjoy an often light and daft romp sprinkled with some Yuletide magic.
But also these seasonal outings have spawned another tradition - the annual argument over the quality of the episode. For often, these Christmas Day episodes tend to divide the fans - there are those who enjoy their seasonal silliness, and those who insist on judging them as an ordinary episode for the Doctor. Now I am very much somewhere in the middle; that often the Christmas Day specials make for good festive television but aren't necessarily prime cuts of the show we love.
But I'm cool with that, as in the world of television it is something of a tradition that a Christmas special can cut loose and deliver something as much festooned in silliness and sentiment as it is in tinsel and softly falling snow. And at the end of the day, I'll accept the bargain that we get an adventure which will play well to a family stuffed with turkey, booze and chocolate but won't necessarily stand up outside the festive season. For like Messers Davies and Moffat, I believe that a Christmas Special should be brimming with the spirit of the season and that if it is doing it job right, it should fall flat when viewed in July!
And needless to say all the above applies in spades for The Doctor, The Widow & The Wardrobe. Now this year, Mr Moffat promised us another special that tipped its hat to a classic Christmasy tale, and you don't need to be the mercurial mind of Mr Sherlock Holmes to guess that this episode has something of a Narnian flavour to it. So then it's no spoiler to say that we have a tale of enchanted portals and magical snowy forests here.
However whereas last year's festive outing perhaps sailed too close to the work it was homaging, namely Dickens' A Christmas Carol, this story feels more balanced. Yes, it is clearly referencing CS Lewis' The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe but the shape of the story isn't just the plot of that enduring children's favorite bedecked in Who shaped baubles and scifi trimmings. And in this respect, the tale is all the stronger for it.
Now looking at the cast list, which includes British comedy luminaries such as Bill Bailey, Alexander Armstrong and Arabella Weir, you might be expecting an adventure high in laughs and wearing its funny bone on its sleeve. However, although there is a sprinkling of giggles, by and large this is more weighted to the heart-warming sentiment side of Christmas rather than the camp and silly. And indeed, judging from many of reviews, a common complaint about this episode is that we don't actually see that much of our comedy triumvirate. However Armstrong largely in a straight role and when Bailey and Weir do appear alongside the equally funny Paul Bazely, they are gold, and the fact that we're left wanting more of these characters is surely a credit to the script.
Also subverting expectations is the fact that this story doesn't deliver a huge, bombastic threat to either the Earth, the universe or life itself. It's a remarkably small scale tale, and to be honest that's a refreshing change. Similarly although there twists and turns, this is another patent Moffat timey-wimey head bender either. And again that sits very well with me for this festive outing. Yes, it's a simple story, and yes, you can see the ending coming a mile way. But this is a Christmas story and complaints that you can see the happy ending from the get-go are somewhat irrelevant as any Yuletide special worth its salt has everything magically working out for the best in the end.
And yes, it's not the greatest Doctor Who story told - but it was a wonderful Christmas special. And although it's hard to judge right now in the Boxing Day haze, I do rather think it might be one of the best ones yet. While some may have wanted something bigger or more complex, I think the story's tight focus, intimate scale and general straight forward nature made for an ideal festive episode, which delivered the fun and warm feelings without disappearing over the top into indulgent nonsense.
It was perfectly pitched, with enough comedy to tickle the ribs, and the sentiment rooted in simple but solid drama rather schmaltz. But there was also some memorable and nicely realized monsters, a good mystery for the Doctor to solve, and bags of festive atmosphere in the way the story revolved around a certain Christmas icon. And there were a delightful couple of Christmas presents for both fans new and old too, in the shape of references to the Eccleston and Davison eras. In short, one the better judged Christmas presents we've had from the Doctor Who team.
JIM MOON, 26th December 2011