The Caretaker, the Matriarch and the Disappointment

Review of The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe
Warning:  This review contains episode-specific spoilers and wild speculation about future episodes.

Let me say right up front that this was my favorite Christmas Special to date. Despite being fully engaged and along for the ride almost the whole way through, though, I found myself ripped out of the moment and slammed back into my seat with my Critic's Hat jammed tight on my head by the predictable and saccharine crowning plot twist. But I'll get back to that later.

TDtWatW got off to a strong start with a wonderfully irrelevant introduction sequence. It gave us yet another glimpse at what the Doctor gets up to when he's not traveling with a Companion (or even just when we don't see him on screen). Although it was patently ridiculous (as some of the best Who is), the Doctor's "entrance" and our introduction to Madge give us a beautiful snapshot of her personality, and set us up to suspend our disbelief quite willingly through the rest of the hour.

Her eventual heartbreak at losing her husband (c'mon - that's hardly a spoiler; the title says "Widow"!) and the way she choses to approach that with her children provide some of the most "real" and emotionally engaging television I've seen in a long time (again; more later). Thus we're set up with another family separated by wartime, ready to walk into one of the Doctor's good deeds gone wrong.

Frankly, I love the twist on the C.S. Lewis story that inspired the episode title, with the portal into another world (one filled with snow-covered conifers, thank you very much) where time runs differently. It's just reminiscent enough of that other classic to make the title work, but is also eminently Who in the underlying storyline. And, as with all Moffat's episodes, it's perfectly quotable*.

As a mother myself, I will admit that I was also quite charmed by some of the matricentric (is that a word? it is now...) themes. Madge shows remarkable strength of character, doing what she believes to be in the best interests of her children despite the cost to herself. I thought Claire Skinner did a bang-up job as Madge, especially getting across the weight a woman feels from the terrible yet empowering burden of a child's belief in his mother. She was also just this side of creepy when taking on her alien burden (a fine line to walk, when I was put so strongly in mind of Mercy Hartigan becoming Cyberking).

Given all this love I had for the episode, I can't tell if I'm being overly empathetic or just a big Scrooge for hating the inevitability of the happily-ever-after ending. To me, though, that "everything's OK now, everybody!" moment left the bitter taste of bile in my mouth. Even ignoring the fact that it was only Reg who miraculously pulled through (what about poor Anderson who was "in a bad way," or the other crewman? where did they end up - still dead/dying?), I felt it cheapened the sacrifices Madge had made to protect her children and was a sort of slap in the face to all the people - including some children who would be watching - who really have lost loved ones (whether spouses, parents, grandparents...). Maybe escaping from their own reality and seeing someone who does get their daddy back is just what those children need, but if it were me, I think I'd just want to curl into a fetal ball and cry over the unfairness that mine wasn't ever coming home again.

I was able to get back into the story for the coda, and aside from the obligatory it's-Christmas-so-we-get-a-happy-one ending, I did enjoy TDtWatW. I always love seeing the Doctor in full-on barmy mode - this time, it was a sort of cross between Peter Pan and Willy Wonka. It also didn't hurt that they threw in a passing reference to his days as Nine, which - as they're so rare - makes it all that much more special (even if it did contain an error).

The fact that Lily and Madge both called him "Caretaker" also put a smile on my face. It's a way of emphasizing their unique relationship with him, and made me think of Ace and how she always called him "Professor." Somehow it gives the sense both that they really don't know him and that they know him in a completely different way than anyone else.

And then there were the Portents. "What if I require you again?" asks Madge as the Doctor vworps off into the sunset. Moffat loves to leave the door open, so the Doctor gives her as straight an answer as he ever gives anyone. I don't know if Madge will be making that wish to recall the Caretaker to her side, but I'd put money on it that there are a few fans who'd like to see her again and will be doing so for her. Only time will tell.

* A few of my favorites include:

"Why would you rewire a wardrobe?" "Have you seen the way I dress?"
"There's never anything dangerous here. [loud, threatening noise] There are sentences I should keep away from..."
"There's nothing you could say that would convince me you'd ever use that gun." "Oh, really. Well, I'm looking for my children."
"Do what I do. Hold tight and pretend it's a plan."

† Here, the Doctor says, "I met the Forest of Cheem once. She fancied me." On Platform One, Jabe and her compatriots were introduced as follows: "From the Forest of Cheem, we have... Trees!" So the Forest was her home, not her name.




PaulGreaves's picture

This was probably my favourite Christmas special to date too, although that's almost like damning with faint praise as they're nearly all completely awful. I really hate the saccharine sentimentality shovelled on with a trowel. It cheapens some of the good stuff and taints the whole.

I hadn't thought about your point re Reg's crewmen. A bit grim if we see the newly re-united family enjoying Christmas together knowing there are still warm corpses only a few hundred metres from the house...

There are, as always, some great lines, delivered beautifully by Matt Smith. I just wish they'd left off the bit with Amy and Rory and the "Oh look, the Doctor's crying" moment. I felt insulted by such ham-fisted emotional hand-wringing. There seems to be this need to try and create another companion that has as much resonance with the Doctor as Sarah did. They tried with Rose and now with Amy. Just leave it alone. If it's there it will come out of it's own accord...

Claire Skinner was excellent, as was the girl playing her daughter. The boy playing her son irritated me beyond belief and Bill Bailey and Arabella Weir were criminally wasted - although I liked that they were from Androzani Major.

I thought we'd said goodbye to Transformers after the Godawful Cyberking but no... and how did Madge survive the acid rain by wearing her coat over her head??

I leave the final word on this to my 10 year old daughter, who loves Matt, finished the special, yawned and said: "Can we watch some with the Fourth Doctor now?"

Happy New Year, Marcia. I look forward to more blogging from you :)

By PaulGreaves --


mrfranklin's picture

Thanks, Paul! :) I love that your 10-yr-old is already just as enamoured of the pre-Hiatus stuff as the post.

I, too, don't like to be so blatantly emotionally manipulated, but have to admit that much of it worked on me anyway. ~sigh~ Oh, well. We're back to new episodes during the darker evenings next fall - here' hoping they'll have something worthwhile!

By mrfranklin

I enjoyed this one too, but am just about sick to death of the horrible emotional manipulation in post-haitus. My friend Michelle won't watch with me because Dr. Who is always "trying to make me cry". Give me a hand of fear, gosh darn it! Or a lighthouse haunting alien with a ship made almost entirely out of of bubble wrap.

By Matt Cohen (not verified)
mrfranklin's picture

This one was particularly egregious in that sense. Having come to Who from the post-Hiatus direction, I think I don't notice it as readily, but this one was a bit much at the end.

I'd love to see some more monster-driven stories, too. A bit of the longer build-up like they used to do would not be a bad thing.

By mrfranklin
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