Thursday, 22 June 2017

The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe

Chapter The 57th, a flurry of Christmas sparkle in the middle of Summer.

England, Christmas, 1938. Madge Arwell gives the Doctor a lift back to the TARDIS when he's fallen out of a spaceship with his space helmet on the wrong way round. To repay her favour, he presumably researches her family history in intricate detail, time travels forward to 1941, takes over and renovates Madge's relative's country house where she and her two children are coming to stay for Christmas, and installs all manner of amusements. This is to cheer them up, because Madge's RAF pilot husband, Reg, has recently been lost in action. How the Doctor's had time to find all this out, let alone arrange all the work, when he's usually so busy with saving the world and stuff, remains a mystery. She only gave him a lift for goodness sakes. K9 saved his life many times and beat him at chess (once), but K9 only got rudeness in return.

Anyway, part of the cheering up is a present for the kids, Lily and Cyril, which turns out to be a portal into another world where there are sinister forests, creepy wooden statue people, monstrous articulated multi-story robot walkers, and acid rain. Everyone enters this world and ends up in dire peril. Don't let the Doctor arrange your children's parties, is the moral. The souls of the trees in the forest (ok... what now?!) need to escape inside the consciousness of a middle-aged woman (I'm going to try to stick with it) who can pilot them through the time vortex by thinking of sentimental memories (I'm losing it) and release them into the stars (no, sorry, it's gone). Anyway, inadvertently while doing this, Madge saves Reg, and everyone is cheered up ever after. Madge encourages the Doctor to go and see Amy and Rory, as last time they saw him, it looked like he'd died. Don't you remember, back when everyone in the universe thought the Doctor was dead? No? And the Daleks had no records of who he was? No? Don't worry, they forgot all that pretty quickly on the show too.

Grabbing an hour of shade on a Sunday during a summer heatwave in the UK, I watched the episode with the Better Half and the two younger children (boy of 7, girl of 5). It was the first time either of the children had viewed it, but the second attempt for the middle child. We'd put it on over the Christmas period in 2011, but the eerie scenes in the forest freaked him out so much, we never tried again. He was fine with it this time round, but his sister was a little unsettled.

First-time round:
Christmas Day 2011 doesn't seem that long ago, but it's more than a lifetime in the case of my daughter, who didn't exist when TDTWATW (as no-one is calling it) first went out. The children's maternal great-grandmother, Vi, was still with us then, but it was sadly to be her last Christmas. She came for lunch on the big day, but would have left before Who's broadcast. Vi would not have watched Doctor Who even if she'd stayed a little later, not after having viewed the Christmas special with me in 2007 and found it hard going. "Who thinks up these horrible things?" was her one-liner review, as I remember. Anyway, once visiting relatives had been waved goodbye, and the two boys put to bed, I would have watched the recording late in the evening of the 25th, with the Better Half offering moral support. We fell more or less into this pattern for all Matt Smith's festive ones, with the addition, from the following year, of a forced sit-through of the Downton Abbey Christmas special on my part.

Downton's first Christmas episode was probably being shown around the time we were watching the recorded Doctor Who, as that ITV tradition started also in 2011, but the Better Half didn't disover that show and catch up with its first two series until 2012. The few Christmasses after that were pleasant exchanges of reciprocal incomprehensibility in the overfed, overbeered hours of a yuletide evening: "Why is he in old guy make-up now?" "Why is the crack in the wall back?" "Have we ever met this footman before?" "What relation is the American guy from Sideways to the Granthams again?" The lifetime of Downton Abbey has been and gone since then too, of course, but Doctor Who endures. I have to sit through Call The Midwife these days, though; fair exchange is no mockery.

What's most obvious when watching The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe is how slight it is. Every time I watch it, I marvel that the plot manages to reach an hour's duration without petering out completely. There's some incidentt, with great wintery visuals punctuating proceedings throughout. The atmosphere of the forest of Androzani Major trees is decidedly creepy, as evidenced by the reactions of my children over the years. So why doesn't it work? Perhaps it's that nothing much is at stake. There's a moment where the audience are supposed to feel a rush of righteous excitement because Madge is fighting to save her children from danger. But there isn't any danger. The tree people are victims seeking help, the tree harvesters are bumbling comic idiots, the acid rain only makes a few holes in Madge's coat. These are characters, lest we forget, that are being bombed every night; this frightening Doctor Who adventure is less stressful than their day-to-day life.

Maybe writer and showrunner Steven Moffat is feeling his way with how scary he can make a festive episode. His first effort the year before worked, but he was heavily insured by doing a version of A Christmas Carol, i.e. borrowing a timeless, tamper-proof structure that's been used, reused, and abused for more than a hundred years. His Christmas shows that followed this, like The Snowmen, and particularly Last Christmas, really upped the fear factor, and were much better for it. Maybe Moffat was holding back here.

None of the guest stars has more than a cameo, really; even Claire Skinner doesn't get a whole heap to do as the nominal protagonist, Madge: she's weepy but stoic, weepy but stoic, weepy but stoic with a gun, then happy. It's not the most sweeping character arc, and feels like a waste of her talents. Excellent and eagerly-awaited turns from the likes of Bill Bailey and Arabella Weir are pissed away in essentially a single scene of sub-sitcom quips and exposition. It's a great shame. The kids are good, and Matt Smith is always good value when put in scenes with kids. In fact, scratch what I said before, Matt Smith's Doctor is the protagonist of the piece, and it's the story of how he learns to cry with happiness. The story seems even more slight when put like that. It's undermined by Matt Smith's portrayal in the past, and the history of the Doctor from day one: he's no Spock, he understands and shares in human-like emotions, and he doesn't repress them. So, this is the story of how he comes to do something that we knew or suspected he could do anyway. Big whoop.

There are some good jokes and nice references in the script, both from the world of Doctor Who (Androzani, the Forest of Cheem) and elsewhere (the mention of the Doctor's model not being to scale is surely a Back to the Future reference). The opening sequence has a certain chutzpah, a long spaceship's overhead glide, just like the start of Star Wars, but it's just to set up a gag: you thought this was the Big Bad of this episode? No, the Doctor's blown them up before they can make it to the end of their first threat. The family life scenes are deftly achieved with only a few broad strokes. But any nimbleness in the script is smothered with a suffocatingly thick layer of sentimentality. Sentiment slips into sentimentality, and emotion slips into melodrama, when the reactions of a script or character aren't earned. That's another key problem with this story: Madge and her family are nice enough but not particularly of special merit, and their situation is not out of the ordinary for the time. One can push their ordinariness as the key point - like what was done with the similarly modern historical family in The Fires of Pompeii - there's nothing special about them, which makes it all the more poignant that they're in danger, and that the Doctor chooses to save them. If that was the intention here, they didn't really pull it off.

Another Doctor Who take on pre-existing material. After myths and fairy tales, this is channelling a specific text (The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, of course). Both stories contain something that looks like a statue, but which moves. Also, both see the Doctor helping out a family group, though he thankfully leaves the Arwells in better shape than Nyssa's clan: stepmother dead, father a walking corpse inhabited by a psychopath, planet just about to be obliterated...

Deeper Thoughts:
The PM, The News, and the Christmas Radio Times. Anyone in the UK who might have expected a respite from non-stop politics after the recent general election is presumably disappointed. A hung parliament and all the discussions and speculation that creates, Brexit negotiations, and terrible tragedies in London. There's no pause coming any time soon in 2017, and 2016 was not exactly uneventful. But, on Christmas Day 2016, just as happens every year, there was a let-up. It always seems there's not much news to report on the 25th, and people seem to like it that way. I'm a news junkie for 364.25 days of the year, but on Christmas Day I'm happy to take a break too, even though it's a collective self-deception; plenty of stuff is no doubt happening, but we don't want to hear it, and they don't want to report it. The Doctor Who Christmas special is of a similar stripe: nothing too much is supposed to happen, any long-running story arcs are paused for one night only, nothing too serious is to go down.

The world of real political news and Doctor Who Christmas specials don't often intersect, but they did during the most recent yuletide period - in arresting fashion - with an interview in last year's Christmas Radio Times. The middle-class listing mag's double number at Christmas is still an annual treat for me, but imagine my shock when I reached the last page to discover a final twist. Who was being interviewed, but Theresa May? And what show did she say was one of her favourites to watch at Christmas? Doctor Who. I admit, it spoilt my Christmas reading and besmirched Doctor Who's reputation for me, just a little bit. This was a politician who I've never liked particularly, and who I liked even less by December 2016, as she'd by then ascended to the highest position of governmental power by coronation, not by contest.

It's rare that a politician comes out as a Doctor Who fan. There was Tim Collins, of course, back when he was an MP, who was in the documentary on the Earthshock DVD; there were also his co-signatories on the silly letter to Michael Grade in 2004 when he took over as BBC Chairman, remember that? But this was the first time to my knowledge that a Prime Minister had ever expressed an interest. It had be this one, though - this terrible terrible PM. Since Christmas, her stock has plummeted, not just with me but with everyone (and no, I'm not feeling sorry for her at all). Why does she have to like the thing I like, and sully it by association? It occurs to me now, though, there's a strong probability it wasn't her honest choice, and she'd just been briefed by Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill on how to respond to the RT's questions to make herself sound more human. Yes. The more I dwell on what we've learnt since Christmas, the more I'm sure that's the case. I can see it now: they told her going in, pick something non-controversial that'll play well with the ABC1s: Doctor Who, Poirot, stuff like that. So, she doesn't like Doctor Who at all really. Disaster averted. Phew!

(I hope.)

In Summary:
As pleasant and pretty as a snowy winter scene; as substantial as a single snowflake in the breeze.

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