Since the last time we saw The Doctor we’ve learned two pieces of vital and unsettling information about the near future of Doctor Who. First, we learned that we won’t see a seventh series until next fall, then we learned that Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill are preparing for their final episodes as The Doctor’s companions Amy Pond and Rory Williams. All that was standing between us and those two things coming to pass was “The Doctor, The Widow and The Wardrobe,” the 2011 Christmas special that merged the world of the Doctor with a dash of C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. That means that this particular Christmas special was more than just a holiday adventure for everyone’s favorite Time Lord. It was also both the last we’ll see of The Doctor for nearly a year, and a kind of trial run for an Amy and Rory-less existence. Did it work? Mostly.
Our story begins with a sort of prologue, in which The Doctor falls to Earth in pre-World War II England after a mishap onboard an exploding spaceship. He’s taken care of by Madge Arwell (Claire Skinner), whom he vows to do a favor for sometime later.
Cut to sometime later, three years later in fact, and things aren’t going so well for Madge. Her husband’s plane went down over the English Channel, and she’s got a telegram announcing his death that she can’t bring herself to show her children. It’s Christmas Eve and she’s taking her son Cyril (Maurice Cole) and daughter Lily (Holly Earl) to an uncle’s rundown mansion to hide from German air raids. There they meet the Doctor, who’s posing as the home’s caretaker, and in between making various “repairs” around the house (like adding a lemonade tap to the kitchen and making the chairs in the sitting room dance), he’s left a rather large present under the Christmas tree that just happens to lead to the future on another planet.
Of course, curiosity gets the better of the Arwell children, and the whole gang find themselves in a magical snow-covered forest that seems to be under grave threat. In true Steven Moffat fashion, you don’t really know what’s going on for much of the show, but the atmosphere is satisfyingly whimsical and the alien oddities are there aplenty. And then, as the story closes, you get the most satisfying Christmas present of all: a visit from old friends.
“The Doctor, The Widow and The Wardrobe” latches on to one of the most successful themes of the Doctor Who Christmas specials – giving the ultimate man without a family a familial unit to have an adventure with – and takes it to what perhaps was the next logical step. This time The Doctor isn’t just hanging out with the family. He’s their literal and figurative caretaker. He’s looking out for them in this hostile little winter wonderland, but in the end, as you may have guessed, they might be there for him more than he’s there for them.
Despite the title, the whole Narnia connection is really rather loose. There’s a sense of connection to the natural world that Lewis’ books have as well, as well as a sense of family, and of overcoming a massive and malignant force against all odds. But then, most of that’s just inherent in Doctor Who. The good news is that most of this seems to work. Moffat takes the story’s payoff to what feels like a new level of sappy (I know, I usually appreciate those, but this time it felt like a bit much), and the creature concepts, though fun, seem a little more contrived than the usual Moffat fare. It almost feels as though he was either trying to hard or simply trying to get the story on paper as quickly as possible. This doesn’t mean it’s bad, but it doesn’t feel like the best he can do this time.
In spite of all that, “The Doctor, The Widow and The Wardrobe” is satisfying. It ends well, it holds you in a kind of snowy holiday thrall throughout, and it’s a particularly nice thing to watch in front of the fireplace. What more could you want?