The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe

When I was at university at the turn of the century a wee film called The Blair Witch Project came out. It was at the centre of something of a hypestorm, being a cheap independent film shot in the then-fresh handheld / found-footage style, and it had gained a reputation for being quite a spooky number, so I decided to go and watch it.

I went to Lancaster University (not the University of Central Lancashire, thank you, the real one) and the town of Lancaster in those days had a single cinema. This was a real old-school place, probably a converted theatre, with two massive screens each housing about a hundred and fifty people. This meant there were only ever two films on display, usually a big new release for the student market and a big new release for the kiddies.

The Blair Witch Project was packed out. It remains the single busiest cinema viewing I’ve ever been to, far more so than any film, no matter how lavishly hyped, can manage in a modern multiplex cinema where they simply put a film on two screens if it sells out a fifty-seat auditorium.

And do you know what? The Blair Witch Project was categorically the least scary film I had ever seen. Not that I’m criticising Project itself; on its own merits, it’s a well-realised little tale. But it was working against impossible odds because, in a room of over a hundred people, no matter how impeccably well-behaved, it is impossible to build up any kind of tension. Every cough and sniffle, every dropped box of popcorn or awkwardly-timed toilet run, smashes the atmosphere to pieces and the poor film has to try and start all over again from scratch at getting you back to the edge of your seat.

If you’re wondering what on Earth all of the foregoing has to do with anything, it’s my roundabout way of saying that broadcasting Doctor Who on Christmas Day is a stupid idea. Anybody who thinks it’s possible to write a halfway-decent episode for an audience of up to four generations, the eldest two of which don’t watch Doctor Who and the eldest three of which are drunk, is a moron. On the one day of the year when parents are at their most insensate with food and children are at their loudest and most overexcited, getting any idea more complicated than “the snowman was all a dream…OR WAS HE?” into anyone’s head is a frank impossibility.

Please, I’m not trying to discourage you from watching Who on Christmas Day. It’s Who. On Christmas Day. Of course we’re going to watch it. But what I am trying to discourage you from doing is critiquing it. You should just let it wash over you in a blur of pretty lights and noises, and then probably you should watch it again in the New Year when you’ve sobered up and the indigestion’s passed, and then form a proper opinion.

Case in point: The Doctor, The Widow and The Wardrobe. I remembered being greatly disappointed with this episode. In fact, I don’t think I’ve really enjoyed a Christmas special since Voyage of the Damned, a brilliant episode which had the distinct advantage of having the easiest plot to follow ever (“No crash today thanks”). And because I remember that I wasn’t impressed with the episode, I haven’t rewatched it until today, when I came to review it. It turns out I was wrong, and I blame that fact on Christmas Day, because broadcasting Doctor Who on Christmas Day is a stupid idea.

The plotholes that I thought I spotted weren’t there, it turned out that I simply hadn’t been paying close enough attention. Bill Bailey isn’t wasted in a throwaway cameo; his part is small, sure, but he gets some good jokes in and he gets to make the fan-service Androzani reference. Alexander Armstrong isn’t just reprising his RAF-chav, he actually puts in a pretty good performance of an ordinary bloke in a crap situation.

On top of all of which, as well as being wrong about all the flaws in Wardrobe, I’d forgotten that it also contains some bits that are really rather good. Matt Smith’s greatest asset as the Doctor is the way he alternates between deadly stillness and bounding energy, and he throws his manic all into the tour of the children’s bedroom, stocked with everything the Eleventh Doctor thinks kids will love (“the Magna Carta!”). I particularly liked the reference to torches for secret reading, which is very much the sort of child I was – a snot-nosed little git.

Speaking of which, is it just me or is the quality of child actors much higher these days than it has been for generations? Holly Earl puts in a good shift as teenage Lily Arwell, marrying the elder sister’s inevitable superiority complex to a frank vulnerability that prevents her from coming across as a female Kevin the Teenager. Cyril Arwell, on the other hand, is a precocious pain in the rear, but to be fair to young Maurice Cole, the part is written that way and he does a good job of bringing this out. Young Master Cole was about ten at the time of recording, and he brings a naturalness to the character that all too often escapes performers of such tender years.

All these fine performances notwithstanding, though, there is no doubt that TDTW&TW is Madge’s show. Claire Skinner already had two decades’ television experience under her belt when she came to Doctor Who, and she brings it all to bear in a beautifully well-rounded performance, running a demanding emotional gamut while keeping it all unforced and natural. This is a real tour de force performance, an actress of great ability throwing herself into a demanding script, both doing justice to the other. The wonderful, brittle and, above all, supremely feminine strength that Madge Atwell displays in pursuit of her children shows that Stephen Moffat really can write for women when the Muse is upon him.

All of which brings me to the last thing I want to say about this episode. Moffat is often accused of sexism in his portrayal of women, possibly because the companions he writes all start off so interesting and wind up so bloody unlikeable. In Wardrobe, however, Moffat successfully created a wonderful, strong, layered and complicated female character to build the episode around, and was immediately pilloried for being a misandrist. Which just goes to prove two things: that the micropenis is not an urban myth but a genuine medical condition afflicting all those who use the word “feminazi”; and that when you’re showrunning Doctor Who, you basically can’t win.