Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Doctor Who: The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe - Blu-ray review

Another year, another Doctor Who Christmas special, and in this case, it’s the last new Who we’re going to see until some time in the autumn, so we’d better make the most of it. I went well and truly gaga over 2010’s “A Christmas Carol,” and it’s easily the smartest and most well written of these the series has yet produced. Back then I had doubts that Moffat could best it, and as it turns out, he did not. He did give it a very good go, however, and “The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe” is still probably a better entry than any of Russell’s holiday efforts, although I should declare that a late December viewing of “Voyage of the Damned” – a story I’d previously considered the embodiment of everything that I hated about modern Who – left me feeling that I may have been a little harsh on the piece over the years. Indeed, diving in and pulling these seasonal treats apart always feels a little like kicking puppies, and we all know where that leads – hurt puppies, a phrase which could be the subtitle of this review. Or maybe just “The Apology.” Read on…

The action begins with the Doctor (Matt Smith) high above Earth, aboard a massive spacecraft, and in the process of presumably saving the planet from some unnamed and unseen aliens. The ship explodes and the Doctor plummets through space toward the giant blue orb below, chasing a floating spacesuit along the way (this sequence is reminiscent of Roger Moore and Jaws from the beginning of Moonraker). Improbable as it may seem (and it most certainly does), the Doctor hits the Earth’s surface, and the suit begins “repairing” him (he should keep this gadget in the TARDIS at all times!), but not before he’s discovered by Madge Arwell (Claire Skinner, who I will forever equate with Mike Leigh’s Naked). Without batting an eye, she aids the mysterious spaceman - whose helmet is on backwards, so she never sees his face – in his search for a police box. Right off the bat, there’s something remarkable about Madge, and as the story moves forward, we discover that there are many remarkable aspects to this woman.

The story fast forwards to 1941 - three years in the future - right around the holidays, and Madge has received a telegram delivering tragic news about her husband who's a pilot in the war. Given that it’s the season, she elects to not tell her two children, Lily (Holly Earl) and Cyril (Maurice Cole). The trio evacuates London, and heads for a relative’s house in the country. Upon arrival, there is no relative, only the bouncy, enthusiastic man referring to himself as the Caretaker (the alias is a nice nod to the end of Season Six), who intends on treating them to a delightful holiday season. Of course, things don’t go quite as planned, and before long all four of them are on a distant alien planet, in the middle of an alien forest, being only vaguely threatened by acid rain, sentient trees and harvesters from Androzani Major (see also “The Caves of Androzani”). The sci-fi aspects of the story are far less interesting than the emotion beneath it all and the places the emotions takes these people. 

Whether by design or default, Steven Moffat has, with “The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe,” created not just another entry in the ongoing Who Christmas Special oeuvre, but also the very first Doctor Who Mother’s Day Special. On the surface this tale has all the December hallmarks, but its heart is squarely located in the celebration of All Things Mom. In many ways, this special is the opposite of “A Christmas Carol.” Whereas Kazran Sardick was a greedy, selfish man, Madge Arwell is a selfless, thoughtful woman. Whereas the Doctor found himself in a situation in which he was forced to meddle with Sardick’s life, with Madge he’s merely providing something of a good-natured service. In “A Christmas Carol,” the Doctor was the driving force; here he inadvertently supplies the “magic” that allows Madge to rise to the occasion so that she can do the great things. I often feel that Moffat doesn’t write women very well (as my frequent rants about Amy Pond will attest), and I’m not sure he does here either, as Madge seems to be more of a collection of brave deeds than an actual person, and yet I must give him props for at least trying, so as to possibly silence his detractors, one of whom I all too often am. If nothing else, he's created a narrative that seems to get at the heart of the power of women, and that's a triumph itself. My wife missed seeing this episode on Christmas. I fully intend to save her first viewing for May 13th of this year, and I think she’s gonna love the sentiment behind it.

Indeed, with Season Six I frequently became very cynical about my favorite television show, and hopefully this close-to-a-year-long break is exactly what I need. “The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe” is a lovely, heartfelt episode of Who. Certainly the riff within the title leads to some expectations, but aside from a few flourishes, it bears no real resemblance to the classic C.S. Lewis tale, which is probably for the best. The final scene of the story, which sees the Doctor having a reunion of sorts, pretty much melted my hardened heart, and got me all stoked for Season Seven, which I suppose is the best Christmas present of all.

In the meantime, there are going to be loads of classic Who DVD releases (the classic range is nearly complete) coming out in the coming months, so there’s no better time to dive in and explore much of what came before. I’ll still be here watching and writing, and hopefully you’ll be reading and then watching.

Blu-ray Extras: As is to be expected, the special looks crisp and gorgeous and sounds just amazing. These days, I almost never have complaints about the presentation. How can you with a show that looks and sounds better than almost everything else on TV? 

Thankfully the disc includes the prequel to the story, which was released on the internet a few weeks before the episode played on Christmas. “Thankfully” because it goes some way toward explaining what’s happening when the episode proper begins. Something tells me it was supposed to have been part of the episode, but a decision was made to chop it and put it online as a tease. In any case, it’s highly recommended that you go into the special features menu and watch it before watching the episode.

Boffo points for presenting the three “Best of Doctor Who” specials (which each run at about 44 minutes) that played on BBC America in the weeks leading up to the premiere of the second half of Season Six, which are comprised of your standard mix of clips and talking heads. The clips come only from Season Five and the first half of Season Six, and the discussion is pretty much restricted to the Eleventh Doctor’s era. The heads are a real oddball assortment of celebs – Alison Haislip, Paul F. Tompkins, Reggie Watts, Hugh Douglas(!), Scott Adsit, Chris Hardwick, and Amanda Palmer to name but a few. The whole exercise won me over in the second installment (which is all about the companions) when the lovely Natalie Morales (The Middleman) showed up, draped in a Tom Baker scarf and showing a tasteful amount of cleavage. I adore this girl – even more so now that I know she’s a Who freak - and sure hope that somebody recognizes her talents soon. Make her the Doctor’s new companion, please! In any case, there’s so much fannish good will being tossed around during these specials – not to mention worthy points of view - that I couldn’t help but feel like I’d been a little hard on Season Six. We’ll see how I feel later this year when Seven kicks off.

Lastly, the disc includes an “in-game reward code” that can be used in connection with the online game “Worlds in Time.” No doubt this makes sense to a gamer, but since I am not one, it held no value for me, nor did the goofy stickers that make all the Doctor Who villains look like Muppet Babies.

Madge: "Lily and Cyril's father - my husband - is dead and they don't know yet because if I tell them now then Christmas will always be what took their father away from them, and no one should have to live like that. Of course when the Christmas period is over I shall...I don't know why I keep shouting at them."

The Doctor: "Because every time you see them happy you remember how sad they're going to be. And it breaks your heart. Because what's the point in them being happy now if they're going to be sad later. The answer is, of course, because they are going to be sad later."

(Thanks to Sonic Biro for the screencaps.)