Saturday night, as I did my last Christmas wrapping, I watched Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. It’s been my Christmas Eve tradition for several years now, though last year, as I was in Raleigh for Christmas, I didn’t have the opportunity to watch the film.
As I watched the film this year, I had a brainwave.
For next year’s Doctor Who Christmas special, Steven Moffat should riff on Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. As I’ve said before, the story in Santa Claus Conquers the Martians isn’t that bad, and it would work rather well as a Doctor Who story.
Last year, he adapted Dickens’ A Christmas Carol to the Doctor Who world. This year, “The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe” had some points of connection to C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.
And Santa Claus Conquers the Martians offers a wealth of Whovian possibility! Replace the film’s Martians with Ice Warriors. The Ice Warriors’ children are languid and bored, so a group of Ice Warriors travel to Earth and kidnap a Santa Claus to bring them happiness, but there is one among the Ice Warriors who will betray their noble leader and sow dissension among their ranks. Also, it’s not a real Santa Claus the Ice Warriors have kidnapped! It’s a department store Santa — maybe it’s even Craig from “The Lodger” and “Closing Time” — with children, and it’s up to the Doctor to go to Mars, get the Santa Claus back and reunite a family, bring peace to the Ice Warriors, and defuse an interplanetary incident.
However, “The Doctor Conquers the Ice Warriors” is not the Doctor Who Christmas special at hand. We have “The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe” to consider, instead.
On Christmas Eve, 1938, Madge Arwell sees a man fall from the sky. He’s a strange, daffy man in a spacesuit, and he asks her to help him find his Police Box. When she does so, he makes the promise that when she needs him she need only make a wish. A few years later, when her husband, an RAF bomber pilot, has been lost over the English Channel, she and her children, Lily and Cyril, are evacuated to a mansion in the English countryside, far from the Blitz. There, they discover the mansion is overseen by a strange man who calls himself “the Caretaker,” and he has a present for them under the tree — a blue box that’s a portal into a magical wintry forest where strange things lurk.
When “The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe” was first announced and Moffat was reported to have used The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe as a kernel from which to grow the story, I wondered if the episode might have had something in common with Jonathan Morris and Rob Davis’ “The Professor, the Queen, and the Bookshop,” the comic strip story in which the Doctor’s life is reimagined through the filter of Narnia. The Narnia connections between “The Doctor…” and The Lion… are few, though, limited to some of the settings, a magical box, and a world of winter, and Moffat takes the story in other directions.
They are not, however, interesting directions. “The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe” is one of the weaker Doctor Who Christmas specials — and it’s one of Steven Moffat’s weakest Doctor Who stories.
Ironically, it’s that weakness that makes it difficult to discuss. “The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe” leaves no great impression. The acting is fine, there’s a sense of place, there are some nice visuals, but none of it is especially involving and it’s all very superficial.
I can look at the episode as Moffat-in-miniature — many of Moffat’s tropes are on display, whether they make sense together in a single package or not. The Doctor bonds with children, the Doctor is more like a fairy tale wizard than a sci-fi hero, the story appears to have a villain but ultimately doesn’t, there’s pointless fanwank, there’s a predestination paradox at the heart of the story, and the story’s resolution is “And then a miracle happened.” In this case, I’m not sure that it all works. The fanwank, for example, has no bearing on the story; does it matter that Androzani Major from the fifth Doctor story “The Caves of Androzani” gets several mentions? The predestination paradox — the trees have a prophecy that they will be saved by the Doctor’s arrival because the Doctor’s arrival and the family’s escape resulted in the tree spirits getting taken back in time by several thousand years — is a subtler recursion than, say, “Blink” or “A Christmas Carol,” but “The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe” is still a Steven Moffat story where the resolution happens because of that resolution.
“The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe” also had a number of scenes that lifted from other franchises for no good reason except, perhaps, that Moffat wanted to write such a scene — the opening shot is a lift from the opening shot of Star Wars, and the Doctor bailing out of an exploding spaceship references Moonraker — and these scenes did nothing to move the plot forward. That’s the ultimate problem with the episode — the episode eschewed a plot in favor of a series of scenes strung together haphazardly, resulting in an episode with a schizophrenic tone that veered so often that I found my attention flagging as there was nothing to latch onto. The episode was very RTD-esque in that sense; Russell T. Davies preferred to write scripts that lacked a traditional plot development to make them more breathless. But it was also RTD-esque in another sense; like the RTD Christmas specials, it’s a Christmas story only in the sense that its events occur at Christmas.
As I mentioned above, I had no quibbles with the acting. Claire Skinner does an adequate job carrying the episode as Madge, the child actors were fine, and I’m not really sure who Bill Bailey is or why it was such a big deal that he was in Doctor Who. (His role amounts to little more than a cameo, though I was amused at his armor, which reminded me of the SPARTAN armor from the Halo games.) Matt Smith turns in a somewhat manic performance as the Doctor, veering wildly from childlike energy to grave seriousness, often in the course of a single scene.
It’s unfortunate that the acting is in service of such a weak story. The things you expect to happen in a story like this really do happen. You expect the tree spirits to be saved. You expect the lost aviator to turn up alive. You expect the family to have the “best Christmas ever.” I kept imagining other routes for the story to take; maybe it would have been more interesting if Cyril were Wilf as a child and Madge were Donna Noble’s great-grandmother. I spent the episode waiting for Moffat to subvert my expectations. Maybe the trees couldn’t be saved. Maybe a villain (other than faceless acid rain) would turn up. Maybe the father would have died when his Lancaster crashed in the Channel. But alas, Moffat wrote a story that harkened back to his other World War II story, “The Doctor Dances” — “Everybody lives, Rose! Just this once, everybody lives!” And so they do.
Nor was “The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe” even the most Christmassy Doctor Who story this year; that title belongs to Tony Lee and Paul Grist’s Doctor Who #12 from IDW Publishing, in which the Doctor and Santa Claus team up to fight homicidal robots.
Ultimately, I’m not really sure what “The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe” is for. As the last word on televised Doctor Who for nine months, it’s a weak note to go out on, and following as it does on the weak sixth season it cemented 2011 as the worst year of Doctor Who since its return in 2005. The episode reached no heights, but neither did it plumb the abysmal depths. At its best and its worst, “The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe” was simply middling and it left me indifferent.