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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

Doctor Who blogging: “The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe”

Doctor Who The Doctor the Widow and the Wardrobe Matt Smith

(all spoilers! don’t read till you’ve seen the episode… or unless you don’t care if it’s spoiled for you. this is a love fest only — all complaints and bitching must come from a place of love / previous: “The Wedding of River Song”)
Dammit, but this is an infuriating story. It’s perfectly illustrative of all the many ways that Steven Moffat seems to misunderstand Doctor Who. Sure, it’s science fiction — or even the looser, less restrictive science fantasy — and sure, that means that almost anything can happen. But it doesn’t mean that everything can happen, and certainly not all at once. And it doesn’t mean that anything can happen for just any old reason at all, or — worse — for absolutely no reason. The dictates of satisfying storytelling still demand something reasonably close to a narrative, and something reasonably far from “a bunch of random cool shit happens so that everyone can have a happy ending.”

Oh oh oh, and there’s this about Moffat’s writing on Who of late (that is, out from under the editorial auspices of Russell T. Davies… or, I suspect, out from under the editorial auspices of anyone at all): he doesn’t seem to realize that he has the pieces for a stronger, more touching, more rewarding story right in front of him, and he lets them go utterly to waste.

Like this. Okay, the Doctor gets a bit of help from Madge Arwell and so he feels compelled to return the favor. Fine. But what the hell are we supposed to take from his direction that she “make a wish” if she needs him? How is that supposed to work? Seriously, if that worked, then what about all the other times when, we may sensibly presume, other much more intimate friends he has left behind will have wished for his help, or even just for his presence? The notion that the Doctor would come running on a wish isn’t just contrary to everything we’ve seen before: it’s a cruelty to those people who’ve loved him dearly, and lived with him, and shared adventures with him, and survived dangers with him… and it’s extra cruel coming in an episode that is supposed to be heartwarming and full of holiday spirit.

But look! Moffat stumbled over an excellent reason to have the Doctor looking out for Madge, which would also have been an excellent underscore to the theme he clearly wants to explore: the Doctor’s solitude and loneliness.

Doctor Who The Doctor the Widow and the Wardrobe

It’s the wrong police box. What if, instead of driving around with Madge until they find the right police box, the Doctor was stranded in 1938 until his TARDIS caught up with him? What if he was lonely and bored and took to looking out for Madge and her kids in secret, just to have something to do? Now, yes, I do think that the Doctor could find better ways of keeping himself amused in Britain on the eve on World War II, but still: this is just one option that is so much better than “make a wish.” It could have been a very poignant look at a Doctor withdrawing from the universe to such a degree that he has taken to ignoring the sorts of urgent matters of life and death he’s usually concerned with and just focusing on one little family. It might even explain this bizarrity:

Doctor Who The Doctor the Widow and the Wardrobe

Dancing chairs? A lemonade tap? This bedroom? When did the Doctor turn into Willy Wonka? Why would he ever do any of these things, and why is he doing them for these people? He certainly appears to have no awareness of Madge’s situation — that her husband has just died — and he certainly does absolutely nothing to fix her situation (that it does get fixed has zilch to do with anything the Doctor has done or will do).

Instead, Moffat builds in so much ridiculous coincidence that wouldn’t need to be there in a better constructed story. A story should never feel as if it is leading inevitably and exclusively to its own ending — a story should feel organic. (That’s the job of a writer of fiction: to make a contrived and constructed story feel as if it isn’t contrived and constructed.) But nothing that happens here makes any sense whatsoever except as a way for Madge to time-travel in order to provide a moon and stars for her lost aviator husband to fly home by, instead of dying in a plane crash over the English Channel.

Can I just ask: What the fuck is the Doctor doing at Uncle Digby’s house, anyway?

Can I just ask: What good reason can there possibly be for the Doctor to put a transdimensional doorway wrapped up under a Christmas tree? Especially since something is obviously wrong with it, so that he has to make repairs:

Doctor Who The Doctor the Widow and the Wardrobe Matt Smith

And then he’s worried about Cyril, who goes through it before he’s supposed to, and acts as if there’s some great urgency to find Cyril and bring him back, as if there might be something dangerous afoot, so naturally he takes Lily with him:

Doctor Who The Doctor the Widow and the Wardrobe Holly Earl

Yes, that’s a great image — the Doctor reaching out to invite a child to join him in an amazing place — but it makes no goddamn sense at all in this context.

Except! Wait a minute! This planet of the naturally occuring Christmas trees is a safe and wonderful place that the Doctor has visited many times! So many times that he recognizes an Androzani harvester! And yet he doesn’t know a damn thing about the acid rain and the tree harvest? And hey: the Androzani people have a beat-up old Androzani harvester — indicating numerous harvests over a long timeframe — and a military team ready to swoop in, but the trees have no ready contingency for dealing with a harvest except growing a tower that looks like a tower but is really trees (except for the glasslike globe atop it

Doctor Who The Doctor the Widow and the Wardrobe

that can conveniently function as an interdimensional, intertemporal vehicle and can survive the time vortex, hoorah!) and hoping that the arrival of a woman who can carry all their arboreal souls out into the ether as was foretold actually comes to pass?

I’m dizzy just thinking about all the pointless contrivances spinning here.

Why three years between Madge’s first encounter with the Doctor and her second? What’s the point of this… especially when it’s glaringly obvious that any child actors playing Cyril and Lily could not possibly be aged up three years? This is Doctor Who, of course, and it is entirely possible in this universe for three years to have passed and for kids not to have aged: time warps, chronic hystereses, something.

Moffat is so close to getting it right — or at least better — but he doesn’t even seem to appreciate possibilities of his own story.

How was the arrival of Madge foretold? Why do the Androzani soldiers arrive just before the harvest only to get almost instantly beamed out again (leaving their presumably expensive harvester behind)? Why do the trees need to take on humanoid form? How does the Doctor — who, recall, recognizes the Androzani harvester and calls it by name — not know that Androzani trees are the greatest fuel source ever, or that the forest is regularly melted down? How can the female soldier be unable to drive the harvester, but Madge can? How can a 900-year-old Time Lord be too weak to contain the trees’ lifeforces, but a human isn’t? How the hell is there a convenient on-ramp to the time vortex just hanging around near this tree planet?

Doctor Who The Doctor the Widow and the Wardrobe

You wanna tell a story about how everybody lives? Fine. You wanna tell a story glorifying motherhood? Fine. You wanna tell a story in which the Doctor learns to cry happy tears? Fine. Make it make sense as a story. I swear to God, Moffat seems to think lately that momentary signifiers and brief images that are cool or awesome are themselves enough to be the story, rather than just the cherries on top of the story. It reminds me of the joke about jokes so old and so shopworn that all a gal has to say to her regular audience is “Punchline No. 124” for everyone to fall down laughing. That’s what Moffat is doing here: he throws out an image of a Christmas hug with Daddy, and we’re all supposed to get soppy. He has the Doctor explain his presence to Madge with a would-be sentimental “You were there for me,” even though it in no way explains his presence at all. (In what way was his return about being there for her, except in making the easy chairs dance and Willy Wonka-ing up the kids’ room?) He throws out a line about a mother searching for her kids, and we’re all supposed to cheer. But moments like that have to be earned. They don’t — they can’t — exist independent of their context. Ripley’s “Get away from her, you bitch” — which I feel Moffat was trying to evoke in more than a few moments — only works because of the context in which it occurs. Such moments work as signifiers now because of the deep and intense context they sprang from (so that we can say “Ripley in the queen’s nest” and have it mean volumes, like “Juliet on her balcony” and “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra” can). There’s nothing at all like that here — we can’t say “Madge in the forest” because it says nothing. Moffat cheats and hopes we won’t notice, or won’t care.

This isn’t just nitpicking. Nitpicking is doing what more than a few people have already pointed out, that the plane Daddy is flying wouldn’t actually come into use until the following year. That’s a lazy, inexcusable mistake, but it wouldn’t kill a good story. I’m talking about stuff that kills the story… or, actually, never lets a story get going in the first place. This is seeing that a house of cards has no clothes. So to speak. The whole shebang makes absolutely no sense. Not as a story. Not as Doctor Who. It’s bullshit and nonsense heaped atop more bullshit and nonsense, and we should be insulted as fans. We shoudn’t just accept an “everybody lives!” ending as a good thing if it’s not earned.

Random thoughts on “The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe”:

• I’m not sure this is survivable:

Doctor Who The Doctor the Widow and the Wardrobe Matt Smith

Never mind this:

Doctor Who The Doctor the Widow and the Wardrobe

Yes, I caught that line about the suit “repairing” him. But whatev. This is certainly the least of the problems with this story.

• What an incredible waste of Bill Bailey:

Doctor Who The Doctor the Widow and the Wardrobe Bill Bailey

You know what I always think when there’s a tremendous misuse of a guest star… and particular of a guest star who’s a huge fan of the show, as Bailey is? I figure he or she must be thinking, Seriously, that was it? I waited 30 years to be on this show, and that’s what they did with me?! And now this means I can’t be on again, at least not for a long time, or else the fans will be all ‘Continuity! Wasn’t he the Androzani Major major? How can he now be the Director of the Skaro Museum of Antiquities ten thousand years before that?’ Crap. I feel so sad for Bailey.

• Oh, the superfluous military team is from Androzani Major, is it? Moffat: Invoking one of the greatest of the classic stories ain’t helping here. You really wanna remind us that the old show actually pulled off some kickass science fiction drama?

• So, it’s Christmas morning, and Daddy — still miraculously alive — lands his plane. Now Daddy has been AWOL for five days, because the telegram that Madge had stated December 20th as the day he died. Where are the other members of Daddy’s crew (there were at least two other men in the plane)? They’re AWOL, too.

• Okay, so, the Doctor says his friends think he’s dead. Is he referring to the events at the end of “The Wedding of River Song,” or to the fact that he called Amy and left a message on her voicemail saying good-bye from the ship just as he believed he was about to be smashed into smithereens? Amy at her door on Christmas night says she knew the Doctor was still alive and not dead because “River told us,” which is a clear reference to the end of “Wedding”… unless the Doctor and River have encountered each other again in between his not getting blown to smithereens and that Christmas night. Which certainly could have happened in the time between his not getting blown to smithereens and that Christmas night. Who knows how long it was between Madge’s helping him back to the TARDIS and his Willy Wonka-ing…

• The happy-tears bit

Doctor Who The Doctor the Widow and the Wardrobe Matt Smith

was a nice moment for Matt Smith. Too bad his performance was wasted.

• Horrible quotes:

“Happy crying. Humany wumany.” –the Doctor (ugh)

(next: “Asylum of the Daleks”)

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