TV On Christmas morning, on BBC Breakfast, Susanna Reid (wearing rather fetching TARDIS blue dress), introduced a rendition of Shakin’ Stevens’s Merry Christmas Everyone from soldiers stationed in Helmand province beamed in live through a camera phone. Next on the running order was interview via similar technology with Blue Peter’s Helen Skelton preparing for her cycle ride to the South Pole, who commented on how the singing had made her feel very Christmassy. A lady standing in Antarctica can now listen to the voices of soldiers in Afghanistan and then mention it to a presenter sitting in London.
On realising this, my face must have been the spit of little Cyril in The Doctor, The Widow And The Wardobe as I was swept up in the magic of the moment, and as well as all the presents, first turkey dinner on Christmas Day in years and a copy of The Brilliant Book, the experience set me up perfectly for the night’s Doctor Who. In the days since broadcast the backlash has already begun, about how it’s another loose collection of Steven Moffat’s same old tropes, that it’s not the most complex of stories, that Matt’s on auto and although some of that’s true (I’d strongly disagree about Matt), this is one of those episodes about atmosphere and about being swept up along by it all.
Which accounts for the brevity and lateness of this review. I don’t want to unpick it, take it apart and put it back together again, paragraphs filled with discussion about the language of television and the TARDIS’s status as a wardrobe metaphor especially since, as if to emphasise the point, it’s not the time machine which transports the family to the fantastical forest but just an ordinary box. Not to mention, Jonathan Morris’s recent strip for Doctor Who Magazine, The Professor, the Queen and the Bookshop covered much of the territory in pictorial form. I want my memory of it not to be about hour spent forming an opinion, but the episode itself, the images.
Images like Claire Skinner’s Madge entirely at ease with the technology she’s presented with almost as though she’s encountered such things before. Skinner captures the spirit perfectly, the slight sense of reverie, Rose’s initial reaction to the aliens on Platform One, (“Ok.” “Ok.”) layered across an entire episode and she’s another example of a one off “companion” with a strong, almost Doctorish sense of independence, even able to outwit admittedly clueless examples of humanity from centuries into her future. We could fantasise about her being Amy and Rory’s replacement, but Skinner’s a busy actress and Madge would never leave her kids.
Excellent kids too, especially Holly Earl’s playing of someone slightly younger. The in-depth version of this review would consider the increasing preponderance of children in the Moffat era, far more than in the first four or five years and how they help to create a portal into the stories for kids. Actually like companions for the Doctor, Cyril’s sense of wonder is more of a way for us adults to be enchanted again, allowing us to project ourselves backwards, become the kinds of people who can marvel at modern technology. Either way it certainly works here, as the forest reveals its secrets like organic baubles in a sequence which reminded me of the first tentative steps into Skaro in The Daleks (or whatever it's called).
The sudden re-emergence of old mythology in the form of Androzani Major is also good fun even if it’s a reminder that characters like the three miners will always be given less to do now the format skews towards shorter stories. Moffat cleverly frames them psychologically in 80s terms, closer to Red Dwarf crewmembers, which suits all three actors perfectly, Bill Bailey’s fearful reaction shot as he realises what this mother means business, one of the story’s big laughs. Like Madge, they seem designed for a return engagement and with thirteen singles in the next series and so thirteen episodes, there’s plenty of room.
Visually binding this together is photographer Stephan Pehrsson, taking a break from his collaboration with Toby Haynes to work with new to Who director Farren Blackburn, someone he’s also previous collaborated on episodes of Holby City. It’s another beautiful rendition from Pehrsson, who aided by some typically stunning production design from Michael Pickwoad, conjures a world that’s partly The Box of Delights, partly The Shining. In her shot choices and direction, Blackburn keeps the focus on Madge and the children only bringing the Doctor to the fore when absolutely necessary. It’s their story and Matt’s forever at the back of shot, straightening his tie.
As we await the sale at Dobbies of licensed garden ornaments based on the wood people, let’s finally ponder another reminder that as well as the Doctor, Moffat’s rule one is that he lies. In The Brilliant Book, he says Amy and Rory aren’t in the special and yet there they are and thank goodness. Off they may be, but this reunion scene, mirroring the departure in The God Complex reminds us of how much they’ll be missed when they’re gone. The Doctor’s had happy tears before, even in recent memory, but these were the kinds of tears we only have when we know that we have a home. Sadly, unbeknownst to him, this is home from which he'll soon be evicted. Sad tears soon.