Monday, December 19, 2011

REVIEW: The Doctor, The Widow & the Wardrobe [SPOILER~FREE]

The Christmas Specials, I think we all agree, work differently to your normal episode of the world's greatest television show™. We've come to expect certain things from them as Team Who have to produce a piece of work that is palatable/understandable on the biggest day of the televisual calendar to many more who don't normally tune in every Saturday (in the UK, at least).

The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe works very well in this context. I'm sure the extra millions who tune in will thoroughly enjoy it. I'm sure, in fact, that many fans will enjoy it too. I'm guessing that you can see where this is going (and, you've probably just looked at the rating below anyway).

This is not a good episode of Doctor Who.

In fact, I'd go so far to say that it's almost poor, verging on dull in parts. But let me start with the good things - of which there a great many, it has to be said.

Matt is in great form as The Doctor, most notably in the early scenes where he introduces the family to their new home. Smith's energy and exuberance is fittingly festive and utterly delightful. As always, his Time Lord shines brightest when in the presence of children, and the kids here adore him.

The young actor and actress perform superbly (continuing the SteeMo trope of memorable kids), particularly Holly Earl (the daughter of the story, Lily Arwell), who spends much time with the Time Lord. One hopes that somehow she can return as a permanent companion - Matt's interactions with her are incredible and unlike any relationship between Doctor and Companion in a very long time. Most refreshing.

Claire Skinner, the mother Madge Arwell, is solid if slightly whelming - never amazing, just stout and pleasingly pitched. Sadly, the trio of Paul Bazely, Arabella Weir and Bill Bailey don't fare so well. Their Outer Space Park Patrol characters come off out of place due to the overly comedic nature of the roles. Their schtick is very Monty Python and jars with the drama at hand (again, it's Christmas so they're forgiven).

Bailey especially is horrifically underutilised and someone as beloved as he is, someone who is on most fan lists to appear on the show (including mine) should have been gifted a larger part. It's sad to think that his talents and personality have been wasted on such a forgettable and uninteresting role. Sad, also, as it means we won't see him again in the near future. But back to the good.

It is beautifully shot and the Christmas~esque world will delight your eyes. Director Farren Blackburn's first Who outing is a visual triumph and he sets no foot wrong; ranging from the whimsical openings (yes, plural - there's a couple), the childlike romp through the house to the wonder of the forest and the mystery of the Trees. Blackburn is most welcome back for 2012.


Likewise the CG work is very good in parts; augmenting the Tree beings subtly to great effect. The design work, however, is slightly derivative in parts: the space suits, worn by Bailey & Co. and the Harvester (evoking both The Empire Strikes Back and Aliens - not a bad thing mind), for example. Though full marks for making the room in which the last third takes place give a huge nod to UK Eighties game show, The Crystal Maze.

But my biggest gripe come in the form of the story itself. It's a mess. A big Christmas mess. It's not really a story - the narrative, as we have become accustomed to of late, has been dumped by the wayside. The hour is constructed of moments, some remarkable as I have alluded to, but there is a palpable disconnection present.

It's hard to care or get involved with the Trees or their plot (which includes an incredibly well trod and outdated ecological message). The appearance and subsequently rapid disappearance of Bailey & Co. also highlights the segmential style of storytelling going on (and make you wonder why they bothered getting talent like that in for such a cameo). For me, though, the biggest "crime" of The Doctor, The Widow & the Wardrobe is its denouement.

I'm not going to spoil it for you but once the final scenes kick in, you'll see what's coming up a mile off. Now predictability is not the issue I have, just to be clear. Knowing what's coming up can be, after all, incredibly satisfying. But it's the content and style of the resolution that, once again this year, left me frustrated and annoyed.

Moffat's Who, of late, has seen characters thinking themselves, and others, into existence (just by remembering); love saving the day (frequently); and the power of thought defeating an enemy. For me, it's a bit too magical and esoteric. And unsubstantial. This ending is a retread of some of these ideas and, at best, groan~inducing. Or tear~inducing - depending on how emotional you get on Christmas Day.


As I opened with, some may very well be happy with this. I wasn't too keen on last year's A Christmas Carol but it pleased the majority. And, again, it's Christmas so I won't be too concerned with my doubts. The Doctor, The Widow & the Wardrobe has lots going for it and one can't help but feel that a little more time and care on this story could've ironed out some issues, fleshed out some characters (or got rid of some) and even changed the ending.

Most disappointing is the fact that it's just another episode from 2011 I won't be coming back to.


Thanks to the BBC
BLOGTOR RATING 6/10
RECENT POSTS
The Doctor, The Widow & the Wardrobe new images
U.N.I.T. Files DVD details
Moffat and Smith BBC 5Live interview
Sherlock more promo pics
The Christmas Invasion audio commentary

29 comments:

Anna said...

Why am I not surprised?

The Moffat years have been, to paraphrase you, UNDERwhelming. And it's not down to the acting--they're all just fine and obviously capable of having been so much better--if only they'd had a better showrunner. (And, once again, I'm writing this as someone who loved the Moffat-written episodes for RTD.)

Here--go enjoy this, instead.

http://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/ct-ent-1215-allegra-rosenberg-20111214,0,5997140.story

Quoth Neil Gaiman: "Took me 3 years of scribbling & rewrites to make 45 minutes of Dr. Who, summed up in 2:29 by a smart girl with a ukulele." (But then, Neil's a sucker for smart girls with ukeleles, like his wife, Amanda F*cking Palmer.)

Anonymous said...

As someone who despised The End of Time, you review means this episode might actually be quite good!

Cameron McEwan said...

Haha, indeed Anonymous! Indeed.

Anonymous said...

Interesting review and just as I dreaded. I would make the unpopular decision of stopping the Xmas specials they add noting to the stoty bar, I admit, recruiting new fans. Since the Xmas Invasion its all been downhill

PreTitlesSequence said...

To be honest, I'm probably going to disagree with this review when I watch the episode. But at least you clearly explained why you didn't like it. Good review, but I don't really agree with the opinion, going on what I've seen.

Chris22Webb said...

Blimey Blogtor that's pretty damming. But can it be any worse than "The Next Doctor". Surely not!

Jem said...

Thanks Cameron - always respect your point of view. You seem to be one of the few blogsters I read who is willing to make any constructive comments about Moffat's Who on its own terms.

It seems to be increasingly difficult to criticise Moffat's Who given the OVERwhelming media love for it and the almost cultish devotion in the twitterverse and blogworld for The Moff and all of his utterances.

I am still looking forward to this as someone who has been more and more frustrated at the lack of coherence of the story telling of the series and how good it should be given the excellent Smith, the gorgeous look of it and the individual moments of brilliance. I must admit that I simply couldn't watch the last River Song episode to the end but I live in hope and that a new companion and fresh approach may result in a better direction in the future.

In trying to put my finger on what simply doesn't gell for me. I think it is that the geist of the current series is smugness - look at how clever this bit is, isn't it clever how I just did this - see and if you can see how clever this is, you're clever too. Now just wait for the next clever bit and don't worry too much about the fact that it doesn't make sense in between, because we're both clever and anyone who wants to complain is not part of our clever gang.

Who has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember right back to black and white Troughton.

It's probably best to compare my reaction to Moffatt's Who with the RTD era (and that is not without its bad bits as well). That seemed to be written in the spirit of openheartedness. Yes, baggy and sloppy but inclusive and uncynical and generous. It makes it easier to forgive the shortcomings when the program wants to give you a hug rather than a sneer.

As with last year's Special I will expect to admire bits, be charmed by Smith as usual but feel distanced and manipulated by an expert at his game.


And yes before I get heaped upon, this is only my opinion.

Keep up the good work Cameron - I enjoy this forum as your contributions are thoughtful and most comments are respectful of others opinions.

Jem

Chris22Webb said...

Ooooops *damning*.
Hope I like it but you're not usually wrong.

Lucas said...

I'm not surprised. To me, what you described is what Moffat Who is to me: great actors, but underwhelming plots and disappointing resolutions.

Maybe next year it'll change, but I doubt it.

David said...

I, for one, who like to see the Christmas Specials go away. Beyond "The Christmas Invasion" - which introduced the 10th Doctor, the rest seem to be pointless (I mean, there is a reason most sci-fi shows avoid this holiday).

With the shift in airing of next season, I hope Moffat and company do away with these specials, and instead give us 14 (and I would be happy with 13) episodes that return the series back to the old days -back to the Tom Baker early years, when stories were brilliant, sometimes creepy, sometimes silly, but always more entertaining.

I've like the Tennant years, and I've enjoyed Matt Smith as well. I just think the stories have been underwhelming as well (be it because of budget cuts or a lack of vision, I'm not sure). The Doctor's Wife proved that you can make a great story, even on a reduced budget. But is Doctor Who becoming like most American shows - all sound and fury, with nothing underneath its surface (yes, I'm talking about you, American Horror Story)?

Anonymous said...

Poor Moffat. His most loved stories, those of the RTD era and the Fith Series, must have had ideas and concepts refined over a lot of time. Probably many years.

His newer episodes do not have this same shine, and it shows.

Anonymous said...

I've just watched it myself. You seem to view the RTD era through rose coloured glasses cameron if you think too many stories in the MOFFAT era are solved with "the power of love"!

It's certainly not a BAD episode of doctor who, not a great one either, but definitely better than "the next doctor", "voyage of the damned", "the end of time part 1" and "the runaway bride". There's a lot more to like than your review indicates in my opinion, the script is very funny in parts and the wooden king and queen are very well realised and incredibly creepy at times.

I also think you're selling the ending short by labelling it as a "wishing back into existence" ending. That isn't really what happens and the actual resolution is far more rooted in the fiction of the show than you indicate. It didn't make me groan (unlike basically every RTD christmas episode).

Farsighted said...

I happened to love last years' A Christmas Carol, which I think was one of Moffat's finest stories, so I'm certainly going to like this one I am sure. Sorry it wasn't for you, but that's the way it goes. Better luck next year!

jack said...

"Poor Moffat. His most loved stories, those of the RTD era and the Fith Series, must have had ideas and concepts refined over a lot of time. Probably many years."

Haha. Moff has claimed that "Blink", arguably his most loved episode, was the fastest thing he ever wrote.

And I don't think he needs any "poor Moffat". Dude is currently involved in *three* successful franchises, one of which is a hollywood movie.

John Manning said...

Great review, many thanks – this year's Who output has disappointed me, as a lifelong fan, overall. "Underwhelming" is an apt term.

I'm a regular follower of Blogtor and respect your opinion greatly so while I'll watch on Christmas Day (assuming the baby doesn't appear a week early) and will try to suspend my disbelief, I won't expect great things.

Lots of folk are saying Moffat's RTD episodes were the best Who-things he's done and overall I agree.

Suspect he's out of his depth and if the series' stories deteriorate much more I fear it might be canned again.

Time for the man at the helm to regenerate perhaps?

DanJ said...

Shame that this review seems to be written by someone who has obviously not enjoyed the recent direction 'Who' is taking.

The fact the show is more popular than ever and attracting more viewers than ever does not make you wrong - but sadly makes you sound like a fan who wants the show his way rather than the way it is.

I have been watching since 1977 and I absolutely adore new Who and old Who and all Who.... yes I am blinkered but I know what is bad Who and recent years have been far, far from that.

This review made me cringe as it seems you went in expecting not to like it.

Reviews at other sites such as 'Den of Geek' etc have been much more level and seemingly neutral in their look at the episode.

This is for mass consumption for xmas day and frankly the series is also a bit in that boat.

And frankly I dont mind as it is excellent! :)

Blinkers on? A little but if it is as bad as this review.... i'll hang up my scarf... :)

Thanks for the review but the fact it has me bothered to write this means it got me a little flustered.

Shame really... I feel u r missing out on something really special.

Tardis Art said...

I'll probably disagree with you when I watch it because it sounds right up my street and I rarely meet eye to eye with you on your opinions of episodes but at least it's an intelligent well written review that looks at it on its own merits and not comparing it to something it's not trying to be. Some people online seem to be unable to justify their points as well as you have. For example, 'I hate it because it's Moff/RTD/Classic Who/NuWho etc' isn't a valid justification. Good review Cameron and loving the Blogtor Advent calendar.

Evil Adam said...

There were definitely some very good and very mediocre to bad episodes this season. Though I do have to question the assertion I think it was Jem made that the media loves SM... I mean haven't several UK papers been declaring the death of Doctor Who for the last year and a half?

In any case, like every Doctor Who Christmas episode with a bit of trepidation, I generally enjoy them, but I don't usually think "I need to sit down and watch them again RIGHT NOW" like I commonly do with regular season episodes.

Vincent Truman said...

I am certain I will agree with your assessment when I watch the episode. It is never terribly fun to look at something you've long admired and say, 'well that's not good.' In fact, I think people tend to avoid that conclusion because they've invested so much in that particular thing. Lord knows I still struggle through the odd Sylvester McCoy episode, because I will not be told my initial 10+ year adoration of Who ended on such a poor note.

For the new Who, my interest has been in direct balance with the size of each series arc. And, as this season's arc made the entirety of time stop (leading to more 'but wait...why...' moments than I can count), I found myself rather cold in the wake of Moff's clever twisties.

One day not long ago, the Doctor wouldn't cross timestreams because he was 'part of events now'; and then just last year, the Doctor mucked about with the Scrooge fellow's timeline to the point that impossible dialogue followed (I still cringe when I think of the Scrooge guy saying, 'I have new memories...' --- how the hell would he know they were new?).

And it's that 'well what the hell' approach that Moff takes which makes me think that, finally, sadly, after 30 odd years, I may have outgrown Doctor Who.

Anonymous said...

Go up these comments doing a search on RTD and see how many times it comes up. *THAT* is why the media and fans of Moffat have a cultish devotion, to bat off the onslaught of comments from RTD fanatics.
I'm sorry, I hated RTDs work, I cried at the end of the Girl in the Fireplace, in The Girl Who Waited and the ghosting scene of Silence in the Library, at the speech to Amelia, but the scene RTD fans cried at, Tenant saying goodbye I was yelling at the TV "don't have him face the TV crying and basically ask the audience to cry, come on a little more subtlety please!".
Fans of RTD loved the epic finales and paid no mind to saving the day with a time rewind button or assitant granted magic powers, but harp on and on about Amy remembering the universe back into existence (despite the seeds for the resolution having been planted in the Eleventh Hour and watered in Flesh and Stone).
We're ok with critical assesments of Moffats tenure (and indeed I also preffer many of his episodes under RTD, when he wrote one a year... but I also happen to much preffer his contributions as show runner to those of RTD and surely that's a fairer comparison?).

Don't like it, that is your right, I dislike the RTD era and against most of fandom the Pertwee era, both were too monster of the week and too earthbound for my tastes, and many of the criticisms of the Moffat are legitimate I'm sure just *STOP* harping on about how he's destroyed the show when under RTD McRae produced a pale immitaton of Spare Parts, Graham Fear Her and RTDs worst was Love and Monsters when in Moffats second year the worst he's given is AGMGTW, Graham has redeemed himself somewhat with the classic style Rebel Flesh and McRae has written the absolute superb (my personal favourite episode and I've been a fan all my distressingly long life) Girl Who Waited.

We're tired of it, and the more you push how fantastic things under RTD the more people like me are reminded of how much we hated it and the more likely we are to be less objective when assessing Moffats work.

I'm personally looking forward to this XMas special as last years was my favourite thus far as it tackled the spirit of christmas rather than turning the commercial representation of it into cheesy monsters/ space ships (even if I can hapilly admit the Shark sleigh ride was a little too cheesy).

Anonymous said...

Incidentally I don't think Moffat went what the hell with Scrooge gaining new memories at all, he very specifically set things up so he would be watching the events that changed them as they changed. It's not something the show has ever done before *but* it's long been established time travellers retain memories of both sets of a timelines so it's only an extension of an existing conceit.

Anonymous said...

"We're tired of it, and the more you push how fantastic things under RTD the more people like me are reminded of how much we hated it and the more likely we are to be less objective when assessing Moffats work."

So, you base your judgments on how much someone dares to like something you don't? Oh joy.

So you hated the RTD era. So what? I'm not fond of the Moffat era, but you liking it isn't going to make me like (for example) Voyage of the Damned, which RTD wrote. Your liking the Moffat era doesn't effect my opinion of the RTD era. Why doesn't that work vice versa? Why do RTD fans have to keep quiet about liking his work just so people like you don't have a strop about how much you hate it?

Rufus said...

Haha, These comment sections always turn into a rather aggressive debate it would seem. I love the Moffat era but also think it's far too early to judge his era fairly yet especially considering most criticism is aimed at series 6 (a drastically different series to what has been and what will apparently come in the future)... The only thing I disliked fiercely about the RTD era was The End of Time but most seem to disagree with me and that's fine, I couldn't care less but what I do care about is the fierce judgement of the Moff's era, even if you already know it isn't quite your cup of tea just wait until the end of it to judge it completely, It would also be horrifically unfair to judge the entire RTD era on his first two series alone

Anonymous said...

Wow the post two above really missed the point of the poster he was replying too I think. There have been numerous producers and people, in response to a Moffat reiview are obsessively telling us what RTD would have done. The show changes, deal with it.
And incidentally Moffat is yet to produce an episode as bad as Love and Monsters or Voyage of the Damned for comparison.

Anonymous said...

Yes... something very weird about the poster aboves intepretation. No one mentioned being quiet about your opinion on RTD, simply that starting an "RTD was better because" flame at every opportunity (e.g. a Christmas special written by Moffat, and it's not as if the Christmas specials were an example of RTDs highly regarded works) is inappropriate, tiresome, and it makes us more rational fans look bad. I'd like to think we're not all that cynical, aggressive and obsessive.

Anonymous said...

Adored Christmas Carol, actually think it was the best Christmas special since Runaway Bride so I'm sure I'll love this.

As for the comments calling for an end to the Christmas specials "as they add nothing" - WHAT!? You don't have to watch, seriously, there is a choice there, let the rest of us have our fun.

Still excited for the Christmas Special as always. Good review though, one of the very few Moffat critiques that actually make coherent sense and aren't just nasty attacks.

Anonymous said...

Chistmas Carol was superb and in my opinion was by far and away the best christmas Who episode so far (RTD's christmas episodes, and most of his non-christmas episodes were dreadful, Voyage of the Damned and the GODAWFUL End of Time being the lowest points) and I'm looking forward to this one too. Loving Moffat and Smith's era of Who far. Cannot get enough.

dposs said...

I like Matt Smith as the Doctor but under Stephen Moffat he is like an out of control energizer bunny. He acts his Doctor on fast forward and it tires me out watching it. It's not just him for the show feels the same way to me. Moffat throws so much info and junk in there that is often hard to keep up.

When they slow down the show and Smith are Wonderful as shown in two Who episodes featuring Smith.
Sadly Stephen Moffat had little to do with either show.
1. The first was the "Death of the Doctor" from Sarah Jane Adventures. This show was showrun by RTD and shows Smith with his humor and charm and also some seriousness brought over from the Tennant era.
2. The 2nd ep was "The doctors wife" written by Neil Gaiman. This ep was the most thoughtful(and best IMO) of the season. It also gave a great nod to Who history and showed(I believe) for the 1st time since the series relaunch that the Tardis has more rooms than just the control room.

I like Smith but I believe Moffat needs to go.

Laz said...

I really don't agree at all with you on this (I liked it... not loved it more than life itself, but liked it), but I like the way you remain positive and "civil" (without bashing anyone) even when you don't like the episode. Not a lot of people can do that!

I'm really glad I follow your site.