Sunday, 16 September 2012

Doctor Who - The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe


I’m a bit late with this one (it aired last Christmas), but I felt it was important not to miss reviewing any episodes now that I’ve managed to get this blog up and running again. Doctor Who is an important part of my life, and that should be reflected in this blog. It’s a shame this particular episode is just so downright poor.

As a Christmas episode, it has to be given a certain amount of leeway. The Christmas episodes are made for a slightly different audience (considerably more people tune into the Christmas specials on average than the regular series episodes). This audience has different expectations. In general, the Christmas audience is looking for something a little lighter, with more comedy, more “fluff”, and more sentimentality. “The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe”, written by Steven Moffat, certainly delivers these things, but it does so in a way devoid of interesting plot or characters. I get the impression that Steven Moffat was responding to criticisms that 2010’s special, “A Christmas Carol” (which I thought was brilliant), was too complex for a Christmas Day audience and ended up going too far in simplifying this year's special.

When I first watched the episode last December, I was left feeling incredibly unsatisfied in a way that I’m still not really used to with Doctor Who (even though it seems to be happening more and more often). Right away, I considered it the weakest of all Christmas specials to date, and one of the weakest episodes of the series ever. I had hoped to get this blog going again around that time, so I started thinking about how I would review it, and as I plotted the words, I began to wonder whether I was being too harsh. Maybe a faulty memory and sense of nostalgia was elevating the quality of previous years in my mind. So I decided to rewatch a previous Christmas special that I had not seen in ages, 2008’s “The Next Doctor”. I had always considered “The Next Doctor” one of the weakest Christmas specials, but my memory still rated it higher than “The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe”, so it seemed the ideal one to double-check. Part of me truly expected to discover that, in comparison, “The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe” really wasn’t that bad. I was wrong. The two episodes are roughly the same length, yet so much more happens in “The Next Doctor” despite still having an uncomplicated plot. It has fully fleshed-out characters who are real and believable, and not the caricatures of “Wardrobe”.

As it’s been nine months since “Wardrobe” aired, I rewatched it before writing this review, and I naturally wondered if maybe the gap in time might make me appreciate it a little more. Alas, my opinion has not changed.

SPOILERS FOLLOW

Very little actually happens in “The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe”. The events can pretty much be summarized as follows: The Doctor gives a World War II family a present that whisks them off to another world filled with naturally occurring Christmas trees. The trees are about to be wiped out by human invaders, so the trees decide to leave, taking the Doctor and friends along for the ride and dropping them off back home. A simple, straight-forward plot isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, in a way, it’s refreshing to see Moffat attempt a simple plot for a change, as his recent series arc plots have become so overly complicated that they’re falling apart from the sheer weight of their convolutions. I have no doubt that the plot of “Wardrobe” could have been done well and could have been highly enjoyable. Unfortunately, it suffers from two major problems.

First, none of the characters have any real impact on what happens, not even the Doctor. They’re just along for the ride. The trees have set up everything in advance, and the Doctor and company are nothing more than observers. Even Madge as the “mother ship” doesn’t really have any effect on the outcome. The trees have already preordained what she has to do, and she just does it. She doesn’t accomplish anything, and is not in anyway shown to be special or remarkable, other than the fact that she’s a woman, and being a woman is the whole solution to the problem. Given the fact that roughly 50% of the human population is made up of women, this fact doesn’t really make her stand out in any way.

However, even that first problem could be overcome if the characters were at all interesting. Nothing about any of the characters makes them stand out as different or unique. Each one is just a place holder for what the plot needs to have happen. The two children, Lily and Cyril, are...well, just stock children. Cyril, in the typical manner of tv boys, is the one who can’t wait for Christmas and opens the present early. Lily, in the typical manner of tv girls, is his slightly more mature sister who occasionally tells him off. There’s a brief attempt early on to give Cyril a bit of character by showing him having an interest in astronomy and a knowledge of big words like agriculture, but this is forgotten about as soon as the “Three Years Later” (during which the children apparently don’t age a day) caption comes up and is never developed in any way. Lily doesn’t even get that much. Her entire role is just to ask the Doctor what’s happening. She could be removed from the story entirely without altering it in any way. The children pretty much serve no other purpose than to be the motivating factor for their mother, Madge. There’s nothing wrong with them being what motivates their mother; however, I would have preferred that they have some personality to augment their plot roles.

As the principle guest character, Madge should have been a lot more than she was. Over the course of the story, we learn that she is a mother who is upset because her husband has died and she doesn’t know how to tell her kids. A decent starting point, I suppose, but she never develops beyond that. She doesn’t grow as a person. The sentimental ending where the father turns out to be alive after all even spares her from having to tell her kids that their father has died, disallowing her any kind of accomplishment there. We learn nothing about her relationship with her husband Reg (other than he kept following her home until she married him, which is a bit stalkerish without some additional context), nothing really about her relationship with her kids (other than she’s their mother, which is apparently all that matters—and I’m not exaggerating here; that really seems to be the message of the story), nothing about her as an individual at all. Oh, except that she can’t drive very well, and keeps crashing the car. Ha ha, women are bad drivers, isn’t that hilarious? (I’m really not fond of rants, so I apologize for the sarcasm in that last statement; however, I do think this is a serious concern in the episode, and I’ll delve into its implications shortly.)

With the main guest cast being completely characterless, that leaves us with the bit parts. Sometimes, well-written bit parts can lift an otherwise lacklustre story. That’s not the case with “Wardrobe”. In the lead-up to the episode, a big deal was made in the advertising that Bill Bailey was guest-starring. I’ve always liked Bailey’s work and I loved him in Black Books, so I was looking forward to seeing him in Doctor Who. Unfortunately, he is completely wasted in this episode. He’s there for a few minutes, says a few lines, and then is gone. What was the point of his character or the other Androzani characters? There was nothing unique or memorable about them. As I write this, I can’t even remember the names of any of them, not even Bailey’s character, and it hasn’t been long since I watched the episode. They are apparently patrolling the planet five minutes before their people are about to unleash acid rain to dissolve the forest. Perhaps they’re looking for stragglers on the planet in order to remove them before the rain comes? They do find Madge and attempt to arrest her for trespassing, but then they leave her behind as they teleport away. They also leave behind the giant walker they were patrolling the planet in. Really? They just leave behind a massive piece of equipment to be destroyed by the acid rain? Do they have an endless supply of these machines? Why did they even have the walker in the first place when they are able to teleport to and from the planet with such ease? Unfortunately, the only answers to those questions are meta ones. They bring the walker and then leave it behind just so Madge can show us how awesome she is by figuring out how to “drive” it. We are told it takes years of training to learn how to use, yet Madge (who has never displayed any ability to do something like this) figures it out in a matter of seconds and drives it to where her children are so she can rescue them. Then she promptly crashes it so that we can laugh again at how bad a driver she is. In a matter of literally just a few seconds, the audience is expected to be in awe of how amazing she is and then laugh at her incompetence.

This leads me into another issue I have with this episode, and it’s one that is becoming a recurring issue with Moffat’s stories: his portrayal of women. I mentioned in a previous review that I could write a whole essay on sexism in Moffat’s Doctor Who, and it’s now something that I fully intend to write quite soon. As such, I’ll keep it brief here. Madge is defined solely by her being a woman. Her family is the most important thing in her life and there is nothing to her life beyond her family. Now, there’s nothing wrong with a female character who wants or has a family. Many women in real life want this, as do many men. The problem comes from this being the sole defining trait, and it is repeatedly the central trait of all Moffat’s female characters. Becoming a mother is made the ultimate goal of every female character. We’ve seen Amy repudiated by the Doctor himself for not “growing up” and settling down with Rory. Even River Song (an otherwise very strong female character) is ultimately defined by her love for the Doctor, and at the end of her life (ironically seen in her fist appearance) ends up settling down to raise the young girl and the computer-generated children in the Library. In “Wardrobe”, Madge saves the day, not because she’s a competent character, not because she takes a risk or does something inventive, but because she’s a mother. She is the “mother ship”. She is “strong” while the Doctor is “weak” solely because she’s a woman and a mother. The trees could have used any other woman and gotten the same results, leading to the message that all women are the same: they’re mothers (or mothers-to-be). If this were the one and only time this happens, it really wouldn’t mean much. One could just say the trees are a bunch of sexist characters (heck, it would give the trees some character; as is, the trees are so characterless, they don’t even warrant names) and be done with it. But the constant repetition of this theme in virtually every Moffat-penned story leaves a disturbing message: Women aren’t real women unless they grow up and have a baby.

It also leads to unkind interpretations of the “Madge can’t drive” joke repeated throughout the episode. Is this a deliberate statement that women are bad drivers? I doubt it. Being a bad driver is not something that comes from being a woman; nor does it come from being a man. It’s an individual trait that can occur in either men or women, and I’m sure Steven Moffat knows this. However, since Madge has no other individual traits beyond being a woman, it does lead to the disturbing conclusion that Madge is a bad driver because she’s a woman. I really don’t think this is the intention, but the implication is there nonetheless. If Madge were a more fleshed-out character, her driving skills (or lack thereof) would be just one among many individual traits, and I could laugh at her crashes the way we’re all obviously meant to. But without that individuality, I’m left with my jaw hanging slightly open and wondering, “Did they really just go there?”

You may note that I’ve hardly mentioned the Doctor so far in this review. That would be because...well, he’s kind of superfluous in this story. Apart from creating the gateway to the planet at the beginning, he doesn’t actually do or accomplish anything in this story except explain to Lily, and thus the audience, what’s happening (oh, and he learns how to cry happy tears from a coda that has nothing to do with the rest of the episode). Now, there have been stories before that have the Doctor as just a side character, and some of them have been extremely good (“Blink”, also by Steven Moffat, comes to mind), but “Wardrobe” is not one of them, and that’s because every character in this story is a side character. None of them actually matter to the outcome.

It’s extremely rare that I cannot find any redeeming aspects in a Doctor Who episode. Even the worst episodes (and there have been a number of bad ones in its nearly fifty-year history) have something about them that makes them watchable. Unfortunately, “The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe” is one of the few that I really have to struggle with to find something. I suppose the bit near the beginning of the episode when the Doctor is showing Madge and the kids around the house is kind of fun. The crazy alterations the Doctor has made to the rooms did produce a chuckle or two out of me. I did laugh at the Magna Carta being included amongst all the toys in the children’s bedroom. And Bill Bailey did get one good line in his otherwise wasted appearance: “Please tell me we can tell the difference between wool and side-arms.” Alas, that’s about it.

The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe” is one of the most disappointing Doctor Who episodes I’ve ever seen (and yes, I’ve seen all the surviving ones and listened to the audio of the missing ones). It’s not even one of those “so bad, it’s good because you can laugh at it” episodes (like the 1985 story, “Timelash”). It’s just dull, boring, and completely uninteresting.

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