[A revised and improved version of this essay appears in my book The Eleventh Doctor: a critical ramble through Matt Smith’s tenure in Doctor Who.]
It’s taken five months, but tonight we finally all sat down and watched Doctor Who‘s 2012 Christmas special again. So I can finally expand on my extremely brief initial remarks.
Unfortunately, this is going to be a very tedious excuse for a review, because once again, I’m going to be overwhelmingly positive. I was very disappointed by the final episode of Series 6, and remarked that “Next up will be the Christmas special — a presumably stand-alone story in which I hope we will see that Moffat has not misplaced his mojo”. And indeed we did.
I remember, on first seeing DW&W, thinking that the beginning and end were outstanding but the middle was lacking. On watching it again, I kept waiting for the beginning to conclude — for the outstanding bit to come to an end — but it just kept surprising and delighting me. That said, the first twenty minutes or so, up until they go through the box into Narnia, really were a catalogue of all that is sensational about Who.
It’s not just the individual qualities. It’s the juxatapositions. The crash-bang-wallop opening is followed by the gentle humour of the Doctor’s first hapless encounter with Madge. More startling, the Doctor’s goofy exposition of the modifications he’s made to the house runs into the brick wall of Madge’s repressed sadness at the loss of her husband and her inability to tell the children; and then that’s capped by a piece of honest-to-goodness wisdom from the Doctor:
Every time you see them happy you remember how sad they’re going to be. And it breaks your heart. Because what’s the point in them being happy now if they’re going to be sad later. The answer is, of course, because they are going to be sad later.
Stated baldly, it sounds like a crude collision. In fact, it’s anything but. Sympathetic direction lends the progression a sense of inevitability, but as so often its Matt Smith’s luminous performance that really sells it. Like Tom Baker he is believable as a childlike figure, darting delightedly from one minor excitement to the next: “A window disguised as a mirror, and a mirror disguised as a window!”. But very much unlike Tom, bless him, Smith also convinces as the ancient wanderer who has seen too much, and who speaks to Madge from the depths of a genuine and heartfelt compassion. He is surely the Doctorest Doctor we’ve ever had.
Following on from that delicious character-based opening salvo, the actual story, once it gets started, has an almost impossible standard to live up to. And sure enough it does fall away a little, a very little, in the middle. The business with the ents is fine, and makes a perfectly good rationale for what follows, but honestly isn’t particularly inspired. Yet even here, we repeatedly get glimpses of the Doctor’s endlessly exasperating yet kind nature:
Lily: I don’t understand. Is this place real? Or is it fairyland?
The Doctor: Fairyland? Oh grow up, Lily!
Fairyland looks completely different.
And then the conclusion — Madge has to tell the children that their father is dead; and then, he’s not. Is it a cheap Happy Ending? Not for me, but then I have three children so I am a sucker for family stuff. It’s too easy for me to imagine what it would do to Fiona and the boys if anything happened to me; bringing Daddy back at the end DW&W was very powerful for me. And it made enough narrative sense for me to be able to swallow it.
So all of this leaves me wondering whether I’ve completely misinterpreted Moffat. Because he is now the show-runner, we’ve been assuming he’s all about the series-long arc — and to be fair, he did that brilliantly in Series 5. But if I am not being too harsh in saying that he it muffed in Series 6, that still leaves him as the master of the one-off. I’m on record as saying that the previous Christmas special, A Christmas Carol, is one my very favourite Who episodes; now DW&W joins it. And come to think of it, The Girl in the Fireplace and Blink were also very much one-offs. And although The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances was a two-parter, it stood alone within Series 1. Apart from introducing Captain Jack (thanks a lot, Steve!), it could have come anywhere in the Series 1 chronology.
Just kidding, of course. That wasn’t luck, it was genius. The challenge for Moffat now is how much to dial back the Crazy from its Series 6 level, so that he can make something as close as possible to that level of ambition and flamboyance while retaining a hard, coherent narrative core.