Doctor Who: The Doctor, The Widow and The Wardrobe (BBC Home Entertainment, NR)


dvd- dr-who_smThe Doctor, The Widow and The Wardrobe is tailor-made for people to come in from the cold and discover the wondrous world of Doctor Who for the first time.



With the release of the Doctor Who Christmas special from this past year on DVD, Doctor Who fans finally have the perfect single disc gateway to give to their friends who have never watched the show. It seems The Doctor, The Widow and The Wardrobe is tailor-made for people to come in from the cold and discover the wondrous world of Doctor Who for the first time.

First, this DVD’s main feature is an adventure that is “done in one,” a complete story all on its own with only very loose ties to the larger story arcs that showrunner Steven Moffat has woven through his past two seasons. Only the final five minutes of the episode even mention any of the ongoing storylines, and those few scenes handle the material in such a way that new viewers won’t be lost searching for their context. Everything you need to know to follow those scenes is explained to the audience very clearly; the only thing foreknowledge adds is emotional subtext.

All viewers really need to know to follow the plot of this episode is that the Doctor is a time traveler who goes on adventures in time and space in his blue box called the TARDIS. And you barely need to know that, as this episode doesn’t rely on the TARDIS as a plot device very much, and instead focuses on the Doctor crossing paths with one particular family, the Arwells, inEnglandin the late 1930s and early 1940s.

dvd- dr-who_300Of course, in actuality it is a bit more complicated than that, as most Doctor Who stories are. The Doctor only meets the family after an in medias res pre-titles sequence that thrusts us into the Doctor’s world instantly. Here’s a spaceship in orbit around Earth, about to threaten the planet with imminent destruction when it begins to blow up. The cause of this explosion is revealed to be the Doctor who, having saved the planet from invading aliens within the first ten seconds of the episode, now must figure out how to escape the wreckage of the ship on the fly. If there’s any better introduction to the Doctor and his usual style of operation, I don’t know what it is.

As soon as the title sequence has ended the tone shifts dramatically, as the Doctor must rely on the help of this English family’s matriarch Madge Arwell, played with brilliant comic timing by Claire Skinner, to help him in his time of need. These scenes are uproariously funny due to the fantastic interplay between Skinner and Smith; they have real comedic chemistry together. But this is really Matt Smith’s show, and he owns the screen. Scenes further in the episode when the Doctor meets the family again, having come back to return the favor and help them in their time of need, continue to give Smith a chance to be as eccentric and childlike as his Doctor can be at times.

But The Doctor, The Widow and The Wardrobe is also quite heartbreaking. It’s not hard to guess, based on the 1940s setting of the episode, just what the nature of the Arwells’ personal tragedy is, but mother Madge is trying to keep that bitter truth from her two young children in the spirit of the holiday season. In this aspect of her character, Skinner is able to bring considerable pathos to the story, playing a woman on the verge of a breakdown, holding her emotions in check for the good of her children. It’s powerfully emotional stuff, and Skinner performs it with panache.

The fact that Moffat is able to do a juggling act with these disparate tones is a testament to his skill as a writer. It is easy to forget, based on Steven Moffat’s more recent output with series like Sherlock or Jekyll that he started out as a comedy writer, but his skill at finding humor in any situation is on full display in this episode. He interweaves the lighthearted with the fantastic, the thrilling, and the tear-jerking so that none of it ever seems out of place. That balance between the sweet and the bittersweet makes The Doctor, The Widow and The Wardrobe the first Doctor Who Christmas special to go beyond the physical trappings of Christmas and truly capture the magical spirit of the holiday. In fact, one drawback that might keep this episode from reaching new viewers is that it might seem a bit too Christmas-centric, making a February release for theDVD seem a bit out of sync, but these kinds of things can’t be helped, I suppose.

Any new viewers who do take a chance on The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe will find it to be a paragon of what Doctor Who should be, not only in the atmosphere it creates and the opportunities it gives its lead actors to shine, but also in its action-oriented story high on thrills and packed with high concepts. This adventure finds its plot device in a Christmas present that is a portal to another world, its setting in a consciously sentient forest that sprouts moving creatures made of wood, and its ticking clock in the form of acid rain about to fall from the sky and turn everything on the planet’s surface into a fuel source. It’s truly inventive, as most Doctor Who stories are, and if you take those aspects and couple them with the fact that there turns out to be no real “villain,” per se, in the story, you have a rollicking adventure that is good for new viewers of all ages.

For those brand-new fans who enjoy the episode and want to know more about the Doctor’s adventures, the bonus features are a perfect companion. The three “best of” specials included on the disc were originally created by BBC America to air during the most recent series and fill in new viewers on some background info about the characters featured in the show. Their inclusion here on this disc is a perfect setup then to entice those who enjoyed the actual episode to see what Doctor Who is all about and work their way back through the previous two series.

There are a few flaws to be found in the special features. First, they only cover Matt Smith’s time as the Doctor rather than the entire run of the show since its return, but that is most likely a matter of the producers wishing to be concise. Established viewers will definitely find these specials a bit superfluous, providing no real new information for them. But again the target audience for these specials is really new viewers, and the producers of theDVDcan be forgiven for trying to bring in more audience members by making these features friendly to the uninitiated. Viewers might also ask themselves why they should care what random actors and TV personalities they’ve never heard of have to say about Doctor Who. These specials perhaps would have been better served by the participation of bigger names, including a few people actually involved in the production of the show itself.

However, overall, this DVDis the perfect example of everything the Matt Smith era of Doctor Who has to offer. The special features provide all the necessary background details to catch new viewers up on the plot details of the show, and the main adventure is full of the type of humor, angst, and action typical of a Steven Moffat story. In short, if people were to watch this DVDwithout any knowledge of Doctor Who and not like what they see, then it’s fairly certain that Doctor Who is just not for them. But as a lifelong Doctor Who fan, I find myself hard-pressed to imagine who those people could be. | Steve Higgins

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