Saturday, December 31, 2011

Of widows, wardrobes, and of doctors

As I write this entry in the final days of the year of our lord 2011, that special time of year is upon us once again. The days have gotten shorter, winter’s got our beloved Northern Hemisphere in the midst of its icy grip, and I get a feeling that there’s something in the air… for every ten minutes or so, I have the pleasure of being catapulted from whatever train of thought I’m on by the echoes of an explosion reverberating across my eardrums, no doubt the result of another bunch’a goddamn children running around outside trying to shove firecrackers and roman candles up each others’ asses. Man, don’t you just love New Years?

But what this time of year also entails is the passing of everybody’s favourite Coca Cola-sponsored holiday, that joyous occasion known as Christmas. And you know what that means, boys and girls! Alright, granted, it means a lot of things, but one of the more significant of those to a pop culture connoisseur such as myself (I'm sorry, I have a cold) is that this past Sunday, those savvy enough to tune their television sets into the BBC were gifted with the pleasure of being able to watch this year’s special Christmas episode of Doctor Who (known colloquially quite simply as 'the Christmas special').

And, well, I’d be lying if I said I haven’t been looking forward to this. Current show runner Steven Moffat has done a smashing job on Doctor Who so far, and it should be no secret that I thoroughly enjoy Matt Smith’s portrayal of everybody’s favourite bi-hearted, police box-travelling, otherworldly yet quite distinctly British television hero. The Christmas special is the only helping of Who we’ll have to sate our appetites until the seventh season of ‘New’ Who starts up uncharacteristically late in August of 2012. Thus while I did see it somewhat belatedly I still watched the special like a good little boy, and afterwards I figured, why not pop over here and share some of my thoughts on it.

Before I say anything in depth about the episode however, let me express my amusement at how it starts off by replicating the opening shot of an obscure little sci-fi flick from the 70’s known as Star Wars. A shot of the upper part of a planet sitting peacefully at the bottom of the screen and the pointy nose of a star ship slowly gliding in from the top? Seems pretty unmistakeable I say. That’s right Moffat, can’t sneak anything past me! I’ve seen Blue Harvest! Quick, someone get on the phone to George Lucas!

You can't convince me I'm seeing things here!

In all seriousness though, apart from being a cute little reference that’s really neither here nor there. Thus now that I’ve demonstrated my mastery of the minutia of science fiction cinematography, let’s get to the actual episode. How was it?

Well, apart from that opening shot it didn't have very much to do with Star Wars, that’s for damn sure.

In fact, the entire pre-credits scene is something of a red herring, with which the Grand Moff seems to be promising us the sort of episode we quite distinctly do not end up getting. As we’re shown several shots of a gigantic war-like spaceship cruising over the earth, a menacing voice croons “People of earth, you stand alone!” over a speaker. Doctor Matt is outrunning several explosions, apparently having somehow sabotaged the ship into self-destructing, after which he narrowly manages to hoist himself into a spacesuit and comes crashing down to earth with the debris. “Wow”, we say to ourselves, “this all seems mighty exciting! I wonder how the Doctor ended up in this situation? What kind of alien menace did this gigantic warship actually belong to? And surely, they’ll try to get back at the Doctor for how he managed to thwart them in the nick of time!”

None of these questions end up being answered – it’s all just a way of setting up a completely different story. We see the Doctor crash-landing his spacesuit into a field somewhere in the English countryside. How he didn’t burn up in the atmosphere and why he landed in Britain of all places is anyone’s guess, but I suppose asking questions like that makes me a spoilsport so I’ll refrain from it. A friendly lady, Madge Arwell (portrayed by Claire Skinner) discovers him at the bottom of a crater caused by the impact. Doctor Matt somehow put his space helmet on in reverse and is temporarily blinded, so she helps him out of the suit and back to his TARDIS (which is also conveniently located in the immediate area – I know, I know, I’ll shut up now). Several years down the road Doctor Matt, being the nice guy that he is, decides to repay Madge for the favour that she’s done him by showing her and her two small children the best Christmas ever – a plan that ends up transporting the four of them to a far-off planet covered in eternal snow and acres upon acres of naturally-occurring Christmas trees, a veritable winter wonderland. However, as usual things aren’t quite as idyllic as they seem. Three soldiers are stomping about in the snow wearing power armour, talking about how the forest is soon to be ‘harvested’, and more importantly, there might be more to these trees than meets the eye… 


Then again, maybe this is what Christmas on Hoth looks like. Hey, anybody want to watch the Star Wars Christmas special?

I’ll forego summarising the entire episode (just go watch it if you haven't) but the point I'm trying to make is that instead of a big scale, fast paced, action packed story, what we get here is a simple character-driven piece with a nice quiet feel to it, in a rather calm and intimate setting. This isn’t the first time Moffat’s pulled a trick like this. He used a similar set-up with the two-parter at the end of the fifth season, teasing a big confrontation between the Doctor and many of his most iconic enemies in the first episode, yet sweeping all the baddies under the rug in the second and having the Doctor and his companions deal with the problem of a dying universe with nothing more than a single Dalek and of course the pressing threat of time and inevitability standing in their way.

That’s perfectly alright, of course. In fact, I wouldn’t have it any other way. If I want space opera I’ll go watch the aforementioned Star Wars or something like Battlestar Galactica. If you'll forgive me a quick aside, as much as I enjoyed Russell T. Davies’ run on Doctor Who with him it was usually the fast paced, highly dramatic type of stories that you got. Of course that's not neccesarily a bad thing, and often times the results were good fun (though sometimes not so much) but that’s not the way Moffat usually operates and I applaud him for it. I feel Who is at its best when keeping the story relatively uncluttered and easy to follow, choosing simply to plop a select few characters into a unique and difficult situation and seeing how they react. This is what this year’s Christmas special does (and last year’s did as well), and it is all the better for it. We’re given the time and opportunity to get to know the few characters there are, to get a feel of the ins and outs of the situation and of what exactly is at stake before it all comes to a head.

To be fair part of the reason this episode worked for me is the reason that pretty much every Moffat-era episode of Who has to me so far been at least watchable, and that is that Matt Smith’s portrayal of the Doctor is once again outstanding. What I like about his performance is that it encapsulates so well those aspects of the character I consider to be essential, being both childlike and energetic and somehow old and venerable. The scenes where the Doctor shows Madge and her children around the country home he has prepared for their Christmas celebration is a great example of that gleeful childishness Matt brings to his portrayal of the character, as he is so obviously proud of the many toys and gadgets he has prepared to entertain them, being infinitely more excited by his handiwork than they are. Yet as soon as the children leave the scene Doctor Matt shows himself to be more than just an ignorant little kid, sympathizing with Madge over the recent death of her husband and instantly understanding why she hasn’t been able to break the news to the little ones. 

Seriously, look at how excited he is!

While these may seem rather contrasting personality aspects to combine into one character Matt Smith just manages to pull it off so well. His energy and enthusiasm makes him a joy to watch, but it’s those times when the veneer of youthfulness is lifted and the centuries old Time Lord underneath is glimpsed that his performance gains a weight and intensity that frankly transcends his young age as an actor. When he says lines like “Look at these eyes. They’re old eyes”, we actually believe that this young fellow running around our television screen being all energetic and inquisitive is at the same time this tired, wise old man of the universe. Of course each actor who's portrayed the Doctor has worked this duality into his performance, as it is indeed a staple of the character, but with Matt Smith it never seems forced, it's always very natural. His performance never feels pretentious or overimportant. Moreover, he’s never really in control: most of the time he’s more like a bumbling old fool who’s not entirely sure what’s going on, yet tries so hard despite all that, always with the best intentions. As a particularly tense and bizarre situation develops itself in the episode in question, Madge’s daughter inquires of the Doctor: “What’s happening?”, to which he unabashedly, yet in a somewhat panicky voice, responds: “No idea! Do what I do: hold tight, and pretend it’s a plan!” That really says it all, if you ask me.
Anyway, I’m getting off track, I’m not writing this merely to gush about Matt Smith (and I swear, one day I will write a blog post that does not include the word ‘gush’), so don’t let me give you the impression he is the only capable actor in this piece. Without Karen Gillan or Arthur Darvill to act off of he certainly serves as the episode’s centre of gravity most of the time, but Claire Skinner gives a solid performance as the widow Madge Arwell that should not go unmentioned. She’s obviously an experienced actor, with a lot of the strength of her role coming from the little details, like the way she can never seem to quite look her children in the eye when they ask her what’s happened to their daddy, responding with a dismissive answer and that forced little smile that looks so genuinely painful. The actors portraying her children do a passable job, with Holly Earl as daughter Lily Arwell getting a few moments to shine as the concerned and savvy older sister. Guest star Bill Bailey, whose role I was kind of excited and curious about, gives a rather understated and sober performance as the chief of the three soldiers patrolling the otherworldly forest our heroes find themselves stranded in. I’m tempted to say he’s phoning it in, but maybe I was expecting too much: it is a pretty small and simple part after all. If I want to get my jollies off’a the old guy I can always watch QI or Black Books, or some of his comedy routines.

Of course, the episode certainly wasn’t spotless: there are things here that might turn off some people. I’ll be honest and say that a good chunk of it felt somewhat overly silly and corny to me at times. We’re not quite talking flying shark level of silliness like last year’s Christmas special (though I enjoyed that one even more, so on second thought maybe this episode did needs its equivalent of the flying shark) but some of it is rather out there. A lot of the aforementioned toys and gadgets Doctor Matt prepares to entertain Madge and kids are overly comical (the kitchen faucet labelled “lemonade” comes to mind) and the happenings in the otherworldly forest of naturally occurring Christmas trees did at times come close to inducing a reply somewhere along the lines of “really now?” And of course, being a Christmas story and all, it is rather obviously designed to tug at your heartstrings, what with the grieving widow and the kids oblivious to their father’s death and all that. However unlike last years special (even if that was ‘just’ a clever reworking of the Ebenezer Scrooge theme) I have to say that it didn’t really hit home with me on an emotional level. I certainly cared about the characters and what was going on in the story, but I didn’t feel myself moved quite as deeply as the writing probably intended me to be. Maybe I’m just a bitter old curmudgeon, but it took less than five minutes for Up to stir something in me: come on Steven, you’re gonna have to try harder than this if you wanna reach this guy!

 I'm being sarcastic, of course. I need this in my house. 

Also, since this is Steven Moffat writing a Doctor Who episode, the time travel as plot device aspect is once again quite blatantly present. We’ve certainly gone a long way since ‘Old’ Who, in which the TARDIS was used as nothing more than a convenient way to dump the Doctor and his companions in a new location and time period to kick off a story without needing to explain how he got there (hell, most ‘Old’ Who stories implied that the Doctor barely knew how to properly fly the thing at all). Indeed, time travel is oftentimes the proverbial meat and potatoes of the Grand Moff’s plots, regularly being used as a clever way to solve problems, though, as much as I like his writing, it sometimes becomes a bit too much of a ‘get out of jail free’ card. He doesn’t quite pile paradox upon paradox here as he does in stories like “The Big Bang”, and, well, most of season six, but he does use it as something of a trick near the end of the episode to give the entire story more of a happy ending than it would’ve otherwise had. I did think it was a bit of a cop-out, though to be fair I kinda saw it coming – and hey, it’s a Christmas story, it’s supposed to have a happy ending right? 

And y’know, thing is, I’ve just spent two paragraphs being critical of aspects of the Christmas special but while I was actually watching it none of that stuff really bothered me all that much. Sure, it’s all rather silly, but what has Doctor Who been recently if not at least a tad silly at all times? Sure, it’s all kinda corny and there is at least a small amount of plothax at work, but sometimes you have to be able to look past that sort of thing. In this case, the story is just so fun, engaging and intimate and the performances are just so sincere and heartfelt that it transcends its shortcomings and becomes enjoyable despite, or maybe even because of them. The same paradox might be at work here as is present in the character of Doctor Matt: that combination of silly, gleeful, childish energy and some kind of aged, venerable weight and sincerity is probably as present in the television show as it is in it’s titular character (haha, I said tit). We have to remember that this is a family show, after all, made to appeal to both kids and adults, so it has to have something for everyone. In the recent years and in this particular episode, it has certainly stayed true to that vision.

And another thing... wait, is that monkey in the picture wearing a smoking jacket?

So in conclusion, I must say I rather enjoyed this year's Doctor Who Christmas special. I have to say I didn’t think it as good as last year’s special, which was truly something, well, special (and no, not just because of the flying shark – I thought it was genuinely a deeply moving and engaging story). Despite its shortcomings, “The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe” is a perfectly good piece of television, very charming, quite intimate and very entertaining. It’s well worth your time, and of course I am very much looking forward to what the Grand Moff has in stall for us next year! 

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