Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Doctor, The Widow And The Wardrobe: Touching The Void

'Best! Christmas! Ever!'

Well, possibly not that good, but yer actual Keith Telly Topping thought that this year's Doctor Who Christmas episode was rather decent, dear blog reader. Mind you, he thought last year's was too. And the special the year before that, for that matter. In fact, with the exception of Fear Her (and, at a pinch, Victory of The Daleks) yer actual Keith Telly Topping has enjoyed, or at worst, found something worthwhile, in just about every single episode of the BBC's popular family SF drama since it returned to the BBC in 2005. Some episodes are better than others, admittedly, but just about all of them have something worthy about them. A few good lines of dialogue, a nice bit of characterisation, some decently directed shots, a good acting performance. Maybe it really is a sign of this blogger's critical faculties becoming worn down to the quick by much of the endless mush which masquerades itself as 'television entertainment' these days that I can still get myself even a little bit excited about a programme which, to be honest, I should probably have dumped into a box marked 'Too Old For That' long ago. I mean, let's face it, I used to be a regular viewer of Blue Peter too - back when the world was very, very young - but I don't watch that anymore. But, Doctor Who, of course, is different. It's a unique TV format dreamed up on the back of a fag packet by Sydney Newman back in 1963 and then handed over to others within the BBC drama department. Here's the pitch: 'Madman in a box (which looks like a police telephone box but is, actually, a dimensionally-transcendent time machine) picks up strays and wanders, seemingly (but actually, not) aimlessly, having adventures.' Righting wrongs. Standing up to bullies. Being 'never cruel or cowardly.' It features a central character who can, literally, go anywhere, do anything, be anyone he wants to be (or that the story requires him to be). From a junkyard in Shoreditch to Skaro and back again in time for tea. And - and this is very important - it was then, and remains to this day, something for all of the family to watch, together. Like I say, unique. And, forty eight years later (we'll forget about the period between 1990 and 1995 and 1997 and 2004 for the purposes of this gushing fanboy rant) The Doctor is still doing it. That's the necessary difference between Doctor Who and Blue Peter, the latter get to go on their annual holidays and take the cameras with them but they don't, usually, travel by TARDIS.
'That man is quite ridiculous.' So, another year, another rip-off (sorry Steven, homage) to a twenty four carat classic of British children's literature. In this case, the CS Lewis-Narnia riffs aren't quite as extraordinarily blatant as last year's Dickens-fest, more of a tonal thing, really. A few stray allusions, a couple of plot ideas - not least being the ice world-within-a-box-within-a-world conceit. A selection box of little snippets which fit in, perfectly, with the most bloated and indigested day of the year. The plot is actually far more character-driven than usual; It's Christmas Eve 1938, and Madge Arwell comes to the aid of an injured spaceman as she cycles home; The Doctor having spent the frantic pre-title sequence going sky-diving from, you know, orbit. The Man Who Fell To Earth, indeed. 'I've found a spaceman in the field. Possibly an angel, but he's injured and I can't get his helmet off,' she tells her son, instructing him to pass that message on to his father. 'She's gone out,' is the short version, seemingly. Madge helps and The Doctor promises to repay her kindness – all she has to do is make a wish. Three years later, a devastated Madge escapes bomb-ridden London with her two teenage children to a dilapidated house in Dorset. She is crippled with grief at the recent news - which only she bears at the moment - that her husband, an RAF pilot, has been lost over the channel. But, she is determined to give Lily and Cyril the best Christmas ever. As luck - and Steven Moffat's script - would have it, The Doctor has only been and gone and made his temporary home in the very draughty old house to which they're coming to as the caretaker. But a huge parcel underneath the family's Christmas tree soon leads them on an unexpected adventure into a magical land dominated by an enchanted, icy forest. Unfortunately, this being Doctor Who, that's when their troubles really begin! So, what've we got for entertainment? We've got Matt Smith, this time quite literally 'falling further than he's ever fallen before.' There's a couple of cute evacuee kids missing their dad in the grim winter of 1941 (one of them can even act) and a resilient, practical yet heart-broken mother (Outnumbered's Claire Skinner) trying her best to be stoic and keep her family together in the aftermath of tragedy. There's a time portal leading to a snowy forest, monsters made out of wood and Xander Armstrong as a splendidly David Niven-type 'bandits at five o'clock, skipper' fighter pilot. 'Fer 'sho, blood. And I ain't lyin', neither.' (The A Matter of Life and Death riffs, incidentally, are actually played even more strongly than the Carrie's War or The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe ones. Odd, I'd never really thought of Powell and Pressberger's allegorical masterpiece as being both perfect Christmas material and perfect Doctor Who material. But, when you think about it, it so obviously is. Mind you, there's more than a handful of The Shining allusions too! Not to mention a hint of The Singing, Ringing Tree and more than a snatch of Bedknobs and Broomsticks.) In the middle - underdeveloped, but welcome to lighten the mood - there's a bit of Three Stooges-style comedy when Bill Bailey, The Fast Show's Arabella Weir and Benidorm's Paul Bazely pop up as as a trio of rather incompetent alien harvesters. Smith, throughout, is at his ebullient, eccentric best, making things right with a smile and a mad dash down an exploding corridor. But, there's a half-hidden underscore of sadness at lost opportunities and lost friends, too.
'Hammocks!' The pyrotechnic pre-titles really belong in a different story, although they're undeniably fun and The Doctor grabs onto a handily-placed 'impact suit' and re-enters at the kind of terminal velocity which would make NASA shat in their own pants. Pity he's got the helmet on backwards ('I dressed in a hurry, all right?!') There's a sweetness and charm about many aspects of The Doctor, The Widow and The Wardrobe that one would expect from a Steven Moffat Christmas episode. It was never going to be Schindler's List, was it? 'No one should be alone at Christmas,' is the episode's recurring mantra, important at the start and vital at the climax. There's sentimentality aplenty but which never, quite, resorts to mawkishness. This is particularly evident when Madge confesses to The Doctor that her husband is dead but that she hasn't told her children yet because she doesn't want to ruin Christmas for them. Not just this year, but every year thereafter. 'I don't know why I keep shouting at them,' she says, bottom lip trembling as she tries to put on a brave face. 'Because every time you see them happy you remember how sad they're going to be. And it breaks your heart,' replies The Doctor. 'Because what's the point of them being happy now if they're going to be sad later?' We get a few manic moments at the start that the kids will have almost certainly enjoyed - you know, the people for whom the programme is theoretically, still first and foremost made - even if all the joyless naysayers and Special People out there will be tutting into their salty gruel at the very thought of The Lemonade Tap ('I know') and the hammocks and 'you were lying about the panthers', 'famous last words!' No doubt somebody, somewhere, will have found something to whinge about in the conceit of finding another world in a cardboard box. Their loss, frankly. 'Fairyland? Grow up, Lily! Fairyland looks completely different!' It's at around this point that we get the episode's first defining line: 'Where are we?' asks Lily. 'In a forest. In a box. In a sitting-room. Pay attention. Time moves differently across the dimensional plane. What do they teach you in school these days?'

Speaking of The Special People, I think the comment which, for me, summed up the entire ignorant rank knobcheese dickery of that particular mindset - one that seems determined to suck all of the joy and colour out of life - was when some glake on Facebook commented shortly after the episode had ended: 'I know Moffat is making it "for the kids" these days, but really! And since when could the Doctor breathe in space?' Well, since Four To Doomsday in 1982, actually, as you're asking, young man. But, it's the first part of that statement which really stuck in my craw. The idea of a producer making Doctor Who 'for the kids' being used as a generic insult. Let's be very clear about this, Doctor Who has always - well, almost always - been made 'for the kids.' It's a family show and therefore its first job is, by necessity, to gain the trust and loyalty of the youngest members of any given family. Yes, it has always had a few elements which've worked above yer average child's level, something for the adults to think 'oh, that was clever.' But to hear someone whom, I presume, like most of us first watched Doctor Who as a trembling four year old (in my case, in 1968) using the phrase 'for the kids' as some kind of a pejorative - some scummy agenda-based insult used purely because the showrunner isn't, in this clown's vastly unimportant opinion, making Doctor Who just so - is, simply, sick. Arguably, the one time when a Doctor Who producer did stop making the show 'for the kids' and, instead, tried making it, 'for the fans' (Jon Nathan-Turner in the mid-1980s), it was one of the few periods in the show's history when its lost much of its popular fanbase. 'The fans' still watched it. And, usually, still grumbled about if afterwards, but many 'normal people' didn't. And therein lies a truism; you piss off the general viewing public just to please a handful of malcontents and you're asking for trouble.

'Please say we can tell the difference between wool and sidearms.' Visually, the episode throws in just about everything including the kitchen sink (remember The Lemonade Tap). A big scary lighthouse in an enchanted forest (where the trees are somewhat restless). Wooden monsters, one of which looked uncannily like an Easter Island Head which, one is sure, will have given a few eight year olds a very uncomfortable start to Boxing Day. (I did wonder at that point if Rex The Runt had been an influence on the designer.) There's loads of exquisite dialogue too. Funny, inventive, clever, full of wit and charm and, on a few occasions, just plain daft. Doctor Who in a nutshell: 'Call it an idea echoing among the stars. Personally I call it a brilliant idea for a Christmas trip. Or, it should have been.' And: 'Aliens made of wood! This was always going to happen, you know!' And: 'There are sentences I should just keep away from.' And: 'They're turning your brother into a lifeboat.' And: 'They're frightened of the rain. The rain that burns.' All this, and a continuity reference to The End of the World.
'There's no such thing as foretelling. Trust a time traveller.' The acting was pretty decent all round. I particularly enjoyed Arabella Weir's pointed little essay on lipstick feminism and solidarity among The Sisterhood in the middle of a hostage situation. Bill Bailey, having waited most of his life for a role in Doctor Who, gets at least four really good lines ('Ma'am, please stop crying. I can't interrogate you when you're crying. This is a military engagement, there's no crying in military engagements!') and one why am I surrounded by incompetents? look to camera. Which, as we know from Qi, he's very good at! But, to be honest, the Androzani subplot (thrown in, I expect, just to provide a few more scowls from the Internet about why 'spectrox toxemia' didn't cop a mention) was the grit in the sandwich. Not bad. Not anything even remotely like bad but, if this had been a standard, forty five minute episode and they'd needed to lose one plot element then that could, comfortably, have gone without too much restructuring. There was the vague ecological subplot - all the stuff about acid rain - but, really, that was all subservient to the main point of the episode. Which was, of course, 'No one should be alone at Christmas.' Although, it has to be said, if you didn't laugh at 'stay inside, the rain is frightful' then you're pretty much a lost cause. 'This is all really rather clever, isn't it?' I imagine someone on an Interweb near you, dear blog reader, is currently furiously typing an essay - probably quite a long one - based around that one line and how, actually, it wasn't or anything like it. Indeed, one supposes that The Moffster specifically put in the 'human-y wu-many' line just specifically to piss off a few joyless souls who can tell you the Logopolis Code to the final digit but have never met an actual woman. 'Make a wish.' Oh, if only I could.
'Do what I do. Hold tight and pretend it's a plan.' So, I enjoyed that. Possibly not quite as much as A Christmas Carol, or The Next Doctor, but more than The Voyage of the Damned, and about the same The Christmas Invasion and The Runaway Bride. It was a Doctor Who Christmas episode, it did what it was supposed to do and, I imagine, satisfied the majority of its core audience ('normal people' and 'the kids') a lot more than All Star Family Fortunes on the other side. To expect more would've been, frankly, greedy. And, on this the greediest day of the year, anything which takes a step back from much of the mean-spirited gutless aridity of a majority of TV entertainment nowerdays and presents something unashamedly, undeniably sentimental and even rather old fashioned is to be welcomed in this house. If not, necessarily, anywhere else. 'You were there for me when I had a bad day, I always like to return a favour. Got a bit clinchy in the middle there but it all worked out right in the end. Story of my life!'
Back, briefly, to Facebook and another comment from the great unwashed that I found staggering in its numptiness. 'They need the 1970s theme back. No CGI and slow down the pace.' I kid you not, dear blog reader, some - I presume - grown adult wrote that. No they do not need the 70s theme back, or any other ruddy stupid nonsense idea that The Special People have. I am right and you are wrong about this, so take a telling. If you like the 1970s so much then build yourself a time machine and sod off back there. I'll even loan you a shovel so you can dig up the corpse of one of the - sadly - now deceased Doctors just to complete the illusion. There's a nasty, (metaphorical) necrotic stink about a certain proportion of fandom, dear blog reader. Because, in case you hadn't noticed, this is 2011. Some of us have moved on. And, some of us, clearly, haven't. Much like life, really. Jesus, dear blog reader, never go on the Internet within an hour of a new Doctor Who episode being shown, because all manner of rancid puss leeks out. Meanwhile, Gallifrey Base was in meltdown as a couple of hundred of the usual suspects gnashed their teeth and chewed on their cud and whinged. And whinged. And whinged. It was, as always, quite a sight.

'That was just The Caretaker returning to the time vortex.' In the episode's best-kept secret, Amy and Rory turned up in the final scene ('I'm not gonna hug first!') and The Doctor discovered a bit of - hopefully, not unwelcome - humanity in his Time Lord hearts, showing his emotions at the fact that his old friends always set a place for him at the Christmas dinner table on the off chance that he'll show up. A touching, effective end to an episode which reminds us of several important things about Doctor Who. That it can deal with massive concepts - time, causality, fate, universal constants - and yet also small, twatty and - beautifully - human ideas, often all  at the same time.
We are reminded that it can make a virtue out of elements which other TV formats would turn their noses up at as examples of a time that's long gone in TV terms. (Remember that infamous quote from some - now former - ITV bod the week that Russell Davies revived the show in 2005? 'I don't know what the BBC are playing at reviving Doctor Who. Families don't watch TV together anymore.' Oh, do you think so?) And, it reminded us that, sometimes, it's okay to cry. So long as they're happy tears.
And the final reminder was that, always, it's best to stay off the Internet for a few hours after any Doctor Who episode has been shown (but, particularly, Christmas episodes). Because that's one thing which is virtually guaranteed to ruin your Christmas.

Christmas Day is, of course, one that traditionally usually goes whine, whine, whine, wine, wine, 'something stronger', coma. Well, it does in this house, anyway. For the third to last Keith Telly Topping's Twenty Two Days Of Christmas, dear blog reader, if you're half asleep from the turkey or half-cut from the Bailey's, here's something to wake you up.
I thought you'd prefer the Isle of Wight version rather than having to suffer through Ollie Reid and Anne-Margaret's massacre from the movie. Besides, John Entwistle looks cool as a bag full of monkeys in that skeleton thing.