Not to mention that a large part of the plot was based around the idea of naturally occurring Christmas Trees, complete with baubles and stars.
The Narnia stories were always a good fit for the Doctor Who universe, concerning as they do wardrobes that transport you to distant lands where time moves differently. Even a recent comic strip in the ‘Doctor Who magazine’ explored this link.
We are firmly in the realm of fantasy here, rather than science fiction, with the Doctor at his most whimsical. Given a whole house to play with he engineers living rooms with dancing chairs and an Aladdin’s cave of a child’s bedroom, although he forgets the beds
After the weight and gravitas of the last season it was nice to see the Doctor enjoying himself, even if he ultimately puts a family in danger on an alien world. The cost of this is that the plot was rather linear.
Rather surprisingly for Moffat the script lacked any complexity or clever surprises. Even his homage to ‘A Christmas Carol’, in the episode of the same name, held some surprises and clever uses of the source material.
Here the Doctor and the children trudge through the snow in a straight line to a tower where they learn about the trees plight. The mother follows, the trees are saved and everyone goes home.
The problem is that in the Narnia books the adventure doesn’t come from the land but the people who live there. Here the alien planet feels empty, being populated only by trees. This might have helped keep this a small production but can’t disguise the fact that not much happens.
Luckily the strength of this story was the comedic aspect that is often found in Moffat’s scripts. The Doctor’s banter and the scenes with Tree harvester employees were very amusing.
Claire Skinner as Madge Arwell acted as the emotional centre of the story. When first introduced we see her kindness, with a tendency for taking home strays. Three years later keeping the secret of her husbands death for the sake of her children has made her colder, with less time for silliness.
It was this burden that gave her little patience for the Doctor’s antics. It also showed her strong will, travelling through space and time to find her children, overcoming futuristic soldiers and even navigating the time vortex.
This is a reoccurring theme in Moffat’s work, that people are special. They don’t have to be Time Lords or historical figures to be important. Here it is motherhood that is the key to overcoming the challenges the characters face.
Bill Bailey, Paul Bazely and Arabella’s appearance as Droxil, Ven-Garr and Billis is slight but fun, in which we learn the masking abilities of a woollen cardigan and that mother issues can reduce a soldier to tears. It was also a nice nod to ‘The Caves of Androzani’, giving us a link to the past of Doctor Who.
The special effects were limited but well executed. From the Star Destroyer-esc spaceship, the Doctor’s exciting free fall to Madge piloting the giant robot through the forest. Only the ‘monsters’ disappointed, by their very nature appearing wooden.
The introduction of the threat of acid rain did a good job of establishing a count down and the feeling that the characters were indeed in peril. Powerless against wood, far from the TARDIS and without a companion the Doctor seemed helpless.
The fact that Madge was the hero in this story was a nice change from the days when the Doctor would magically resolve the plot with a wave of his magic sonic screwdriver. It does highlight the problem that you could very well tell this story without his character.
From the moment they established that Reg Arwell, played by ‘Sarah Jane Adventures’ regular Alexander Armstrong, was presumed dead, I think we all knew he’d be saved through time travel by the end.
What was a nice surprise was that Madge herself was responsible, her own thoughts taking her to that moment and acting as a guiding light. This does smack of a ‘Everyone lives!’ ending, but this is Christmas so maybe that is forgivable. It did serve as a very emotional scene, with Madge overwhelmed by sorrow and the children realising the secret their mother had been keeping from them.
The only question is what happened to Reg’s co-pilots, one of which was apparently in a bad way.
Amy and Rory’s appearance at the end felt like a present for the audience. It did have a neat connection to the theme of the story with Amy defending River Song, calling her a good girl. A nice reminder that Amy is River’s mother and that bond has remained despite the strange temporal loops that their relationship has been put through.
The Doctor’s reaction to that reunion, shedding a tear of joy, was a nice acknowledgement that he wasn’t as detached as he likes to think and maybe still capable of feeling something after all these years.
Matt Smith was excellent as always, really helping to establish a festive mood. It was interesting that he adopted a new persona for this story, The Caretaker. It seems that he likes to adopt the function of his title, even if he doesn’t quite understand what that entails.
In conclusion this was a slight but fun Christmas special. Certainly not the best that has been produced but still entertaining.