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It is 1938 and Madge Arwell (Clare Skinner) has taken her two children, Lily (Holly Earl) and Cyril (Maurice Cole) to a relative's expansive house in Dorset after hearing that her husband Reg (Alexander Armstrong) was killed when his Lancaster Bomber was shot down over the English channel. Madge wants to give her children one last great Christmas before breaking the news to them that their father is not going to be coming home. With The Doctor (Matt Smith) masquerading as the caretaker of the house, the Atwells are in for an unforgettable Christmas...

Matt Smith running like his arse was on fire - any slower and it probably will be!
Just what is Steven Moffat's obsession with plundering beloved literally tales and using them as the basic concept for Christmas stories? Last time, he did it with Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol (cunningly titled "A Christmas Carol") and this time, he's done it with C S Lewis' The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; though this one isn't as direct as last time, it still copies the basic concept of being set in Britain during wartime and focuses upon children who have been evacuated out of London who find their way into an otherworldly snow-covered that proves to be anything but a winter wonderland.

Just like the basic principle of the charity single, a Christmas special of a television programme doesn't actually have to be any good, it just needs to be able to generate a certain amount of interest and hope that enough goodwill is stirred up to carry it along.

The story isn't a bad one, but it is something that seems far removed from Doctor Who; with no new stories to come until about September next year, many fans are probably a little miffed that the only story to come in the period of nearly a year between series six and series seven is something so lightweight.

Something has been bugging us about New-Who for the last couple of years now, and The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe has finally hammered home just what the problem is - Doctor Who seems to have veered too far away from the fundamental concept of the show; it's not about the Doctor wandering into situations and helping out, it's now about fairytale situations where the Doctor is passive rather than active, sitting on the sidelines and delivering expository dialogue whilst his companions and other characters resolve situations themselves.

"Some call me Treebeard - or one of those characters from the fantasy sequence from Heavenly Creatures..."
The kids venture through a magical portal into a snowy forest on an alien world and the youngsters encounter the humanoid tree-like creatures, with The Doctor and Madge in tow; our favourite Time Lord seems to be jogging behind the action in story terms, rather than being at the front. Still, you have to hand it to Moffat in his ability to weave an environmental message about deforestation and acid rain into a Christmas story.

Matt Smith is as good as ever, but the sidelining of his character weakens The Doctor and events seem to happen around him, rather than being the prime-mover. Smith injects his usual amount of professor-like enthusiasm and provides bucket-loads of chemistry between him and the two young guest actors; the scenes between these three are the highlight of this particular episode and this chemistry helps paper over some of the other problems with the story.

The trend that has been around for a while on Doctor Who - casting comedians and/or comedy actors in dramatic roles - seems to have paid off reasonably well this time, as Clare Skinner (usually seen on the BBC's Outnumbered) is very good as the heartbroken mother who shields her children from an awful truth just for them to have one last happy Christmas together before childhood innocence has to be shattered. Bill Bailey ( Black Books) and Arabella Weir ( The Fast Show) also appear, but their appearances are comparatively brief.

The two young actors in this special, Maurice Cole and Holly Earl are pretty good, even though their characters are basically just loosely altered versions of the Pevensie kids from that certain popular series of CS Lewis books.

Steven Moffat's The Empty Child/ The Doctor Dances story (which was great, we hasten to add) had The Doctor exclaiming at the end of the story "just for once, everybody lives!" - Moffat appears to have taken this to heart, as nobody seems to snuff it much in Doctor Who since he took over the reigns. There has been times when we have felt like yelling "just for once, will somebody fucking-well die?" at the screen.

People die all the time - people used to die in Doctor Who fairly frequently, including companions; remember when many fans rejoiced at the death of Adric? We certainly do. Remember when Katarina was blown out of the airlock whilst an aghast Peter Purves looked on? We have seen the recon. Remember when Peri met her demise at the hands of Lord Kiv? Uh, scratch that one - but you get what we're driving at. Having a ridiculously fairytale ending where the supposedly "dead" dad avoids a watery grave is pretty hard to swallow, especially when the groundwork had been laid for the rest of the family to deal with the situation and move on. The recent Torchwood series, Miracle Day, had the interesting premise of what would happen if the population of Earth suddenly lost the ability to die - well if Matt Smith's Doctor stays on this planet for long enough, we'll probably get to find out...

The ubiquitous Alexander Armstrong comes to Doctor Who - he'll be reading the fucking news next...

Video


The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe arrives on DVD quite quickly after it's Christmas Day broadcast and looks pretty good; the anamorphically-enhanced 1.78:1 image is pretty crisp, with pleasingly vibrant colours and pretty impressive black levels.

Audio


Just like last year's Christmas special DVD release, this year's is also in Dolby Digital 5.1; it's a very pleasing sound-mix, with plenty of ambient effects coming at you from the rears and there your subwoofer will also be fairly active during some of the more action-orientated moments. The dialogue is also perfectly clear and crisp.

Extras


The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe is kitted out with some reasonably substantial extras...

Prequel: This 90 second teaser to the Christmas episode is a specially-shot scene that helps to put the events of the opening of the story into context, as The Doctor frantically tries to contact Amy Pond before escaping from a ship that it about to explode. It's a short piece of fluff, but very enjoyable fluff that puts you in the mood to watch the story, so it perfectly achieves its objective.

The Best Of... Featurettes: Three US TV specials that were used as primers to reel in curious viewers for the Stateside screenings of Doctor Who are included here. The three specials are The Best of... The Doctor, The Companions and The Monsters. They include talking head interviews with people few outside the States have heard of, rapidly inter-cut with equally rapid clips from series five and six of Doctor Who. Within the first couple of minutes, somebody mentions the term "Whovian", which - for us, anyway - is lexiconic equivalent of a zip being pulled back up during a steamy clinch.

They are reasonably entertaining, but very superficial, but considering that this is just would have been pretty much a barebones affair, as Doctor Who Confidential has gone bye-bye, so to have three supplemental features that run for well over two hours in total is nothing to grumble about.

Are bow ties cool enough to protect The Doctor from this...?

Overall


The Doctor, the Witch and the Wardrobe just wasn't our cup of tea; there were moments that impressed, but the predictable storyline (and even more predictable climax (even Mr Magoo could have seen that one coming) and the hefty dollops of syrupy sentimentality really counted against it. Still we have heard from others who liked it, so the story does have its admirers. 2Entertain have provided a very good looking and sounding transfer, along with some fairly enjoyable extras to bolster the main feature - if you didn't get to see it on Christmas Day for whatever reason, then you might want to check it out...


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