Aaand action! From the very first gasp of the Doctor Who Christmas special we’re launched into space, Star Wars style. We glimpse the Doctor as a fireball-dodging action hero in what looks like the best episode never made; it’s a gripping start to the hour-long episode that’s hurtling ahead, best bowtie forward. ‘Three years on’, ‘Christmas eve’ – the rapid time jumps are a nifty pacing ploy, as director Farren Blackburn (The Fades) brings his brand of CSI-style shot switching. It echoes the frantic firing of the Doctor’s synapsis as he introduces us to the best festooned house in all of war-torn England. December 25th is said to be when the Time Lord is on top form, and Steven Moffat’s tale delivers.
It’s a story that unashamedly creeps into CS Lewis’ wardrobe and steals its supernatural secret, disguising it within a big blue box, naturally. However, curious youngster Cyril spoils the surprise by taking a sneak peek, crawling through into a magical snow-strewn forest. The visuals are stunning – you’d never know this was rural Cardiff and fake icicles – and the sounds of snow crunching under foot and creaking oak doors are perfect festive fodder.
The Doctor, teenager Lily, and mother Madge embark on a search for the little mite, who’s played by Maurice Cole sporting distractingly huge bottletops. Perhaps they are meant to exaggerate what little emotion he exhibits, but only a scrooge would say so. Holly Earl fairs better as the concerned older sister in the mould of Enid Blyton’s chipper and well-spoken Fantastic Five and Claire Skinner finds herself in a period version of Outnumbered, where she similarly plays a highly-strung mum.
Like last year’s special, there’s no real threat or sense of urgency and this is where it falls slightly short of surpassing it. The unveiling of the ‘monster’ would probably be greeted with a shrug from the young, Blink-hardened Who viewers and the middle sorely lacks a chase scene. Instead, this is where we briefly meet what promised to be a genius spot of casting in comedian Bill Bailey. The bearded funny man, whose fans have even created an online campaign for him to become the Doctor, was wasted in this fleeting cameo that puts more of the comedic emphasis on the unlikeliest of the trio, Paul (Benidorm) Bazeley, as the gun toting emotional wreck.
Ultimately, and unsurprisingly given his track record, it’s Matt Smith as the “Doctor, or the caretaker, or ‘get-off-my-planet’” as he’s sometimes known, that makes this special one to remember. Switching from wizened Time Lord to madcap caretaker to overgrown child, audience members can relax whenever he’s on the screen thanks to his effortless portrayal. Moffat has generously granted him some cracking lines this episode, allowing Smith to flex his funny bone. The tone of the episode oscillates between opposite ends of the emotional spectrum and sentimentally settles for ‘happy crying’. This, incidentally, leads to Smith bagging his own variation of the Tennant catchphrase “timey-wimey” when he observes how “humany-wumany” this reaction is.
It’s the simplest version of the Doctor on display here, the ‘angel’ who falls from the sky to save sentient life forms and seasonal celebrations, with no pre-mental warm-up required. It cuts the cord from series six and allows everyone to share in the magic of this slow-burning yarn that’s more like a short film than an hour-long special. “Best. Christmas. Ever,” Madge says rather aptly, drawing her children into a warm squeeze; a fitting image for how The Doctor, The Widow and The Wardrobe makes you feel.