The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe gave us our most straight-up take on Doctor Who as children’s fantasy fiction, but the approach endures here, as it has endured for the entirety of the Steven Moffat era of Doctor Who. Here it is more subdued while still being intrinsic to the approach. Let’s start with that image of the staircase into the clouds with the TARDIS at the top. This is probably the most magical, wonderful and impressive image Doctor Who has ever given us, and it is a perfect image of an ordinary object being an entrance into another world, which is what the TARDIS itself has always been. Note that it starts not with steps, but with a ladder, referencing Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree books (if you never read those as a child, then it’s not too late, and while you’re about it take a look at the Wishing Chair books – those two book series are the peak of Blyton’s work). At the top of the Faraway Tree is a ladder leading through a hole in a cloud to another world. The world is different every time and if you stay too long you get whisked away with it. Never has there been a more apt parallel for Doctor Who.
There are other influences going on here, from the wider realms of fiction. The Paternoster Gang is obviously Holmesian, and Clara as a governess is straight out of Jane Eyre (note that this is not so very far removed from children’s fiction – generations of children have studied it at school). The use of the governess figure in fiction of course predates that, with one of the earliest examples actually being a children’s book, The Governess, or The Little Female Academy, from 1749, by Sarah Fielding, which is liberal in its use of fairy tales in conjunction with real life to provide stories for children as told by a governess.
Then we have Clara’s journey, which can be read as a straight lift from The Nutcracker, which features a girl called Clara who has a magical godfather whose magical world draws her in, until she is whisked off on a Christmas adventure.
Except in our version, Clara dies.
This is where the needs of the arc this story is serving appear to clash with the needs of the genre in which this is working. Alice doesn’t die in Wonderland. The children don’t get killed at the top of the Faraway Tree. The Mouse King doesn’t eat Clara. But we already know there is more at work here. We are firmly within Moffat’s favourite trick of giving us the emotional impact of a death, while softening it by showing us life after that death. He does this with every one of his companions, sometimes multiple times. They die, and then they move on to a different way of living. But sometimes this comes at a cost, because the Doctor cannot always be a part of the new afterlife they are given.
I don’t always make value judgements about episodes of Doctor Who because for everyone who loves a particular episode there will also be somebody who hates it. Life’s like that, and saying how much I like or dislike something isn’t particularly helpful or interesting. But this is Christmas and I hope you won’t mind me being a little self-indulgent by saying that this is perfection when it comes to the best way to approach a Christmas episode. It is packed with entertaining and interesting characters, the monsters are fantastic, and there are references backwards and forwards to the ongoing story arc and also the earlier years of Doctor Who which do not detract or exclude, but are positioned perfectly to draw in the casual Christmas Day viewer. If this is your first experience of Doctor Who then you are going to want to go back and watch Asylum of the Daleks, and you are going to want to see how Clara appears again after her death and what that’s all about. You might even want to go right back to the 60s and find out more about the Great Intelligence, although if you watched this on Christmas Day in 2012 you would have struggled with that bit, with only two episodes of the original twelve in existence. Wanting a Great Intelligence Twelve Days of Christmas? Sadly you only had Day 2 and Day 7. But if you wanted more you wouldn’t have long to wait… RP
The view from across the pond:
So by Matt Smith’s time as the Doctor, we started to see more Christmas episodes that were, in fact, Christmassy. That all changed during Clara’s second introduction to the series. In her first, earlier that year, Coleman’s cameo was a surprise, as was her demise. So for Christmas, Stephen Moffat was going to give her a second outing. But Christmas has nothing to do with the episode short of when it takes place.
For the most part, this was one of the weakest Christmas episodes. It has some things going for it, but it misses the mark on most points. Besides missing the Christmas connection, there’s the second introduction of Clara followed by her second death. This means there has to be yet another entire episode dedicated to a third introduction to a character that has had one too many false-starts already. How many times should we go through the same intro for the same person? It does seem that Moffat knows that Jenna is beautiful though because that red dress in her first story was extremely seductive and now she gets to play two roles: barmaid and governess. I think Moffat was fulfilling all his boyhood fantasies. And then there’s Jenna’s pose too… you know the one… the one no barmaid would actually do when picking up beer mugs, loading a tray, turning with hand on hip and “kerblamo” – the pose. I’m not knocking her; she is gloriously pretty, but as much as I appreciate her looks, I’m in this for the story. And that never gets off the ground. It’s like watching the TARDIS trying to materialize but never actually showing up!
Dr. Simeon, played by Richard E. Grant, has too little personality. I recognize that he’s supposed to be cold but he doesn’t ever seem like a good enemy; he’s too stoic and emotionless. Meanwhile even Ian McKellan can’t carry any weight because he’s relegated to a disembodied voice. That voice is of an enemy that has been missing in Doctor Who since the 60s: The Great Intelligence. Moffat attempts a little retcon storytelling by having the Doctor give Simeon a lunchbox with a map of London’s underground to explain why the Great Intelligence actually encounters the second Doctor in the Web of Fear, but it feels like a weak connection at best.
“Good evening. I’m a lizard woman from the dawn of time and this is my wife!” – Madame Vastra
Which brings us to the Paternoster gang. Where did they actually come into things? A Good Man Goes to War introduces this group but never shows us how they appeared on 1880’s Earth. Now, they are an amazingly fun gang to watch. Strax is absolutely hilarious in this story dealing with a memory-erasing worm. It’s an outstanding scene that really offers a few solid belly-laughs, but that doesn’t make the episode. Then later we get more of something I loathe in Doctor Who: the Doctor calls Strax “the potato one”. Moffat, if by some remote and amazing chance you’re reading this, you wouldn’t say “you’re the black one” to a black person, and I’d hope you have the wherewithal not to say “you’re the gay one” to the homosexual person. That’s because these phrases can be very easily considered inflammatory. But just because Strax isn’t human, Moffat assumes it’s not offensive. Guess what? The Doctor should be so far beyond mocking someone for their looks that it wouldn’t even be a thought in his mind, let alone a line out of his mouth! “I’m the clever one, you’re the potato one! Now go away!” We humans may joke about Strax looking like a potato, but that should never come from the Doctor.
Then we have some absolutely rubbish scene where Madame Vastra has to talk to Clara but Clara can only use one-word answers. What is that all about? That doesn’t make even the slightest amount of sense. A detective, which Vastra is supposed to be, would want all the information available. Think of Holmes: does he ever say, just give me one word answers? No, he says “pray, be concise” even to the point of insisting on hearing what others consider “trifles”. It may be down to a word that catches his attention (Hound, anyone?) but he would never want less information. “Truth is singular; lies are words, words, words!” Nope, sorry, that doesn’t cut it! Just lame writing designed to get the word POND to come out. News flash: it is an actual word, not just the last name of Amy! (On the plus side, this line of reasoning means the Doctor is probably reading my posts, since we label them “view from across the pond”!)
And why does Clara decide to kiss the Doctor? I’m clearly living in the wrong century. Plus the whole rooftop test is where Clara starts to go wrong and she’s not even the Clara who will travel with the Doctor yet. But speaking of getting it all wrong, if Smith were given the lines about watching Clara’s backside, there’d be sexist comments everywhere, but when Clara is the one saying it of the Doctor, it’s accepted and funny. (I admit, it is a bit funny, but ignorant of standards!) I can go on, believe me!
This may have been the worst Christmas episode of the series if not for the one that was coming a year later. It’s debatable because that one does have something big going for it. The Doctor as Holmes worked far better when Tom Baker did it. I guess this one was just a little too elementary. ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Bells of Saint John