Written by Steven Moffat, directed by Farren Blackburn, 2011
So, was it me, or is this basically total shite? That it manages to be simplistic yet somehow still laboured, is, I suppose, a triumph of sorts. But it’s entirely lacking in danger, far too well-equipped with wildly hokey concepts (piloting a disguised-wood spaceship thing through the vortex with the power of a mother's maternal instincts?!), and it even looks massively cheap - all those big, plain sets feel a bit… season seventeen.
And was it strictly necessary to CG the aerial views of the forest? Unfortunately, that says a lot about the level of realism; it probably would've seemed more awkward, in such a cartoon, to have shown some stock footage of the Black Forest or whatever, such was the episode's distance from any sense of realism (I don't mean reality, rather any sense that disbelief could be suspended about the whole premise - acid rain to melt trees which act as power sources?! WTF? Once again, there’s a disappointing sense of Moffat hurriedly and imperfectly filling in the gaps of a concept which was more important that its justification). Even the acting was shit (Arabella! Holy god).
The only spark it mustered was the scene on the Ponds’ doorstep – mainly, it must be said, due to Amy – which is odd as that felt quite inorganically tacked-on anyway. Most damning though is its total lack of story, the plot amounting to the Doctor arriving (alright, in this case he was already in situ); something bad happening; and then… the Doctor not even solving the situation - it simply progresses to a point where it all sorts itself out. That's IT. The story amounted to a walk through a wood. I don't like CS Lewis (who does?!), but at least The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, plundered here for its iconography if nothing else, had the time and space for a plot that involved more than four characters, and more than one situation.
I’ve spoken before about how much I like low-key episodes, but, oddly, despite its small cast, I wouldn’t categorise this as one: it's definitely leaning toward Moffat's occasional flirtations with his predecessor’s more ‘Superman’ approach to the series (the in-orbit opening; the journey through the vortex), yet the fact that it has so few characters just makes it feel sort of inadequate or unfinished, like they could only afford to do it on a shoestring. And, like the simple plot nevertheless feeling totally forced, even given the small size of its cast, none of them really get to do very much, much less have the opportunity to ring true as real people.
I really love Claire Skinner, but even she just got to play a less funny version of her Outnumbered persona. Which is telling, actually; she basically doesn’t have a character, and isn’t presented as being important to the Doctor in a way other one-off seasonal companions like Astrid were; that the Doctor goes running back to Amy at the end just reinforces the idea that she is where Moffat’s heart (...or whatever) lies, and makes me a bit dubious about how well he's going to cope with her eventual departure and replacement.
The comparison to Caves (which Moffat might regret making), in purely story terms, does TDTWATW no favours. Think of the characters in that: Jek, Salateen (and his double), the colonel, the bounty hunter dudes, Morgus, the president... Yeah, yeah; I know it’s longer, but there aren't even equivalent roles here - everyone's a goodie: the mother, the kids (companion-surrogates); even Bill Bailey's posse are mild-mannered even when threatening interrogation, and even the nominal monsters aren't bad. WHERE'S THE TENSION, bitch?!
There are some nice ideas, for sure - well, namely the idea of trees growing together into a disguised tower - but co-opted into a 'sci-fi' environment (the conspicuous nods to Caves didn't help this) just seems awkward and ridiculous – ‘It's the future!’ has come to be used as justification for trees spawning fairytale wooden monarchs, growing into towers apparently made of stone, metal (and glass), and expelling their souls. (God, since when has DW had any truck with such a wanky concept as souls? I know it's just being used as shorthand, but I miss the series’ formerly relentless rationalist religion-bashing.)
And then there's the fact that, despite its simplicity, the plot still didn't WORK: much is made of Madge being a suitable receptacle for the trees’ ‘souls’... yet they're dumped into space at an undisclosed point during the journey (rather than finding a home on earth?). And no word at all on how exactly the trees’ spaceship/golf ball thing found its way into the time vortex - what, the power of Madge's desire to get home? (It didnt even NEED to time travel, for the trees' sake.) Give me a break. Why is Doctor Who lately so riddled with full-on ‘magical’ explanations from the love-saves-the-day school.
Also, the lifts from A Matter of Life and Death were unfortunate, as the association simply served as a reminder of something actually packed with ingenuity, creativity, imagination, emotion, and a satisfactory plot...
God, I found that really dispiriting. I don't LIKE specials; I don't like the idea of a ‘Christmassy’ Doctor Who story automatically being magical, but equally, I don't think it should be that difficult to achieve that confluence. In advance, the elements of the story - the wartime setting, the old house, the Narnian forest, seemed to have a lot of potential richness, but in practice that's lost in the story's prevailing tone of glibness. I think that's what’s been bugging me about this phase of DW: its increasingly one-note comic/smug tone. All the Doctor's ‘I know’ bollocks, and still more self-indulgent references to ‘timey-wiminess’ and all that. It’s just becoming a bit... painful. There's no danger, no originality...
I mean, I realise this is a bit harsh, as there were some stories I really liked in the last season, but... it was all a bit depressing, really. Which sucks especially because it shouldn’t be hard to do a Christmas story. Creepy old house. Snow. That should write itself. Obviously it's a hard balance to strike, as neither Davies nor Moffat have ever quite nailed it.
I'm even dubious about the Doctor's positioning as goofy Santa, providing the children with hammocks and rotating Christmas trees. For a nominally moral series, I'd hope that it might engage with a less self-involved Christmas message: helping others, no...? It’s okay, we have remote-control armchairs.