I have a confession to make. I really, really love this episode. It’s one of my secret Doctor Who pleasures. I say secret because apparently this Christmas special has a pretty poor reputation among a not insignificant section of the fandom. I can sort of see what they’re getting at: it appears to be little more than a children’s tale with an excess of (God forbid) maudlin sentimentality dolloped on top. At any other time I might be inclined to agree with such critiques, but this is Christmas, and this episode is exactly what Doctor Who at Christmas is all about. I find it simply a hugely enjoyable story, with a magical setting, engaging characters, an intriguing plot, genuinely funny comedy, and more emotional stimulant than is probably healthy to consume in its sixty minutes’ duration. It all makes for probably one of the first Doctor Who episodes I’d reach for unfailingly when, maybe at the end of a long day, I just want something to put my feet up to. It’s that kind of episode.
Maybe one of the charms of this episode is its cast of wonderful characters. First, there’s Madge Arwell, of course, played superbly by Claire Skinner, whom I recognised from another brilliant maternal role of Sue Brockman in Outnumbered. From the quaintly English way he went about nonchalantly accompanying the spaceman with his helmet on backwards who fell from the heavens back to his police box, to her restrained private grieving over the news of her husband, to her strategic weeping to fool the (admittedly dim-witted) miners into disarming themselves, to her telling the Doctor off for not visiting his friends at Christmas, Madge was an excellent character. She would be another name in a fairly long list I’d raise to rejoin assertions that Steven Moffat is sexist and can’t write women. Then there was Lily Arwell, who was an engaging and inquisitive young girl, who seemed admirably sceptical of the Doctor’s absurdity. She was also very pretty, for what it’s worth (I can say that, Holly Earl is older than me). Between them Madge and Lily Arwell made this episode, but the three stooges (Bill Bailey, Paul Bazley and Arabella Weir) were also great, albeit underused, additions.
Another of this episode’s best aspects is its emotive quality. The enchanting Narnia-like story is punctured by a handful of very poignant, affecting scenes that raise this episode from the ordinary run of entertaining seasonal romps into something quite special. There was Madge grieving quietly over her husband, looking wistfully at that dread telegram. There was the Doctor trying to ease Madge’s apprehensions about her children, assuring her that it was good for them to be happy now, “because they’re going to be sad later.” There was that piercingly affecting scene where Madge forces herself to watch Reg’s death to secure a psychic, emotional link strong enough to pilot them all back home. Skinner gave a deeply stirring performance in those moments, making for a really affecting and memorable scene. Who says Moffat can’t write emotional? Was it maudlin? Sentimental? Hell yes — it was the best moment of this episode. That following scene, too, where they discover that Madge has guided her husband safely home, was wonderful. I’d question whether Madge would be making witty remarks at that moment rather than throwing herself upon her husband, totally overcome, but meh, I’m not bothered. Some say that bit was emotionally dishonest. Perhaps in a normal episode, I’d agree, but this is a Christmas story, and at Christmas I’d call it a happy ending, and a welcome one, too.
Some final thoughts. The Doctor’s visiting the Ponds at Christmas was also an enchanting scene. Watching the Doctor and Amy fail to resist the urge to embrace each other brought a glowing smile to my face. And the Doctor surprised to find he’d shed a happy tear upon realising how much his best friends love him? Just touching. The Doctor in general was great in this episode, from his bouncing around the old Dorset pile excited to show the Arwells his “repairs”, to his engaging chemistry with the Arwell children, especially Lily, to the more earnest moments with Madge, which Matt Smith does just as well as the comedy. Next I thought Madge’s confrontation with the miners was hilarious, which only makes me wonder why those three were so scandalously underused in this episode. Bill Bailey in particular was a high-profile guest star whose fleeting presence onscreen was puzzling. Finally, I’m reminded again by this episode of the superiority of the 60-minute format as perhaps a better length for single episode stories. Extending the time and slowing down the pace works wonders for the story, allowing the story to breathe, giving us character moments and quality plot progression we just don’t get in a 45-minute whirlwind adventure. I’m gratified to learn that Moffat seems to agree with me, given that there are to be a number of 60-minute episodes in Series 9 (along with an unusually high volume of two-parters — *squee*).