The first twenty minutes or so of the latest festive frolic are perfect Doctor Who- whimsical, funny, affecting and imaginative. James Bond-like we join matters at the end of an unseen adventure as the Doctor saves the world but ends up plummeting to Earth in a safety suit from which he cannot escape. Its wartime Britain but resourceful housewife Madge Arwell helps him receiving a promise of a favour in return if she ever needs it. Three years later with her pilot husband missing believed dead; Madge wants to give her two children one great Xmas before telling them the truth she has so far avoided revealing to them.
|"Blimey, Rory's changed a bit!"|
There are some delightful comedic moments as the Doctor, posing as the caretaker of the rambling country house in which they spend Yuletide, shows them round. Visually the 1940’s plus style looks very festive on screen, the piece de resistance being the fact that the Doctor chooses hammocks rather than beds. Matt Smith is superb at this kind of thing and as we delve into the mystery of an oversized present under the tree, it all looks set for a rollicking adventure.
The story title tells you where the ideas are coming from but once the kids and their mother have climbed into the voluminous box in which there is a snowy forest matters diversify completely with no talking animals to be found. Instead we discover two visually impressive but narratively limited Tree People who are trying to evacuate their fellow beings before acid rain pours down on the planet.
The whole tree plot is not particularly engaging and as with the shark last year, the show seems to have wasted a great visual with a lot more potential. The story, unusually for Steven Moffat, is straight forward and after the impressive first third has a flabby mid section before picking up for a dramatic if predictable climax. Having drawn us into a Narnia like world, Moffat seems unable to provide a suitably magical tale to match.
|Madge on the look out for a bit more of a plot.|
There is something about the plot that isn’t very exciting, perhaps because we don’t really find the trees interesting or sympathetic. All the musical swells and interesting direction from Farren Blackburn cannot disguise the slim story is being extended beyond its natural running time. It is significant too that whenever Claire Skinner is off screen, there is nothing to connect to for the viewer. Madge’s kids are not especially well drawn while Bill Bailey and co- theoretically the villains of the piece- play for laughs in some superfluous filler scenes.
It pulls together at the end because the human fate of Madge and her husband is far more exciting than what happens to a lot of trees. Though you can see the denouement a mile off, if it does give you a warm glow and the unexpected coda is lovely too showing that sometimes Matt Smith can be just as brilliant at small, quiet moments.
Overall it seems a more modest story than previous Xmas episodes and in terms of excitement is somewhat lacking. Perhaps the fact it was made so close to transmission restricted what could be done? Like last year’s `A Christmas Carol`, you’re unlikely to want to see this at any other time of the year. Viewed on Christmas Day though, its likeable sheen is a welcome present.
Words: John Newman