Thursday, December 29, 2011

Christmas Twee

Christmas is a time of miracles. One miraculous thing this year was my managing to avoid seeing any trailers or hearing anything about the Doctor Who Christmas special, beyond the title: The Doctor, The Widow and The Wardrobe. Obviously I could infer some Narnia parallels, but it made a nice change for it all to be wonderfully hype-free.

Expectations suitably contained then, it’s something of a miracle that it succeeded in disappointing quite so spectacularly.

I’m not even a hundred percent sure why. I was in fine spirits, receptive and looking forward to a generous helping of the unknown, the magical and – let’s be honest – the main thing worth watching on Christmas Day.

It begins with the usual gung-ho antics we’ve come to expect. Indeed, falling to Earth is getting to be a habit of the current Doctor. This time it’s sans-TARDIS and it’s fitting, I suppose, that the Grand Moff pulls off a Star Wars opening shot with the massive star-cruiser bearing down on the planet.

It also pays homage to ye olde Doctor Who in that the Doctor’s tumbling in a vacuum is, like a number of shots in the episode, a case of the visual fx ambitions over-reaching the budget. (See also the clumsy Androzani tripod harvester, in particular when viewed through the triangle window.)

There’s a sense throughout that the story’s straining to achieve something out of its reach. It has to work really hard to pull together its various elements, deliver a Christmassy adventure and arrive at a specific outcome. And it’s a shame because, for one thing, there is some magic on display and, for two, the outcome is exactly where you know the story’s headed from the get-go.

So, we have some welcome fantastical Narnia-isms – wartime kids visiting a country house, a portal into a winter wonderland – and large servings of Chrstmas motifs, with a planet full of Christmas trees, Christmas stars floating up to the heavens and, of course, a guiding star to follow. Individually, the ingredients aren’t so bad and there’s plenty of good seasoning, but when combined it’s all a bit hard to stomach. The shiny balls that hatch into Yule-log Ents are a terrific example of this tale’s constant stretching to bridge Christmas and sci-fi adventure.

Some of the wintry scenes are beautifully laden with menace; Claire Skinner plays the widow with delicate humour and poignancy, the kids – particularly the daughter, I think – were convincingly played, their template straight out of a CS Lewis storybook and brought effectively to life; and some of the dialogue exchanges between the Doctor and, well, pretty much everybody at times were spot on. Alexander Armstrong was a good choice for the dad and it was remarkably easy to forget his annoying contributions to the world of insurance advertising.

On the other hand, the inclusion of Bill Bailey – who I totally rate – felt like Armstrong’s game show vehicle, Pointless. Wasted and sadly now I doubt we’ll be getting to see Bailey in a real role in Doctor Who any time in the future. Bah and, it goes without saying, humbug.

That’s only a passing gripe though and doesn’t amount to a hill of brussel sprouts. But it’s symptomatic of the wider issue, which is that given the chance to do Doctor Who meets Narnia, far better could have been done with the materials.

All the aforementioned menace in the wintry scenes – and, to be fair, in the creaky old wooden folk - comes to nothing. They just want to be helped. Awww, bless. All the poignancy in Skinner’s bereaved widow comes to nothing, because she’s going to don a shiny crown and fly a mothership (groanworthy Christmas cracker joke) through the vortex to light her hubby’s way home. “Be a little impressed!” says the Doctor and it’s almost as though he’s appealing to us, as the audience, when really it’s not all that impressive. Indeed, by that stage proceedings are in the realm of ET’s magic moonlight bicycle-ride. Ladies and gentlemen, we are flying on pure undiluted sentiment.

It doesn’t even matter that the whole concept of plundering a world full of trees for battery fluid - using acid – is stupid. (How hard would it have been to change that to some other much-sought-after resource? I don’t know, maybe they could have been harvesting some pine-scented ingredient for the latest celebrity fragrance. It’s daft, but it’s – if the ads are any indicator – Christmassy. Anything, really. Just not battery fluid.) The main problem is it’s all sugar and no meat and potatoes. And right when your stomach’s turning at the thought of consuming any more sweets, it goes and ups the saccharine dose with the “Humany wumany” line.

The closing scene is a perfect dovetail, with Amy and Rory, and the Doctor touching a finger to his happy tear is much more the Moffat I admire, but schmaltz on schmaltz is not the basis of a nutritious Christmas meal.

It’s possible the Christmas special tries to be too Christmassy. For me, some of the best songs for getting me in the Christmas spirit aren’t even about Christmas. Far too many Christmas songs are too twee and jingly and, like this story, working way too hard to get their (jolly) message across. Sure, you want something that’s essentially uplifting, maybe even something that’ll bring a lump to your throat – but ideally not gag. And I can’t help feeling that now we’ve had Christmas-tree-shaped killer robots, Christmas-star-shaped ships and Christmas-tree-shaped beings that are all peace and light and starry souls, we may have scraped the bottom of the Christmas themed Doctor Who barrel.

Next year, Nestene decorations that strangle, shiny-ball Yeti control spheres, monster Christmas puddings? The Doctor could spend the entire thing exercising on a new Wii-Fit and it would involve a lot less stretching.

You expect some mess with a real Christmas tree. But it beggars belief that, with such a synthetic job, you’d end up with quite so much sap.