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Recap / Doctor Who 2011 CS "The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe"

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Typical Doctor, with his dimensionally impossible presents...

The Doctor: I can't see. I'm blind!
Madge Arwell: Oh no, love, no. I think you've just got your helmet on backwards. How did you manage that?
The Doctor: I got dressed in a hurry.

Original air date: December 25, 2011

The one where a widow is non-widowed and the Doctor put his helmet on backwards.

Written by Steven Moffat. The 2011 Doctor Who Christmas special. Has a prequel.

The Doctor is blowing up a space ship. This is a bad idea, because space ships are generally in space, so he has to quickly improvise with putting on a space suit after being thrown out of the ship by the explosion. His respiratory bypass system comes in handy.

Its Christmas Eve, 1938, when Madge Arwell finds a crater with a man in it. The man is wearing a space suit with his helmet on backwards and can't see a thing. He got dressed in a bit of a hurry, what with free floating in space and a ship exploding behind him and all. Madge tells her children, Lily and Cyril, that she'll be off for a bit: she has to take a man with a backwards helmet who may or may not be an angel to find a phone box. When they find the TARDIS (after several false starts), he tells her that he'll thank her properly someday, once the suit is done healing him.

Three years later, Madge's pilot husband is lost at sea in the war when his plane is trapped in the dark. Devastated, she escapes war-torn London with her two children for a dilapidated house in Dorset. She is crippled with grief at the news her husband has been lost over the channel, but determined to give Lily and Cyril the best Christmas ever and simply tell them later. She keeps up her Stepford Smiler act bravely.

When they arrive at the house, the regular caretaker has been replaced by the Doctor, who simply introduces himself as the new caretaker. He's very much playing The Wonka, and he's turned the house into a fantasy playground for the kids. The furniture moves, the beds are hammocks, and the Christmas tree is beautiful. There's one giant present underneath it. When the Doctor realises what has happened to Madge's husband, he agrees to help her give her children a wonderful Christmas.

Of course, little Cyril sneaks out of his hammock and into the giant present a day early. He ends up in the Whoniverse's equivalent of Narnia. It's wintery and gorgeous, and the trees look very Christmas-like, including decorative balls. Well, eggs. One of them bursts open, and Cyril follows whatever came out of it.

The Doctor and Lily quickly follow. The Doctor is confused — this is supposed to be the single safest planet in the galaxy. He had planned a nice holiday for the kids here, without any danger, and definitely without growing footsteps leading out of giant Christmas tree eggs. The Doctor's sonic screwdriver still doesn't do wood. When Trees Attack, this is a problem.

The creature leads Cyril into a tower, where he finds statues frozen in time.

Madge has followed them by now. She's greeted by Droxil (Bill Bailey) and his crew, wearing power suits and standing near an industrial Humongous Mecha from Androzani (Major, not Minor). Droxil votes to shoot her. His crew disagree — one of them has mommy issues and starts to involuntarily cry, and the other simply refuses to shoot an unarmed and shivering civilian woman. Madge is not unarmed, however, and forces the crew to let her inside their mecha.

The statues in the tower are made of wood. Cyril is invited to sit on their throne and wear their crown. He's discarded, however, because he's "weak". When Lily and the Doctor arrive, the Doctor is quickly discarded by them as well, but Lily is considered "strong".

Droxil informs Madge that they're a harvesting crew. The wood from the forest is the universe's best power source, and they're about to go melt the forest with acid rain. Madge is shocked and tells them that they need to save her children before it's too late, but it's impossible: the mechanism is already in place and can't be stopped now. As a last-ditch resort, Madge begs to be allowed to pilot the mecha towards her children. She doesn't care that it takes years to learn: she was in her husband's plane once, and she's a Mama Bear, and with those two things combined she can do anything. The crew tell her that she's mad, but she absolutely insists.

As it turns out, the tree statues are not statues: they're the souls of the trees that are about to be murdered. The tower is not built, but grown, as their safe haven. They've left their tree husks to go find a new world somewhere else. The Doctor loves it, and tells them to hop on inside his head and get on with it. Trees are good, he loves trees, one of them fancied him once, but the trees refuse: it has to be someone who's "strong", and Lily isn't mature enough yet.

As the acid rain starts, all hope seems to be lost, but the giant mecha comes stumbling out of the forest and towards the tower. It's piloted by Madge. The thing falls over, of course, but Madge manages to get out of the mecha and into the tower with only a few gaping acid holes in her coat. The trees latch onto her immediately. She's the strongest creature there is: a grown mother. As it turns out, the trees are speaking the universe's base language: "weak" means male, and "strong" means female, simply because females beget new life. "How else does life travel but the mothership?" Madge is quite happy to serve as the vessel for the trees and power up their transportation. The souls of the entire forest are absorbed into her head. She takes it extremely well. With the powerful thought of "home" to lock onto, the heroes and the tree collectively depart into the Time Vortex.

Trouble brews on their way because the thought of "home", for Madge, includes her husband. As her thoughts are projected before her eyes, she realises that she will also need to remember her husband vividly if she wants to get the trees to safety. She has to see him die, and his final minutes on his plane will be shown to her kids as well. It can't be helped, the Doctor says, and as they make it to safety and the trees leave her mind again, Madge breaks down into tears.

The Doctor decides to give the family some privacy while Madge explains to her kids what happened to their dad. She's interrupted when the Doctor rushes back in again, rambling about something outside that they need to see. Outside on the grass is a plane. Madge's husband gets out, very confused, but happy to see his family. When Madge moved through the Time Vortex, locking onto her husband in thought, the guiding light of the trees' vessel was able to guide his plane to safety right through time and space. Madge and her family cry, and the Doctor smirks at their all-too-human happy tears.

Back at the house, Madge finds the Doctor in the attic, tinkering with things. She sees the TARDIS and instantly realises that he's her space suit angel. When she asks if he doesn't have his own family to go spend Christmas with, he tries to explain to her that everyone thinks he's dead. Madge gets very cross at that, and tells him to go back to his mum and dad and tell them he's sorry, right now. He sort of smiles and says he'll think about it.

Amy opens the door and sees her son-in-law standing there quite sheepishly. He's not quite sure how long it's been. Two years, she informs him (again), and they knew he was alive. Their daughter told them because she's a good girl. Neither of them wants to give the first hug, but after about a minute, they both laugh and relent and hug each other. As Amy invites him in for Christmas dinner with her and Rory, the Doctor notices that his face is a bit wet and that happy tears may not be just a silly human thing.

Arabella Weir and Alexander Armstrong have guest roles.


  • Action Prologue: The episode begins with the Doctor escaping an exploding spaceship. While this leads to him meeting Madge, it's otherwise unconnected with the plot of the episode. It also serves as a bit of a Lampshade Hanging/Take That! to the Christmas specials of the Russell T Davies era, essentially condensing the entire plot of each (large spaceship ready to attack Earth, the Doctor saves the day) into a five-minute prologue before getting on with the real plot.
  • Actor Allusion: Alexander Armstrong (one half of the Armstrong and Miller Show) is once again a WWII RAF pilot. His on-screen wife Claire Skinner plays an exhausted mother in Outnumbered.
  • Ambiguous Situation: Is the Magna Carta inside the kid's bedroom a copy, or the actual thing? Knowing the Doctor, you can't rule it out...
  • Answer Cut: Madge tells her husband that if people keep talking about war one will happen, "And then where would you be?" Cut to her husband flying a bomber during WW2.
  • Arbitrary Scepticism: The Doctor has encountered precognition before, but he dismisses the Queen's claim of knowing someone would arrive to save them.
  • Artistic Licence Biology: In contrast to the Doctor's slightly mystical technobabble explaining the plot twist, in real life, there's no universal "male" and "female" dichotomy in biology, and pine trees are themselves an exception to it, bearing both male and female organs on the same tree. Then again, these are alien trees, so there might be a difference between them and the Earth variety.
  • Ask a Stupid Question...: When the Doctor wonders aloud about who would ever open their Christmas present early, Lily just stares at him. He answers his own question: "... Shut up... Everyone."
  • Big Bad: Although he's essentially a Punch-Clock Villain, Droxil's destruction of the forest is what causes all the problems of the episode.
  • Big Red Button: In the prequel, the Doctor has his finger on one. When he takes it off, the ship will explode.
  • "Blind Idiot" Translation: Turns out that "weak" and "strong" are simply poor translations of "male" and "female" because females are more capable of flying the ship.
  • Blitz Evacuees: Madge and her kids are fleeing the war, and encounter an eccentric caretaker who takes them on a magical (Clarke's Third Law) adventure.
  • Batman Can Breathe in Space: In the opening scene, the Doctor seems to have no trouble breathing (and talking) while falling through space towards Earth. Its been previously established that Time Lords possess a respiratory bypass that allows them to go long periods without breathing, and likewise are able to survive exposure to hard vacuum much longer. It counts as an especially powerful Continuity Nod, since the most significant instant of the Doctor using that bit of Bizarre Alien Biology was on Androzani Minor. The entire scene delves in Artistic Licence - Space with much glee.
  • Big Sister Bully: Lily comes across as one to Cyril when she accuses him of making up words and "breathing".
  • Chekhov's Gun: It gets lost in the Doctor's rapid-fire... Doctoriness, but the children's bedroom has a "selection of torches for midnight feasts or secret reading"; lo and behold everyone has their own torch when they pass through the portal.
  • Chekhov's Skill: Madge is able to drive the robotic walker to the lighthouse because the control panel resembles that of a plane, which Reg taught her to fly once.
  • Christmas Episode: Madge is determined to make this "the best Christmas ever" so her kids don't think that Christmas is what took their father away from them. And then it turns out that Christmas is what brought him back to them.
  • Christmas Miracle: Madge inadvertently creates her own one by saving Reg.
  • Clarke's Third Law: Subverted by Madge, who cons the workers into putting down their guns by fooling them into thinking she's overcome by the futuristic and alien setting.
  • Cloudcuckoolander: The Doctor is in rare form; he "repairs" the house with spinning cars, includes the Magna Carta in a kid's bedroom and neglects to put in beds, and when introducing himself, goes off onto a tangent about planets where he's Persona Non Grata.
  • Continuity Nod:
    • The Doctor tries to Outrun the Fireball, just like Nine did in the "Do you want to come with me?" trailers, but Eleven is much clumsier at it.
    • Reg's "I'm sorry, my love" when his plane is about to go down is an echo of River Song's line.
    • The Doctor's "How cool is that?" about the baubles on the trees is an echo of his own line.
    • The tree harvesters are from Androzani Major, and unfortunately, the citizens of the planet are still materialistic capitalists.
    • The trees' plan to recruit a human as a pilot is similar to that of the Aickman Road TARDIS-knockoff.
    • When Madge's husband first met her, he followed her home, just like Kathy Nightingale's did.
    • The Doctor left Amy waiting for two years again.
    • The predominant colour in Madge's room, which the Doctor calls "boring?" Blue.
    • The Doctor's line about being fancied by a tree is a nod to "The End of the World".
      "I met the Forest of Cheem once. She fancied me."
    • At the end, Amy informs the Doctor that River already told her he was alive.
    • It's subtle, but the Doctor's Friend to All Children nature and the parenting wisdom he passes on to Madge reminds us that he used to be a father, and a grandfather, himself.
  • Cool House: The Doctor "repairs" the estate in several ways. The sitting room has bumper car chairs, the kitchen has a lemonade tap, the kids' room has everything but beds (can't fit everything, after all, so it has hammocks), and the Christmas tree is motorized in several places. Oh, and he set up a portal to a forest of living trees inside a box as a present.
  • Don't Be Ridiculous: When Lily asks if they've gone to Fairy Land, the Doctor dismissively brushes her off.
    The Doctor: Fairy land? Oh, grow up, Lily... Fairy Land looks completely different.
  • Door-Closes Ending: In the traditional Christmas special way, the Doctor ends the special by closing the door to Amy's house.
  • Drives Like Crazy: Madge hit a dozen or so things on the way to the TARDIS in the cold open. Then the Doctor can recognize her driving when she shows up in the harvester.
  • Eskimos Aren't Real: Whenever Cyril uses a long word like "astronomy", Lily accuses him of making it up.
  • Everybody Calls Him "Barkeep": The Doctor. He introduces himself as "The Doctor, or the Caretaker, or Get Off This Planet", but throughout the episode, everyone calls him "Caretaker". This is his intention, both because he is supposed to be going incognito from this point, and he wants to take care of Madge to repay her kindness to him.
  • Everybody Lives: Not only that, but everybody gets what they want! The Androzani get their fuel, but the trees' spirits live on; Madge finds her children and unintentionally saves her husband; and the Doctor learns that he does have people who care about him.
  • Gender-Restricted Ability: Only women are able to transport the forest. The Doctor put it best:
    The Doctor: You and I, Cyril, we're weak, but she's female. More than female, she's mum. How else does life ever travel? The Mother ship.
  • George Jetson Job Security: The Doctor royally screws up his caretaker job with the present portal, leading to this:
    Madge: Caretaker?
    The Doctor: Yes?
    Madge: You're fired!
    The Doctor: Oh.
  • Good Is Not Soft: A kind and loving wife and mother-who pulls a gun on three soldiers standing in her way.
    Droxil: There's nothing you could say that would convince me you'd ever use that gun.
    Madge: I'm looking for my children.
    Droxil: [suddenly looks quite convinced he might get shot]
  • Green Aesop: Though surprisingly understated for a story about deforestation, this episode's plot is about trees evacuating their homes before they are melted down.
  • The Grinch: Discussed. Madge is afraid to tell her kids that their father is dead on Christmas in part because she's afraid she'll ruin the holiday for them for the rest of their lives.
  • Happily Married:
    • Madge and Reg are shown to have a great relationship before and after the war. His death deeply hurt Madge, and she was going to be his last thought when his plane was going down.
    • Amy and Rory are still together after two years.
  • Hairpin Lockpick: Madge uses one to unlock the first police box she finds for her spacesuit angel. It's not the TARDIS, but it's still possible she succeeded with the real thing off-screen.
  • Her Heart Will Go On: Madge puts on a brave face when she receives news of her husband's supposed death at sea.
  • Hypocritical Humour: The Doctor telling Lily to grow up when she mistakes the forest for Fairyland... because Fairyland looks completely different.
  • Indy Ploy: The Doctor gives advice to the effect of "hold on and pretend it's a plan."
  • Inspiration Nod: The Doctor directly quotes Professor Kirke in The Chronicles of Narnia: "What do they teach in schools these days?"
  • Internal Homage: This is the second time in Doctor Who that a massive forest, killed off by industrialisation, seeks refuge inside a woman's mind. The first time was in the Big Finish Doctor Who episode "Loups-Garoux".
  • It's a Long Story: When his father asks where Madge is, Cyril wisely summarizes her mother's message about taking an injured spaceman (possibly an angel) to find a police telephone box as "Out."
  • Just Plane Wrong: Avro Lancasters did not see active service until 1942, while the special is set in 1941.
  • Lighter and Softer: Compare this Christmas Special to the first ones and you notice it: Everybody Lives, presents, Christmas theme etc.
  • Mama Bear: Madge uses this to prove that she's serious.
    Droxil: There's nothing you could say that would convince me you'd ever use that gun.
    Madge: I'm looking for my children.
    Droxil: [suddenly looks quite convinced he might get shot]
  • Mood Whiplash: The montage of the Doctor showing Madge and her kids the modifications he made to the house (which is magical in a way) comes to an abrupt end when Madge yells at the Doctor. Then, after she and the Doctor talk in private, that is interrupted when the children become overjoyed when seeing the Christmas tree the Doctor set up.
  • Motherhood Is Superior: The theme ranges from the sci-fi angle, where the futuristic tree harvesters are outwitted and captured by motherly instinct, to the fantasy angle where the tree people reject males (even the Doctor) as their vessel because "You are weak", but accept females — Madge in particular — as "the mothership". How else does life travel?
  • Never Found the Body: Madge's telegram notes that Reg is lost at sea rather than being confirmed dead. This provides the means of preventing his death; the tree people's ship provided a beacon and his plane landed several weeks later than it's disappearance due to time travel.
  • No Antagonist: None of the factions which appear in the episode are antagonists, even if it does not appear this way at first. The harvesters are just doing their job, and the trees are only trying to save their race. The main characters even cooperate with them at the end and they part ways without either side being harmed. This is quite a contrast to all previous Christmas specials, as well as most other episodes. (This obviously ignores the big spaceship seen in the opening, but they barely have any effect on the main plot anyway...)
  • Non-Indicative Name: The title. "Doctor?" Everyone just calls him Caretaker. "Widow"? What widow? and the titular wardrobe is the TARDIS.
  • Noodle Incident: "The back door is still, broadly speaking, operational."
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: Madge pretends to be overwhelmed and crying when confronted by armed soldiers. They disarm to help her calm down, at which point she draws her own gun and says, "There's a war on."
  • Oh, Crap!: The lead interrogator says that he knows there's no way Madge will ever shoot him. Then she tells him that she's looking for her children...
  • Outlandish Device Setting: The Doctor modifies a house. The taps now have "Hot", "Cold", and "Lemonade".
  • Outrun the Fireball: The Doctor is running away from big explosions while escaping the spaceship in the opening.
  • Phlebotinum Breakdown: The Doctor's sonic screwdriver still doesn't do wood. When Trees Attack, this is a problem.
    The Doctor: Oh, aliens made of wood! [mutters at sonic screwdriver] This was always going to happen, you know.
  • Plant Aliens: The Androzani trees turn out to be sapient.
  • The Power of Love: Madge flies the forest through the Time Vortex, and gets her husband home, by focusing on the power in the concept of "home", which includes family.
  • Present Peeking: Cyril gets curious and has to peek at the Doctor's big present.
  • Real Life Writes the Plot: Regarding the shooting of the scenes with Matt Smith in the spacesuit helmet, his hair coif was too poofy to fit inside the helmet as it was, resulting in it being combed down into a rather cute pile of fluff.
  • Running Gag: The Doctor notes that he looks great in a hat.
  • Shout-Out:
  • Sleeping Dummy: Cyril sets one up with pillows and a teddy bear when he sneaks downstairs to open the present early, so Lily won't realise he's gone.
  • Soul Jar: The tree people's escape plan consists of stuffing themselves into a human mother's mind.
  • Spoof Aesop: "Cyril! What have I told you about opening your presents early? Something like this was bound to happen."
  • Stalking Is Love: Reg kept following Madge home until she agreed to marry him. She didn't want to cause a scene. It's not as creepy as it sounds as Madge's memories show them walking together and conversing like friends, so it's more like he was walking her home instead of following her home.
  • Standard Snippet: The music that plays over the opening shot of Earth is a sped-up version of "Also sprach Zarathustra".
  • Tears of Joy: When Amy invites him inside for Christmas dinner, the Doctor sheds some happy tears.
  • Tempting Fate:
    • "This is one of the safest planets I know! There's never any danger here... There are sentences I should just keep away from."
    • Especially ironic considering the last time the Doctor was in the system.
    • Madge, upon seeing Reg reading about the war looming in the paper:
      Madge: Not the war again... People keep reading about the war, then it will actually happen! Then where would you be?
      [most tragic Gilligan Cut ever]
  • Time Portal: The giant Christmas present has a portal to another planet in the year 5346.
  • Took a Level in Badass: Even before Madge takes over the Humongous Mecha to save her children, she pulls a gun on her three interrogators. "Crying's so useful, isn't it?"
  • Tsundere: When Amy answers the door, she has a squirt gun in case of annoying carolers. When she sees it's the Doctor, she's momentarily stunned, and then squirts him anyway because he stayed away for two years (again). She also refuses to hug him, and then does so anyway and says they've already set a place for him at the dinner table.
  • Tuckerization: Ven-Garr and Billis are named after outgoing executive producers Piers Wenger and Beth Willis, both of whom served with Moffat.
  • Vader Breath: The "stormtroopers" that appear in the forest talk like this due to their helmets.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: What happened to the people Madge was expecting to be waiting for them at the house? Although it isn't mentioned in the episode, Maurice Cole mentions in an interview that they won the lottery, which the Doctor often arranges.
  • What You Are in the Dark:
    Billis: Sir, with regret, I'm going to have to lower my gun.
    Droxil: Why?
    Billis: She is a crying, unarmed, female civilian. I'm thinking of the visual.
    Droxil: Nobody's looking!
    Billis: Doesn't mean there's no visual.
  • When Trees Attack: The Wooden King and Queen who live in the forest are initially thought to be dangerous. It's a subversion, as all they want is to save the souls of their race and are not at all hostile.
  • Whole-Plot Reference: Pretty clearly to The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, starting with the title and and moving into the winter forest and then someone coming to save the inhabitants.
  • Women Are Wiser:
    • The female interrogator, while still bumbling, seems slightly more logical and calm under threat. Madge chats with her passively while chaining up the male interrogators, insisting they can't be trusted.
    • The tree people have a magic crown that, when somebody wears on their head, allows them to absorb the forest's life force. It rejects Cyril and the Doctor, works slightly for Lily, and completely works for Madge, as the tree people consider her the "mothership".
  • Women Drivers: Madge bumps into lots of things while driving the Doctor to the phone box. She doesn't fare much better when she hijacks a Humongous Mecha; the Doctor calls it a total write off. She does pretty well at traversing the Time Vortex, but accidentally goes further into the past then she needed to before landing in the right era.
  • You Wouldn't Shoot Me: Droxil asserts this of Madge, despite having no real information about her character and having been suspicious of her previously. Her Mama Bear retort quickly changes his mind.

The Doctor: But you didn't know I was coming! Why would you set me a place?