|In this image, Clara is cleverly disguised as a cardboard box.|
It’s December 25th, 2011. A group assembled under the name “Military Wives” are at number one with “Wherever You Are,” which is more or less the song you’d expect, with Coldplay, Flo Rida, and Little Mix also charting. In news, since The Sarah Jane Adventures took its bow Muammar Gaddaffi was killed in Libya, the Curiosity rover was launched by NASA, and the global population hit seven billion.
While on television is The Doctor, The Widow, and the Wardrobe, which is, apparently, the worst thing Moffat has ever done, the second-worst story of the Moffat era, the third-worst of the new series as a whole, and the thirteenth-worst story of all time, coming in just ahead of Paradise Towers and just behind The King’s Demons, but notably beaten by Warriors of the Deep, The Time Monster, and The Horns of Nimon. Or at least, that’s the word from the Doctor Who Magazine 50th Anniversary survey, which also thinks that Day of the Doctor is the best story ever and that Frontios is inferior to The Android Invasion, and that The Celestial Toymaker is superior to stories that aren’t The Twin Dilemma, so is perhaps… inclined towards error.
But this gets at an issue worth exploring at least a little, which is that there are two mutually contradictory narratives of the Moffat era. In one, the initial promise of the great writer of Blink and The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances was steadily squandered on a stream of mediocrity and repetition that has steadily driven people away from the show. In the other, the show remains stubbornly popular without any real evidence of people being driven away, especially when you consider that a statistically significant number of people have migrated to watching on iPlayer, which still isn’t counted in ratings figures. That one of these is based on personal preference while the other is based on the actual metric of success in the television industry is, of course, basically irrelevant. These are, it seems, the two options.
Still, it’s worth entertaining the myriad of criticisms frequently made of The Doctor, The Widow, and the Wardrobe, if only to see if any of them have any substance to them. Let’s start with the most idiosyncratic, if only because they are the ones it is possible to mount the biggest case against the story over. For instance, the observation that the “women are strong because they can be mothers” twist is transphobic. Which… well, it’s not. It’s cisnormative, certainly, but just as heteronormative and homophobic are not actually synonyms, neither are cisnormative and transphobic, and while I am well aware that, as a cis person, I don’t get a vote in this, I would nevertheless, in a purely advisory capacity, strongly suggest that the trans activist community start realizing that a more nuanced vocabulary for discussing trans oppression might be useful.
Which is to say that while it’s certainly the case that there are many ways the story could have been more trans-inclusive, this is an accurate but fairly minor complaint, not least because any way to make the story more trans-inclusive would have involved being a very different story. I was talking to Anna about this, and she suggested a plot based around Madge not being the children’s biological mother, which would have been great, yes. You can imagine the scene in which Madge tearfully explains that she can’t possibly fly the ship because she’s not really a mother, and the Doctor looking at her like she’s got two heads and saying some version of “of course you are, don’t be ridiculous,” and it’s a lovely scene, except that it moves the emphasis away from saving Reg. You could have that be an incidental detail, but that doesn’t keep with the theme-explicit-in-dialogue aesthetic that dominates not just Doctor Who but popular fiction right now.
Moving down the list, there’s the “he followed me home and wouldn’t stop unless I married him” bit in Madge and Reg’s dating history, which, yes, again, a valid objection, but strangely nobody gets furious at Say Anything, the cultural touchstone for the “following her is romantic” image. I wish the line weren’t there, but one line in one scene that’s sexist in a way that’s gobsmackingly common in popular culture does not constitute a particularly effective critique of an entire episode. If it did, The God Complex wouldn’t come anywhere close to surviving that appalling “Amy Williams” line. And anyway, given that the major critics of this episode are the people who persist in putting The Talons of Weng-Chiang in the top ten, I think it’s pretty clear that the objections to this story are not actually well-reasoned social justice critiques.
To be honest, given the tedious myopia of large swaths of Doctor Who fandom, it’s more likely that the objection is the story’s “men are weak/women are strong” bit. The objection here is, in its dumbest form, one that uses phrases like “misandry” and “reverse sexism,” but there’s at least a sane and sympathetic version that says that the goal should be equality, and that saying things like “men are weak and women are strong” is just as harmful as the reverse. For my part, though… it doesn’t feel like enough to simply have there be things that don’t say that women are inferior to men, given how many things there are in the world that say that they are. I wish we didn’t live in a world where it was necessary to provide counter-programming to systemic cultural sexism, but ultimately, I think we do, and that stories about how women are strong and mothers are awesome and powerful are actually important. When there is a massive power imbalance in the world, it generally cannot be rectified simply by giving power to the disenfranchised side – power must also be taken away from the more privileged. There are, of course, arguments to the contrary, and you are welcome to remind me what they are in comments, but the truth is, I’ve heard them and am unpersuaded, so, you know, I’m not really sure what else to say there.
Which leaves one major line of attack on this story, which is that it’s silly.
As you can imagine, this is not a line of attack I find particularly persuasive. Certainly this seems to me an episode that is perfectly aware of how silly it’s being. Which means that the argument that it’s flawed because it’s silly amounts to an argument that silliness is inherently a bad thing for Doctor Who, which is, I think, a completely untenable position. Yes, this episode pushes the “Matt Smith as goofy comedy Doctor” idea about as far as it can be pushed. I’d say that Smith’s Doctor veers uncomfortably close to self-parody here, but that’s frankly understating the case. His Doctor sails merrily into self-parody here. If you hate that sort of thing, you’ll hate this. But for my money, nothing captures the way Smith’s Doctor works quite like his mask of lemonade taps and spinning chairs dropping when he’s alone with Madge, and his calm, polite, and piercing explanation of why she keeps yelling at her children. “Because they’re going to be sad later” is a line that sums up so much of what there is to love about Smith’s take on the character.
But perhaps more to the point, and it seems slightly incredible that this should need to be pointed out, but The Doctor, The Widow, and the Wardrobe is unabashedly Doctor Who aimed at the young end of its audience. Which… is a tough thing to get bent out of shape about. Ultimately, this is Doctor Who doing Box of Delights, inasmuch as Box of Delights isn’t just the best story of Season 6B. (Really, I should add it as an Outside the Government if I redo the Troughton book.) And so everything is played simply, with an eye towards broad iconography. World War II finally completes its strange gradual descent from being an unspeakable but omnipresent moment of historical context in The Daleks to finally being actually representable in The Curse of Fenric to, nearly another quarter-century later, simply being one of the heritage theme parks that Doctor Who can pop into. (Indeed, this is another reason why the Reg following Madge business only bothers me a middling amount – because that “I didn’t want to make a fuss” seems to me to be more of a “keep calm and carry on” joke than one about gender relations. Still bad though.) The forest is self-evidently Ancient Celtic Britain redressed as an alien planet, and if you think anything that happens after the first giant tree person shows up needs more explanation than it got then you’re coming at it the wrong way. Everything you need to know is there in the basic image of a monolithic tree queen in a tower standing over the throne, waiting to crown whomever sits in it.
So what we have is a story that uses the narrative structure and iconography of The Lion, The Widow, and the Wardrobe (and Lewis has always been a sort of secret ghost for Doctor Who, dying the same day it premiered) to do a story about how women are awesome with strong ecological themes. It’s not what you’d call subtle, but again, it’s not trying to be – and it seems to me tough to argue that this isn’t a story that knows what it’s doing and is It’s trying to be a seven-year-old’s favorite Christmas DVD, and one suspects that there are few polls around that are going to give any real clue how good a job it did at that.
So why is it hated? Certainly the other moments in the new series where Doctor Who has overtly and consciously done children’s television are panned as well, though casting this down with the worst of the lot, Fear Her, really does seem harsh. As, really, does putting Fear Her in the second to last slot, suggesting that there really is a fandom bias against treating Doctor Who as children’s television, which does seem a bit pathological. But even that doesn’t quite explain the reputation of this one.
One suspects, then, that the answer is that it came at an awkward moment in the transmission schedule. It’s notable that The Doctor, The Widow, and the Wardrobe ended without even a hint as to when the series would return, or what with. There was no trailer and no gesture towards the future. This is largely because production was still a good few months from starting on Season Seven, and Doctor Who wasn’t going to be appearing for about eight months due to a clear delay in production that appears to have been caused by the discovery that Moffat couldn’t actually produce a season each of Doctor Who and Sherlock in a year without killing himself.
This went over predictably poorly in some circles. I’m pretty sure Ian Levine called it evil, like he does. I mean, this must come as a shock to nobody – the sorts of people who believe they have some sort of inherent right to fourteen episodes of Doctor Who a year are also the sorts of people who hate the idea that Doctor Who might sometimes mainly be for seven-year-olds and not them. As I said, pathological. And it explains the thumping this took in the polls and among fandom. And sure, as “the last piece of Doctor Who you’re getting for lord knows how long,” this isn’t any fan’s desired sendoff. But it’s worth noting that this was, generally speaking, a quite well-reviewed episode that seems to have gone down quite well with the public. And while it’s easy to list quibbles with it, at the end of the day, it does feel rather like shouting “bah humbug” at a bunch of kids unwrapping a present. That so much of what constitutes Doctor Who fandom is willing to do just that says, frankly, very little about us that’s good.