Okay humans, listen up: I haven’t been posting in a while, but then it was Christmas. And I know I missed my latest review, but I thought I could seize upon the opportunity to actually review something of Doctor Who, considering that, for me, I’d be given the chance to see the new Christmas special on Boxing Day. Having now seen it, I thought I’d give my thoughts:

I didn’t like it.

I can’t even say I hated it, because I didn’t. I can’t hate it, because there’s nothing to hate. The whole affair just comes across as hollow and a tad silly; there’s no real plot, no atmosphere, no emotional growth and, above all, no interest. Things just happen, and we come along for the ride. This is actually what I imagine the Doctor’s version of a dull, rainy Sunday must be.

This is even less interesting than it looks.

What there is of the plot can be summed up like this: In world war two era Britain, a family of four loses their father in a plane crash and go out to the country for some reason. And the Doctor is there. And then there’s Narnia, only the trees are alive. So, Narnia plus Avatar. Wow.

Really, I just don’t feel like describing the plot because, when I go to analyze it in my head, I literally can’t. There’s nothing to describe. Or at least, no cause and effect, merely effects. See, looking back, I can’t think of a single thing in this episode that is influenced by other things, trivial things, like characters. Rather, we just hop from thing to thing, completely ignoring the basic framework of a goddamn plot.

And that’s my main issue with this story, I think; there’s no plot. Or at least, there’s no conflict or escalation. Don’t get me wrong, the story of a child lost in a forest, and the subsequent race to retrieve this child, is fine as a story arc, if that’s where you want to go. In fact, as a new father myself I could certainly get behind this concept, no problems. The problem is, this story never goes there; it’s one big fake-out. Additionally, this is not the main plot of the episode, but then… what exactly was?

Here’s the thing Doctor Who has never really seemed to get, especially lately; the audience does not automatically owe it an emotional connection to what is going on. That’s something that needs to be worked at, and built up over the course of the story. It’s not done that way, here; the children- ostensibly the emotional heart of any narrative like this- have no character to speak of aside from “children,” and the mother is… oddly characterized. Strangely manipulative at times, she distrusts the Doctor upon his introduction into the story for… no readily apparent reason aside from the fact that he’s fun, hold off on telling the children their father is dead because… Christmas is coming, and is generally just a bit naff.

So what we have here is an emotional center that really doesn’t exist; the kids aren’t cute or interesting- in fact there are large swathes of the story where they have nothing to do- the mother, despite being played by the generally kind of awesome Claire Skinner, is uninteresting, and the potentially meaty themes of loss and family dealing with grief aren’t really explored at all.

Yet there’s an odd sentimentality to this episode. Maybe because it’s the Christmas special, but every little piece of this plot is built up into a kind of sentimental montage. The problem here is that it can’t really decide which kind of sentimental story it wants to be, and so it flips constantly and jarringly between somber meditation on the loss of family and the containment of emotion, and a whimsical, cheerful adventure in the Doctor’s usual style, only with a healthy injection of eggnog. Neither works particularly well, mainly due to the presence of the other. The happy sections are burdened with the lingering shadow of sadness, and the sad sections are less than impactful because the writer (it’s Moffat himself, here) doesn’t seem to really care enough to dedicate the story to It, despite what the rules of emotional realism would say. Frankly, I think this story could have benefited from a lack of whimsy, in favor of sticking to the emotional core of what could have been a great episode; the bonds of family in the face of danger, and the grief of losing a loved one. This could have been so much better than it turned out being.

But the problems in execution here go deeper than merely, y’know, the backbone of the entire plot. Is it just me, or has Doctor Who gotten into the habit of completely wasting awesome guest stars lately? It happened with Bill Nighy in Vincent and the Doctor, and it happens again here with the excellent Claire Skinner and the out of this world freaking amazing Bill Bailey (I’m a fan.) Skinner fairs a little better of the two, but her character does seem terribly false, after some initial interesting characterization (more on that in a moment.) But Bill Bailey? Where my Bill Bailey at, humans? This man is a gem; he’s a great comedian, a damn fine actor- though admittedly he hasn’t exactly been stretched dramatically in the roles he’s had so far- and he’s all around awesome… so where is he in this episode?

Frankly, he’s wasted here; of the very small amount of screen time he’s afforded, he’s given almost nothing to do, beyond getting outsmarted by the bloody housewife from the forties. This wouldn’t tick me off so much, except for the way it was done; it’s tacked on. Bailey has no purpose, aside from being an extra name for the credits. Really, the limits of his use in the story is to explain the nature of the final act’s ticking clock; an engineered shower of acid rain designed to melt down all the trees in a sentient forest to be used as fuel. Those of you who are paying attention might have noticed that this role could have been filled equally as well by a bloody sign posted outside their ship have stumbled upon my main problem here: Bailey’s role could have been fulfilled by a sign.

C'mon: Bill Bailey in power armor should be way cooler than this!

Which is a pity, because his brief appearance, along with his equally entertaining partners, provide some of the highlight lines for this episode, and are genuinely funny. While they appear. And frankly, I would have liked it if Bill freaking Bailey could have had an episode all to himself, here. Wouldn’t be hard to write, the man looks pretty unearthly anyway.

… Oh man, I just thought of something: How awesome would it be for Bill Bailey to be the next Doctor? Oh god, so cool.

More than this, what was the deal with the trees? That was just strange. These are beings apparently capable of not only transferring their consciousnesses into a new receptacle, building a spaceship despite being immobile (read: trees) and building a time machine, not to mention transforming themselves into a transcendent form of life… why is it they needed a human, exactly? It’s not like they’ve ever seen one before (and I’m being charitable in avoiding the obvious “trees have no sensory organs” discussion) aside from, perhaps the loggers, and that doesn’t really count. I don’t feel that “it was foretold,” is an acceptable justification for this plot point. This is a throwaway line to justify something that doesn’t really make a lot of sense. Also, if consciousness is all it takes to pilot their bulb ship, why not just do it themselves, given that all the trees were was consciousness, at that point.

They can grow themselves into this, but they still need human help?!

In fact, why even use the ship at all? We’ve seen the tree-minds flying, and they clearly have no need for air in this form; why not just fly out into the time vortex themselves? And to be clear, the ship wasn’t necessary for their survival, because at the end they were flying around in it without a problem. The only reason I can see for the ship is perhaps access to the vortex, but even if we’re treating the bulb ship like a key, how could the trees know how to develop this technology?

For that matter, why was Bill Bailey and his crew even on the planet if they were just going to acid bath the entire forest? Did they need to be there for something? Like growing the sentient trees? Like, the trees- that are sentient, remember- don’t have an agenda toward growing themselves? What was the walker mech for? Why did they leave the keys in the ignition? Why was Madge able to pilot the bulb ship to her husband’s plane? The thing works on memory, not projection; she wasn’t even there to see that, how could she remember it?

Hey! Fuck! If the Doctor was planning to use this forest planet as a special gift to the family, an outing to another world, shouldn’t he have picked a day when, y’know… the forest wasn’t about to be melted down and harvested for fuel? Think about it: at best, this family would be walking into an almost certainly toxic, very certainly acidic lake of chemical sludge, if not the middle of the actual harvesting operation. At worst, they’d be traipsing right into the acid rain itself! Not a very nice Christmas, then. Honestly, you’d think after Girl Who Waited, the Doctor would have thought to open a history book.

Uh, the process of transportation between earth and the forest was also very definitely time travel, so the fact is the Doctor chose that day specifically. Was he trying to kill them, or did he make a mistake? Asshole, or idiot? Which is it, fans?

Also, and I can’t take credit for this one: Isn’t there an injured British soldier sitting in the back of the father’s plane, after it suddenly appears on Christmas day? What happened with him?

I could go on, but I think you get the point: there are a lot of elements to this story that don’t seem especially well thought out.

It’s a pity, because there’s potential here; the Doctor’s tour of the family’s new home is pleasantly madcap and fast-paced, and the concept of the Doctor repaying an old debt is a cool one. As is the nice touch of being called Caretaker for the entirety of the episode, a nice tip of the hat to the fact that “the Doctor,” as a title must be retired in order for him to lie low following the events of the series six finale.

In fact, my personal thumbs up to Matt Smith this entire episode, actually. He seems to really be having fun, and it shows; much of his performance here hits just about right, and he’s really a shining light in what is a pretty bad episode otherwise. He makes me laugh, something the Doctor hasn’t really done in the last few seasons. But importantly, he can also hit those serious moments out of the park when he needs to, which is his best skill in this role, in my opinion.

Unfortunately, these distinct moments are overshadowed by the overall poorly thought out structure of the story, which seems to get caught up in itself more than in what works. I get this feeling a lot, lately, but Doctor Who seems to get pretty wrapped up in its own cleverness, which in some cases is only assumed. There are entire episodes that seem to disregard what actually works in favor of “look how clever I am,” time travel theatrics. Sometimes this works.

Here, it does not.

Finally, I’ll talk about the beginning and the end of this episode, as specific grievances I have. We begin with the Doctor blowing up a spaceship about to obliterate the earth, and frankly this was fun, if a little visually unconvincing. My main problem here is that… wasn’t the Doctor supposed to be in hiding from the Silence? Saving the earth is, in fact, not hiding.

As for the ending, I’ll leave aside my attachment to Amy and Rory as companions, and that I’ll miss them when they go, and say that it was very awkward when they finally made an appearance. I’m serious; I get the point of the scene, and parts of it were well executed, but why do it? Why not just make them a more integrated part of the story? Or instead of focusing on characters we’ve just met, why not bring them back as the focus of the story? We actually care about Amy and Rory by this point; they’re known quantities. For that matter, where’s River? Why not the Caretaker and his wife? That was a bit of continuity just begging for an expansion, and frankly the comedy interplay might have worked better if the Doctor had had his Wife to play off of.

Really, I think I’m just hungry for something to happen here (and dinner. It’s dinnertime, here.) There’s the constant threat of quality in the writing, without ever reaching it, or seeming to bother to reach for it. It’s an adventure without weight, without significance, or heart, or… anything, really. It’s just there. I’ve got no problem with that, a little random fun is perfectly worthwhile, especially at Christmas, but that’s not what this episode seems to want to be, because it keeps striving for emotion. It seems to be making big statements about the way the Doctor feels things- especially at the end- but it doesn’t go anywhere, or do anything with them.

And without a conflict- and there isn’t one to be found here- there can be no tension. No tension, no urgency, no story worth looking at. It’s just…

It’s just there, humans. Except that where there is is in no way interesting or worth exploring. Except for the visual of wood taking off into space. That was… that was surreal. Assuming we ignore the rather horrifying image of the trees using their own bodies as fuel, let alone the question of how they figured out how to do that. Trees aren’t known as good scientists.

See what I mean, here? Kurokami, signing off!