Every year at this time, a terribly old yet terrifically youthful supernatural being drops in from out of the sky. I speak of course of the Doctor, as in “Doctor Who,” whose annual Christmas special premieres Sunday — Christmas itself! — on BBC America.
In Great Britain, this event amounts to a national tradition; but for followers here, it is no less of a calendar moment, a candle in winter coming months after the end of the last season and months before the beginning of the next, when the days are actually at their darkest.
I’ve written before of my love for the space-time-traveling Eleventh Doctor, whom current show runner Steven Moffat and actor Matt Smith have created from bits of earlier Doctors and strands of their own DNA — the Doctor regenerates periodically, I suppose I should say, into the body of a different actor. He is new not out of all recognition but distinct enough from popular predecessor David Tennant’s swashbuckling romantic hero that some still won’t accept him.
But I like his mix of capability and childishness: 900 years old and he’s still making it up as he goes along: “Hold tight and pretend it’s a plan,” he quotably says at one rocky point in Sunday’s adventure.
This is their second Christmas together, Moffat, Smith and the Doctor. Where previous show runner Russell T. Davies, who revived the series after a 16-year hiatus, liked to get epic at year’s end — “The Voyage of the Damned” was a full-on disaster movie, “The End of Time” was the swan song both for Tennant and for Davies himself — Moffat keeps things intimate and domestic and dressed for the holiday. Last year’s special used “A Christmas Carol” as a model — you could tell that from its title, “A Christmas Carol” — and this year the writer turns toward C.S. Lewis.
Like Lewis’ “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” Moffat’s “The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe” — something of a giveaway, again — is set during World War II and concerns children evacuated to a country house, where a “dimensional portal thingy” leads to a wooded world all covered in snow. (And Lewis’ description of heaven as a place that grows larger the further in you go has always reminded me of the Tardis, the Doctor’s bigger-on-the-inside time machine.)
In the spirit of the season, its signal images are of trees and lights, and by Moffat’s usual time-twisting standards, it’s a relatively straightforward narrative, a sci-fi fairy tale catalyzed by a wish and watered with the old magic of human tears. Moffat is all about the old magic.
The episode opens, however, not with a yuletide scene but the first shot of “Star Wars,” followed by a stratospheric free fall out of the James Bond playbook. That the Doctor survives this preamble is the episode’s first bit of impossible whimsy; this Doctor is profoundly a creature of impossible whimsy. “That man’s quite ridiculous,” mother Claire Skinner tells children Holly Earl (tall, inquisitive older sister) and Maurice Cole (brave, bespectacled little brother). “You must stay away from him.”
What else may we reveal without ruining the surprise? There is “a forest in a box in a sitting room,” “naturally occurring” Christmas trees and the familiar Moffat device of a brief meeting completed after a gap of years. Comedians Bill Bailey (“Black Books”) and Arabella Weir (“The Fast Show”) turn up in scenes that summon the spirit of Douglas “Hitchhiker’s Guide” Adams — this is a particularly funny episode of an often funny series.
But it’s moving too, as the occasion demands. The final moments turn on a question the Doctor has been asked before. I liked the answer.