Parental love and its redemptive power has been a big Moffatt theme, no doubt about it. In the last season alone, we had Stormageddon’s daddy making Cybermen explode (‘Closing Time’):
Craig: The Cybermen — they blew up! I blew them up with love!
The Doctor: No, that’s impossible — and also grossly sentimental and overly simplistic. You destroyed them because of the deeply engrained hereditary trait to protect one’s own genes — which in turn triggered a… a… uh… [sighs] Yeah. Love. You blew them up with love.
and George’s daddy taking on board that his son is an alien and being his daddy anyway (‘Night Terrors’):
Alex: Whatever you are, whatever you do, you’re my son. And I will never ever send you away. Oh George. Oh my little boy.
So it’s not perhaps as over the top as all that to have the power of motherhood as the focus of the Christmas episode this year, in ‘The Doctor, The Widow and The Wardrobe’. It seems to have annoyed people though, some people anyway.
The portrayal of an ‘ordinary’ woman roused to scary fierceness to protect her children is not probematic in itself – we’ve seen already that Madge is far from conventional, responding to the sudden appearance of an alien-angel in a quiet English village with considerable aplomb, and dealing with the Harvest Rangers in similar fashion:
Harvest-Ranger Droxil : There’s nothing you can say that would convince me you’re going to use that gun.
Madge: Oh, really? Well – I’m looking for my children.
[Droxil's expression changes to one of fear]
In her first encounter with the Doctor, Madge assumes a motherly role – ‘Oh no, love. No. I think you’ve just got your helmet on backwards. How did you manage that?’. With her own children, though, she’s struggling to cope with the burden of her own grief and the tension of hiding from them the loss of their father, and she’s cross with herself for being cross with them. She’s not some idealised image of motherhood, she’s real.
Some viewers had a problem though. The Wooden King and Queen reject Cyril and the Doctor as not being strong, and Lily as not strong enough – what they need is someone who not only potentially could bear children but actually has done. Now, I don’t read that as a global statement, it’s a plot device. But many [on the Guardian's Who blog ] did:
“hey, you called me sexist, so I’m going to write an ep that keeps saying women are awesome…because they can have babies!! ‘
‘the idea that all men are “weak” compared to women – even a male time lord is nothing in comparison – and that the maternal lurve of a human female for her cubs can overcome all obstacles, while the Doctor was reduced to a bystander, was kind of rubbish.’
‘Yes, girls, you’re all super-strong. But only if you lay back, think of England, and squirt out some babies’.
The hostility, it seems to me, arises from an extrapolation from the specific premises of this episode to global principles. The weak-strong dichotomy has, surely, to be understood in the context of the world of the story. In ‘The God Complex’, what saves them is scepticism, because faith is the specific emotional energy the creature feeds on. Here, maternal programming happens to be something that the tree species can use to get themselves off the planet. Whether that’s maternal instinct, mummy love, or chromosomes. It’s not about awesomeness or fabulousness or the respective worth of the genders.
Having said that, Madge is rather marvellous:
Madge: I’m perfectly fine, thank you.
The Doctor: Fine? You’ve got a whole world inside your head!
Madge: I know! It’s funny, isn’t it? One can’t imagine being a forest, then suddenly one can! How remarkable.
And despite the problematic nature of the Amy as mother storyline (which I’ve struggled with myself, along the way), there is something ultimately rather Madge-like about her take on motherhood. ‘She’s a good girl’, she says of the child who was stolen from her, who she grew up alongside, unknowing, and who she now knows as a woman seemingly old enough to be her own mother.
How remarkable, indeed.