At the culmination of one of his adventures, the Doctor ends up crashing in England just before the Second World War. He's wearing a spacesuit with the helmet on backwards so that his face is obscured. His kindly rescuer, a woman named Madge, helps him find the TARDIS. In thanks, he tells her to call on him whenever she needs help. All she has to do is wish it. A few years down the road, Madge's pilot husband ends up dying as his plane goes down. She doesn't tell their children, fearing it will ruin their Christmas. Madge makes her silent wish and bundles up the kids for a trip to some uncle's country estate, which is being cared for by the Doctor posing as the caretaker. He's spiffed up the place with all kinds of wonderful toys and hammocks and gizmos to delight the kiddies. One of the treats is a box that leads to a distant planet and a forest full of natural Christmas trees. Madge's son Cyril ends up crawling through the box before he's supposed to and finds himself trapped by some people made of wood.
The Doctor and Cyril's sister Lily go looking for him, and then Madge goes looking for them. While the Doctor and Lily encounter the tree people, Madge meets some folks from the military industrial complex of that planet and learns that these trees are about to be converted into a fuel source. This involves melting them with acid rain, of which the trees are aware and eager to escape. This is why they've lured Cyril to them, but then they realize that Cyril is too "weak" to carry their "life force" off the planet. Much the Doctor's chagrin, they also determine that he's too weak. Lily, they decide, is strong, but too young.
Cue Madge's entrance, as she somehow manages to drive a giant robot and find her offspring. Madge is just the vehicle -- or "mother ship" as the Doctor puts it -- that the trees need. She carries them off to the time vortex and then manages to get everyone else back to Earth under the Doctor's guidance. He tells her to wish super-duper hard for home, but she inadvertently brings up an image of her husband about to crash to his fiery death. Her children realize she's been keeping a secret from them, but lo and behold, she's also somehow managed to guide her husband's plane safely home, as well. Everybody lives! Madge realizes the Doctor is the spaceman she helped years earlier. With Madge's encouragement, the Doctor decides to pop in on Rory and Amy for a Christmas visit. There are hugs and happy tears and a full weecap to come.
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This year's Christmas Special opens with a ginormous alien ship looming over our little blue marble of a planet. Just as it prepares to blast Earth into oblivion -- as one does around Christmastime every year -- the ship begins to explode. A computer voice blares, "Intruder alert!" Nothing gets past you, Explody. Inside, the Doctor runs down a corridor chased by explosions and debris. Fireballs! Exciting music! Slow motion falling! The bit of ship he's standing on disintegrates and he's left holding onto some wiring to keep from being sucked into the vacuum of space. He reaches for a nearby spacesuit, but it whooshes by him. He whooshes after it. Somehow, instead of turning into a Time Lord Slurpee, he flails and grabs the suit. Also, he screams. In space. Audibly. Alien had it all wrong. He plummets into the opening credits.
He crash lands in a field in some English town in the 1930s. A woman riding her bicycle nearby looks over to see the fiery blast and herself crashes into a shrub. She goes over to investigate and finds the silver-suited spaceman lying face-down in a small crater. She seems a practical sort, and helpful, too, as she asks if this stranger might need any help. At the Doctor's request, she opens the visor on his spacesuit and sees the back of his head. "I think you've got your helmet on backwards; however did you manage that?" she asks. "I got dressed in a hurry," the Doctor groans.
The kindly lady goes back home. Her son Cyril has a telescope at the window; her daughter is unimpressed. Since her husband's in the garden, she tells Cyril to pass along a message. "Tell him I've borrowed Mr. Goldsmith's car. I've found a spaceman in a field -- possibly an angel -- but he's injured and I can't get his helmet off, so I'm taking him into town to find a police telephone box."
In town, the kindly lady drives into a post. "We seem to bump into quite a lot of things," the Doctor remarks beside her. She is kind, but apparently not a great driver. (The Doctor makes some remark about his "impact suit" still being in the process of repairing him, just so we understand why he's not a Time Lord pizza.) She guides him over to what looks like the TARDIS, but as the Doctor doesn't have a key on him, she picks the lock with a hairpin. "Somehow the last 900 years of time travel seem a bit less secure," he says on her success. She lets that go and invites him to stay for Christmas. Her name is Madge Arwell and not much bothers her. He tells her to make a wish if she ever needs his help. That seems to be the end of their encounter, but then he turns around and heads into what turns out to be a regular, mundane police box. "You think we could try again?" he asks.