Doctor Who: The Name of the Doctor (Review)

Contains spoilers.

Who is Clara?  What will happen at Trenzalore?  Why have the Silence been trying to kill the Doctor?  What is his greatest secret?  Will his name be revealed?  These are just some of the questions which I was hoping the season finale of series 7 would provide answers to.  Now, it’s no secret that series 7 – particularly the latter half – has not been entirely to my taste.  I enjoyed Asylum of the Daleks, The Angels take Manhattan, The Snowmen, The Rings of Akhaten, Hide and The Crimson Horror, but the rest have been quite below par in my view, and the series as a whole has suffered due to experimentation with the structure – every episode being a different ‘blockbuster’ story.  But can The Name of the Doctor, written by Steven Moffat – who I’ve criticised a lot, but can be fantastic on a good day – and directed by Saul Metzstein – who has already proven his ability – bring about a decent end to the series?  Essentially, yes.

Firstly, that opening!  From the line: “what sort of idiot would try to steal a faulty TARDIS?” it became clear that this episode was something different.  Gallifrey!  The classic Doctors!  I keep rewatching it on BBC Iplayer, just to check it actually happened.  They’ve ingeniously taken clips from the classic series, between 1964 and 1987, and slotted them into the episode.  This involved green-screening Clara onto shots which, yes, was a little bit obvious but really, who cares?  We’re seeing the classic Doctors!  And then there’s that conversation between Clara and the First Doctor, who has been colourised from an episode of The Aztecs (1963).  I’ve seen the colourisation criticised by people with a greater technical knowledge than I have but, again, does it matter?  This was an utterly delightful sequence.

The episode builds on this opening and continues to strengthen.  As ever, I enjoyed the Doctor’s ‘gang’ of Madam Vastra, Jenny, Strax and, returning in this episode, River Song.  After getting information from a man due to be executed (which is never properly explained, like a few things in this episode), the team host a ‘conference call’, where each becomes unconscious in their respective time and location and end up in some dreamworld.  The logic is patchy, but it’s a great idea.  And I love that Strax was in Glasgow at the time!   And then it all takes a sinister turn when the Whispermen attack… “I think I’ve been murdered…”  It’s terrifying!  These scenes really work.

It’s when the action moves to Trenzalore that the episode begins to develop a few holes.  I really like the concept of this being the graveyard of some bloody battle, a battle the future Doctor didn’t survive, although I’m reluctant that they’ll just never mention this again.  This is the second time in Moffat’s writing that we’ve seen how the Doctor dies, though he’d probably just get out of it by saying that “Oh, this wasn’t actually the Doctor” (which would ruin the whole purpose of the episode… Again.  Yes, I’m beginning to understand Moffat’s ways).  It’s the villains which prove to be the greatest weakness of the episode.  The Great Intelligence is back, still inhabiting the body of Dr. Simeon from The Snowmen, but I’m at a complete loss over what it actually wants.  What’s its motivation?  We’ve seen it try to destroy human life and gain power twice now, and its third plan is to undo all the good the Doctor has done, for its ‘peace’?  It’s an audacious plan but it’s been done before, and it never ends well for anyone.   And who are the Whispermen?  Really, who are they?  They’ve just been thrown in because the Great Intelligence needs henchmen, but have had absolutely no development.  Wouldn’t it have been better for the Silence to return instead (and thereby tying up a loose end which still has been left ignored since 2010*).

Almost every problem this episode has is a result of having squeezed it into a 45 minute slot.  It is extremely rushed, to the episode’s great detriment.  There’s a scene where Clara suddenly gains memories of the events in Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS (though not, conveniently, of having read his name in The History of the Time War), and she’s understandably freaking out, and then cut to about 5 seconds later and she and the Doctor are confronting the Great Intelligence.  No movement, no transition.  Oh, and the plot holes.  So many things have been left unresolved: how did the Doctor see River, when she’s a data ghost connected to Clara? (he says some rubbish like “I always see you,” but that’s poetry, not a plot explanation).  And just other petty things, like Dorium’s wording in The Wedding of River Song:

“On the Fields of Trenzalore, at the Fall of the Eleventh, when no living creature can speak falsely or fail to answer, a question will be asked”

‘The Fall of the Eleventh’?  That’s either the death of the Doctor – meaning that his future death must be resolved again and soon – or his literal fall in the TARDIS to the planet which, frankly, is a pathetic explanation for the prophecy.  And the ‘no living creature’ line is completely wrong, as the only person who doesn’t fail to answer is dead.  And who is ‘the woman from the shop’ who gave Clara the Doctor’s number in The Bells of Saint John?  Why was the TARDIS irritable towards Clara in earlier episodes?  I’m not forgetting these things.

You’d be forgiven for thinking I disliked this episode, but it generally works really well – I’m just losing patience with the inconsistencies.  The sequences of the Great Intelligence entering the Doctor’s timeline and Jenny dying, then Strax reverting to Sontaran ‘default’ and getting killed by Vastra, is chilling.  Then Clara entering!  These segments were very well indeed, and there is a proper sense of closure to the series.  Actually, I’m rather impressed at the degree to which Moffat has explained the Clara mystery – I don’t think I have any questions left (I’m slightly grumpy, as Moffat stole an idea I wrote in a fanfiction script three years ago – but that’s neither here nor there).  So does this mean that Clara now knows more about the Doctor than any other companion?  Or, I guess this Clara won’t have the combined knowledge of her other splintered beings through time.   Oh, and I’m glad the significance of the leaf in The Rings of Akhaten finally has an explanation.

The ending works really, really well.  In that cavern where everything around them is the Doctor, they see a silhouette of a figure standing at the edge, who the Doctor warns Clara away from.  This scene is both brilliantly directed and written, and the reveal of John Hurt is skillfully built up to.  It’s disappointing that they ruined it with the irritating, unnecessary and nonsensical caption: “Introducing John Hurt as the Doctor” (the Eleventh Doctor has just explained that he abandoned the title of Doctor), which completely took me out of the action and unforgivably broke the fourth wall.  That’s how desperate the team are to get views for an episode to be broadcast in half a year’s time.  Oh well, most of it worked well.  John Hurt was amazing in the 20 seconds or so of screen time he had, so in that respect I cannot wait for November.

Villains aside, I enjoyed all of the characters in this episode.  Matt Smith gave another fantastic performance as the Doctor.  The scene where he begins to cry upon hearing about Trenzalore shows what a versatile actor he is, as well as his tone of trepidation throughout the rest of the episode.  Jenna-Louise Coleman continues to act Clara well, despite inconsistent writing.  Neve McIntosh, Catrin Stewart and Dan Starkey are again all great as Vastra, Jenny and Strax.  Jenny’s recovery from having her heart stopped is one of the better resurrections Moffat is fond of writing, and it gave them the great exchange: “The heart is a relatively simple thing” – “I have not found it to be so.”  Alex Kingston returns as River Song in what is kind of written as if to be her last appearance, being the only episode featuring her to be set after Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead, where her body died and her consciousness living in the Library’s data core.  It’s a fitting tribute to the character, but the door is still open for her to return.  I think Moffat’s treading a little close to the line with their ‘relationship’, having the Doctor kiss River without any pretext though, at the same time, it kind of feels natural if we’re not seeing River again.

Metzstein’s direction is great, again.  The Whispermen do seem fairly scary, and the scenes on Trenzalore are very atmospheric.  There’s not a lot to say other than that – I hope he keeps up the good work!

Overall, I think I’ve been too harsh towards The Name of the Doctor in this review as I really did enjoy watching it.  It must be one of the better episodes in this series.  And I’m now, for the first time, properly excited for the 50th anniversary special – this episode is almost seeming like the tame lead-in, or the prologue.  And, amazingly, Steven Moffat has written himself out of the hole he was in regarding the Doctor’s name.  Despite the title and advertising of the episode, the Doctor’s name was (thankfully) not revealed, yet the finale doesn’t feel cheapened in any way.  Not perfect by any means, but a very sound conclusion to the series.

Final Rating: 8.5/10

*I’ve read fan theories suggesting that the Silence were trying to prevent the Great Intelligence’s plan from been carried out, by killing the only person who knows the Doctor’s name – himself – and therefore prevent him opening the tomb.  However, let’s look at their plan.  First they try to kill him by destroying the TARDIS when he isn’t in it, with the side-effect of blowing up the Universe.  That went well.  Plan B: they steal his companions’ daughter and train her to be an assassin, only to throw her into an astronaut suit underwater with no control over her actions, just because who doesn’t think about underwater astronauts when planning a murder?  Having River inside was needless, and had the side-effect of ending time when she refused to kill him.  That also went well.  It had the second side-effect of allowing River to discover the Doctor’s name [though how did that happen?  It was revealed he didn’t actually tell her that when they got married], which later allowed the Great Intelligence to enter the Doctor’s tomb and wipe out his achievements.  Wait.  If the Doctor must always die at Trenzalore, which presumably is a given considering they’re making plans around it, then won’t killing him elsewhere create a paradox?  Or is that the purpose?  …  Either Moffat intended the Silence to be terrible, terrible planners, or he has no idea where he’s going with any of his plot threads.  I wonder which it is… ?

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Doctor Who: Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS (Review)

Contains spoilers.

 

“Why do they only ever stay in the console room?”
“Where does Rose sleep?  That floor doesn’t look comfy.”
“I miss when they would spend episodes wandering around the TARDIS doing nothing.”
“THE CLOSET!  WE SAW THE CLOSET!”
“CORRIDORS!  WE SAW CORRIDORS”

-Thoughts of Doctor Who fans everywhere, 2005 – present.

When returning Doctor Who to television in 2005, Russell T. Davies was very clear about his vision for the purpose of the TARDIS: the adventure laid outside, the TARDIS merely acting to get the characters there.  He believed that wasting time with dialogue in dull settings, particularly within the new 45 minute format, would be dull for the viewer.  Since Steven Moffat became in charge of the show in 2010 there has been a slight change in this trend, with its ‘infinite corridors’ playing a role in Neil Gaiman’s 2011 episode, The Doctor’s Wife.  But now, for the first time, we’ve been promised out first adventure set almost entirely within the TARDIS’ doors!  It’s written by Stephen Thompson, who wrote the average The Curse of the Black Spot in 2011, as well as writing the also average The Blind Banker and the phenomenal The ReichenbacFall to BBC’s Sherlock.  So pretty mixed, as a writer.  It’s directed by newcomer Mat King.

The main criteria of whether this episode would succeed or not was always going to be in its portrayal of the TARDIS.  And, unfortunately, I think most fans are agreed that it was slightly underwhelming.  Oh, we saw depth – layers upon layers of corridors and rooms – which was certainly a refreshing throwback to episodes in the 60s and the 80s.  We saw a hint of an astronomy room, the swimming pool and a FULL SCENE within the library!  I may have mentioned it before, but in the multiple spin-offs and fan-fictions I’ve written in my time, being a mega Doctor Who nerd, the library has been included so many times.  To finally see it… Ah, there aren’t words.  We also got to finally see the Eye of Harmony, which turned out to be a star going supernova, transitioning into a black hole.  From what we know of Time Lord mechanics, particularly from the 1972-73 episode The Three Doctors, this makes a lot of sense and I appreciate having finally seen it.  The TARDIS’ “snarl trap” was also rather nice.  But… I don’t know.  Maybe we’ve been spoilt by the brilliant The Doctor’s Wife, but other than providing short-lived spectacle, there didn’t feel like there was a lot of substance behind what we saw.

Most of the episode’s problems, and where I should avoid trying to rip it to shreds utterly, is in the writing.  Principally, the plot.  What was the point of this story?  Okay, it begins well: the TARDIS is hauled in by dim scrap-hunters, and the TARDIS goes explodey-wodey.  Then Clara goes missing down one of the corridors, somehow.  The Doctor forces the crewmembers to help find her by threatening to blow up the TARDIS; dim crewmembers instead try to steal and break bits of the TARDIS off.  “What’s wrong, TARDIS?  Scared to fight me?” one of the crew members says, after seeing it has the power to manipulate matter and kill him.  Oh, the cringing… The whole ‘burned zombie’ thread makes absolutely no sense, was rushed and clearly only existed to add a threat to the meaningless story.  Why are they trying to kill themselves in the past?  It’s not only out of character, but it’s counterproductive.  Unless the timey-wimey stuff turns them into crazy zombies, or they’re trying to avoid the horrifying, painful existence they’re currently suffering.  Either explanation would suffice, but none is given.  Oh, and that ‘android’ subplot… Would anyone be that callous?  How can… Tricky, is it (?), survive having that massive rod shoved through his left arm/chest, i.e. the rough location of his heart?  They decide to “cut the metal” and next scene he’s half staggering, holding his chest half-heartedly.  There should be blood gushing!  He should be on the verge of death!  Okay, Doctor Who’s a family show – so in that case, don’t pin a character to a wall with a massive metal rod.  And then that final paradox… Having watched it twice, it still makes no sense.  Why does the Doctor remember but not Clara?  All that said, I did like the ‘echo TARDIS’ idea, and there were various other creative aspects of the script I enjoyed.

The entire structure of the story just felt pretty off, to be honest.  To completely subvert everything which has happened half way through with the Doctor saying, “it was a joke!” after their brother died – though you couldn’t tell from the amount they care – just throws the whole thing off.  The only actual trace of a plot occurs half way through, when the TARDIS core begins to overheat or something, so the Doctor puts everyone in danger by blindly going there to sort it out.  Or something.  And then it’s all resolved in rather a rush.  Hm.

One aspect of the writing I did like was the continued mystery regarding The Doctor’s name, and Clara’s identity.  Although Clara’s reaction upon seeing his name in The History of the Time War (“so that’s who…”) didn’t make a lot of sense, and makes it sound like something pretty simple like ‘Dave’, this plot arc is being developed well on the whole.  I have trepidations regarding the title of the season finale, The Name of the Doctor, considering this is a lose-lose situation for Moffat (he obviously can’t name the Doctor, but failure to do so will be breaking another promise).  The confrontation between the Doctor and Clara over her identity was also rather thrilling.

The acting from Matt Smith as the Doctor and Jenna-Louise Coleman as Clara was pretty good.  Nothing new there.  I’m continually impressed by the realism Coleman is bringing to the role, showing the appropriate reactions anyone would experience in Clara’s position.  It’s been commented that the three guest stars, playing the brothers – I forget their names – were poorly acted.  I don’t tend to notice this kind of thing, but there were some lines which even I could tell were a little butchered.  I think Tricksy was generally alright, but the other two’s hearts didn’t seem to be particularly into the performances.  Actually, that sums up the episode rather well as a whole.

I have also seen King’s direction criticised for making the TARDIS, particularly the corridors, appear bland or repetitive.  I didn’t pick up on that myself, thinking the episode to be rather well done overall.  He had a bit of a thing for bright, garish colours, but that is perhaps what you would expect within the deep core of the TARDIS.  There were some very scary moments, although these would sometimes be butchered by the poor tone and pacing.  That scene on the bridge with the zombies could have been terrifying if it were less rushed and actually made sense, whereas Tricky’s pierced heart is treated in far too much of a blasé manner.

Overall, it is with regret that I say that Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS was a failure.  Sure, there were many enjoyable aspects to it which were worthy of praise, and it’s by no means a bad episode, it just… Isn’t as good as the hype would have suggested.  Perhaps the problem is the fundamental issue of showing the TARDIS as a hostile, dangerous place – and, in particular, not providing enough of an explanation for why that happened.  In The Doctor’s Wife it was clear and understandable that the TARDIS has been possessed by House, but here it’s like she’s just having a bad day.  I think this is an episode which would have been very difficult to do right.  I enjoyed it, but have a nagging feeling that I shouldn’t have done.

Final rating: 6/10