“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 Reichenbach Fall 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