“Journey To The Centre Of The TARDIS” – Doctor Who

Doctor Who - Series 7BAbout a half an hour before this episode aired I got into one of those Twitter debates that can eat up your evening. A friend of mine was singing the praises of Russell T Davies, and how the show has gone downhill since then. I respectfully disagreed (while also screaming “THE DALEKS ARE TERRIBLE”), especially at one point when he referred to Moffatt’s run on the show as being particularly sexist compared to Davies’. I, again, disagreed. And I still do.

But my god is there something wrong with Clara “Oswald” Oswin.

Since the arrival of Clara I’ve been a fan. Jenna-Louise Coleman’s performance has been enjoyable, bringing a screwball comedy element to proceedings that made episodes like “The Snowmen” a laugh a minute. The way her character was introduced was also intriguing, a sense that she was a Companion unlike anything we had seen before – how could she be dead, but alive? What does she remember? How much is this Clara like the other Clara’s? And why do the themes of parenting, child-minding, and orphans keep coming up?

As her journey with the Doctor has progressed I’ve still enjoyed Clara, enjoyed Coleman, and enjoyed the banter she enjoys with the Raggedy Man.

But this evening’s episode made me ask myself an uncomfortable question: is Clara really anything beyond what I want her to be? Is she a woman — a real, living woman — or is she just a mystery wrapped in a quip wrapped in a summer dress?

The answer is yes and it is no, and I’m starting to think it depends on the writer.

MonsterI’ve talked at length before about the structure of how Doctor Who is run, and how it puts an inordinate amount of pressure on the show runner to hold the entire process together. As head of the franchise, Steven Moffatt is responsible for sourcing writers to work on episodes, as well as writing key episodes himself. Each of these writers works alone, and Moffatt is responsible for making sure that any arcs are kept going and that no episodes contradict each other.

He, and I imagine one or two more, are also responsible for script editing on what ends up on screen. For those outside the television industry, script editing can sound like a fairly light touch game – fix the grammar here, cut the length there, maybe bring out some more clarity or more character in this section etc.

In truth, in the five, six, seven, whatever number of drafts between the origination of an idea and the shooting script, there can and will be huge changes. Characters can disappear, whole story arcs cut out, endings completely changed. Screenwriting is as much, if not more, about hard graft and making things better than having the talent to come up with the good ideas in the first place. It is a tough, messy affair, where a lot can go wrong — and a show-runner should be on hand to keep things from going off course. Is Moffatt a weak show-runner? Is he having difficulty running Who and Sherlock and is that affecting the writing? I couldn’t tell you.

But I do know that in “Journey To The Centre Of The TARDIS” the writer appeared to have no real knowledge of who Clara Oswin was. Which is problematic when she’s half your cast.

And I’ve gotten ahead of myself again. In a sort-of spiritual sequel to last year’s Neil Gaiman-penned episode “The Doctor’s Wife” (in which the TARDIS inhabited a young woman named Idris), the TARDIS is a severely damaged when a salvage ship snatches it while its defences are down. The Doctor and the salvage crew consisting of two brothers and an android have to go into the broken TARDIS to find Clara, before she succumbs to toxic fumes or some such time-lock shenanigans.

Fans who’ve been wanting to see more of the inside of the TARDIS should be plenty satiated by this episode. We get a glimpse of the famed swimming pool, an observatory, as well as a tense scene in which Clara runs from a molten foe through the multi-storeyed library. Never has the infinity of the TARDIS seemed so, well, infinite.

TARDIS Swimming PoolThe first half of the episode seemed solely concerned with laying out the episode’s concept in fairly predictable ways. While the Doctor teams up with the three manly men (well, two men and an android), Clara runs around like a headless chicken, ticking off rooms in the TARDIS for our benefit more than hers. She’s being chased by some severely burned, horrific creature, but here Clara is frustratingly inactive. She goes from room to room, illogically not really searching for anything in particular. She stumbles across a book that has the Doctor’s name in it, because that seems about right, yeah, whatever. And she keeps looking at a burn on her hand that — as the episode wore on — might as well have said “IMPORTANT PLOT POINT” (as it turned out, it might as well have).

Eventually the Doctor and the salvage crew (who’ve made things worse by trying to steal things) find Clara, and the Doctor manages to get to the TARDIS’ exploding engine room in time to send a message back through time to stop this from ever happening in the first place.

Now let it not be said that I’ve ignored this episode’s strong points. Breath-taking visuals abound, especially when seeing the Eye of Harmony, the TARDIS’ exploding star power generator. The engine room explosion was also gorgeously rendered, a sort of scatter of shrapnel frozen in time. Ditto for the great moments when Clara and the Doctor saw themselves, echos of their past and futures, and when the Doctor realized that they were being chased by dead versions of themselves (and those monsters were damn scary too).

There were also some very strong ideas — about what a living ship might do when damaged, about how people treat others like objects, and about the nature of what can and can’t be unwritten.

All very heady Whovian fare.

However. The ideas in this episode and the execution in this episode went down vastly different paths, and no more than what happened (or didn’t happen) with Oswin Oswald.

Clara ThinkingFirst of all, treating her like a damsel in distress made much of the “wow” factor of seeing the TARDIS mildly annoying. Why wasn’t she looking for help? Why wasn’t she using those tech skills she’s famous for? And why was she suddenly not afraid when she got a chance to look at that Time Lord book? Coleman and the writers keep  trying to craft Clara as this capable young woman, but nothing in what they present of her actually shows that.

In “The Bells Of Saint John” she had her Facebook moment, but was otherwise along for the ride. In “The Rings Of Akhaten” she was motherly, but her biggest moment of ingenuity was giving away a leaf. In “Cold War” she talked about an alien’s daughter. There’s a level of emotional intelligence at play here, but it doesn’t gel with what we’ve seen of her before. Is it too much to ask to have a Companion that gets herself out of trouble?

Secondly, and hugely, was the revelation that happened near the end of the episode. Clara has known for some time that the Doctor is hiding something from her, and finally he laid it all out — the previous Clara’s, his curiosity over who she is, his mis-trust of her. It also explains why the Doctor of this series is not to be trusted: when he referred to Clara as “salvage” earlier in the episode, it belied how he still thinks of her as a thing. A huge revelation. Massive. He had an ulterior motive picking her up. Everything she knew about him is wrong – and who were these women? Is she going to die? Is she them?

But how did Clara react? Well, she didn’t really. She kind of shook it off, got a hug from the Doctor, and on they went.

The BrothersNarratively, it’s easy to see why this happened. The writer, Stephen Thompson, knew that the episode was going to hit the reset button. So why go on with it. But Clara, the character, did not know she was going to be reset. You can’t colour her reaction because you know it won’t be important.

We have now seen how Clara reacts to the Doctor telling her the truth, and it was a nothing reaction. A kind of vague, bland “meh”. And what’s worse is that I imagine they’ll treat this as a big reveal in a future episode, at which point she’ll act accordingly — because there’s not a reset button featured in the episode.

Thirdly, and this is not so much for Clara but for everyone, that reset button. Now I’m a fan of Star Trek: Voyager so I’ve had to put up with a reset button or two in my time (not to mention about a dozen self-destruct buttons), so I can put up with it. But if you’re going to do the reset button, respect the reset button. To reset time, to take back time, to take back a day, to lose your experiences, your memory, your knowledge, it is a big thing.

Respect the reset button. And tame the characters.

And, as in all things, check how Buffy did it first.

Doctor Who - Series 7BMany things happened in this episode that were important, and then they un-happened. But in the moments when they did, I saw a version of Clara that was frustrating — running from trouble without forming plans, trusting the Doctor when she knows he’s lying to her, laughing him off when he confessed a dark secret.

It’s not that she felt wrong for Clara, she felt wrong for a human being — like she lacked internal logic. Like the writer didn’t know her very well.

And that’s true of us, as well. We don’t know Clara. We see the best in her because Coleman does a strong job, and we want to see the best. And it’s fine to not know a character fully, to have information doled out, but the writer — the heart of story-telling — must know this person inside out. They must be able to see the full iceberg at all times. And it felt like Stephen Thompson didn’t. Like Steven Moffatt didn’t tell him or, worse, Steven Moffatt didn’t know.

I’m sure they will pick up the pieces of Clara in coming weeks, but this episode – despite its bombast, great visuals, and nerdgasm trips to previously unseen places — left a bad taste in my mouth.

Maybe I can wash it out with a reset button.

TARDIS DamagedFree Radicals

– I didn’t even talk about the fate of the Van Baalen brothers, which was also ludicrous. It turns out that the android wasn’t actually an android but a third brother who they’d tricked into believing he was an android as a joke. Apart from the sheer narrative hoops we had to jump through for that to make sense, they did it as a joke? AS A JOKE? In what universe does that approach realistic character interaction?

– The idea of time folding in on them was great, and would have been much stronger if it had been the anchor of the episode. The TARDIS is exploding, Clara, but be careful, time is leaking out and you have to work with your past and future selves to save the day — which of course would have involved visiting those rooms along the way, and the zombies would have appeared naturally.

– I know I’m just a dinky little blog, and shouldn’t anger the gods, but sweet Jesus am I getting sick of reading The Guardian’s reviews of Doctor Who. Every episode, no matter what, is an “instant classic” with “incredible revelations” and “stunning performances”. To quote The Incredibles, “if everyone’s special then nobody is.” Have some standards.

– Speaking of “stunning performances”, the Van Baalen brothers ranged from mediocre to terrible in their acting. It was painful to watch at times.

– And speaking of the Van Baalen brothers, the fact that I kept forgetting that the android was an android either points to me being a racist or the fact that Who doesn’t cast enough black actors.

– Next week it’s Vastra and co. investigating a mysterious village in Victorian times. Fingers crossed it will all have actually happened by end of episode.

– The TARDIS: 90% corridors.

About alfla

Playwright, screenwriter, sometime improv enthusiast and full-time television lover. You know, in THAT way.
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15 Responses to “Journey To The Centre Of The TARDIS” – Doctor Who

  1. “Basic mode? Is it because I’m a girl?” Moffatt did NOTHING to present this as a challenge to the stereotype, and just let Stephen Thompson decide that reducing Clara to a Can’t-Drive,-Hopeless-With-Tech,-Damsel-In-Distress was more important than oh, say, character continuity. For God’s sake, she is first introduced as a computer genius, this current incarnation re-establishes her status as a computer genius, and she is still being reduced to The Motherly Delicate Flower. I call bullshit. I never really understood the accusations of overt sexism during the rest of Moffatt’s run, but the gender stereotyping in the second half of season 7, well… it’s been cranked all the way up to Eleven.

    Also, nice to see that somebody else feels that the Guardian just heaps praise on any old episode of Doctor Who.

    • alfla says:

      Yes, it was so strange — I never really bought the sexism thing, but it’s hard to defend when Clara is being quite poorly painted. I don’t think it’s a sexism thing either, I just think she’s an ill-defined Companion (and since all Companions are female, it kind of ends up being sexist…).

      I only go to the Guardian to cross-check stuff, it’s incredible the reviews that Who gets over there. I feel like the writer doesn’t understand the concept of critiquing something properly – even the most die-hard fan must see faults.

    • Oh, and just because I didn’t understand the accusations, doesn’t mean they aren’t valid. I’m starting to notice more and more problematic trends as I grow older (read: continue to develop my critical thinking skills) and re-watch past episodes.

      • alfla says:

        Yes, true. Even looking back at The West Wing — one of my favourite shows ever — there are the moments where I get a little uncomfortable. CJ, Abby and the regulars generally are so strong but often there are strains of sexism in the under-lying writing.

      • alfla says:

        I also think about Madame Vastra and Jenny – a same-sex (granted, one’s an alien but still) female couple who are, so far, well-drawn and well-liked.

        I think it’s more poor characterisation in Clara, not real sexism. That said, another year of all-male writing staff isn’t great.

  2. ike7 says:

    “That said, another year of all-male writing staff isn’t great.”

    Yeah, I’d love to see Rona Munro (“Survival”) come back and write an episode, and the woman who wrote “Enlightenment,” if she’s still alive and still writing. Apparently there’s no way they can bring in Kate Orman since she has no TV writing experience and that’s required by the BBC, so that’s a bummer, as she was perhaps the best writer of original Doctor Who novels in the 90s.

    That said, the woman who wrote “Daleks in Manhattan” and that terminally dull Sontaran two-parter in S4 should not be any more welcome back than the guy who wrote “Fear Her,” IMHO.

    • alfla says:

      Oh God no. They’ve proven their worthlessness, never shall they darken the door again.

      I think it’s more about reaching out and seeing what writers are out there — Doctor Who does so many different genres and styles, just because a writer hasn’t done a “sci-fi” before doesn’t mean they’re not suited. I’m sure Abi Morgan could throw together a cracker of a war-time conspiracy episode.

      They should tap Kate Orman for some of the Doctor Who audios, they’re usually a good way to test a writer in the ‘verse and are respected by the BBC.

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  4. Stephen says:

    Great review, thanks for checking my blog out as well! I agree about the VanBaalens, it was nice to see such a diverse cast, but hiring a rapper and two relatively unknown actors was probably a bad choice IMHO. If they were looking for a black actor that could do scifi, I wish they would have reached out to somebody like John Boyega from Attack the Block, or hell pretend that Patterson Joseph wasn’t already in an episode years ago.Those characters could have been awesome in better hands, but choked under the pressure.

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