A few months ago I was forcibly egging on my Masters class to give a breakdown of the different types of television that there can be. Breaking down the basics of the goggle box shows into various categories: serialized, procedural, mini-series, anthology, series anthology (rare shows such as American Horror Story which switch tack once a year, rather than once an episode). The list went on.
We never really got around to Doctor Who. How do you describe a show that builds a different world and a different characters every week, yet retains two or more recurring players? And what happens when one of these players is, from time-to-time, re-cast and re-imagined as a different type of person with the same name and the same history? What is the genre of a show that tips from horror, to sci-fi, to comedy, to fairytale, often within the same episode? One that, no matter what is happening in anyone’s lives at the time, has a mandatory Christmas episode? How do you even operate a monster like that while keeping all the plates spinning?
The truth is, you don’t. There is no such thing as the perfect way to run Doctor Who, and there is no such thing as the perfect show-runner for Doctor Who, because so many of the elements that make the show what it is are in direct conflict with each other.
I’ve realized this more and more lately, talking to friends who long for more Daleks, or despise River Song, or even the blessed souls at the Guardian who claim that every episode of this season has been the “BEST EVER!!!!1111”. I spent so much timing judging these people in my head, unable to fathom how they could simultaneously be so passionate and so wrong.
But perhaps they aren’t wrong. Perhaps they do love the annoying, possessed salt shakers. Or hate the kick-ass lady with the big hair. Maybe they think the Cybermen are genuinely scary, or that half the cast driving the TARDIS together in “Journey’s End” wasn’t the most hilariously saccharine moment in the history of television.
Maybe Doctor Who can truly never please everyone, because everyone comes at it with a different set of wants. The die-hard fact-checker who loathes timey-wimey hand waves, the ancient fan who desperately hopes for the return of the Rani, the anthology obsessive who wishes for a pure creature-of-the-week structure or the dark-hearted folks who wish to see the Doctor just go crazy and explore his evil side.
With that in mind, I can only approach “The Name Of The Doctor” by looking at how it works in the given tenets and rules of good fiction, and not the internal machinations of the show itself — because, as this episode proves time and again, Doctor Who has about as much internal consistency as the Bible.
The episode opens with a very unexpected moment in a very unexpected place: old Gallifrey, where an alarm is alerting a group of weary workers that someone is in the midst of attempting to steal a TARDIS. The Doctor, in fact, the First Doctor — and he’s being advised on his choice of bounty, like some TARDIS car saleswoman, by Clara Oswin.
Cue Clara falling through space, time, and the lives of every Doctor we’ve ever known, talking about being the impossible girl, her lives with the Doctor, and her on-going and multiple-lived quest to save his life.
All that Clara-ness explained in the first few minutes? Now that’s what I call dispensing with a mystery.
From there the meat and vegetables of the episode — the title “The Name Of The Doctor” — was more neatly addressed. In Victorian London, Madame Vastra interrogates a prisoner who warns her that “that Doctor has a secret he will take to the grave: it is discovered”. He seals the deal by talking about Trenzalore, so she assembles an in-dream seance of herself, Jenny, Strax, Clara and River to assess just what this secret might mean for his safety. But they’re interrupted by the Whisper Men, creepy, faceless, Moffatty creatures that kill Jenny and kidnap Strax and Vastra. Clara wakes up, warns the Doctor, and he weeps as he explains that it is not his secret that has been discovered, but his grave. A place he must never go, a place where his friends are being held hostage, and a place on a planet called Trenzalore.
With River by Clara’s side and visible only to her — this River is a post-“Forest Of The Dead” computer back-up — they travel to Trenzalore, and find the greatest (and largest) grave of all: the TARDIS itself. From a future time, its dampeners have weakened, and its “bigger on the inside” is leaking outside. The Doctor finds his companions (including a revived Jenny) and faces off against the Whisper Men, led by the Great Intelligence – played with scenery-gumming flair by a returning Richard E Grant. He forces the Doctor to open his tomb, again teasing but not answering that question of “Doctor Who?”, wherein they find a glowing energy thread that represents the entirety of the Doctor’s history.
And the Great Intelligence steps into it, systematically wiping the Doctor from history. From here we loop around to the episode’s open, where Clara sacrifices herself by jumping into the fissure herself: doomed to be copied and copied and copied again, living a thousand lives, all in the name of saving the various Doctors along the way.
While it might seem complex, this solution to the Clara mystery isn’t necessarily so, and it’s better for it. An overly-convoluted explanation would have gotten in the way of the episode, but it would also have gotten in the way of the emotion involved. This was a person sacrificing themselves, but knowing that versions of herself will still be out there — and in turn sacrificing themselves for other Doctors. It’s a sacrifice not just of the self, but of the idea of the self. Which is powerful stuff.
I said I would let this episode stand and fall on how it broadly works as a piece of fiction, not how it works in the Who universe, and these last few minutes work strongly in this regard. Clara’s character has been problematic in her lack of definition and lack of motivation, and while this episode doesn’t fully row this back it does give her a clarity of purpose that she was lacking before. But her sacrifice would have packed a lot more punch, and made a lot more sense, if we felt she had a real connection to the Doctor and a real reason for doing so.
The logic of the episode itself, how the story unfolds, is slightly off-kilter but is much more forgivable on a second viewing. Often the sheer illogic of an episode of Doctor Who (“Time travel has always been possible in dreams”?) can get in the way of enjoying the episode, and a second viewing allows you to watch again with a clear head after you’ve punched a pillow for a while. This holds true for “The Name Of The Doctor” more than any other episode I’ve seen, which somehow feels more suspenseful the second time round.
The structure of the episode — focusing solely on the companions for act one, the idea of Trenzalore for act two, and the central concept of the Doctor and Clara’s sacrifice for act three: it works well. It’s still lacking in plot points along the way, and relies on much running from, running towards, and shouting at, but it still holds together nicely.
The aforementioned companions are also nicely used, with Vastra, Jenny and Strax being consistently reliable. I’m still not jonesing for a spin-off, as I believe they’ve not proven themselves any deeper characters for having had so many appearances, but I enjoyed them. And somehow the return of River Song wasn’t as shoe-horned as it could have been, and dispensed with any Clara-River pissing contests to concentrate on the matter at hand.
In fact, the final moments between River and the Doctor, where he tells her that she is an “echo”, that her time in the Library computers should have faded long ago, can be seen as a final goodbye to the character. If it is River and Kingston’s final appearance, it wasn’t the most focused or emotional of farewells, but it still fit nicely (besides, what really is a “final moment” with a time-traveller like River?).
The last few minutes of the episode also offered up something completely different. Clara survived her literal fall into the Doctor’s history, and was quickly followed by the Doctor himself. It is here that we get the true meaning of the episode’s title, and realize that once again Moffatt has hood-winked us with wordplay. He did it with the “forests” in River’s first two-parter, the “Something Old” rhyme with Amy’s wedding, and turned the word Silence from a noun to a plural.
Now we find that the Doctor’s name isn’t important (and, as I said last week, thank god) but “the name of the Doctor” is. What is important is the name one chooses, the name he chose, and what it meant. What it means when one does something in the name of the doctor, and when one doesn’t. All framing and leading up to the reveal of another Doctor, a man who did something unspeakable in service of good, a man who calls himself the Doctor but does not live up to that name. A man played by John Hurt.
And with that we put ourselves on pause for the 50th anniversary, to come in November. Where we will see the Doctor face off against himself, with Clara in tow, against the backdrop of his own history.
Not bad, Moffatt. Not bad at all.
– Richard E Grant did strong work, but the Great Intelligence and the Whisper Men never felt like they had any real threat or malice or reason for their great attack on the Doctor. We haven’t set up any other Big Bad’s this season, so it was probably unavoidable that the nemesis here would fall a tad short.
– It’s a real shame that after ten episodes I’m still having to reserve judgement on Clara. Coleman is great, and the quippery works, but she’s never gained traction. It’s not as though I dislike her, I just feel like her character has been put on pause ever since her first introduction. In fact, with the references to souffle girl peppered throughout, it feels like this episode is the first natural character step forward since Asylum Of The Daleks.
– That souffle girl callback was beautiful writing: finding a simple way to explain a complex idea, and one that tied in Clara’s other history and her mother to boot. More lovely wordplay.
– Some have questioned this, but as far as I’m concerned this is the last chronological appearance of River Song. Yes, they said they’d see each other again, but that was after River specifically requested he act as though they would, even though they wouldn’t. It was also great to see a problem I’ve always had addressed: River Song wouldn’t want to be saved in that Library with those stupid kids, wandering around a boring country manor all day. It reversed the slightly shoe-horned happy ending of “Forest Of The Dead” for all the right reasons.
– Once again, Moffatt returned to his well of people being dead but still speaking in a sort of echo — last seen in “Forest Of The Dead” and “The Time Of Angels”.
– It was good to see the events of “Journey To The Centre Of The TARDIS” play a part, though I maintain that the emotional impact of that episode’s revelations were woefully mishandled.
– With the 50th anniversary in November and a presumed Christmas episode, any idea when series eight will kick off? Part of me hopes that Sherlock ends on series three just so Moffat can re-focus on Who. As I’ve said time and again, this show is lacking in the focus of a strong lead script editor to carry things along.
– While that TARDIS grave was impressive, I’m growing tired of the almost constant CGI backdrops in this run of Who. I was really hoping the Fields Of Trenzalore would be actual fields in an actual location, and it robs scenes of impact when we know it’s all green-screen. See how “Hide” built an amazing location by virtue of actually having the location.
– Opening with the run-through of Clara was certainly bombastic, but really under-cut the end of the episode. I wonder if it was a choice later in the writing process, as if it had been decided from the beginning I feel the episode would have shaped Clara’s sacrifice as less of a surprise.
– So are The Hurt Doctor’s (as he shall be known) grave actions in the pursuit of good the events of the Time War? Is that what the Great Intelligence referred to as well?
– Clara being inserted into old clips was ropey at times, but I won’t even comment. As someone who’s never really watched old Who I can only imagine how excited it got long-time fans. And I say hats off and more power to them.
– Things I want from the 50th anniversary: Clara meeting the other Claras, the Doctor meeting the other Doctors, Companions from time’s past (but NOT all driving the TARDIS together), but more importantly a focused emotional story that works as a stand-alone piece. Also I hear it’s in 3-D!
– Thanks to anyone who’s read these reviews over the year, look out for my return in November. Also need a show to start reviewing over the Summer…