...a blog by Richard Flowers

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Day 3786: DOCTOR WHO: The Doctor's Wife


Probably the best episode of the new series. And I mean since "Rose".

This is the sort of story I watch Doctor Who for: glorious, barmy, inventive stories that you wouldn't, indeed couldn't see anywhere else; by turns funny, scary and heartrending; a meditation on all that it means to be "bigger on the inside". From the internal convolvulations of the TARDIS corridors, themselves twisting through time and emotion, to the hugeness contained in the word: "alive".

We all contain universes, and this story opens with a throwaway shot of the entire universe. Do you need a better illustration?

Spoilers follow in fairly short order; you can't really discuss the episode without spoilers, so if you've not seen it… look away now.




Of course the Doctor's "wife" was going to be the TARDIS. I'm moderately surprised that not everybody guessed that before the episode aired; I'm utterly staggered that there were people on the Internet who still didn't get it after seeing the show. Never let it be said Doctor Who fans cannot be obtuse.

So we return to a scrapyard – the Totter's Lane at the End of the Universe – and as in "An Unearthly Child" the discovery "it's alive" is the central turning point around which the mystery is revealed.

Idris: Incarnate Dimensions and Relatives In Space? Who was she before House killed her and stuck the TARDIS in her dying frame? Not, I think, one of his "family" – Uncle, Auntie and Nephew – she has a name and that marks her out as different. She's too whole to be one of his collection of patchwork dolls. I fear she was some poor lost soul who was caught by the rift and washed up on House's darker shore.

And he kills her. The TARDIS spends the episode walking around in the body of a dead woman. It's not her fault, but it is an interesting echo of Margaret Slitheen in "Boom Town" (and that saw the soul of the TARDIS for the first time).

The idea of the TARDIS as a living, thinking being is not by any means new. As early as the third ever Doctor Whoserial, "The Edge of Destruction" aka "Inside the Spaceship", the series has propounded the idea of TARDIS as alive, a sentient if unimaginably alien intelligence. The idea that the TARDIS was deliberately taking the Doctor to places where he would have adventures rather than necessarily where he wanted to go – taking him where he needed to go – has also long been currency in Doctor Who watchers' circles. Nor is it completely original to suggest that she chose him, as much as vice versa. TARDISes have walked before (try the Melkur in "The Keeper of Traken"); TARDISes have talked before – and bitched about the Doctor's habit of collecting waifs and strays (check out the, er, rather cross "old girl" voiced by Nicholas Courtney in Big Finish's Fortieth Anniversary tale, "Zagreus"); TARDISes have even had their souls poured into human bodies before (when Rose stared into the heart of the TARDIS in "The Parting of the Ways", and it would have killed her too).

(And I've always felt that the being who destroys the Daleks at the end of "The Parting of the Ways" is not Rose, or at least not just Rose, but the TARDIS. And it would seem that the reuse of the phrase "My Doctor" from there to here could be read as confirming it.)

And at this point you will be expecting me to mention, because I almost always do, Lawrence Miles, and particularly the TARDISes Compassion and Marie, who are walking, talking people as well as pan-dimensional timeships, and the short story "Toy Story" which covers a lot of this ground. I'll leave Mr Hickey to make the full case.

Except that this is by Neil Gaiman. The Neil Gaiman.

To say "Compassion came before Idris" is to deserve the riposte: "but Door (the miraculous method of travel in human form from Neil Gaiman's Doctor Who-esque "Neverwhere") came before Compassion".

Neil Gaiman has been the secret Godfather of Doctor Who ever since the late 'Eighties, when Andrew Cartmel was remodelling the seventh Doctor as Time's Champion in the mould of the comics and graphic novels of the time. The last years of the seventh Doctor on television but even more the continuing series of books, the New Adventures, which followed were enormously influenced by the comic book scene and especially the works of Gaiman's friend and inspiration, Alan Moore. And Gaiman's own masterwork, "The Sandman", published over roughly the same period as the New Adventures completely dominated the science-fantasy scene of the Nineties.

(That this was a piece of Science Fiction – with its discussion of what it means to be human and what it means to be a TARDIS – seems to have eluded some people too.)

It's almost impossible to say that Lawrence Miles doesn't share a lot of those influences. Particularly when the opening line of Miles' "Interference" is practically a quote of Moore's "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow".

That's not to say that they are "copying" each other (or, as the more beresk beasts of the Internet would have it, "ripping off" each other), but that the same architecture of ideas will often end up with the same outcomes. Like rival masons building gothic cathedrals they both end up with huge buildings that… look like gothic cathedrals.

The central conceits of "The Sandman" were worlds made out of stories and beings bigger than gods squeezed down inside bodies that looked like people, bigger on the inside. And that is what Gaiman presents as his incarnate TARDIS: a goddess of the box in human form, literally the Dea ex Machina.

Of course Miles rather infamously, and unfortunately, hates Gaiman's guts, though mainly as an extension of his ongoing obsession with loathing Steven Moffat.

Miles' argument appears to be – and I massively oversimplify here – that being a writer ought to be a vocation not just a job. Gaiman (and Moffat) are just writing "the stuff they think people want to see" (possibly in order to "get into girls' pants") rather than because they are crazy enough or angry enough to be properly creative. Which slightly overlooks the fact that Gaiman (and Moffat) are writing stuff that people want to see.

The lesser objection that Gaiman put something as vast and sublime as Death into the body of "a goth chick" seems, well, a little bit self-blind from the man who put something as vast and sublime as a timeship into the body of "Nicole Kidman with freckles".

Yes, death (and for that matter goth chicks) are exactly the sort of thing that Gaiman's target audience are likely to obsess about. Some people call that "hitting the zeitgeist". It certainly doesn't make him "wrong" for expressing those ideas, any more that Shakespeare was "wrong" to write about kings and witches and merchants of Verona just because his target audience was a bunch of superstitious, social-climbingmercantilists in an era of absolute monarchy.

That's the thing about writing stories: there are good stories and bad stories, and stories well told and stories told badly. But there aren't any wrong stories.

Here, Gaiman tells a good story and tells it bloody well. Incredibly densely packed with ideas, almost as text dense as the masterful "Ghost Light", with every line mattering; perhaps too packed for them all to get all the attention they deserved – the Corsair, love to find out more about him/occasionally her, and Time Lords changing gender tossed in almost as an afterthought; Aunty and Uncle, fascinating and literally cast aside when the plot no longer needed them; Nephew the green-eyed monster (a clue, there, surely), Gaiman brilliantly adapting Russell's cthuloid creature to his own script (though, remembering that those Ood translation spheres represent a severed exo-brain, did anyone else feel the Doctor's quick fix was slightly: "here, let me repair your chains for you, slave"?).More Moffat-y than Moffat (and without the irritating non-explanation lack of ending), which is again unsurprising since Moffat is as influenced by Gaiman as Miles. (Yes, that is ambiguously phrased.)

And yet, actually, it's at heart a very simple (bigger on the inside) story: boy meets girl and they run away together.

The look of the episode, all grungy goth, was very Gaiman too. Michael Pickwoad, as designer, and there's a man who is clearly a TARDIS in human form, continues to turn in these fantastic worlds: the winding canyons of calcifying debris that made up House's world (the Houseworld? No, Larry fans, don't get carried away) all lit in the sickly green light of his inner radiance were a perfect setting, and the wider shots of the elephant's graveyard of half-eaten TARDISes – owing no small debt to nearly-Doctor-Who-designer Ridley Scott's "Alien" – informed the planetoid with majesty and grand tragedy, so you could believe this was the last place in the universe you wanted to end up: the plughole of time. Where Ed Thomas was perfect for Russell's grounded, "realistic" universe, ranging from grimy metal or dressed marble but always somehow rectilinear, Pickwoad feels very much more curved, even fractal, very much seeming to capture the fairytale aspects required for the new Moffat era.

Unlike last week's "Curse of the Black Spot", which lifted great chunks from earlier stories without so much as a by-your-leave let alone the relevant context, here the story is filled with references that inform and expand on the stories where we've seen them before: the Time Lords message boxes – tesseracts, four-dimensional hypercubes, the New Adventures would have them ("Love and War" and "Deceit") – seen in "The War Games"; rebuilding a TARDIS console and travelling unshielded in the void – seen in "Inferno"; deleting rooms to generate thrust – seen first in "Logopolis" but rather more pertinently in "Castrovalva. These "kisses to the past" understand how those tropes were used first time around and only add to our understanding of the series. This self-mythologising is, again, typical Gaiman (and typical New Adventures era Doctor Who), based on making the story itself bigger on the inside.

Then, alongside kisses to the past there were the expected (well, it is Moffat-era Who now) kisses to the future. No Eye Patch lady this week, disappointingly, or maybe not if you want this week's story to be really real and not part of Amy's questionable narrative experience. But there was Idris's dying prophecy: "the only water in the forest is the river" (any or all of which might have capitals). It all seems too obvious, doesn't it? But maybe not.

And then, more subtly perhaps, there's that mysterious telepathic key code: "Crimson, Eleven, Delight, Petrichor"

Petrichor: the smell of rain on dry earth, or the smell of the forest after the rain, or the smell of the only water in the forest.

"Crimson, Eleven, Delight, the only water in the forest" What exactly does the TARDIS have on her mind if that is what she comes up with as a key?

Well, the answer given by the episode is "all of time and space" and again it rewards repeat viewing as you start to piece together some of her disjointed conversation, disjointed in the sense she says one thing at one time and the connected thing later. Or earlier.

I particularly enjoyed: "Goodbye! No, the other one!" as her first greeting, which both prefigures and reflects the final scene with the Doctor where she works out what she's been trying to say, ending with "hello".

Though I did like her calling him her "thief" also.

Suranne Jones gets to be divine as the fallen angel coming to terms with her new terrestrial incarnation. She is sweet and crazy and, yes a little bit Helena Bonham-Carter, but in the end serene, just as the script calls on her to be. I can completely understand when people say they wanted the TARDIS to be something more, but also this is forty-five minutes and they've got a lot to cover. This is a sketch of what the relationship between Doctor and TARDIS would be, a miniature, and it captured the essence, the likeness, if not the full portrait.

(And while I'm running around that metaphor, it's hard to believe Suranne Jones is the same actor who portrayed the Mona Lisa in "The Sarah Jane Adventures" – as Alex says, she plays an iconic piece of art given human form… and also the Mona Lisa; do they have her on speed-dial for when they have artworks to personify?)

But this was a fantastic episode for all four of the regulars. Yes, four, counting Suranne Jones.

Sure, Rory dies and Amy cries. Again. But the Ponds get much more to do than their usual clichés.

Amy gets to show that she is smart, and in tune with the Doctor and the TARDIS, not least in getting how the telepathic password works. She can be strong and trusting of the Doctor, and also highly cynical of him locking them inside the TARDIS, but also vulnerable and needful of Rory, which is nice ("hold my hand" in the console room more than that scene).

And Rory, Rory gets to be smart enough to save their lives by giving House a reason to keep them alive, and gets the telepathic message from the TARDIS – "hello, pretty one!" – and guides them to the console. And he gets to be old and he gets to be angry. "Hate Amy" "Die Amy" scrawled on the TARDIS walls, was more frightening than any number of possessed Ood. Plus he gets to express the unusual sentiment for a companion that someone's death isn't just larks and adventure. Oh, okay, he also gets the Scooby Doo "bopped by an Ood" moment too.

And Matt Smith continues to polish away new facets of the Doctor. Eleven is so… angry. He has the guile of Troughton or McCoy, but also the guilt of Eccleston, full of sadness and personal self-loathing and just brimming with fury. It's like the events of "The End of Time" haven't made him better at all, but just brought it all back and worse. The tell-tale moment is the exchange with Amy where he acknowledges that he wants to be forgiven (and in fact, when he says "don't we all", she half recognises that she does too – worth remembering when she thinks Rory is dead. Again.)

Since the Time War, the Doctor has been defined by his loneliness. This story gave him hope that he was no longer alone, and took it away. And then gave it back. It's got to change him, this new knowledge that he's never really been alone and he never really will be.

Being very nearly perfect, there were of course one or two little niggles that I'd have changed.

In an episode chock full of brilliant lines – "biting's excellent; it's like kissing but there's a winner"; "you were going to say that; now I don't suppose you need to"; "I'm a madman with a box without a box!", "oh my beautiful idiot, you've got what you always had…"; "did you wish really hard>" – the, I'm afraid, rather magnificent line of Doctor machismo from the trailer: "Fear me; I've killed hundreds of Time Lords"/"Fear me; I've killed all of them" felt slightly misplaced in the actual episode coming just before the Doctor's seeming surrender and "let's give him a round of applause for winning" moment. I'd have juggled those in the edit so that the powerful, threatening and frankly vengeful Doctor, warning House to fear him, came after his seeming surrender and after Idris's body died, at the point where House most thinks he's won."Fear me; I've killed all of them" should be enough to give House pause just at the moment that the Doctor snatches victory from the jaws of defeat.

Appreciating that the budget was not going to stretch to more than three sections of corridor, I should have liked to see a scene where Amy and Rory at least try to access some of those other rooms:

Amy: Swimming pool!
Rory: The Doctor deleted it!
Amy: Library, then!
[doors slam in her face]

And it would have been nice to see House's green light expelled from the TARDIS and fizzing off into space, like an evil absinth fairy, because (a) the possibility of a rematch with Michael Sheen never hurt anybody (b) there's no need to make the TARDIS a killer and (c) unhoming him is a fitting punishment as it's what he did to her.

Is this the "best story eveh"? I have to say it's too early to say, and I mistrust my feelings in the aftermath of a deliberately highly emotive episode. And of course, everybody seems to have loved this.

We all like to think that we're "independent thinkers" and not led by the herd. Hell, I likedlast week's instalment and everyone else seems to have rubbished it (but then I have a wilfully perverse soft spot for "The Time Monster" and "Time and the Rani" so I may just be bonkers).But the huge popularity and positive reviews all make me want to pause and come to a decision later.

"An Unearthly Child", "The Dalek Invasion of Earth", "The Evil of the Daleks", "The Dæmons", "The Deadly Assassin", "Logopolis", "The Curse of Fenric", "Lungbarrow", "Alien Bodies", "Last of the Time Lords".

For me, these stories are magnificent, and profound, and iconic, era-defining moments, the best of Doctor Who. Not necessarily always the best individual stories (no "The Caves of Androzani"; no "Human Nature"), but the ones that best express the things that make their eras great, the ones that changed everything.

The genius of "Last of the Time Lords" is that it takes the MacGuffin of "Human Nature" and makes it the crux of the series' plot arc. "Yana's got a fobwatch" remains the most "why didn't I see that coming" moment of Russell's entire era. To this day, it remains stunning. And that turns "Human Nature", a brilliant stand-alone story, into the backbone of a much larger, more "mythic" story.

So again, it's too soon to know if Moffat, the grand master storyteller, we're told, can fold this in and make it as much an integral part of his overall skein as Russell did with Paul Cornell's tale; it's too early to see whether the Moffat era will depend from "The Doctor's Wife" or whether this will be its own glorious monument standing slightly alone.

Next Time…Oh look! It's Lady Gaga's tank of goo! Let's see if you can't make a Madonna clone out of just the bits you've got here. Can Matthew Graham redeem himself for "Fear Her" with "The Rebel Flesh".


1 comment:

Tat said...

I have quibbles. Most of them are things I sort of hope will be resolved in later episodes, but the small-but-annoying stuff includes the camerawork.The picture for this (and a lot of the others since 'Eleventh Hour') is that nasty oily greeny flinty look. The camera was too close when Smith was doing his big theatrical taunting of House at the end - compare to Troughton addressing the Master of the land of Fiction as a disembodied voice for how it could have worked in that tight a shot. And I'm not really sure about what House was after - if it was the Doctor's wheels then how did a knackered Type 40 survive a journey that destroyed better quality Ships and if it was Artron, why put so much of it in Idris?
(I suppose I have to mention Lawrence's Ahab-like obsession. As I know to my cost, he's not seen any Cocteau films so the idea of Death as a fashionable-dressed woman in black would look like a gimmick to him. That might seem trivial but it's significant of his entire world-view: there's a big culture outside his chosen field but it's beyond his control so it's better not to acknowledge it. There's a lot I won't say on this topic but it's characteristic to dismiss anything intimidating as 'obvious'or 'derivative'- his record, as far as I have actually witnessed, is three whole pages of 'Lanark' by Alistair Gray.)
But this is the episode I thought would be make-or-break for me and a series I've been following since 'The Wheel In Space'(I thought that about 'The Two Doctors' and although I couldn't get the monkey off my back I wondered why I was bothering). A knot between my shoulders has eased and I haven't actively enjoyed an episode this much since there was a Berlin Wall. I still don't think it's perfect, though.