Friday, 22 November 2013

The Name of the Doctor

Immediately this feels like something very special indeed. Still months (or hours) away from the 50th Anniversary, we are unexpectedly treated to a montage of previous Doctors, the highlight of which is seeing the First Doctor in the process of stealing himself a TARDIS. The significance couldn't be clearer: this is a story that started, as the caption reminds us, a very long time ago.

When we started re-watching these new episodes with Rose, the re-launched programme seemed to be almost in denial that it had a past. The premise, the core of the show may have been intact, but it can't be denied that there was something zealous about that first episode and something almost iconoclastic about the pairing of the Ninth Doctor and Rose compared with what had gone before. It was the right thing to do at the time - the audience need to know that they were getting something new, something revamped - but look where we are today.

At some point the Doctor regained his posh accent and his frock-coat; words like Gallifrey and Valeyard have crept back into the scripts; now the original black and white First Doctor, is stood there talking, on a Saturday night in 2013: a fifty year old continuity reference for a programme that is continually changing and yet always the same.

Once this particular episode gets underway it is chock-full of delights: Strax in Glasgow; Jenny and Vastra's trippy conference call; River' appearing in a puff of smoke and her disgraceful glass of champagne. But that's just for starters.

"I think I've been murdered!" Jenny's fearful cry is macabre and chilling - a heart-stilling moment, as a single tear flows down her cheek. Later on she'll be fine and I felt, originally, that this undermined the impact of her implied death. Watching it again, knowing that she isn't ever supposed to die, softens that blow, but this line is still an absolute killer.

The Doctor is Informed. Smith is running out of chances to dazzle us with his Doctor, but this is an opportunity seized. On hearing the mysterious prophecy for himself, the Doctor is devastated, utterly crushed in a way we have never seen before. It's a quiet moment, a private grief. Smith is extraordinary.

That Landing. The Doctor can't go to Trenzalore; the TARDIS won't. The closest it will go is to materialise in orbit above the planet, but the Doctor has no choice. He switches off whatever is keeping it up in the sky and the TARDIS plummets, smashing into the surface like a hammer blow. It appears to be undamaged, except for a single cracked pane of glass in one of the front windows - an ominous sign of vulnerability.

The Tomb of the Doctor. The dead TARDIS shell looms like a mountain over the countless graves, relics of a final battle. There's something irresistibly Arthurian about this set-up, with Trenzalore as a latter day Camlann. As with Arthur, it's only death that can allow us to look backwards at the Doctor and his significance. Like Arthur, something of the Doctor can and must survive, sleeping away within his tomb.

"The dimensional forces this deep in the TARDIS, they can make you a bit giddy!" It's absurdly easy to please a Doctor Who fan. Just recycle a line of dialogue from an episode they watched when they were five years old and wait for them to notice. About three-quarters of a second should do it.

The Doctor's Remains. Or the tracks of his tears as he calls it. Whatever it actually is, instead of a body or a catafalque, Moffat has come up with something else, something that can double as a visual metaphor for the Doctor's life, and therefore for the history of the programme itself. That's ingenious, but it is also beautiful and, perhaps most importantly, allows for vague character actions depending on the needs of the script.

Hang on... So the Great Intelligence's plan is to visit (or, in some cases, revisit) every moment of the Doctor's existence and change it for the worse. That's spiteful to say the least. Also, it's not clear how he is going to pull this off. For example, the last time he tried to kill the Doctor, he failed. Why is he going to succeed if he has another go at that point in time? The implication is that occupying the shiny-timey-life-lightning somehow grants him admin privileges over the Doctor's life, but it's by no means clear. Also, wouldn't this be one of the moments he visited?

Um... So then Clara jumps inside too, in order to try and prevent (or undo, again it's not clear) the damage that the Great Intelligence has wrought. I can't help but think this would cause both her and G.I. to appear simultaneously at every point in the Doctor's timeline. What do they do then? Rock/Paper/Scissor? How does Clara's desired outcome trump that of the Great Intelligence, and does she have any effect at all (other than in the Dalek asylum and in Victorian London) when all she seems to do is shout 'Doctor!'. Either she can be heard, in which case she is responsible for saving him somehow (but he has never spotted her?) or he can't hear her, in which case what is she doing?

But! Sorry, I'm not so much nitpicking as trying to get my head around it, but what can't be denied is that this is glorious. Clara is fantastic here, sacrificing herself for the Doctor even though it feels like they've only really just met, and if her insertion into all the important moments of his life is difficult to swallow, at least we can see that initial meeting on Gallifrey played out in full. That one definitely makes sense and marvellously ties this newest episode to the very beginning of the programme in 1963.

The Doctor and River. Wow, where did this come from? The Doctor grabs River's invisible, insubstantial hand...
RIVER: How are you even doing that? I'm not really here.
THE DOCTOR: You are always here to me. And I always listen, and I can always see you.
...and they talk. Finally, after years of dancing around the subject, the Doctor is allowed to be unambiguously romantic, even passionate. And it is fantastic. Despite idle chatter that we might not have seen the last of Professor Song, this is surely a perfect place to stop following their relationship. This conversation is a coda to Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead but the two stories bookend this romance with satisfying symmetry. Except... that last "Spoilers!" from River... If that's hinting at anything new...

That Caption. Where the hell does Clara end up? The Doctor says they are still inside his timestream, but that's no answer. Where is this space that has all the different Doctors running hither and yon? Maybe we'll find out tomorrow, you never know. Wherever we are, we are here for one reason. The Doctor's secret is revealed: a previously unknown incarnation, albeit one that doesn't appear to 'count' as a Doctor. At last, we understand the last of Moffat's many red herrings and the title of this episode: this was never about revealing the Doctor's name. What would be the point? Were we ever to discover that his name was Kevin, or Ulysses or Whovoratrelundar, what would we do with that information except go "Huh, so now we know."? It would add nothing, and take so much away. The title refers to the name of 'The Doctor' and the significance that this adopted moniker has accumulated over the years. For both the character and the show, it means something different now than it did in 1963. Whoever this other guy is, his behaviour isn't worthy of the name of the Doctor.

So it's a little bit confusing when five seconds later words are smashed against the inside of our televisions: INTRODUCING-boom. JOHN HURT-boom. AS-boom. THE DOCTOR-boom. It's certainly attention grabbing, but it's not any less intrusive than Graham Norton's cartoon face turning up over the end The Time of Angels is it? Also, is he called the Doctor or not? I'm guessing he is, on the basis that Moffat writes the captions and there's no rule that says the Doctor has to agree with them.

Ah well, that's presumably something else that'll get sorted out tomorrow. November 23rd, 2013: the fiftieth anniversary of Totters Lane, "this doesn't roll along on wheels you know", and a strangely elongated silhouette. The Day of the Doctor.

I am quite excited.


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