Monday, November 04, 2013

Doctor Who?

It’s kind of difficult to review a Doctor Who episode like The Name Of The Doctor.

When it comes to his big arc stories, Steven Moffat loves to leave us with as many questions as answers, which tend to feed into the next season arc and so on. It’s no bad thing in principle – maintains the momentum, keeps us wanting more – but occasionally it does mean we get an episode like this, where its degree of brilliance – or the opposite – can only properly be gauged when we see how it all gets wrapped up. Will it be neat and awesome? Or will it be a tangled mess of threads that don’t quite tie up? Time will tell.

Of course, some questions are best left unanswered. For example, Doctor Who? The idea that the Doctor wants to safeguard his true identity is fair enough, but the notion that it might actually mean anything to us or that, if revealed, it could somehow lead to some universe-wide cataclysm is frankly a bit daft. The mystery is always going to be better than any answer supplied.

So you might be forgiven for wondering why there’s any need to build an episode around it. Well, relax, because that’s not what Moffat has done. It’s roughly as much about the Doctor’s name as The Doctor’s Daughter is about his progeny and The Doctor’s Wife is about his missus.

As the Doctor points out, it’s not his secret that’s been discovered – it’s his grave. And that’s a much more tantalising (and chilling) prospect. It’s something that was raised in Lawrence Miles’ DW novel, Alien Bodies, and as much as the fibre of many a fan will protest at any suggestion of pinning the Doctor’s death to a particular place or time, it’s ominous and compelling stuff.
Like Scrooge confronted with his own headstone. So it’s altogether fitting – and welcome – that it’s Richard E Grant’s Dr Simeon (aka the Great Intelligence) who steers the Doctor towards this fateful encounter along with his small army of Dickensian ghosts.

It’s not made abundantly clear in the episode why the triggering message has to be delivered in the form of a 'til Burnham wood do come to Dunsinane' style rhyme via a Victorian serial killer locked up in Newgate prison, but we have to assume some subtlety on the Great Intelligence’s part – e.g. he knew Vastra would investigate, he knew she would hold a temporal dreamstate conference call and he knew that would ultimately lure the Doctor to the blighted world of Trenzalore.

That subtlety does go out the window somewhat later on when the only ploy he can come up with to coerce the Doctor into opening his tomb is to seize him by the throat and have his Whisper Men menace the Doctor’s companions. Some sort of trickery would have been preferable and more in keeping with the name, Great Intelligence – and we know Moffat is clever enough to devise such a trap for the Doctor. I guess the physical confrontation was deemed more obvious and TV friendly.

There’s a healthy quantity of other cleverness on display. The dreamstate conference across time is an inspired device, craftily handled – and the evident chill Jenny feels as she knows someone or something has intruded on their ‘seance’ in the real world is a lovely spot of ghostly storytelling. Together with the witty exchanges you’d expect when Moffat sits a bunch of his favourite characters around the same table. The TARDIS as the Doctor’s tomb, with its internal dimensions spilling over to the outside and transforming it into a vast monument, is fantastic. And the idea that instead of a corpse the Doctor leaves behind a scar in time – his timeline weaving a convoluted web that he describes as ‘the tracks of his tears’ – is a pretty elegant conceit.

As is the Great Intelligence’s intention to exploit this as the means of his ultimate revenge. Yes, stepping into the Doctor’s timeline will destroy him and shatter him into a million pieces, but those scattered parts of himself will be in a position to rewrite the Doctor’s history. And by extension the history of the universe.

It’s just a little unfortunate that this manifests – a tad inevitably – as yet another winking out of stars and all the usual malarkey that accompanies this kind of temporal script doctoring. The direction and performances and how the Doctor’s undoing is handled is all well and fine – we feel for Vastra as Jenny blinks out of existence and it’s refreshing to see Strax turn nasty for a moment – but it’s not radically unlike the sort of stuff we’ve seen before.

The damage is repaired fairly promptly, of course. The good news is that repair is not achieved without sacrifice. The bad news is that sacrifice is Clara. (Nooooo! Not Jenna Louise!) The good news is the Doctor is not going to let that sacrifice go ahead without a fight and he’s hot on Clara’s trail to rescue her. The (potentially) bad news is that we now know Clara’s purpose – ‘my story is done’, she says - and there’s this danger she’s been reduced to mere plot device even before she’s been properly fleshed out as a person.

Maybe something can be made of that in future tales, as Clara has to rediscover who she is and we can look forward to getting to know her as a character. But for now, I’m left a touch concerned that it’s lessened her somehow. For all that scattering splinters of the same person throughout the Doctor’s lives is a jolly clever device, Clara at this point is a device with personality. Like K9. Her mission, whether she chooses it or not, is to help the Doctor out of trouble wherever she can.

And yes, that’s part of the job description for ‘Companion’ but I don’t know that anyone else has become the job description quite so literally.

Interestingly, it’s also the only occasion I can recall when a Doctor Who cliffhanger has hinged on a casting revelation. ‘Introducing John Hurt As The Doctor’ strikes as an unnecessary caption, spelling out the awesomeness of the moment for the hard of being impressed.

Nitpickers and hair-splitters can also delight in pointing out that only a line before, the Doctor makes the distinction that this dark and enigmatic fellow is him but is not, in fact, the Doctor. It’s a question of titles, apparently and we are left to speculate on who he is and how he fits in the Doctor’s past.

Time will tell, like I said. The strengths and merits and/or weakness and disappointments of The Name Of The Doctor will be best measured in terms of where it leads. It’s Part One of a major two-parter, at least. And, lest we forget, it’s Part One of the 50th Anniversary Special. And that’s HUGE.

Worth remembering and actually impossible to overlook, since the celebrations have already started right here in this story. The sprinkling of past Doctors throughout are like the lighting of the candles on the cake and I’ll not be the one to blow them out. I just sat and watched and applauded each one. Those sequences of archive footage were, for the most part, married pretty well with the present-day shots, save for a few questionable shadows here and there. Technical quibbles aside they were a welcome treat and a taste of the party atmosphere that should accompany any story as we approach such a landmark birthday.

I do wonder whether the Hartnell Doctor could really be persuaded to slip off with a dodgy TARDIS purely on the word of some random (presumably Gallifreyan?) girl who assures him he’ll ‘have more fun’. And if one of Clara’s splinters can be born a Gallifreyan, does that mean she can also be a Sontaran or an Ice Warrior or a Fishgirl of Atlantis? Time will probably not tell on that one.

Whatever else, it’s written and played with the gusto, wit and love and affection of a cast and production team committed to putting on a great party.

There’s a great deal of hope and expectation riding on the event and The Name Of The Doctor successfully fuels all that. Which is exactly what it needed to and sets out to do, so in that respect is a triumph. But, at the risk of captioning the obvious, once you’ve sent out the invitations you have to deliver.

Like one of Clara’s soufflés this could all fall flat. But for now, the recipe gives me cause for optimism.

Next Time...

Day Of The Doctor!


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