A bit of a late one this week. I’ve been busy and ill, which do not make for a good combination. What’s more, several of my friends still haven’t caught up with the episodes (you know who you are). I’ve also been taking the time to gather some opinions of this finale episode, and it’s certainly generated some discussion. Altogether, this half-season has been extremely divisive; almost every episode has polarised opinion. While several episodes have, for me, been rather below par, others have impressed me greatly. This is true for most of the fans, it seems; however, what no one seems to agree on is which episodes are the winners and which are the duffs. The only episode that seems to have come through mostly positively is Hide, without anyone taking a particularly vocal stance against it (that I’ve read, at any rate). Season finales always generate some discussion, of course, and with so much riding on it, it’s unsurprising that The Name of the Doctor has generated so much discourse. Pleasantly, most of this has been positive, with fans taking exception at certain elements but enjoying the whole.
One thing The Name of the Doctor won’t do is win over Moffat’s haters. It showcases many of the storytelling flaws that have become crept in during his time as showrunner. The long-running plot threads with unsatisfying conclusions; the inconsistent use of time travel as a sort of magic “get out of jail free” card; the fetishism of the Doctor as the central figure of the narrative. The “Moffat must go!” brigade won’t be swayed by this episode. I made the mistake of checking back on Gallifrey Base to see the opinions of the people who post there, and the incoherent screaming vitriol has made me give up on that forum for good. Of course, we all, as fans, take this show too seriously, when it is most decidedly not a serious show. However, even those fans who have felt that this latest run has been a drop in quality mostly came away from the finale with a huge grin on their faces, looking forward to the anniversary special in six months’ time.
Now, I do wonder how “normal” people took this episode. Inevitably, discussion online is limited to fans, who will view an episode so steeped in the series’ lore in a different way than the majority of the audience. The more casual fans – those of my friends and family who love the show, but don’t take it apart for discussion after every broadcast – seemed to enjoy it. My flatmate certainly did, raising many of the same points and asking the same questions as the Whoheads, and loving the retro flashbacks, despite having not seen more than a handful of classic serials. (I’m sure it was my incessant fangirlish squeeling that really made the episode for her though.) But how would an occasional viewer of Doctor Who take this episode, which was hung up not only on the series’ distant past but the events of the previous dozen or so episodes?
All I can do is view it as a fan, and, as a fan, I loved it. From that opening shot on “Gallifrey... a very long time ago…” to that blinding cliffhanger. Really, The Name of the Doctor was an extended prelude to the upcoming anniversary special, existing merely to bridge the gap between the ongoing series (and the Clara mystery) and the big birthday knees-up. There was little in the way of actual event for much of the episode, with almost all of the dialogue being exposition and explanation. Yet, if there’s one thing Moffat can do with style, it’s exposition, somehow made entertaining beyond its normal means. Take the “conference call,” a fun setup which sees our contemporary companion meet up with the recurring team of Victorian oddities, the Paternoster gang, in a subconscious dreamspace. It’s a great way of bringing the characters together to chat about the Doctor, without actually involving him, setting up the principle purpose of the episode in an entertaining way. It’s all explained away with a handwave – “Time travel has always been possible in dreams” – the sort of lyrical throwaway line we’d expect more from a Gaiman episode. While the Great Intelligence (hereafter GI, for laziness) may demand less poetry from the Doctor, a little poetry helps make absurd contrivances more palatable.
While the continual recurrence of the Paternoster gang and the nanny-ish living setup for Clara makes me wonder why Moffat didn’t stick with Victorian Clara and make the 1890s the base era for this run of the show, it’s great, as always, to have the Victorian trio back. They’ve settled into their roles nicely by now, enough that a little more fun can be had with them. As always, it’s Strax who’s the greatest delight. He only really has two jokes – not recognising genders and a desperate need to become violent – but they keep being funny, so who cares. It’s also nice to see he’s found an outlet for his violent tendencies at last, with Moffat poking fun at his native Scotland (as a Paisley man, he would have grown up just outside Glasgow proper). As things spiral out of control, we see things take a turn for the worse for our favourite semi-regs; Strax loses his civilised behaviour, Jenny is murdered, and Vastra loses all semblance of leadership. It’s only Jenny’s continued death/resurrection cycle that blunts the impact of these scenes.
Of course, there’s a fifth character who joins Clara and the gang for the conference call. I wasn’t too keen to have River back, thinking that there was little left to be done with the character. However, by setting this appearance after her death in the Library (her first appearance in the series, in fact) Moffat let’s us see a different side to the character. This is a more melancholy River, still with a touch of her old facetious charm but predominantly a lonely character. She’s a ghost, whatever pseudo-scientific explanation we have for her presence. While at times, perhaps, Alex Kingston seems a trifle bored with the more subdued version of her character, she comes into her own once there’s some real interaction with the Doctor.
Ah, yes. The Doctor. After a run of episodes in which he’s had few chances to be anything other than zany and quirky, Matt Smith finally gets the chance to get his teeth into some genuine meaty acting. Not only is this post-Library for River, it is seemingly after their final meeting from the Doctor’s point of view, meaning that finally, the two characters are meeting on something of equal terms. Smith portrays tangible grief throughout the episode, from the moment he learns that he must visit his own grave (a fantastic, powerful scene between just him and Coleman), to his emotional goodbye to River. For once, there’s a genuine sense of love between the two of them. There’s also no shillishallying on the Doctor’s part about their relationship; after a moment trying to pass River off as an old friend, he gives up, accepting Clara’s description of her as an ex and then confirming that she was his wife. The inescapable feeling is that Smith’s Doctor is growing up.
When it comes down to Clara, the impossible girl, and the ongoing mysteries at the heart of the series, this episode delivers well in some quarters, less so in others. The final revelation that Clara has been scattered through the Doctor’s timeline in order to save him (“born to save the Doctor,” just as River was born to kill him) is a brilliantly effective way of wrapping up this thread. She chooses to go into the Doctor’s timeline to save him. There’s a sense of free will against the universe, even with the predestination that has brought Clara to this point. Events earlier in the decaying TARDIS, with Clara’s memories being freed up, also rather acquits the troublesome reset-button ending of Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS. In fact, the entire run is rescued somewhat by this episode, making it feel that it mattered in a way that was previously missing. Hopefully now that the mystery of her life has been dealt with, Clara will be allowed to develop some real personality in the next series. With both Smith and Coleman signed up for 2014, and knowing what they’re both capable of given the right material, there’s plenty of hope for the future.