Thursday, 23 May 2013

WHO REVIEW: 2013-8: The Name of the Doctor

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.

Other ongoing threads are less well resolved. Of course, there may still be more answers to come, but the threat of the “Question that must never be answered” has been running, in one form or another, for the entirety of Matt Smith’s tenure, from the cracks that appeared in The Eleventh Hour through the “Silence must fall” arc, coming more to the fore once Dorium started spouting off about Trenzalore. There’s still the niggling sense that it doesn’t all fit together, and it’s been dragging on a long time now.

On the other hand, this episode has the gall to take us right back to the beginning. That opening sequence, showing us the Doctor and Susan beginning their flight from Gallifrey, was designed to leave fans salivating. It’s a cocky thing to do, show us this much mythologised moment that predates the series, but if not now, then when? I’ve long desired a retro-episode, cutting the current cast in with classic series footage, in the style of Deep Space Nine’s “Trials and Tribble-ations.” While this doesn’t go quite that far, the interaction of Clara (a Clara) with the first Doctor, and her sharing scenes with the other past incarnations, is huge fun. The presentation of the scenes is a bit shonky, but given the quality of footage they had to work with, it was never going to stand up to HD scrutiny. The colourisation work was also below par in the Hartnell scenes (I’m in the camp that think the BBC should have hired Babelcolour). Nonetheless, it’s a joyful thing for a fan to see, even if some of the Doctors got short shrift, only being represented by stand-ins (the McGann double barely registers). Never mind; it’s a celebration, taking us right back to the beginning.

The Great Intelligence, then. Once more Richard E. Grant hams it up atrociously, but god love him, he is great here, bringing an icy conviction to the most ridiculous bits of dialogue. He’s perfectly cast as GI’s body on Earth (or Trenzalore), and it’s far better having a figure for the Doctor to face off against than some disembodied voice or amorphous thing in the sky. The moment he rips back his face – an excellent visual effects sequence – is creepy as hell, and the nothingness beneath brings to mind the Doctor’s old Time Lord foe, Omega, way back in The Three Doctors.The Whispermen are effective enough, despite being little more than generic henchmen, and while we have to accept that they and GI can seemingly go anywhere and do anything, they fulfil their purpose of getting the Doctor to his tomb and forcing the plot along. Trenzalore itself is a terrifying location, a riven battlefield scarred by years of assault, and the Doctor’s grave, his own, swollen TARDIS, is appropriately grim. Some have complained that the interior is the same as we saw it during Journey, and that it should have been changed once again in the future… well, perhaps that just means the Doctor’s demise isn’t as far off as we might hope.

There are some fantastic ideas on display here, such as the Doctor’s own time-track leaving a scar in the continuum that has to be buried, to GI entering it to mess with his timeline and turn victories into defeats. The fact that they chose that terrible, literal cliffhanger from Dragonfire is just wonderful. Why did the Doctor decide to go hang off a cliff for no reason? The Intelligence made him do it! Problem solved, 1987 resolved of blame. However, it has to be said that most of the best concepts here have been ripped from the works of Lawrence Miles, his 1997 novel Alien Bodies in particular. The future Doctor suffering his final death on some battlefield in a cosmic conflict; the Doctor’s temporal scar/biodata making his remains the most dangerous artefact in the universe; the Doctor coming face to face with his own death, and the actions of his own future… all done before by Mad Larry. Thankfully, his initial response to this episode has been removed from his blog.

Still, Doctor Who has always nicked it’s best ideas, and if it can’t pinch from its own back catalogue, then what can it pinch from? At the end of the day, while not perfect, The Name of the Doctor redeems a touch-and-go series that was beginning to look like it may have lost its way. And, although it may really just be “Anniversary Special, Part One,” this episode, for all its exposition and logical contrivances, was tremendously exciting for me, as a fan. No more so than that final revalation. Sadly, I was one of the people who had already heard the rumours regarding John Hurt’s character, but there were plenty out there who taken completely aback by this development. We were never going to actually learn the Doctor’s name (although there are an embarrassing number of people online who seem to think his name is actually John Hurt). That was never the point. As the Doctor himself says, it’s the name he chose for himself that matters. For this stranger to show up, out of nowhere, a lost incarnation of our Time Lord hero who has lost the right to the name “the Doctor,” is just thrilling, even for those of us who did suspect what was coming. In a wonderful moment of the fourth wall breaking down, the Doctor claims that this man, while he is him, is not actually the Doctor… then a caption appears, boldly claiming “Oh yes, he is.”

November the twenty-third can’t come soon enough.

Things that don’t make sense: How easily these can pass us by when we’re having fun: why does the looney murderer have coordinates for Trenzalore? Perhaps he’s a plant by the GI, but that’s never stated. How can the GI now drag people through time and space? Not necessarily an error, but it’s odd seeing the first Doctor and Susan in their earthly dress while still on Gallifrey (not that there was much that could be done about that, I suppose). Why do some of Clara’s fragments seem to know the Doctor and be looking for him, while others (i.e. Victorian Clara and soufflé girl Oswald) not know him at all? If Clara regains her memories of the events in Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS, shouldn’t she know the Doctor’s name/big secret from the Big Book of the Time War? Jumping back a few episodes, why did the TARDIS have such a problem with Clara, given that she’s essential to saving the Doctor? Indeed, according to this account, the Doctor would never have chosen this TARDIS if it weren’t for her.

Monster, Monster, Monster: The Great Intelligence as seen here doesn’t bear much resemblance to the entity seen back in the days of Patrick Troughton. Perhaps, like Clara, his entering the Doctor’s timeline has splintered him into different aspects. So, the original is the snow-based life form linked to Dr Simeon, which then becomes disembodied but now uses Simeon’s form as a sort of interface or avatar. Another is the bodyless monster that attempts to enter the world in the twentieth century, manifesting as a web-like substance, and which utilises robotic yeti as servants. Perhaps another aspect would be the New Adventures take on the villain, equating him with Yog Sothoth of the Cthulhu Mythos. Neil Gaiman originally intended GI to be the villain that became the House in The Doctor’s Wife. Who knows? Perhaps House was yet another aspect of the creature.
The Whispermen are effectively creepy but generic monsters that seem to be nothing more than projections by GI. They look extremely reminiscent of the Trickster, a major villain in The Sarah Jane Adventures. Considering the Trickster’s admiration/hatred of the Doctor, his time-manipulating abilities and his aim to perpetuate chaos, we cannot rule out a link. It’s possible he and GI have had an encounter (maybe that would explain GI’s sudden time-jumping abilities). A lot of commentators have pointed out the similarity between the Whispermen and the Gentlemen from Buffy episode ‘Hush.’ There’s little actually the same, but the overall effect is similar.

Links and references: Footage taken from The Aztecs¸The Invasion of Time, Arc of Infinity, The Five Doctors, Dragonfire and Silence in the Library. Sound clips from An Unearthly Child, The Moonbase, The Trial of a Time Lord, Voyage of the Damned and others, including a “Fantastic!” from the ninth Doctor. There are references to events in The Caves of Androzani, The Forest of the Dead, The Wedding of River Song, Asylum of the Daleks, The Snowmen, The Rings of Akhaten and Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS, and surely much, much more. When lost in the Doctor’s timestream, Clara cries “I don’t know where I am,” as she previously did when trapped in cyberspace in The Bells of St. John. GI refers to the Sycorax leader (The Christmas Invasion), Solomon the Trader (Dinosaurs on a Spaceship), the Daleks and Cybermen as those who have suffered at the Doctor’s hands.

Doctor Data: For the first time ever, the Smith’s Doctor is referred to in dialogue as “the eleventh Doctor.” The ordinal “eleventh” has been thrown around, but it’s never been as clearly cut as this, which is ironic, seeing that this episode reveals he may not be the eleventh after all.
GI refers to future names that the Doctor will be known as, which include “the Storm” (surely from “the Oncoming Storm” title used by the Daleks and Draconians), “The Beast” (no idea) and “the Valeyard.” I did briefly wonder if the Hurt Doctor was going to be revealed as the Valeyard – the Doctor’s potential evil future self from “somewhere between (his) twelfth and final incarnations,” but this seems untenable considering that he is clearly from the Doctor’s past. Anyway, wouldn’t they just have gotten Michael Jayston to play him? Still, it seems that the Doctor has not averted this future and may still become the Valeyard someday.

Those who consider that the Hurt Doctor is playing the eighth Doctor, recall that all the Doctors are accounted for in this episode, with Hurt being additional to the known eleven. Also, we’ve seen McGann’s face in the rundown of Doctors as recently as the previous week’s Nightmare in Silver. Hurt is explicitly separate from the recognised run of Doctors.

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