Thoughts on: The Name of the Doctor

“What kind of idiot would try to steal a faulty Tardis?” are the opening words of this finale. Then the zoom out to the magnificent, domed Capitol of Gallifrey with the captions “Gallifrey, a very long time ago…” Without further ado, we’re treated to a scene of William Hartnell as the First Doctor nicking the Tardis for the first time, with a little help from one Clara Oswald. This episode doesn’t mess about in getting across the message that this finale was going to be big, but big in a very different way to any previous finale. Previous finales have all been huge, universe-shaking events, the stakes always bigger and better than ever before. There are no reality-destroying schemes afoot here, no universes to reboot, no Dalek legions to thwart, but, in terms of its significance for the show itself, this finale was as huge as any of Russell T Davies’ show-stoppers or Moffat’s mind-benders.

This finale was rich in continuity, advancing the 50-years-and-counting narrative of Doctor Who more than any dramatic standoff with the Daleks or the Cybermen or the Master has ever done. I love that. For suckers for continuity like me, this finale was just 45 minutes of entrancing viewing, notwithstanding that not all that much actually happened. Given a choice between a soaring series of Doctor Who at its storytelling best, but light on continuity, like Series 4, and a fairly undistinguished series that nevertheless advances the narrative of the show in an exciting way, I have to admit I’ll choose the latter every time. Maybe that’s why I adore the somewhat maligned Series 6 so much more than much of the rest of the fandom. And what we got in The Name of the Doctor was very exciting indeed. The punchy, jaw-dropping pre-titles sequence, showing Clara popping up everywhere throughout the Doctor’s life (with delicious cameos of the classic Doctors), established in an explosive way that, if you thought you know what “Impossible Girl” mystery was about, the answer was bigger and better than you could ever have imagined.

Let’s start with the meat, though. In essence, this is a fairly uncomplicated story about Richard E. Grant, who wants to take his revenge on the Doctor for all the Doctor has done to thwart him. With his terrifying minions, the Whisper Men, Grant lures the Doctor and his friends to his grave at Trenzalore, where he’ll enter the Doctor’s time stream and upset the Doctor’s life (but killing himself in the process). This was all riveting stuff, but Grant could have been given a more convincing motive. It’s the fact that it involves a sacrifice on Grant’s part that makes me question it. If J.K. Rowling taught me nothing else, it’s that malevolent beings like Lord Voldemort and Richard E. Grant fear death more than anything else. Perhaps he could at least have sent a few of his Whisper Men into the Doctor’s time stream to do the dirty for him, instead of killing himself.

One of the critical scenes of this finale was where the Doctor was enjoined to speak his name in order to open his tomb, else Grant would kill his friends. And the Doctor resists. For a moment it seems like he’d see his friends die rather than utter his name, before River saves the day (although, did anyone else initially go “What, his name is ‘Please’?!”) That raises a pretty big question about what’s so significant and critical about the Doctor’s real name that he won’t even divulge it to save his friends. It was suggested at the end of the episode that the Doctor reverted to using his real name during the Time War, when he dropped the moniker “Doctor”, which is why he’s so secretive about his real name, but the Doctor was keeping his name secret long before the Time War. Sorry, my fanboy imagination is running wild here. Just indulge me for a moment. I like the idea that the Doctor has an even bigger, darker secret behind his real name, and his concealment thereof, which he’s kept close to his chest ever since he adopted the name “Doctor”, when or before he set off in the Tardis all that time ago. It’s never really been made clear why the Doctor left Gallifrey in the first place. In Hartnell’s time the Doctor very suggestively referred to himself as an “exile”. But that’s all for another time. The scene was, in any case, a hugely tantalising tease about the mystery surrounding the Doctor’s real name, the secret “hidden in plain sight” which no writer for this show has ever thought (or dared) to answer.

The centrepiece of this episode, though, was the much-hyped revelation of the nature of the impossible enigma that was Clara Oswald. The vicious disruption of the Doctor’s time stream is destroying everything the Doctor has done over his life; whole galaxies are being extinguished in the sky, all the Doctor’s friends dying. To save the Doctor, Clara enters his time stream to expel from it the scourge of Richard E. Grant, frustrating the latter’s heinous devices once again. She splits into a million echoes across time and space, always there to deliver the Doctor from the designs of his rat-faced assailant. Those scenes, portraying Clara living a million lives in a million places and times, stalking the Doctor like his guardian angel, were just wonderful. Clara’s interactions with the Doctor’s past selves were fan-pleasing in themselves, but it all sent a distinctive chill down my spine (particularly Clara pointing the Doctor’s first incarnation to the right Tardis). Moffat sure knows how to conjure up classic references effectively. I hadn’t seen the classic stories when I first watched this, but even I felt enriched by the great invocation of the show’s history that it represented. I acknowledge the criticisms of this sequence to the effect that Moffat has made Clara too important an influence on the Doctor’s life, but I don’t really entertain them. The Doctor’s companions have always been the best of him, as the Doctor himself admitted. It doesn’t bother me that Clara is given such profound importance in the Doctor’s life. On the contrary, I loved the idea.

What tops this finale off, though, is its emotional appeal. For one, the relationship between the Doctor and Clara has just been rendered of cosmic importance, which is bound to tie the two together more closely than ever before. We can see that in the touching way the Doctor risked everything by going into his time stream to recover Clara. Their “reunion” inside the Doctor’s time stream, a distressed and confused Clara tumbling into the Doctor’s arms, was moving. The love and gratitude on the Doctor’s face as he embraced Clara was real. Especially given his realisation about how devoted Clara is to him, that she would go into the Doctor’s time stream, split herself into a million pieces, live a million lives, to save him. Secondly, there was River Song. The reappearance of River Song’s ghost, following the Doctor as he faced up to this terrible ordeal on Trenzalore, was poignant enough, but the revelation that the Doctor could see and hear River all along was too much. “You are always here to me. And I always listen, and I can always see you.” Beautiful. Shut up, there’s just something in my eye. Like a stake. Their final, final farewell had a satisfying, yet sad, air of closure and finality, and, really, there was no better way it could have been done. “See you ’round, Professor River Song.”

Rating: 8/10.

P.S. I have a feeling I’ll live to regret this, given I’ve got exams very inconveniently coming up in the next few weeks, but I want to try to finish off the rest of these reviews for the specials and Series 8 before Series 9 airs on the 19th (or the 20th for me). That means I’ll probably have to do one review per day until then… allons-y! (he says unsurely).

Thoughts on: The Bells of Saint John

Did you see when Clara asked if she could use the internet when Angie was finished with it? That’s me. Or it’s going to be me before long, when technology inevitably outpaces my very limited ability to comprehend it. So, yes, I find even rudimentary digital technology arcane and incomprehensible, which is why I found the concept of this episode so enthralling and chilling and compelling. There’s something in the Wi-Fi. It’s eating people up. People’s souls are being uploaded into the cloud and lost forever. For technological illiterates like me who are supremely bemused by technology and anything with an “i” or an “e” in front of its name, that’s seriously scary stuff. Very Matrix. (I was scared by The Matrix, too). Making a menace of the Wi-Fi is the latest in Doctor Who’s agenda of turning unassuming everyday things into instruments of terror, and what an inspired concept this episode plays with in casting the Wi-Fi as a potential pernicious threat.

That’s the most laudatory thing I’ll say about the plotting and story of this episode. With such a brilliant concept, I’m disappointed to report that it failed to exploit that potential as fully as it could. Once the very intriguing threat had been established, it all became increasingly less compelling as the Doctor, with a little help from Clara and her newfound powers of technological comprehension (I’m jealous), pushed the black-suited masters of the sinister Wi-Fi enigma around like sock puppets. It all just seemed too easy. There was no credible threat. The Doctor barely broke a sweat in undermining the evil, scheming Wi-Fi people in their domineering Shard headquarters, and it made the villains look like inept pushovers in comparison; like a bunch of amateur hackers. The threat failing to convince, it was hard to be genuinely gripped by the story. That said, the mystery of what it was all about, and who was behind it, was properly interesting, and the eventual revelation of the Great Intelligence, featuring for the second time in two episodes, was intriguing (I can’t help it, I love a good arc).

I can’t be too harsh on the episode for its plotting, though. Although this episode was about the Wi-Fi sucking people into the cloud-thingy (or whatever it is), it wasn’t really about that — it was about Clara Oswald. This is the third time we’ve met Clara, and it’s getting seriously puzzling. Clara is much the same girl we’ve met twice before, with a few slight differences, but it’s a credit to the writing, and, of course, the dazzling Jenna Coleman, that the series’ “introduction” of Clara the third time round is still genuinely interesting and wonderful to watch. I think it’s fair to say this Clara is a more understated and “normal” Clara than the ones we met on the Dalek Asylum planet and in Victorian London—less perky and flirty (and less girl genius) than the former, less gutsy and feisty than the latter. Which is probably for the best — the Dalek Oswin and Victorian Clara characters, as good as they were in their episodes, seem like they’d become tiresome and stale after a while. With a more subdued, rounded Clara there’s something to build on.

The Doctor and Clara have instant, wonderful chemistry. It’s good to see that the banter, the teasing, the flirting has carried over from the Doctor’s relationship with Clara’s other versions, as well as Clara’s readiness to be sceptical and cheekily subversive towards the Doctor and his Time Lord pretensions. There was plenty of good humour between the Doctor and Clara in this one, particularly the scene where Clara calls the Doctor in the 13th Century asking after some internets (“…it’s 1207!” the Doctor says in utter bewilderment), and the subsequent scene where the Doctor shows up at Clara’s in his monk’s robes (I loved the Doctor checking in Clara’s mirror to make sure he hadn’t regenerated). You know when you show up at a girl’s door carrying on like a deranged monk, and she seems more amused than freaked out (and especially if she doesn’t even call the police), that she’s quality companion material. Unfortunately, I found Matt Smith’s performance for the remainder of this episode a bit lacking; I just couldn’t help noticing that Matt acted with less conviction than usual, although, conversely, Jenna was splendid. I don’t want to end this post on a negative note, though, so I’ll say that I loved the Doctor’s new togs. His original tweed costume will always be the Eleventh Doctor’s iconic look, but this is a refreshing change. Edwardian chic — I love it.

Rating: 7/10.

Thoughts on: The Snowmen

Boy makes snowman. Snowman talks to boy. Snow grows stronger and attempts to attack London with frozen corpse. Put like that it seems simple enough, but I struggled to wrap my head around what was going on in this story. Perhaps I was too distracted by the stunning Jenna(-Louise) Coleman. But it’s probably because it was actually all quite hard to follow. I divined something about a disembodied “intelligence” possessing snow. And then there was something about the snow being a mirror for Richard E. Grant. And an old woman’s frozen corpse entered into it somehow. Although not unenjoyable to watch, it was a somewhat convoluted plot, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who would have failed to explain the plot after viewing. It didn’t help that the “snow monster(s)” was the show’s annual lame, laboured concession to seasonal themes; it was obvious the story would have worked much better if the threat wasn’t a bunch of poorly-realised CGI snowmen. Viewers familiar with the Great Intelligence might have had an easier time following it all, but that’s a pretty small constituency, especially for a Christmas episode.

Okay, gripe over. I hate to start with negativity, but I just wanted to get it out of the way. I have plenty of good things to say about this episode. This episode sees the Doctor coping, as we all were, with the pain and heartbreak of losing Amy. The first time we see the Doctor again after the unhappy events of Manhattan and he’s a gruff, Scrooge-like miser moping around Victorian London, resolved to have nothing to do with the world and its problems any more. He meets Clara, who seems set to tempt him out of his self-imposed solitude with her beckoning smile and her mysterious snowmen, but he shan’t be moved. “Those were the days…” he sighs sadly, wistfully, as he turns and walks away. Matt Smith portrays the Doctor’s jaded, weary, moody demeanour compellingly, and the Doctor in his miserable reclusion is written well. It was a powerful portrayal of how much the Doctor was missing Amy and Rory, and an effective tribute on the part of the show to how much Amy in particular meant to Matt Smith’s Doctor, and how much losing her means to him.

Perhaps it says something about Clara that the Doctor begins to thaw over her. He’s determined to remain in his sulky seclusion, contemning the world, but he can’t help himself when he meets Clara. And who can blame him? Clara is a wonderful character. She has “companion” written all over her, and the Doctor knows it. She’s inquisitive, perky, spirited, clever and brave, and not afraid to speak her mind to the Doctor. That said, she’s a bit of a standard Moffat major-female-character trope, her pertness, cheekiness and flirtatiousness strongly reminiscent of other Moffat female characters like Amy and River Song. Moffat doesn’t exactly differentiate his female characters to a great extent, but it’s early days here. And I’m not criticising necessarily, Jenna genuinely endeared herself to an audience still grieving over Amy. The portrayal of Clara’s collision with the Doctor over the course of this episode was wonderful, though. Unlike Amy, the girl who waited, Clara doesn’t wait around to become involved with the Doctor, even after he effectively tells her to naff off. The scene where Clara follows the Doctor back to the Tardis, and climbs her way up the Jack-in-the-Beanstalk-like ladder into the clouds was simply magical. As was watching the Doctor quickly finding himself irresistibly enchanted by Clara (dat kiss tho). “I never know why. I only know who.” He finds himself saying this with disbelief.

Some final thoughts. I’ve never cared much for the Paternoster Gang, here no more than anywhere else. I find them tedious. And I’m afraid I don’t find their comic relief very funny. They’re obviously there for the kiddies, but there’s a fine line between catering for the pre-adolescents in the audience and patronising everyone over the age of 12. Okay, maybe that was a bit harsh. I know there are plenty of mature fans who enjoy the Paternosters, and I’ll concede they’re sometimes good for a laugh, but in general I just find them a bit of a bore. The new Tardis interior is attractive; it has a dark, moody glamour about it, reflecting the Doctor’s emotional state, and the maturity he’s reached at this stage of his regeneration, but I’m obliged to say I find it a bit cold and soulless. I preferred Matt Smith’s original warm, fantastical, space-baroque Tardis interior. Finally, I rather liked the Doctor’s Victorian get-up. It suits him really well and, although the new costume the Doctor wore in Series 7b was also good, I wouldn’t have minded if he’d kept the Victorian garb (with the glasses, obviously).

Rating: 8/10.