5 December 2018: It Takes You Away review added.
26 November 2018: The Witchfinders review added.
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THE NAME OF THE DOCTOR
Promises much. Does it deliver? A lot of it does. But by no means all.
The opening’s pure fangasm territory. How could classic series fans, in particular, not squeak with joy and bounce up and down in their seats at the sight of the original Doctors? How could we not thrill to the sight of a row of TARDISes with their chameleon circuits disengaged? (So that’s what they look like!) How can we not giggle at Clara’s oh-so-typical companion outfits? Short answer: um, impossible.
Then we’re back to guaranteed crowd-pleasers the Paternoster Gang. And they’re as terrific here as they were in their previous outing, including a hilarious glimpse into Strax’s Glasgow Kiss-oriented weekend activities.
The “conference call” is a terrific wheeze - how they manage to share a dream is conveniently vague, but it works nicely. It’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt. We can’t say we were too worried about Jenny, as death is more and more rarely permanent in Doctor Who, but it’s a dramatic moment all the same.
And enter the villains: the Whisper Men and their guvnor, the good old Great Intelligence. The Whisper Men look terrific - that blank face/scary teeth thing is horrifying, But even more horrifying is the way they’re thrown away. Once killing Jenny is over with, they never do anything other than advance menacingly and hiss a bit. Same with the Great Intelligence, with poor old Richard E Grant’s splendid icy malevolence curiously irrelevant compared to the mystery of Clara. What a profound waste.
Then the Doctor finds out he’s up for an away day to Trenzalore. (What a rubbish name for a planet, by the way. Sounds like something your doctor would prescribe for anxiety.) Tears often overegg screen emotion in our opinion, but the way Matt Smith does this scene is absolutely masterly.
The whole Trenzalore secret thing, however, is problematic. We had assumed Trenzalore was where he was buried, since River says they have misinterpreted “The Doctor has a secret he will take to the grave. It has been discovered”, and if it’s not the secret that’s being referenced, the grave is the only other interpretation that makes sense. Can’t say we were any keener, incidentally, than the Doctor. The Doctor says “Always suspected what it was, never wanted to find out myself”, and we’re right with him there. This really, really isn’t something we wanted to know about the Doctor, and we think Steven Moffat, in his zeal to reveal bombshell after bombshell about the Doctor, is in serious danger of stripping a little too much of his mystery away. We’re crossing our fingers that this will all be retconned away in the future as so many other things have been.
And about the Doctor not wanting to know things: where he’s buried is part of recorded history. If you’re zipping back and forth in time and space, especially if you’re an interstellar celebrity as the Doctor is, or at least was, you’d think it would be information that was impossible to avoid acquiring whether you wanted to or not. Same, actually, for the other major events in his lives to come: perfectly easy to avoid knowing about if you’re just some guy tooling around the universe in a blue box, but practically impossible when billions know who you are. We really wish they would think these things through.
Also, the whole mysterious pronouncement thing really doesn’t make a lot of sense. Why would you say “The Doctor has a secret he will take to the grave. It has been discovered”, if what you actually mean is “The Doctor’s grave has been discovered”? The Doctor specifically vetoes the idea that the location of the grave is his secret (fair enough too, since he doesn’t know where it is himself). So why mention the secret at all if it’s irrelevant? You could make a case that the secret is the brand new Doctor that pops up at the end, but that doesn’t fly either, because the Doctor clearly says that it’s not his secret that’s been discovered. And how would anyone else know about an undiscovered secret? As Jenny would say, "We don't know. It's a secret".
Anyway. We’re not writing the script, so like it or not, Trenzalore’s where we’re going. There’s some more great stuff with the Paternosters, and some more excellent malevolence from Mr G Intelligence. Although we dislike the very idea of visiting the Doctor’s tomb, if we have to be there they’ve done it beautifully, as the crackling timelines are a masterstroke.
At this point, we’re two-thirds of the way through the episode. Like we said, we might not like the premise much, but we can’t fault the execution. The characters are terrifically written; Strax, perfect as ever, adds just the right leavening note to the tragedy; the action has forward momentum in exactly the right scale; there’s genuine pathos in Vastra’s reaction to Jenny’s death, the Doctor’s reaction to the news about Trenzalore and even the reappearance of River. Glorious stuff.
And the rest of it?
Remember when Doctor Who was about the Doctor going places and helping people? When there was a lot about him we didn’t know and that was the way we liked it? When we got to know more about who he was just by watching him do stuff?
Yeah. That’s not how it is any more. Now the Doctor’s mysteries are very much on the table. This isn’t in itself a bad thing. A complex, enigmatic character fair cries out for someone to do a little excavating. What we don’t like? Now, we find out who the Doctor is by talking about it.
Time and again in this series action has ground to a halt in favour of a gabfest about the Doctor and about Clara’s relationship to the Doctor. Endless, endless yapping. Yes, we know the point of the thing is the Doctor. But if it’s only about the Doctor, the entire thing is liable to disappear up its own vortex. On and on and on it goes. It’s all about the mystique of the Doctor, and the mystique of the people helping the mystiqueful Doctor and being married to the mystiqueful Doctor. In short, way too much navelgazing. Arsewaffle. That’s what it is. It’s arsewaffle.
And yet again, everything has to be on a massive scale. The Doctor dies, so entire star systems wink out. Again.
But that’s not the worst part. We like a lot of things about Steven Moffat as a showrunner, but one of the aspects of his tenure we detest is his determination to inject characters of his own who are more important than the Doctor.
River was the first. She can drive the TARDIS, she can put the Doctor down effortlessly, and she has him under her thumb. She even makes him tell her his name. This isn’t something he volunteers to a person he’s closer to than anyone else. She. Makes. Him. Again and again, when we see River and the Doctor, it’s River in the driving seat. In many of her episodes, we’re sure someone who’d never seen the show before would think she was the central character.
There’s some really touching stuff with River in this episode. We’re sure many people loved it. But despite Alex Kingston and Matt Smith’s excellent work, we find the character so intrinsically annoying just by existing that the heartbreaking, tender farewell simply bounced off us. We’re hoping she really is gone for good, although we’re gloomy about her mental link with Clara.
And now we have Clara, the “impossible girl”. And we find out exactly why she keeps turning up: she’s the girl born to save the Doctor. Oh, you thought the Doctor was smart and learned and cunning enough to extract himself from trouble without a secondary character following him through the ages hauling his arse out of the fire? You thought wrong. Turns out it’s all about Clara.
Or is it? In the opening, Clara says that she’s there to save the Doctor, “But he never hears me. Almost never.” And she reiterates at this point that he hardly ever hears her. She’s spread out through space and time purely to help the Doctor, and he never hears her? She spends eternity fruitlessly tugging at the Doctor’s sleeve? How bloody blithering pointless is that?
So which way is it, then? River thinks the Doctor never hears her too, and it turns out that’s not true. Is it the same with Clara as well? So either he’s entirely reliant on a companion to get him out of trouble, or all her endless incarnations are a complete waste of space-time. Take your pick. We hate both of them.
If Clara really is only occasionally effective, how does she defeat the Great Intelligence? But if you chose Clara being the eternal saviour, consider this. The Doctor is now a man who goes where the TARDIS wants him to go and when he gets there is saved by his companion. Is this the Doctor we know and love? Feck off.
As for how Clara gets back, Steven Moffat’s assertion that Doctor Who is actually a fairy tale has never been more obvious. Strip away all the blather about soufflés and leaves, and how, exactly, does the Doctor save her? Er….
And while he’s knocking about in his own timestream, the Doctor happens across somebody else: a spare incarnation he had lying around. Quite the revelation, yeah? Shame they had to spoil it with the incredibly naff “Introducing John Hurt as the Doctor” onscreen, but it’s certainly raised the stakes for the anniversary episode.
If we sound underwhelmed by Steven Moffat’s bombshell, it’s because we’re burned out by the endless intrigue. Just when some of the mystique disappears off the end of the conveyor belt, here comes another lump to replace it. God forbid we shouldn’t be tantalised and teased for a single second. And to get to the end of any of it, we have to have metric tonnes of enigmatic pronouncements, portentous allusions, and opaque explanations. In short: arsewaffle.
We hardly ever check to see what general opinion is about an episode, because we’re too lazy. This time, though, we did. What struck us about what people were saying was that it wasn’t about the episode at all. It was almost entirely about who John Hurt’s Doctor was and what it all meant. And that’s the problem with such a heavy concentration on endless arcs: it’s all about looking forward to see what might be coming and looking back for clues. Jam tomorrow and jam yesterday, but never jam today.
There’s a great deal to like in this episode, most notably the first two-thirds of it. It’s a shame that the end, instead of leaving us impatient for the anniversary episode, taints the good work done before and leaves us as flat as a failed soufflé.
MORAL: Crossing your own timeline is a grave matter.
NO WONDER THE DALEKS ARE SO ANGRY
Incidentally, no wonder Clara’s soufflés keep turning out rubbish. You can’t get enough air into the eggs vaguely stirring them with a Dalek-style eggbeater.
GIVEN HOW LONG IT TAKES TO REACH HER, WE’RE GUESSING PARCELFORCE
How does Madame Vastra get the letter to Clara?
ONE CENTURY AT A TIME. NO PUSHING
Why are the Whisper Men there to ambush the Paternosters, but not Clara?
STORMAGEDDON, DARK LORD OF ALL
“Storm”? “The Beast”? Too funny.
TAKING HIS NAME IN VAIN
Is this the end of “Doctor who?” Please, please, please let it be so.
Who’s supposed to have written the godawful doggerel the Whisper Men are spouting? It’s ghastly.
ONCE MORE WITH FEELING
Another Androzani shout-out! And they say the Beeb doesn’t allow advertising. Of course, some may say it’s actually mentioned because Steven Moffat’s said the Fifth is his favourite Doctor. In our opinion, however, River is his favourite Doctor.
How come Vastra’s past doesn’t change at the same time as Strax’s? How come she remembers the “real” past and he doesn’t?