13 December 2021: not really a review of Flux added.
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THE DOCTOR’S WIFE
Of all the reviews we’ve written, this strikes us as by far the most redundant. Is there really anything else to say other than that this is sublime?
Oh, go on then. We’ll give it a shot.
Good episodes fall into several different categories. Some are stories which would stand on their own even if you got out the tweezers and plucked the Doctor out, like Blink. Some are stories which rely on the series’s past history for their clout, like School Reunion. Some, in contrast, are stories which rely on the series’s future for their impact, like The Impossible Astronaut.
The Doctor’s Wife is very definitely in the second category. If you’ve just started watching, it’s comprehensible and we’re sure it looks great. How could it not? If you started with the relaunched series, it’s probably inventive and fun. But it’s people who measure their love of Who in decades that are going to adore this episode right down to its bones.
We’re not flailing Neil Gaiman fangirls ourselves. Some of the things he’s done have been superlative, others have missed the mark. So we were a bit trepidacious about his episode. But we had absolutely nothing to worry about. Gaiman, obviously as much of a long-haul Who fan as any of us, has penned a letter to the Doctor that comes straight from the heart. As a result, The Doctor’s Wife is a stunning piece of television with an impact like a sledgehammer. It’s a strong contender for the title of Best Who Episode Ever.
What do we like about it? Pretty much everything. Let us count the ways.
Firstly, and most importantly, The Doctor’s Wife answers the question we, and probably you, have had for, like, ever: What About The TARDIS? It’s been there, wheezing, groaning, working, malfunctioning, for hundreds of years, a.k.a 1963. Companions come and go: the TARDIS is always there. Doctors variously talk to it, anthropomorphise it, treat it like a machine, but however each sees the TARDIS there’s always a relationship between them. From the very beginning the TARDIS has been the key to the life the Doctor wants to lead, and as a result it’s the most important thing in his life.
We’ve known from way back in The Edge Of Destruction that the TARDIS is in some way alive and sentient. But despite the mention from time to time of telepathic circuits, that’s never seemed to mean that it can talk back. What would it say if it could?
Well, now we know. And it’s done in a way that both affirms the relationship we always knew was there and stays true to what the TARDIS actually is. The Doctor travels in time and space, but the TARDIS takes that and doubles it down in spades. Past, present, future: despite the Doctor’s ability to bop around in these at will in a historical sense, he’s still linearly bound from the point of view of his own aging and progression through his regenerations. The TARDIS has no such limitations: the present is no different to it than the past and the future. Which gives it a perspective all its own.
To do this right, you have to have a TARDIS that not only convinces the viewer of its TARDISness but does that in a way that’s not too cute and not too self-consciously wacky. Especially when you throw craziness in at the beginning, because it’s very difficult to do that in a way that doesn’t quickly become both irritating and boring. Suranne Jones takes these challenges and not only runs with them but sprints triumphantly across the finish line. When we say her crazy TARDIS is exactly right, it isn’t a throwaway compliment: we can’t come up with more than a tiny handful of actors who’ve managed madness as well. When she moves from there into a being that’s recognisably, perfectly the TARDIS, we believe her 100%. And as the TARDIS she simultaneously entrances us and breaks our hearts.
Then there’s the other half. It seems unfair to say we’re tired of talking about how amazing Matt Smith is, but really, how many ways are there to say that this man’s Doctor is a revelation, a character of overwhelming nuance and complexity that, impossibly, starts out perfect yet manages to get better with every episode? But say it again we must, because he outdoes himself yet again. His delivery transforms simple lines like (in response to Amy asking if he wants to be forgiven) “Don’t we all?” into things of beauty. And he effortlessly draws aside the kookiness at which he’s so accomplished to show the powerful Time Lord beneath, delivering lines like “You gave me hope and you took it away. That’s enough to make anyone dangerous. God knows what it will do to me” with credible menace. Also, as we reiterate with tiresome regularity, we don’t like onscreen crying, because if a character cries the audience doesn’t have to. Yet Matt Smith cries here, and we believe in it, and we love it. That's how good he is.
And his reaction to Idris, with its wonder, its flouncing, its flirting, is as multifaceted as the Doctor himself. Add in Suranne Jones’s performance and the emotional wallop of the Doctor and the TARDIS’s long, long history, and the two of them dance a pas de deux here which we frankly doubt can ever be bettered.
And that’s not all of it. Not by a long shot. The other story that this resembles in terms of answering a question fans have been asking for years is School Reunion: the emotion of that is impeccable, but the rest of it isn’t quite as flawless. That isn’t the case here: virtually everything else in this episode stands up to the heavy competition provided by Idris and the Doctor.
The plot’s a simple one. This is a good thing. Try as you might, you just can’t squeeze worlds-spanning stories into three-quarters of an hour without something, and usually many things, giving. One strong idea and a small group of characters gives you enough room for the plot to breathe and work itself out while still allowing enough room for character complexity and emotion.
And that’s what we have here. The idea of something taking over the TARDIS is utterly simple, but utterly effective. The junkyard outside the universe is a delightfully intriguing setting (not to mention a nod to the classic series from Totters Lane to E-space). And the graveyard of junked TARDISes is an arresting visual spur to the plot. The supporting characters aren’t strictly necessary, but the writing is so stellar, and the acting likewise, that they add massive dollops of goodness. And that’s just the A plot. With the B plot, Gaiman has done an astonishing job, turning the convention of corridor-running on its head to produce something that turns what could be filler into incredibly strong scenes in their own right. We’ve always wished more stories were set inside the TARDIS, because it’s one of the most fascinating interiors in the universe. On the other hand, it's expensive building or dressing set after set. Corridors. Of course!
As well as the great character work the B plot allows, of which more anon, it’s also an incredibly effective piece of horror. This is something we never had any doubt Gaiman could achieve, as those of us who picked up Coraline for a little light bedtime reading only to put it down in the small hours and be afraid to go to sleep can attest. And he doesn’t disappoint: one quick, darkly-lit scene in particular, when Amy unseeingly passes Rory’s corpse, a pool of blood under its head, is one of the most terrifying things we’ve ever seen on television. We love, too, that it’s simple. No rubber monsters. No thousands of anything. Just good ideas, good writing and good acting, adding up into what our notes record as “excellent mind-bending shit”. One of the reasons the horror works so well is that it’s character-based. It’s not red-shirt extras in danger, but characters we know and like. In turn, the horror illuminates Amy and Rory’s relationship: what keeps them together, and also the tensions that normally run under the surface rather than being scrawled over a wall. (“How could you leave me? How could you do that to me?” Oh, yeah, Rory, we’re sure you’re talking just about this particular incident.) Both Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill are more than up to the task, with Rory in particular given a chance to stretch beyond the nervous carper we see most often.
The plot’s great. The characters are great. The acting’s great. And oh, the writing. This is a script from someone who loves language, and it’s gorgeous. We’d love to quote bits, but start that and we’d end up cramming the whole script in here. And funny! So funny! We’d love to quote, etc etc. On top of that are the constant sly references, from the message cubes to the Eye Of Orion, to both the classic and the new series. Positively…. scrumptious.
Is there anything wrong with it? Practically nothing. The explanation for how House can go from a big squashy oogly thing to a disembodied presence in the TARDIS is handwaved over, but on the other hand, since we know nothing about him we also don’t know what powers he has. So that’s OK anyway. The backstories of the four on the asteroid are an obvious casualty of script trimming: we’d like to know more about them, particularly poor Idris. We’re not that crazy about the idea that the only name the TARDIS gets is “sexy”. Not a name, as such, is it? Doesn’t she deserve more? Still, if she likes it… Oh yes, and Murray goes “Ooo-ooo-ooo-ooo” in the sad part. Ugh.
We cried the first time. We cried the second time. When we weren’t crying, we had big sappy grins on our faces. If we get any closer to perfection than this, we’re not sure we can stand it.
MORAL: Time And Relative Dimensions In Sexy.
FEETS OF ENDURANCE
So House is patching up Auntie, Uncle et al with pieces of Time Lord, right? That must be quite a mission given that they start regenerating the moment the chainsaw comes out.
FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS
So if the matrix is absent, what’s starting up the Cloister Bell? Is it some kind of reflex?
Bad things happen when Rory and Amy get any distance from each other. After the first time, why the hell don’t they stay close together?
STILL THE PRETTIEST
The pretty one? Well, why not? He did look pretty foxy in his Mad Men gear.
We’d forgotten all about the Ood when he emerged on the TARDIS. Themey!
THE DREAM KING
“Lovely old unexpected me”? Is this a ref to the Dream Lord’s “Spooky old not-to-be-trusted me”? We do hope so.
ROCK AND ROLL
The junkyard is filmed in… a quarry. Yessssss!
What about Rory dying again? Although we pegged this as a flaw in the last episode, it’s now happening so often there has to be an arc reason for it. Let the speculation commence. Something to do with Rory actually dying last season and Amy’s belief being the only thing that’s keeping him alive?