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Doctor Who: The Doctor’s Wife (Review)

“Are all people like this?”

“Like what?”

“So much bigger on the inside.”

– TARDIS and the Doctor

That was awesome. Neil Gaiman’s Doctor Who episode, The Doctor’s Wife, was perhaps the strongest stand-alone episode the series has had in quite some time – packed to the brim with wonderful and cheeky and clever concepts, executed in wonderful style. It had just about everything, from small fanboy-ish references (“the old control room”) through to clever explorations of the ideas the show takes for granted, managing to fit perfectly with what had come before and suggest some new takes on classic concepts at the same time.

The Smith-en young couple...

Apparently Gaiman originally wrote the episode for the previous season, but it was moved for budget reasons. Given that some updates were required (mainly the addition of Rory), I was initially quite concerned that the script might end up being scrapped due to the writer’s schedule. After all, it was this reason we were denied the episode drafted by Stephen Fry for the second season – the writer originally wrote the script without Rose (as she was originally intended to leave earlier in the season), but didn’t have the time to re-write it after Billie Piper agreed to stay on for the full year.

Some day, I hope that Fry will either allow somebody to novelise it, or update it so it can be filmed. Much like the unfortunately aborted Shada from Douglas Adams, it seems a waste not to use material from a much-loved writer. I’ve always loved seeing established and beloved creators playing with other toys – and the nature of Doctor Who seems to attract all sorts of wonderfully quirky talents. Anyway, enough of the reflection, back on to The Doctor’s Wife. Because it really was quite fun.

The series' other time-travelling couple...

The first thing to notice about the episode is the sheer scale of it. As noted above, it was pushed back a year when the budget became prohibitive… and everything about the episode screams of quality. From the fantastic junkyard planet through to the new sets on the inside of the TARDIS, through to the special effects, it seemed like there was nothing that would get in the way of Gaiman’s story, and quite right too. It all added up to one of the best examples of what the show was capable of.

The genius of the script is in taking an idea that has long been part of the series, and casting it in a slightly new light. It’s an idea that I am surprised has never been toyed with before – the idea of allowing the Doctor and the TARDIS to share screentime together. Indeed, the concept was so delightful that even the episode’s teaser had me on the edge of me seat – and made me slap myself for not immediately grasping who exactly “The Doctor’s Wife” in question was.

They make a cute couple...

I always got the sense that an established writer working with a cult property must be some kind of geek – imagine how fun it must be to play with the toys in the sandbox, and having the respect to be trusted to do pretty much whatever you wanted with them? It’s very clear from the outset that Gaiman is a big fan of the series (both classic and relaunched), and that he was literally given the keys to the TARDIS to do what he wanted. It was a joy to actually see the TARDIS interiors – something other than the control room – decorated in a style which seemed like an affectionate homage to what came before without seeming cheesy or low-budget.

The show was packed with rather clever observations. There’s something extremely charming about the revelation that Amy and Rory are sharing bunk beds in their room – something that won’t affect younger viewers, but will bring a smile to the older members of the audience. There’s something very telling about Matt Smith’s iteration of the lead character – how young he is, despite his wisdom and experience – in his attitude towards the bed. “Bunk beds are cool,” he suggests, “A bed with a ladder, how can you beat that?”

Honeymoon on an actual moon?

However, while Rory and Amy got some lovely interaction (and I adored the “timey wimey” aspect of their adventure through the TARDIS – and “spacey wacey” makes the perfect companion), the best part of the episode was undoubtedly seeing the Doctor presented with a chance to interact with the TARDIS. After all, they’ve always seemed like lovers, of a sort, on an eternal honeymoon to the stars. She’s the constant companion, even when everyone else dies or abandons him. “It’s always you and her, isn’t it?” Amy asks, “Long after the rest of us are gone.” It is, and it’s nice to see it acknowledged explicitly.

Indeed, Gaiman has a bit of fun with the Doctor’s affection for the machine (which we saw even last week as he managed one of her “tantrums” and embraced her like a lost love on finding her, even suggesting placating her by stroking her). The interplay was perfect, with the Doctor seeming at once confused and intrigued by the situation facing him. Asked what to call her, she suggests, “Don’t you call me sexy?” He replies, “Only when we’re alone!” Confronted with the TARDIS in a girl’s body, Amy’s rather blunt response is, “Did you wish really hard?”

It's a scream...

Suranne Jones was superb in the episode’s title role, as the Doctor’s newest and oldest companion. Giving the Doctor actual direct interaction and conversation with the TARDIS made for some nice moments, in particular acknowledging several little touches that have gone unspoken in the past. “You didn’t always take me where I wanted to go!” the Doctor accuses his ship, referring to the fact that he was seemingly never able to land where he intended. Offering a conclusion most fans had already reached, she retorts, “I always took you where you needed to go.” I think that’s the key to why the Doctor and his time machine work so well – she’s the one companion who isn’t afraid or intimidated by him, she’s the one who has seen it all and has the experiences that can match his own.

This sense of an old couple who have been together longer than either cares to remember is skilfully evoked by the way that she suggests that she stole him, rather than the other way around. “I wanted to see the universe, so I stole a Time Lord and ran away,” she explains. “You were the only one mad enough.” He was her way out, just as much as she was his. It’s a wonderful little moment which illustrates how perfect a match they are – eternally kindred spirits, both looking out for each other, because they’re the last ones left, after the “strays” he brings home have left. Not all love stories get to last centuries, and there’s something genuinely sweet about the Doctor/TARDIS dynamic which Neil Gaiman brings so skilfully to the fore.

A TARDIS graveyard...

Despite the superb central performances, the episode was just fantastic because it kept throwing ideas out there – it’s like the best of the work Moffat and Davies did with the character, tossing high concepts around like candy. This time alone, we have a sentient predatory planet, the TARDIS in human form, “patchwork people”, relative time inside the TARDIS, personality swapping, the TARDIS’ telepathic interface, time out of sequence and a whole host more. Throwing them out there hard and fast gave the episode a wonderful sense of importance and scale – as well as making it seem much chunkier than (for example) last week’s instalment.

I personally adored the way that Gaiman dealt with the Time Lords. In fairness, the suggestion that there were members of his specier out there might have seemed a bit manipulative or cheesy back in the day when the show was making such a big deal of “the Last of the Time Lords”, but it has been so long since the issue was mooted that it seems rather nifty to address it. Teasing us with the possibility of more of the Doctor’s kind – and “good ones” at that – gives the premise a wonderful emotional weight and makes it seem just a little bit personal. While the Davies era of the show was often just a little too overblown and little too emotionally manipulative, I’ve found that the Moffat era often suffers from the opposite problem, being perhaps a little too clinical and sterile.

An odd Ood?

There’s something very touching in Amy’s observation that the Doctor wants “to be forgiven” for wiping out his race, and also in seeing Matt Smith affected (for the first time) by the loss. Moffat was wise, to be honest, to dismiss this existential angst in The Eleventh Hour (“bad stuff happened” serving as the Doctor’s explanation of his own history with his people) because, since the relaunch, the concept was overpowering to the point of almost being annoying. Here, over a year and a half since The End of Time, the space makes the moment seem all the more powerful. “You gave me hope and then you took it away,” he explains, seething with anger, while warning them, “Basically, run!”

Indeed, with “Run!” serving as both a threat and a running (with the Doctor advising enemies to flee to save themselves from him, and with the companions inside the TARDIS running  to escape death), the episode provides a nice little affectionate homage to the entire history of the show since the relaunch. In fact, the wonderful quote at the top of the review reminds me of a great quote from Steven Moffat’s The Doctor Dances, with Jack remarking it’s bigger on the inside and the Ninth Doctor responding, “You’d better be.” It’s a nice bridge between the Davies and the Moffat eras, and even the old series, with both of the console rooms putting in an appearance, and the corridors looking quite like they did in the original serials. My inner nerd wonders if the old room needed to be rebuilt from scratch to be HD compliant, as it was phased out before the show went HD. Anyway, this nostalgia (torn between the old and the new) is a tough thing to balance, but this adventures manages it quite well.

One half of an old married couple...

That says nothing of the fact that Gaiman writes with a warmth and humour that sits perfectly with the tone of the show. I especially like the TARDIS’ observation that, “Biting’s excellent. It’s like kissing only there’s a winner.” That’s the sort of line which is just great dialogue – I especially loved the manner in which Gaiman made it clear that the TARDIS doesn’t perceive time in the same way that mere mortals (or even Time Lords) do. It’s not really essential to the plot, but it’s one of those little touches that adds up to make the episode special.

Also, the voice of House? That’s Michael frickin’ Sheen. I honestly didn’t know about that until I read the credits, and it’s a testament to the power of the show that it can get somebody like Sheen to voice a heavily-altered evil entity (though the monster does get some excellent lines, like “tell me why I shouldn’t just kill you now” and “I’ve got corridors!”). It’s just the cherry on top of a cake baked of awesome. The Doctor’s Wife is a fun, exciting and clever hour of television, while managing a new slant on an old piece of the mythos. What’s not to love?

“Fear me, I’ve killed hundreds of Time Lords.”

“Fear me, I’ve killed all of them.”

– House and the Doctor

Check out our reviews of the current season of Doctor Who:

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10 Responses

  1. Hello Mr D:- I assume that a TARDIS of some kind is necessary to write a review of such detail so soon after an episode ends?

    Both the Splendid Wife and I ended this episode with a few tears and snuffles being half-hidden from each other. I would agree with you that this of all the MS episodes seems to exist as a half-way house between the RTD & SM series. It all felt as if DT could’ve been dropped in at places in the text and little if anything would’ve been lost. Having said that, Matt Smith’s Dr is so deliciously OLD, such an ancient old man in a student teacher’s body; it makes his limitations appear all the more believable, as if he’s just at the edge of his ability to deal with all of that history.

    Good points; the way in which ‘sexy’ claimed that she’d chosen the Dr by leaving her door open for him, meaning that she seduced him into showing her the universe! I also liked the admission that it IS the TARDIS which is constantly landing the Dr in situations which are so dangerous and challenging.

    Bad points; the way that Rory and Amy are chased and tortured through the unconvincing tunnels of the TARDIS; it all seemed as if SOMETHING had to be done with them and no-one could think of what to do. And though I’m glad that the sentimentality of the RTD days are gone, more should have made of the butchered Time-Lords.

    But the ‘A’ story was a magical thing, wasn’t it? That Neil Gaiman bloke, whoever he might be, might be lacking in modesty, but it’s hard to see what he needs to be modest about.

    I hope the evening is treating you well, and that you’re not being forced to watch Eurovision, as I am ….

    • Hi Colin!

      I race to get it out on time, to be honest. So I tend to miss some stuff I had meant to write about – the door unlocked thing was a genius revelation I had planned to write about, but didn’t. I think I might insert it later this evening.

      I mostly agree with you – and it’s funny, you thought more should have been made of the murdered Time Lords, discussing Davies’ overblown sentimentallity. I was just thinking that the moment was one of the most emotionally honest ones we’ve had since Davies left. I was watching The Next Doctor, a perfectly okay Christmas special, this afternoon, and the better half and I remarked on how Smith hadn’t really been given one of those “I’m sorry… I’m so sorry” moments that Tennant knocked out of the park regularly. Of course, the impact was diminished when Tennant was apologising like that every second week. I feel like if he knocked over a kid’s ice cream, he’d give a powerful emotional apology.

      I don’t mean he hasn’t had the line (I think he and Amy have said it at this stage), but that the show hasn’t punched me in the gut like that for while. Of course, it’s been a bit clever-er since (I adored The Big Bang, and punched the air repeatedly), so it’s just a sort of balance thing, I suppose. And it seems (on first watching), that this episode managed that. And, actually, since I’m typing, it occurs to me that the end of The Pandorica Opens was a superb emotional moment for Smith, but I think I was more engaged in the clever plot mechanics Moffat was pulling than the angst.

      I actually didn’t mind the running through the TARDIS, even though it was clearly the result of a writer who couldn’t think of anything better. It just felt very “old school.” I think I’m wearing out the Davison comparisons, but it reminded me a bit of the episodes he and his companions would wander through the ship (which, if I recall, also happened quite a bit towards the end of Tom Baker’s time in the role). The TARDIS screwing with relative time and the telepathic interface were nice touches, even if the “Hate Amy, Kill Amy” stuff was a bit much.

      I am actually watching it now with the younger sister. The joys of babysitting!

  2. Hi, I was just wondering if you could explain why Rory got old and was annoyed about being left so long alone. I thought that he wasn’t human, just a copy based on Amy’s diary, which was why he could wait for the Pandorica to open. Thanks in advance for your comments.

    • Hi Keith. If I remember correctly, this copy, the older version, implies that he had been taken and tortured every night for centuries waiting for Amy (presumably by “nephew”), which would explain why he was a bit around the bend. Especially since he remembered the experiences of Auton!Rory, who had already waited millennia for her.

      I think that the reboot at the end of last year (Big Bang II) meant that, even though they had the memories as if they’d lived through it, these weren’t the characters who appeared in The Pandorica Opens. Rory was human again, which made is Auton memories even stranger.

  3. This episode was far better than I’d even remotely expected. I remembered how I felt when Rose took in the TARDIS matrix within herself and at one point said, “…my Doctor.” I had believed then that this was the TARDIS speaking more so than Rose and that had me very happy back then at the very idea. This time, there’s no doubt that the TARDIS was speaking and I had the same feelings. “The Doctor’s Wife” is the proper episode title because the TARDIS and the Doctor are so much like a long-married couple.

    Other things I liked was the reference to deleted TARDIS rooms (I remember this from “Castrovalva”), the TARDIS revealing that she’d taken the Doctor where he needed to go (back in the day, my theory was that the White Guardian might have been behind the Doctor’s destinations but I find the idea of the TARDIS being the driving force to be much more compelling), the references to the other Time Lords, the building of a TARDIS, the archived Console Room (wish it could have been the very first Console Room), and Rory’s and Amy’s “baggage” about being abandoned (Rory) and feeling guilty about it (Amy).

    • Ah now, the moment Gaiman’s name was mooted, I was delighted. I’m just glad that I wasn’t disappointed. If you’re looking at a modern writer who can be compared to douglas Adams (who wrote perhaps my favourite classic serial, City of Death), Gaiman is it. Hopefully he’ll be back.

      Now, next week let’s see if Matthew Graham can redeem himself for Fear Her.

  4. Hi! As a late discoverer of Doctor Who, I just now saw the Gaiman episode and wanted to say your review is one of the best I’ve found in the ‘net. This blog seems like a place where interesting reviews happen, so I’ll stick around.

    • Thanks. I hope I prove to be worth your time.

      If you’re a Doctor Who fan, just wait for 2013! I have a treat planned.

  5. I had to wash the Series 11 taste out of my mouth somehow….and man, this was fantastic sci-fi! Suranne Jones’ performance was outstanding, and now I’m hoping she gets to be the Doctor at some point in the future.This was a fast-paced, highly enjoyable, thoroughly satisfying episode of Doctor Who. I also loved the 11th Doctor’s interactions with Suranne Jones, and the Amy/Rory subplot. Great stuff.

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