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Doctor Who: Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS (Review)

“Good guys do not have zombie creatures. Rule one, basic storytelling.”

– Clara understands the way the universe works

And here our big theory that this anniversary season is a “greatest hits” collection runs into a bit of bother. Okay, Cold War was definitely a Troughton-era throwback. And Hide had a definite Hinchcliffe-and-Holmes feeling to it. (“The Baker Street irregulars” in 1974.) Maybe you could stretch it a little bit and argue that The Bells of St. John is a tribute to the Pertwee era by way of Russell T. Davies; and The Rings of Akhaten definitely feels a little like a classic bit of Hartnell-era world-building.

Making the case for The Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS is just a little bit harder. After all, The Crimson Horror is another throwback to Hinchcliffe and Holmes, while Nightmare in Silver is another “base under siege by classic monster” tribute to Troughton. So there’s only one missing piece here. If that “greatest hits” argument holds, then Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS must be one gigantic shout out to the John Nathan Turner era.

Hear me out.

A shining beacon of light...

A shining beacon of light…

It’s almost too easy to draw comparisons. This is an episode about how the TARDIS gets turned into scrap. That alone is a potent metaphor for the most troubled era of the show’s production history. John Nathan Turner was the producer who oversaw the dwindling Davison years, the craptacular Colin Baker seasons and the last McCoy episodes. He oversaw the diminishing of the show from an iconic property to the butt of a pop culture joke. Something that was once wondrous and magical becomes nothing but garbage, trash to be thrown away and discarded because there’s nothing worth mining from it.

More than that, Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS represents the first time in a while that we’ve seen the return of the manipulative and lying Doctor. The Doctor lies, Moffat frequently reminds us; it’s a nice character beat, but it’s also a clever way of accounting for any continuity gaps between claims made at various points in the show’s history. After all, Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS isn’t just a story that plays with the fourth dimension, it leans quite heavily on the fourth wall, treating the TARDIS as a metaphor for the show itself.

Burn with me!

Burn with me!

The episode pushes the Doctor’s manipulations and lies to the fore. He promises the salvage crew that they can keep his TARDIS if they help him find Clara. He misleadingly refers to Clara as “the salvage of a lifetime” to whet their appetites. He lies about setting the self-destruct. When he immediately realises what is chasing them through the TARDIS (referring to the monster as “she”), he won’t admit it to Clara. He is quite happy to wipe Clara’s memories of their conversations about her true nature.

The show calls attention to it, repeatedly. When the Doctor remarks about the “big friendly button” to help calm Clara down, she sees right through him. “You’re lying,” she states. “To stop me freaking out?” Later on, in a moment of telling hypocrisy, the Doctor viciously lays into Gregor for lying to Tricky about his nature. “You’re a coward,” the Doctor bluntly states. “You won’t save him, but you’re scared to tell him why.” Given how the Doctor treats Clara, that’s quite a bit of the pot calling the kettle black.

Hand writing...

Hand writing…

“What’s the use in secrets now?” Clara points out, quite logically. The Doctor explains, “Secrets protect us. Secrets make us safe.” Of course, Clara responds, “We’re not safe!” Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS is critical of the notion of a sly and manipulative Doctor, in the same way that the Moffat hero seems to reject any attempt to paint the Doctor as a morally ambiguous anti-hero. In the context of the anniversary season, it’s telling that this is pretty much the exact characterisation of Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor.

To be fair, this is hardly a new take on the Eleventh Doctor. This side of the character was hinted at at the end of The Eleventh Hour when he kept the nature of Amy’s interest a secret from her. It also played a big part of his characterisation in The God Complex and The Girl Who Waited. However, this is the first time this characterisation has been pushed to the fore this season. In the run up to the anniversary, with a bunch of nostalgic adventures either side, this feels quite intentional.

A bridge to another world...

A bridge to another world…

There’s also the way that Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS is essentially about the show folding back in on itself. It’s a perfect metaphor for the downward spiral created by episodes like Arc of Infinity, Warriors of the Deep or Attack of the Cybermen, the toxic mining of the franchise itself – a strange fixation on looking inwards to the little nooks and crannies when the real adventure is unfolding outside.

There’s a sense of recursiveness here. The Doctor explicitly compares the TARDIS to a “wounded animal”, and that seems like a valid way to describe the weird mentality of the Baker era; as the show seemed to fall back on the comfort of past continuity in order to feel safe and secure – the irony being that this was ultimately killing the show. The TARDIS itself tries something similar here, trying to create familiar surroundings to comfort he people on board as things fall apart. “It’s an echo,” the Doctor asserts. “It’s trying to protect us.”

Getting the all Clara...

Getting the all Clara…

It’s telling that the episode’s climax finds the Doctor and Clara trapped in a “snarl.” Of course, the Doctor is referring to the snarl of a wounded animal, but he could just as easily be referring to a continuity snarl – the sort of weird trip-up that the show made quite often during the Saward era, revisiting old continuity that made no sense and tangling up familiar threads. The Silurians and Sea Devils were all one society; the Cybermen have two home planets; Omega returns; the Daleks have a weird external war and then a civil war.

In a way, Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS makes a fitting companion pice to Hide. Both episodes reflect on the nature of Doctor Who as a storytelling device, its abilities to blend genres with ease. Given how reflexive the second half of the seventh season has been, it’s no surprise that Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS should offer an even more thorough exploration of the show’s storytelling techniques.

The Doctor is in...

The Doctor is in…

When it is revealed half-way through the episode that the TARDIS’ engine is exploding, it might as well be the show’s storytelling engine. The Doctor even saves the day by pressing what amounts to a reset button – a “big friendly button” that helps “reset time.” It’s a fantastically constructed hour, and you can gauge the episode’s success by the way that it justifies and gets away with an ending that would would otherwise seem a cop-out. Here, it feels an essential part of the story.

Of course, any story involving the TARDIS is going to be fascinating. The TARDIS is the Doctor’s closest companion, his most faithful. It has been with him longer than the Daleks or the Cybermen, or even the Master. It has certainly outlasted any human companions. The only other companion who can claim to be so closely connected to our lead character is death itself. But we’ll come to that, in time. Appropriately enough.

Mad man with a broken box...

Mad man with a broken box…

It was confirmed the very first stretch of thirteen episodes that TARDIS was alive, in the underrated The Edge of Destruction. However, despite occasional references to the ship’s sentience and temperament, it remains a curiously under-developed part of the show’s mythos. We don’t know much about the Doctor, as this season has been constantly reminding us, but we know a lot more about him than we do about the TARDIS. Neil Gaiman’s The Doctor’s Wife was a fantastic exploration of the relationship between the pair, and it remains one of the best stories the show has ever told.

As something of an unofficial follow-up to that much-loved classic, there’s a lot of pressure on Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS. Writer Stephen Thompson doesn’t have Gaiman’s ability to pierce to the heart of the concept, and the show lacks as strong a support character as Suranne Jones’ Idris/TARDIS/“sexy”, but Thompson compensates with all manner of clever ideas and concepts, realising that playing with the structure of the TARDIS is akin to playing with the structure of the show itself.

Who says these claw games are rigged?

Who says these claw games are rigged?

“This ship is infinite,” the Doctor boasts at one point, and he’s right. This is a ship that is a gateway to the universe itself. When you step through the door, you are granted access to “everything that ever was or ever will be.” It’s a vehicle to wonder. As the scanner boasts to one of this week’s guest stars, “Everything, behind that door.” Of course there is. “Sensor detects everything you could possibly want.” Inquiring about the room he has just entered, filled with cost-effective glow-y dangle-y light-bulbs, the Doctor explains.

“It reconstructs particles according to your needs,” he tells his house guest. He’s talking about this particular room in the TARDIS, but he might as well be talking about the TARDIS itself. Or he might as well be talking about the show. It’s alchemy, the ability to transform something into something else, to affect change at a level so fundamental that it predates the concept of “molecular” or “atomic.” The TARDIS can turn modern London into ancient Rome, past into future, a boring life into something meaningful, a person into a hero or a legend.

Lighten up, there...

Lighten up, there…


It’s the same way that the show itself can turn a modest special effect into the most wonderful concept ever, or a painted back drop (or rendered landscape) into an entire planet, or a room filled with cost-effective glow-y dangle-y light-bulbs into something truly special. It’s magical, it’s absurd, it’s fantastic. Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS works because it realises that the TARDIS is the engine of the show – it’s the most basic ingredient of Doctor Who. No TARDIS, no trips to other worlds or other times. No TARDIS, no show. An attack on the TARDIS, or even damage to it, represents damage to the show.

So the episode, appropriately enough, suggests that the fictional fabric of the show is somewhat malleable, prone to distortion. When the TARDIS punishes the salvage team for stealing one of the glowing orbs, it doesn’t just lock them in a room. “No point in building walls, you’ll just know how to smash them down,” the Doctor boasts. “It found new ways to control you.” It doesn’t treat them as a hostile force.

Talk about scratching beneath the surface...

Talk about scratching beneath the surface…

Instead, it traps them in a loop, in a holding pattern. It restricts their ability to advance, to continue, to reach the next plot point. The TARDIS essentially punishes its misbehaving characters by refusing to allow them to continue the episode. Instead, they simply find themselves foiled by the set. They walk the same corridor, again and again and again. The camera just refuses to cut away, so we know for sure that it is the same corridor.

Clara seems to understand this. The Doctor and the TARDIS don’t run on physics or logic. That goes out the window as soon as you set foot in the door. The console room is impossible, no matter how the show might try to explain it. In particular, towards the end of the Hinchcliffe era, a period this episode harks back towards, the Doctor suggests in Robots of Death that the answer is more meta-physics than anything strictly scientific. (You put a larger far away box inside a smaller nearer box.) Here, when Clara questions why there are burning monsters running around the TARDIS, she doesn’t use reason. She quotes the rules of storytelling.

Things are heating up...

Things are heating up…

The TARDIS is itself a story. Songs have been a crucial part of this second half of the season, perhaps pointing to the inevitable return of River Song. There was the song of the Ice Warriors in Cold War and history-as-song in The Rings of Akhaten. Here, the Doctor finds the heart of the TARDIS, the crucial moment, through song. “I need to find the music,” he explains. Again, there’s no fancy technobabble or no convoluted pseudo-science. Time and fiction intertwine and bend.

There are points in Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS where the Doctor’s fictions appear to bend his own reality, as if his stories become real within the context of the show, as if the story is so broken that the characters can control it completely. “I only made it look as if the engine was actually exploding,” he proudly boasts at one point, after tricking the salvage team into helping him. Of course, it turns out that the TARDIS’ engine is actually exploding. Similarly, he lies to Clara about a “big friendly button” to keep her safe, only to discover that it has become real by the end of the episode.

Crossing over...

Crossing over…

The climax of the episode’s emotional arc has the Doctor questioning Clara’s role in the narrative, treating her as a plot function rather than a character in her own right. “What are you, eh?” he demands. “Are you a trick, a trap?” He might as well be reading the message boards. He’s not concerned with Clara as his companion, he’s more interested in Clara the dangling narrative thread. It’s a decidedly self-aware moment.

After all, there’s every reason to suspect that Clara herself is a cheap and convenient contrivance, rather than an actual person. One of the problems with this truncated half-season is that Clara never gets enough development to really seem like more than just a puzzle-box to be solved. It undercuts the confrontation a bit. The Name of the Doctor makes it clear that Moffat intended Clara to be a character rather than a mystery, with the big reveal being that Clara was just a normal person who would do something extraordinary. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough space to quite realise that in these eight episodes.

Here there be monsters...

Here there be monsters…

And then there’s death, arguably the Doctor’s other faithful companion. It has been there from the beginning, with An Unearthly Child airing the same day that Kennedy was shot. Clara Oswald’s presence on this, the fiftieth anniversary, is not a coincidence. (There was also a character called Lee in Asylum of the Daleks.) I wonder if this contributes to the difficulty the BBC might have with the overlap of the half-century anniversaries. The show has acknowledged those links quite a bit, most obviously in The Deadly Assassin, which we’ll return to again shortly.

And this is where things get interesting, and Thompson really hits it out of the park. The ideas in Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS are clever and fantastic, but then he hits on the way that the show links life and death. It’s something quite remarkable about Doctor Who, something the show makes wonderfully literal, tying together those grand themes into one unifying philosophy. All of a sudden, Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS makes Clara Oswald a much more interesting character – tying her character hook much more into the heart of the show.

Running through corridors...

Running through corridors…

Death and life are always intermingled, but Doctor Who manages to upset the order. In the real world, death follows life. However, in keeping with the show’s time travel theme, the opposite is often true. The show was born on the same day as the most infamous political assassination of the twentieth century. When the lead actor, William Hartnell, was forced to leave the role, the Doctor died. And then he was born again. Younger, more vital. And then it happened again and again.

Regeneration is the most obvious example, but the cycle repeats throughout the show’s history. When the BBC finally cancelled the show, it was reborn twice. It lived on as spin-offs and tie-ins, and it was reinvented as one of the most popular and successful television shows at the BBC. Life follows death. I suppose it’s pretty easy when you are a time traveller. The end and the beginning, just put in the wrong order. That’s why Steven Moffat have always been such a strong Doctor Who writer, because he grasps that fact. The Doctor dies at the start of the sixth season, but is reborn in the last episode.

He's in control of the situation...

He’s in control of the situation…

It’s a precarious balance. Here, the Doctor takes the team to the Eye of Harmony, nestled snugly in the heart of the ship. “You rip the star from its orbit,” he explains, “suspend it in a permanent state of decay.” That star is always dying, and yet always living. When Clara asks what those zombie things are, the Doctor explains, “It isn’t just the past leaking out through the time rift, it’s the future.” Both exist at once. Life and death.

If Hide existed as an homage to the Hinchcliffe era of Doctor Who, the period where science fiction co-mingled with gothic horror and genres blended effortlessly, Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS feels like an acknowledgement of the end of Tom Baker’s time in the TARDIS, extending – as it does – from the disappointment of the show’s first real attempt at exploring the TARDIS in The Invasion of Time.

Getting to the heart of the matter...

Getting to the heart of the matter…

From The Leisure Hive through to Logopolis, it was an entire year dedicated to a death which became a sort of rebirth. Not coincidentally, it was the first year of the John Nathan Turner era. Similarly, The Deadly Assassin casts a shadow over Doctor Who, foretelling a death of the show that creeps closer with every change of lead actor. Thirteen. That’s the limit. The addition of the Hurt Doctor into the show’s canon means that Steven Moffat has ensured that the limit will be reached in the show’s fiftieth anniversary year. Death becomes life becomes death.

And this is why Clara is so fascinating a character, and Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS actually does a good job contextualising her many deaths during the show’s fiftieth anniversary season. She has died twice already, in Asylum of the Daleks and The Snowmen. And yet, despite that, she lives. However, we know that she will die in the TARDIS in the future. Death becomes life becomes death. You know that there’s something special going on when you’re still trying to fit it all together. This is a show were a character can actually use the line “You died again.”

Can we salvage this situation?

Can we salvage this situation?

As it all feels so tied to the show itself, the convenient reset button at the end doesn’t feel as frustrating as it would otherwise. Indeed, it does a much better job justifying the reset than The Last of the Time Lords. It makes sense that if you blow the storytelling engine of your television show, the only way to fix it is to invent a magic button that will send you back to the point before it got all explode-y. It also helps that there are hints that the loop hasn’t completely wiped everything out.

After all, this isn’t literal time travel. It’s metaphysical. There is no point in the story being told if it doesn’t mean anything, therefore it must mean something. The salvage brothers still learn their lesson at the end of the episode. Clara might forget the Doctor’s name, but there is a point to this. At the very least, it provides the viewers with some hint of some grand design, cluing us in to some future possibilities or concepts, or even thematically tying some stuff together.

Time for the truth?

Time for the truth?

Also, there was lots for running through corridors. If you’re going to do a story about Doctor Who storytelling, then you have to have lots of running through corridors. You really can’t get any closer to the heart of a Doctor Who story than running through corridors inside the TARDIS itself. Neil Gaiman played with that concept in The Doctor’s Wife, and it is revisited to great effect here.

Outside of all the fun storytelling stuff, there’s a rake of great ideas here. Matt Smith plays protective well. If the Doctor was Amy’s imaginary friend, he is Clara’s guardian angel. Smith does righteous anger better than Tennant, if not as good as Eccleston. “Don’t get into a spaceship with a mad man,” he warns the salvage workers. “Didn’t anyone ever teach you that?” Even though he’s bluffing, he seems genuinely menacing and a little desperate. It seems that events have struck a nerve. “Salvage of a lifetime. You meant the ship; I meant Clara.” Later on, he honestly asks her, “I need to know you feel safe.”

It's in your he-ad! Zombie! Zombie! Zombie-ee-ee...

It’s in your he-ad! Zombie! Zombie! Zombie-ee-ee…

After hinting at it in Cold War and Hide, Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS brings the Time War fully into play. It makes sense, given that the Time War is the show’s big central metaphor for the cancellation. It’s an idea that really needs to be pushed to the fore during the episode that consciously harks to the John Nathan Turner era. While this half-season doesn’t have enough space to do all that it would like, it does cleverly reintroduce the concept of the Time War.

Moffat pushed all Davies’ war angst a bit to the side in the opening minutes of The Eleventh Hour. Given how the Time War dominated the mythology of that period of the show’s history, it was a smart decision. It gave Moffat the space needed to reinvent the show and take it his own direction. Moffat has done that by this point, so it’s perfectly reasonable to approach that period as you would any other historical era of Doctor Who. This is the fiftieth anniversary of the franchise, and Davies deserves recognition for his contribution to that legacy.

History can be re-written...

History can be re-written…

Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS is a fascinating piece of the fiftieth anniversary season.

You might be interested in our other reviews of this season’s episodes of Doctor Who:

Note: To celebrate the show’s fiftieth anniversary, I’m doing weekly reviews of the show (past and present.) The last one published was the last of the Key to Time season, The Armageddon Factor. Later this morning, we’ll launch a look at Tom Baker’s final season with The Leisure Hive.

2 Responses

  1. I love doctor who… But I’ve been a bit skeptical about Clara… She just doesn’t seem right as a companion. Like she isn’t Independant enough. She almost hinders the doctor more than she helps. But I’m starting to like her, and this episode helped!

    • I actually like Clara quite a bit, but I think she suffers from being introduced half-way through a season following an extended stay from a well-received companion. I really hate splitting the season in half, as it feels like you lose so much ground trying to set everything up again.

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