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Doctor Who: The Name of the Doctor (Review)

How do we get down there? Jump?

Don’t be silly. We fall.

– Clara and the Doctor set things straight

Like The Wedding of the River Song, The Name of the Doctor suggests that Moffat might be better served by reverting to the Davies-era model of two-part season finalés. The strongest season ender of the Moffat era (and probably the best season finalé of the revived show) was The Big Bang, because it felt like Moffat had enough space to allow his ideas to breathe. The Name of the Doctor is a lot sharper and a lot more deftly constructed than any of the closing episodes from Russell T. Davies’ seasons, but it feels a little too compact, a little too tight for its own good.

To be fair, Moffat is has very cleverly structured his season. The mystery of Clara was seeded as early as Asylum of the Daleks and hints have been scattered throughout the past year of Doctor Who. Even the build-up to the final line of the episode feels like an idea that Moffat has been toying with since The Beast Below. Despite all this, it still feels like The Name of the Doctor could do with a little more room to elaborate and develop the concepts at the core of the story.

Journey to the centre of the Doctor?

Journey to the centre of the Doctor?

There’s a lot to like here, and a great deal to love. Moffat has quite possibly the strongest sense of television structure of any science-fiction writer working in television. Given that Boardwalk Empire and Game of Thrones don’t have to deal with “timey wimey” shenanigans and temporal paradoxes, Moffat’s grasp and understanding of plotting for the medium seem even more impressive. He understands the elegance and narrative principles he’s playing with, but he’s also quite able to keep it simple and accessible.

For all that The Name of the Doctor relies on time travel and “timey wimey” structure, Moffat is careful never to lose his audience. It’s a rare skill, the ability to blend the complex and the accessible. He falls back on recurring effective imagery to give the story a sense of resonance. It’s quite likely the only reason that Moffat manages to fit this story into a single hour is because he can so efficiently use these familiar and effective images and concepts. Images and metaphors and iconography carry the forty-five minutes, some of which will be familiar to long-time viewers.

As it was written...

As it was written…

The stars are going out again, as they were in The Big Bang. The TARDIS has exploded, just like it did in both The Big Bang and Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS. The laundry list of accusations levelled at the Doctor by the Great Intelligence mirror those made in A Good Man Goes to War, familiar to those who have been watching the show for quite some time. (“The man who lies will lie no more,” the Whispering Men rhyme.) This allows Moffat to cut down on the plot points, to almost breeze through them. All of these elements have been used before, so they can be incorporated here as shorthand for “some very bad things are happening.”

This is probably why the episode’s final act feels so strong. Moffat rushes through all the set-up and the plotting in order to get the Great Intelligence into the dead TARDIS with the Doctor and his companions. Various questions that might be raised if the episode moved at a slower pace are never really addressed within the narrative. Like The Wedding of River Song, you can see how the episode could be expanded to fill two parts, and where the logical point might be, and expansions could occur. In The Wedding of River Song, we’d get more back story and more time in the alternate world. Here, we’d see more the Doctor’s time line.

I'll Grant you that...

I’ll Grant you that…

One might wonder how the Great Intelligence perceives time. Despite the fact that the Great Intelligence attacks Strax, Vastra and Jenny in nineteenth-century London, is this after the events of The Bells of St. John in twentieth-century London from his perspective? If that’s the case, why does it need to infiltrate the Doctor’s timeline to attack his earlier incarnations? Why does the Great Intelligence wait until this moment to strike? Were the events of The Bells of St. John playing towards this endgame, or simply an expression of the plan put into effect here?

Moffat is quite hazy on the mechanics of the relationship between the Doctor and the Great Intelligence. To be fair, this is something that he played with in The Snowmen, with the Doctor providing the Great Intelligence with a map of the London Underground, hinting that the events of The Snowmen led to the events of The Web of Fear. Logically, then, does it follow that the the Great Intelligence’s encounters with the Doctor all stem from this experience, with the character “scattered along [the Doctor’s] timeline like confetti”?

Time out...

Time out…

It doesn’t fit entirely comfortably. After all, the Great Intelligence only took Simeon’s form in the wake of The Snowmen, and it’s Gideon’s form that stalks the Doctor in all these alternate pasts. Then again, the Great Intelligence didn’t use Simeon’s form in The Web of Fear, if that is implied to follow the events of The Snowmen. As with so many other attempts to fit together various pieces of Doctor Who continuity, it’s probably best not to think too hard about the logic of all this.

Moffat avoids getting bogged down in those sorts of questions and puzzles by flying through the first half of the episode. He compensates with a healthy dose of atmosphere. The Name of a Doctor is an episode that spends most of its time split between a gigantic alien graveyard and Clara’s rather average British house – very clearly contrasting the heightened world of the Doctor with more mundane reality. (Trenzalore looks quite effectively moody, even providing a grave stone for scenic designer Clemency Bunn.)

A grave situation...

A grave situation…

Director Saul Metzstein, second unit director on Dredd, helps create an apocalyptic atmosphere, with burning planets and shades of dull grey threatening to consume our characters. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Doctor Who horror without gothic elements. The Whisper Men wear only the finest Victorian fashion. There are open tombs and miles of gravestones, monuments to fallen warriors. There are more specifically horrific Doctor Who trappings to be found here – a giant broken TARDIS door and a desecrated control room.

Once Moffat gets the set-up out of the way, which feels like it could easily have been extended to a full episode, the first part of an impressive two-parter, The Name of the Doctor really gels. The hook is pretty fantastic, and plays with familiar Moffat themes. The suggestion that time travel makes the Doctor’s life an “open wound”, and that it’s his trip through time (rather than his adventures in space) which define the character.

Home in time for tea...

Home in time for tea…

Indeed, on the cusp of the show’s fiftieth anniversary, The Name of the Doctor manages to cleverly subvert expectations. Moffat is a writer who enjoys playing with fan expectations and preconceptions even more than his predecessor did. Much like The Doctor’s WifeThe Name of the Doctor is a deliberate suggestive name intended to spark discussion and controversy among fans. In the end, the episode puts a rather cleverly avoids the issue of the Doctor’s given name, instead focusing on the idea that the character’s name is “the Doctor.”

“The name you choose, it’s like, it’s like a promise you make,” the Doctor insists, referring to a mysterious figure standing in his time stream. “He’s the one who broke the promise.” It’s a very clever way for Moffat to play with the episode’s title, avoiding an overly obvious gimmick by revealing the character’s true name or anything so ghastly. In a way, the notion of a version of the Doctor who did something so horrible that he gave up “the name of the Doctor” has been hinted at throughout Moffat’s run.

Constant companion...

Constant companion…

River rather pointedly discussed the relationship between the Doctor and the word in A Good Man Goes to War, but it came up even earlier. In The Beast Below, as the Doctor contemplated one incredibly inhuman act, he conceded that he could not do such a thing and continue to call himself “the Doctor.” Outlining his plan to commit an unspeakable deed, he told Amy, “And then I find a new name, because I won’t be the Doctor any more.” It seems Moffat has been toying with this idea for quite a while.

And it demonstrates Moffat’s interesting approach to the show’s fiftieth anniversary, balancing nostalgia and the need to move onwards. The opening of the episode toys with the idea of purely nostalgic celebration of the past, inserting Clara into various classic Doctor Who moments with varying degrees of success. Her encounter with the First Doctor is magically handled – “the navigation system’s knackered, but you’ll have more fun”– but her time with the Second is less so. Special mention to Clara’s deliciously eighties attire for the Dragonfire bit. However, despite that, the show balances that nostalgia by forging boldly forward.

Hair we go again!

Hair we go again!

When Vastra mentions “the location of the Doctor’s greatest secret”, we might easily expect a trip into the character’s past. However, it turns out that the Doctor must instead push on further ahead. He isn’t journeying to his past, but to his future. Moffat seems to realise that Doctor Who can’t simply indulge in nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake, even on an important anniversary like this. I mean, one need only look to Attack of the Cybermen to see what damage fetishisation of the show’s past can do to the series. Instead, Moffat suggests that the greatest journey lies ahead.

“We all have a grave out there somewhere waiting for us,” the Doctor muses, and The Name of the Doctor feels like it connects rather wonderfully (and directly) with what has been a recurring theme across the show’s fifty-year history. For a show about time-travel, it has been quite fixated on the inevitability of death. Perhaps that’s fitting, given that Kennedy died on the day An Unearthly Child aired. Death and birth often became confused on the show, most often in the process of regeneration – where life follows death.

Explosive finalé...

Explosive finalé…

It’s something that this season has repeatedly broached – most obviously with “twice-dead” Clara Oswald – and it’s something which feels like it weighs on the mind of the show as a whole. Oswald herself shares a surname with the man who killed Kennedy. The Deadly Assassin effectively killed off the show’s leading character – suggesting a finite limit on the number of regenerations that our lead character had. It meant that every rebirth just moved the character ever closer to that inevitable grave. In cheating death, the Doctor only made it more certain.

Which is part of the genius of Moffat’s design here, with the introduction of a mysterious “War Doctor.” The insertion of a new regeneration into the character’s history pushes the character one step closer to that grave. It means that the regeneration of Matt Smith into Peter Capaldi at Christmas on the show’s fiftieth anniversary year will see the Doctor entering what should be his final life. (It also allows Moffat to be the writer to deal with the regeneration limit the show imposed all those years ago.)

Some mouth on them!

Some mouth on them!

The invention of “the War Doctor” is a shrewd move on the part of Moffat. It was always hard to reconcile the pacifist Eighth Doctor with the kind of man who could wipe out two entire species. By creating an intermediate Doctor between McGann and Eccleston, Moffat allows for more integrity of McGann’s interpretation of the Doctor. It’s obviously an interpretation that Moffat feels quite fondly of, arguing that the Eighth Doctor is a “a good man” in The Night of the Doctor, building towards the idea that “the War Doctor” is what what happens when “a good man goes to war.”

More hardcore fans will ponder what this revelation means in the light of The Trial of a Time Lord, when the Great Intelligence even name-drops the Valeyard, the incarnation of the Doctor existing between the character’s twelfth and final regeneration. Despite the fact that The Trial of a Time Lord is rather vague on what exactly the Valeyard is supposed to be, the character holds a particular fascination for fans of the series. Bumping Matt Smith up to the twelfth incarnation of the Doctor puts the character on the table for Moffat to play with.

Burn with me...

Burn with me…

Moffat has been willing to introduce new concepts and big ideas to help him tell the stories that wants to tell. The concept of Trenzalore, mentioned in passing in The Wedding of River Song, is a rather bold addition to the legacy – arguably just as significant as the regeneration limit or the character’s past. If Russell T. Davies spent most of his tenure solidifying the concepts of Doctor Who, Moffat has worked hard to expand them. (Sometimes controversially.)

It’s worth noting that Moffat has adopted an expansive attitude towards the wealth of possibilities inherent in Doctor WhoThe Night of the Doctor confirmed that the Eighth Doctor audio adventures were considered “canon.” Victory of the Daleks introduces the Daleks from the colour films into canon. Both The Doctor’s Wife and The Night of the Doctor affirm for the first time on the show itself that the Doctor can change gender while regenerating. Even the reliance of Moffat’s Doctor Who on supplementary web episodes suggests that he’s encouraging the audience to engage with more Doctor Who than what is broadcast on television.

Blind to the obvious...

Blind to the obvious…

While comparing Moffat and Davies, it’s interesting to contrast the supporting casts the two producers developed for the Doctor. Davies built up a very human extended family for the Doctor. Davies’ supporting cast was filled with parents and children and uncles and boyfriends and so forth, all drawn from a decidedly “real” world, familiar to the viewer at home. In contrast, Moffat has instead suggested that the Doctor’s acquaintances are a more fantastical bunch. The Eleventh Doctor has built up a supporting cast of characters, who are aliens and lizard people and other time travellers.

The use of a more fantastical supporting staff speaks to the values of Moffat’s Doctor Who. Moffat tends to favour fantasy over any attempt at verisimilitude or pseudo-realism. So the Doctor has been Amy’s imaginary friend or Clara’s guardian angel. Here, we’re told, “Time travel has always been possible in dreams.” It feels perfectly in fitting with Moffat’s vision of the show, quite distinct from the attempts to anchor the series in contemporary London during the Davies era. (That said, it’s disappointing that the show has yet to feature a companion from anywhere but contemporary London.)

He won't take this lying down...

He won’t take this lying down…

Moffat continues to reinforce the notion of “Doctor Who” as fairy tale here. The Great Intelligence and the Whisper Men spend most of their time communicating in rhyme. “His friends are lost for ever more, unless he goes to Trenzalore,” Simeon boasts. “The man who lies will lie no more when this man lies at Trenzalore,” the Whisper Men repeat. There’s a lyrical quality to Moffat’s pseudo-science.

Moffat seems quite aware of this, and even pokes fun at the idea over the course of The Name of the Doctor. When Clara notices the gigantic schism in centre of the TARDIS console room, she asks the Doctor what it is. “The tracks of my tears,” the Doctor responds. Even the Great Intelligence finds that a little flowery. “Less poetry, Doctor. Just tell them.” The Doctor does offer a straight answer.

Well, maybe Clara doesn't need to save every Doctor...

Well, maybe Clara doesn’t need to save every Doctor…

Of course, this fairy tale approach works quite well at unscoring the more horrific aspects of Doctor Who. We’re introduced to the mystery of the Whisper Men through the mumblings of an insane serial killer, responsible for fourteen deaths – perhaps an acknowledgement by Moffat that most fairy tales cover for awful truth. After all, that is how Moffat justified describing the show as a “dark fairy tale”:

It’s not that it’s like the old fairy tales, or that it resembles them, it’s the modern equivalent. It’s the way we teach our children that there are things in the world that might want to eat them. It just feels like a fairy tale: A man who fights monsters but never becomes one.

Opening with a convicted (and likely insane) serial killer waiting to take a trip to the gallows reinforces the idea that real horrors lurk in the darkness.

Off the grid...

Off the grid…

While not really developed in the context of the narrative, the Whisper Men are suitably generic and unsettling. The Whisper Men provide a fairly effective inversion of the Silence from The Impossible Astronaut. While the Silence lacked mouths, the Whisper Men seem to have only mouths. This mirroring makes sense if we are to believe this is the Doctor’s last encounter with River Song from her point of view (even after Forest of the Dead), as that was the Doctor’s first encounter with River from hers.

More than Moffat’s changes to the structure of the seasons or even the increased dependence on time travel, it’s that increased level of abstract fantasy which really distinguishes Moffat’s Doctor Who from that of his predecessor. The revelation that Strax takes his holidays in Glasgow so he can engage in random violence is a delightfully weird bit of character humour which hinges on both an esoteric knowledge of British stereotypes and Doctor Who character info, providing a strange “sweet spot” point of intersection for that gag.

Drinking it in...

Drinking it in…

That very specialised “sweet spot” which defines Moffat’s Doctor Who. It’s almost as if Moffat has structured the show to cater to the most niche audience possible, but still finds a way to break out beyond that. It’s a testament to Moffat’s skill as a show runner. Davies’ defining skill was taking something that had been niche and making it massively popular. Moffat’s skill has been making that show quirkier and more outlandish while retaining that popularity and accessibility.

Which brings us to Clara. The Name of the Doctor puts a lot of weight on Clara, given she’s a character we’ve only know for half a season. Following the longest-serving companion of the revived series, it’s impossible for Clara to be well-rounded and fully developed after only seven episodes, and the attempt to shoe-horn her back story into episodes like The Rings of Akhaten can’t help but feel a little forced. She’s very much a blank slate.

Suits you, sir!

Suits you, sir!

Moffat himself draws attention to this, when Vastra tries to define Clara’s relationship to the Doctor. “This is the Doctor’s companion,” she introduces Clara. “That is, his current travelling assistant.” This leads to some awkwardness, perhaps a concession by Moffat that the role of the supporting character has changed so radically that “companion” and “assistant” are obsolete. Each companion has their own niche, their own unique role to play in things, as distinct from the role played by their predecessor.

The Doctor’s extreme and protracted reaction to the loss of Amy and Rory still seems excessive for a character who has loved and lost countless times over countless years. Then again, I always felt the show’s response to Rose’s departure was excessive. Still, Moffat has side-stepped the issue of “rebound” or “replacement” that Davies struggled with through Martha. Clara is very clearly her own character and not designed to fill the same function as Amy did.

He never could keep it tidy...

He never could keep it tidy…

At the same time, Moffat reinforces the romantic boundaries between companion and Doctor. Much like he did in Flesh and Stone, Moffat makes it clear that the Doctor doesn’t tend to form true lasting romantic relationships. It is revealed that he never visited River Song after Forest of the Dead. Vastra emphasises the idea that Clara is no closer to the Doctor than any other companion with a simple query. “The Doctor does not discuss his secrets with anyone, my dear. If you’re still entertaining the idea that you are an exception to this rule, ask yourself one question. What is his name?”

The Name of the Doctor does eventually define the role of Clara. She is the constant companion. She is the one who has always been there, scattered through time and space. She watches over and protects the Doctor, in all his forms. She was there in the beginning and she’ll presumably be there are at the end. In this respect, Clara’s relative blandness seems almost her defining attribute. Somewhat paradoxically, Clara’s unique identity is that she is the companion; she is every companion.

Sweet dreams...

Sweet dreams…

Sharing a name with the assassin of John F. Kennedy and joining the Doctor in his fiftieth year, it makes sense for there to be something special about Clara. It seems that what is special about Clara is just how universal she is. She is the very idea of a companion, the perfect embodiment of that traditional constant companion. She’s the one who alerts the Doctor of danger and who screams and bangs on glass and is with him everywhere.

It’s a clever idea for a show in it’s fiftieth anniversary year, even if it does make Clara seem more like a plot function than a character in her own right. Moffat has tried to give Clara a unique dynamic with the Doctor, treating him as something that she tries to balance with the rest of her life. The only problem is that we have no real idea what the rest of her life actually involves, beyond working as a nanny for a middle-class family.

Every Song must end...

Every Song must end…

Still, appropriately enough for the fiftieth anniversary, The Name of the Doctor sees Moffat firmly rejecting the familiar criticisms that the villains heap upon the character. Like The Wedding of River Song, the villains try to present the Doctor as some sort of great universal evil. “Welcome to the final resting place of the cruel tyrant,” the Great Intelligence boasts. “Of the slaughterer of the ten billion, and the vessel of the final darkness. Welcome to the tomb of the Doctor.”

When the other characters try to stand up for the Doctor, the Great Intelligence is having none of it. “Tell that to the leader of the Sycorax, or Solomon the trader, or the Cybermen, or the Daleks. The Doctor lives his life in darker hues, day upon day, and he will have other names before the end. The Storm, the Beast, the Valeyard.” Of course, the Great Intelligence is right. We know the Valeyard to be a certainty. The Daleks call the Doctor “the Oncoming Storm”, so it’s not too hard to believe that it could be shortened to “Storm.”

Talk about going to pieces...

Talk about going to pieces…

Moffat has brought this idea up repeatedly. In stories like A Good Man Goes to War, various characters argued that the Doctor was a destructive force responsible for multiple genocides. This is a perfectly valid argument. Moffat has argued that the Doctor is really just a story, and stories change depending on the context – much like the word “Doctor” itself. However, Moffat also firmly rejects this criticism of the character.

As in The Wedding of River Song, Moffat suggests that these are distorted and biased accounts. While the allegations made by Simeon are true, The Name of the Doctor makes a pretty compelling counter-argument. We see the consequences of the Doctor’s absence in this universe. Without the Doctor, it seems, the universe would die. “The stars are going out,” Vastra handily explains. Just so we’re clear on what happens if the Doctor isn’t there.

He didn't have to die alone...

He didn’t have to die alone…

“Think of how many lives that man has saved,” Vastra remarks. “How many worlds.” It happens on both a large and a small scale. In the Doctor’s absence, the stars go out and the universe dies. However, on a more personal level, the friendship between Strax, Vastra and Jenny dissolves. Jenny dies as she died before; Strax loses all of his character development. There’s no lingering fondness for “pleasant primitives”, just contempt for “reptile scum.” For all the death and destruction the Doctor causes, Moffat brooks no argument that he is more harmful than helpful. And that’s quite a nice way to end the fiftieth anniversary season.

It’s also nice that Moffat has found a way to include Richard E. Grant so heavily in the show’s fiftieth anniversary season. It’s a shame that none of the other apocryphal Doctors could be talked into joining the show. Still there’s something delicious about the fact that the fiftieth anniversary season of the show pits the Doctor against an actor who played two versions of him that are not quite him, only to climax on the revelation that there’s another version of him who is not quite him. If any of that makes sense, which it did in my head.

Room to grow...

Room to grow…

The Name of the Doctor is perhaps a little too cluttered for its own good, and suffers coming on the end of a truncated half-season, but it does serve as the perfect appetiser for The Day of the Doctor.

This, Mr. Dimarco claims, is the location of the Doctor’s greatest secret.

Which is?

We don’t know. It’s a secret.

– Vastra, Clara & Jenny

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


5 Responses

  1. And we have to wait so long for the next episode!!! I feel like, at this point, I should really go back and watch the old episodes. If memory serves, we watched the very first Doctor Who (possibly a film? It was black and white) back in school, just before or just after it had been rebooted.

    I’m going to really miss Doctor Who, but I’m also going to miss these excellent blog posts after the episodes. Really makes me look at what I’ve watched in a different perspective, especially with the idea that John Hurt’s doctor comes before the 9th. Hmmm…

    My brother has not long started watching this upstairs. He keeps coming down and saying “I don’t get it.” I have to keep telling him to just keep watching it. If he keeps doing it, he’s never going to get it.

    • Thanks very much for your kind words. I’ll hopefully be picking up classic Doctor Who reviews next week, but I understand if they’re not your thing. They don’t seem to be garnering as much traffic as I hoped, so I might slow down the pace of them. I was killing myself to get them out for the fiftieth, but if nobody’s reading them I’ll take more time to savour each.

      I am only guessing about John Hurt. It’s frustrating we have so much time to wait between now and then! Naturally, I hope to have a review up, unless circumstances conspire against me.

      I hope your brother got it!

  2. May I just say that the kiss between River and The Doctor was AWESOME!!!! Fantastic. Just really, well, dare I say passionate? Yeah.

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