Before we get into the finer points of dissecting this episode of Doctor Who, it's worth establishing that the episode exists in two states in my mind. In one part, it exists as a single, fun episode of television with all the accompanying thrill and peril of your average Doctor Who episode. In the other, it exists as both the culmination and justification of a troubled, often frustrating run of episodes. It's important to point out this dichotomy because it cuts to the heart of why this episode was simultaneously one of the best of the recent half-season, and also why it was also deeply problematic and exacerbated a lot of the problems that have irked me about the show this year.
In isolation, this was an episode brimming with vim, vigour and verve in a way that much of the recent episodes have not been. From the opening seconds, in which Clara is shown floating through a shimmering time tunnel reminiscent of the heart of the TARDIS (not to mention the credits), it was clear that the show was gearing up to answer who Clara is and why she is so special. Ultimately, that answer was more than a little underwhelming, but the journey there was pretty exhilarating.
Clara is brought into a psychic "conference call" with Madame Vastra, Jenny Flint, and Strax, as well as River Song, making her customary finale visit. It turns out that Vastra has received a dire warning about The Doctor from the lips of a deranged murderer: "It is a secret he will take to the grave, and it is discovered." Unfortunately, while they are conversing in this manner, which requires them to enter a kind of shared trance, The Paternoster Gang are attacked by mysterious, faceless and fucking creepy beings known as The Whisper Men, resulting in Jenny being seemingly killed and the rest taken hostage by the Great Intelligence (Richard E. Grant), who says that The Doctor must go to the planet Trenzalore in order to rescue his friends.
Clara returns to consciousness to warn The Doctor about this shocking turn of events, to his clear and obvious distress. One of the things I love about Matt Smith's performance as The Doctor, and which sets him apart as my favourite actor in the role, is that he manages to handle often brutal shifts in tone with astonishing ease and grace. When he arrives to pick Clara up, he's ebullient, even going so far as to play a game of Blind Man's Bluff with Angie and Artie - in reality a trick to distract him while they go to the cinema which he takes in his stride with good cheer. As soon as Clara tells him what has happened and what is required of him, though, he turns instantly and descends into an almost fathomless despair.
What's great about his work in that scene - as well as the way he switches again to steely resolve - is that both emotions are fully and believably felt, and neither seems contradictory or out of place because Smith so inhabits The Doctor at this point. It also helps that he so often plays the character as daftly confident that seeing him crumple upon hearing bad news has a clear and palpable impact. If The Doctor is afraid to go to Trenzalore, then it must be a terrifying place indeed.
Yes, Trenzalore is the last place The Doctor would want to go, because it is the last place he ever will go: it is the site of his grave, and as such is the one place that a time traveller should never go. (If nothing else, this episode does wonders when it comes to revealing the dangers of ambiguous phraseology: turns out the "it" that has been discovered is not The Doctor's secret, but the grave he will take it to.) Go he must, though, along with Clara and a psychic projection of River which, Great Gazoo-like, only Clara can see. The two/three reach Trenzalore and discover The Doctor's tomb, which is shaped like a giant TARDIS, and confront the Great Intelligence, whose incorporeal form makes it a difficult enemy to defeat, but one with the unsettling ability to reach inside peoples' chests to stop their hearts. Faced with the imminent deaths of his friends, The Doctor is given a choice: say his name, and thus open his tomb, or let his allies perish.
The Doctor - and the show - is spared from revealing his real name when the psychic River says it off-screen, which was slightly disappointing because I thought for a moment that The Doctor's real name was "Please", the last word he says before the door opens, and which would have lent a weird feeling to every other episode of the show in which he used that word. Once inside, the Great Intelligence reveals its plan: the tomb contains The Doctor's own personal timeline of everything he has ever done, and if someone were to enter it they could completely rewrite his history and that of everyone he has ever affected. Doing so would mean certain death, but it would be a sweet victory for the Great Intelligence to so utterly destroy The Doctor.
It's at this point that the show both dispensed with a villain that I actually felt could have been interesting if more had been done with him, since the Great Intelligence does enter the timeline and start re-writing all of existence, and revealed the true nature of Clara. Having been plagued with half-remembered thoughts from the erased timeline in "Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS" she realises that she has appeared to The Doctor at multiple times in the past, and that this must be because she is destined to enter the timeline to set things right, even if it means her own death. Her prior appearances were echoes of the real Clara, strewn throughout history to help guide The Doctor in all his prior incarnations.
What's interesting about this revelation, apart from the fact that it is only a slight variation on the resolution to the Rose Tyler/Bad Wolf storyline in the first season of the revived series, is how strong of an emotional impact it has when considered in isolation as an example of someone nobly sacrificing herself for the greater good, yet how little it resonates in terms of the show as a whole. This cuts to the heart of the problem of this run of episodes, which is the character of Clara. There's nothing wrong with the performance - I've said from the beginning that I think that Jenna-Louise Coleman is absolutely brilliant in the role since she displays the kind of quickness, verbal dexterity and depth of feeling to inhabit Steven Moffat's Who - but almost everything has been wrong with the way she has been used by the show.
Her sacrifice should mean a great deal, and it clearly does to The Doctor, but it ultimately doesn't mean much to the audience because the character has been around for such a short time (part of me wonders if this plotline would have worked better with Amy, who both was on the show for longer and felt like a more complex figure) and because she has only ever been defined as a mystery or a puzzle, rather than as a real person. The show always wanted to make her this centrepiece to a fascinating mystery, but the mystery itself always seemed really incidental to everything else that was happening. Yet it was given enough prominence to squeeze out any room for the sort of character moments that might have made this episode work better as part of a bigger story. Clara's sacrifice, whilst undoubtedly noble in the abstract, kind of felt like it had little to do with the story the show had been telling up to that point.
The Doctor ends up following Clara into his own timeline in order to find and rescue Clara, having said a sweet and sad goodbye to the projection of River Song, who he could see all along but had ignored due to his fear of endings, and the two reunite and prepare to leave. It's at this point that Clara sees a mysterious figure who she - and the audience - have not encountered before. The Doctor addresses him with disdain, declaring him to be the one who broke a "promise", and his darkest secret. This then leads to the moment when the figure turns to the camera and reveals, in an image that seemed to become a meme before the credits had even finished rolling, that he is none other than John Hurt, and that he is playing The Doctor.
That final scene is key to what made this finale so brilliant and so maddening at the same time. It's a wonderfully handled revelation that is built to beautifully, it raises as many questions as it answers (though, in fairness, the number of questions it answers is preciously zero) and it creates that tingly sense of excitement that comes from looking forward to seeing what the show will do with such a loopy twist. At the same time, it becomes pretty clear that this entire run of sub-standard episodes has been little more than place-setting for that one revelation, which in itself is meant to lead in to the 50th anniversary special in November.
That wouldn't be so bad if the episodes were better, but since they weren't either the resolution to the question of Clara needed to be amazing (which it wasn't) or for it to lead to something spectacular, which it sort of did, but it really only lead to the promise of something spectacular, rather than the thing itself. Basically, it feels like we've been watching episodes of okay-to-good television which all served as little more than preamble to something else entirely, which is never going to be all that satisfying an experience. It seems increasingly apparent that Moffat and co. were more focused on the big event in November than making the show itself the big event that it, by rights, should have been all along.
This is all sounding incredibly negative, so it's worth pointing out that I really did enjoy this episode as a standalone episode. It had some fun dialogue, crackling pacing, Strax, some very cool effects and a neat reverence for the history of the show which it managed to work in in a manner which was only slightly clunky. It was an incredibly polished piece of storytelling which had the misfortune to also be the culmination of some rather lacklustre storytelling, and to serve as basically a tease for something that looks a lot more promising.
Half-Season Rating: 6/10
- One of the things that I thought was really interesting about the resolution to the Clara mystery was that it seemed to suggest that part of Clara existed in all previous Companions, but then it also seemed to pull away from it at the the same time to suggest that she just happened to inhabit the bodies of people who met The Doctor. I personally would have found it a lot more intriguing if they had explicitly pursued the former, if only because it would have subtly altered the nature of The Doctor/Companion relationship by making them more like protectors or partners.
- While I like The Whisper Men a great deal - they reminded me a lot of Buffy's The Gentlemen [shudder] - I have to say that it felt like they wasted an interesting villain in The Great Intelligence, who never felt as big of a threat or presence as The Silence did in Season Six. It seems like they might have been better off leaving him alone and coming up with someone else to be the villain this year.
- Supposedly John Hurt is playing the version of The Doctor who fought in the Time Wars and basically destroyed the Time Lords, which would place him between Paul McGann and Christopher Ecclestone (who declined to reprise his role as the Ninth Doctor in the anniversary special) and would make Matt Smith's the twelfth incarnation of The Doctor, rather than the eleventh, which is pretty major since it means that the character only has one regeneration left (before they come up with some way to ignore the twelve regeneration rule).
- I know I said that the final scene felt like such an obvious and manipulative tease, but I can't deny that it made me feel excited about seeing what's going to happen next as soon as it happened. Curse you, Moffat!