Sunday, May 15, 2011

Doctor Who(s6e4): The Doctor’s Wife

"You never took me where I wanted you to go!" "I took you where you needed to go."

As some readers may be aware Ed, regular writer of this Blog, is on holiday for the next two weeks and, as less of you may be aware, has asked me to cover Doctor Who in his absence. I can usually be found at

Doctor Who is a tricky show to be a fan of. I watch it, regardless of the lax quality control, like a self-flagellating monk practices religion: taking an unhealthy, self imposed caning for the occasional moments where my faith is rewarded.

The Doctor’s Wife is an episode that justifies putting myself through the worse moments.

It begins in a post apocalyptic landscape, where an assorted group of Tim Burton costumed characters and an Ood, referring to one another by generic family names such as nephew, aunt and so forth, tie up a girl named Idris. Despite her struggling, they assure her that she will soon be the vessel for something far greater than her, a Time Lord.

Meanwhile, a knock is heard on the Tardis door. The Doctor, Rory and Amy question it due to the fact that they are in “very deep” space, which presents an obvious curiosity. Upon answering the door, the Doctor is met by a small white box of Time Lord design, bearing the mark of one of the other heroes of Gallifrey: The Corsair. Understandably, the Doctor wants to follow the beacon and, equally understandably, his companions are concerned due to the shared knowledge that the Time Lords were all killed by the Doctor’s hand.

A familiar issue creeps into the show at this point: bending the logic of the world building to allow the story to continue. Of course the time lords are gone from this universe (remember, by definition, the collective name for all matter in the cosmos) but there is a place just outside the universe. Fortunately, this doesn’t pan out in the same fashion as the Dalek episodes, where they have to horrifically contrive a way to bring them back after they’re repeatedly wiped out and/or erased from reality. This is helped by the episode being written by Neil Gaiman, who manages to avoid the usual cheap retroactive continuity shifts that can be worryingly common.

It’s a shame he wasn’t also responsible for dressing the hidden world. To represent being on the outside of the universe, the BBC props department provided a burnt out car and washing machine combo, leaving the whole thing looking more like Los Angeles post a Skynet induced judgement day.

Upon landing on the planet, the TARDIS loses power immediately and venturing outside the Doctor is disappointed to find only the family of misfits to welcome them. Before long, a crazed woman runs from the ruins, calling the Doctor a “thief” and engages in some of the best dialogue so far this series. As is often the case, the scripts generally start the episodes silly and work their way to serious, and sometimes even Matt Smith himself can falter with the moments of extreme levity. However, Suranne Jones (previously of Coronation Street fame) manages this with aplomb, creating an instantly fun character that fits perfectly in the world (“Biting is like kissing - except there's a winner”).

Antagonism comes from an entity called “House”, a gestalt green gas like entity that lives in a sewer drain, and maintains the goings on of the world. He proclaims it to be a resting place for Time Lords, though isn’t specific on his definition of rest. It’s not a huge spoiler that the initially friendly gas monster (voiced by Michael Sheen, previously of playing David Bowie in Tron: Legacy fame) has a sinister agenda, given that a- there aren’t any time lords there and b- he’s a giant green cloud of gas that speaks into people’s heads. House provides a suitable menace throughout the episode, Sheen’s voicework is sterling and the threat he poses feels just the right size for a single parter.

Now, you may have spotted from the name of the episode “The Doctor’s Wife” appears to be a play on the “Time Traveller’s Wife”, but they’re already using that story with River Song, so this is somewhat different. Suranne Jones’ character is, in fact, the living embodiment of the Doctor’s Tardis (and before anyone cries spoiler on me, this is an early reveal). This was a really nice touch, for the Doctor to finally be able to interact with his longest serving companion, and managed to give an insight to their shared history. One thing that did bother me, though is that she remembers him as naming her “sexy”. Now, I don’t recall a single point in the series where he has done this before, and it felt a bit out of place. It was also quite lucky it went into the actually attractive Jones, given the other three possible vessels were either elderly, patchwork people that even Victor Frankenstein would be disappointed by and a Cthulhu look-a-like. That said, would have been interesting to see how that conversation went.

The episode continues the trend of allowing the Doctor to continue making mistake, sort of levelling him down. He still, obviously, has the intelligence and cunning that set him apart, but they seem to be trying to remove the omnipotent smugness that clogged the pores of the Tennant era. That said, I wish they would stop having the Doctor referring to his madness/ dangerousness, in a strangely speculative way that comes across less like a threat and more like he watches the episodes himself and trying to work out what he’ll do next (“A normal man would be dangerous in my state, imagine what I will do”).

Amy and Rory are primarily sidelined for this story, given their own, separate encounter against House inside the Tardis that continues the darker, horror elements of series six. It’s reasonably inconsequential, though that isn’t really a problem, but given they have already begun to recycle the love triangle element from the last series; I’m worried they have run out of ideas for these characters.

One of my main gripes with the NuWho is that everything feels rushed, and by that I mean the endings. The set ups are invariably great, but most of the disappointments come from a constant stream of Deus ex Machina moments, seemingly to blind the audience with fast talking to get away with the fact that when you think about it, it didn’t really make any sense. In “The Doctor’s Wife”, Gaiman sidesteps this nearly by maintaining the imagination, but combining it with a more even pacing and the foreshadowing of plot devices. Given the fantastical nature of Who, this really helps ground things into a believable reality, rather than simply creating new rules when they suit (see every season finale for details).

An issue that appears in this episode, but not the fault of it, is that they still haven’t really cleared up what happened in the last series. I’m unsure as to how much had actually happened, given they seemed to reset the timeline, but confused things by keeping Rory and Amy in the show. Some have told me to just look up the answer on a fan message board, but that shouldn’t be necessary for continuities sake. The two problems here are that Rory refers to himself as waiting two thousand years, thus suggesting he’s still an alien robot clone, and the declaration of the Time Lord’s extinction. The end of Russell T Davies era (which unfortunately, they do have to work with), saw the Master fighting alongside the Doctor, then disappear without any real indication or any characters referring to it. I assume he died, but given it wasn’t seen he could just be in a very long queue at Argos.

The Doctor’s Wife stands out as a solo episode, blending styles and genres, happily switching between comedy, drama, tragedy and horror in an instant. As Gaiman’s first episode, he manages it better than most of the regular team and I can’t imagine it’ll be long for message boards to light up in favour as him taking over as showrunner. The episode contained everything you could want from Doctor Who, topped with a satisfying emotional punch from a finale that could have been easily farcical or schmaltzy in the hands of lesser writers. This is the new standard to judge the show by.

Rating: 9/10 - Improved pacing from the usual Who, with a story designed to fit the run time. Cheap production left the episode visually weaker than counterparts, but doesn’t stop it from being one of the best episodes ever.

This episode made me realise quite how many threads are left dangling from the first series, and wondering whether any of them would be resolved. As for the current arc, there was no mention of the silence, nor the sliding-window-future-pirate. However, the rift between the universe and just outside the universe looked suspiciously like the crack from the first series. Also, Rory has a tendency of dying and coming back with an almost South Park like regularity, which suggests that either the writers haven’t consulted with each other or there’s some greater significance to that.

Next week:
Looks to be taking a darker path once more, with creatures made in flesh vats. It’s nice to have so many high quality new adversaries in the series. Hopefully, they will let the "classic villains" rest this series.