DOCTOR WHO: 'The Doctor's Wife'
After a mixed start to the new season, Neil Gaiman comes along and produces what might have been the best standalone episode of Who to date, classic series included. The chronic lack of ambition in last week's episode now looks more underwhelming than ever. For sure, 'The Doctor's Wife' was pure fanwank, but it was also heartfelt and moving, as such scenarios can be when tackled by writers who know and love the characters so deeply.
Showrunner Steven Moffat managed it with his Children In Need short Time Crash, which brought back Peter Davison's Fifth Doctor for some ontological repartee with Tennant's Tenth, and Gaiman took that same warmth and affection and blew it up to full episode length, featuring the voices and body parts of deceased Time Lords, a return to the old console room, a scrapyard planet that was surely a nod to the series' humble beginnings, and a living, breathing, gobby female TARDIS who liked it when the Doctor called her sexy - a thought which made Moffat unleash a fabulously pervy laugh on the Confidential which followed.
It was great to see Amy and Rory running around the TARDIS' back corridors, although a shame the producers couldn't have scrambled down to the local swimming pool or library for an afternoon of filming so we could see some of the other rooms we've been hearing so much about recently. What it did offer was a welcome opening up of the TARDIS to more than just a console room (and a wardrobe, for anyone who remembers that single shot from 'The Christmas Invasion') and stairs that seemed to lead nowhere. Doctor Who will still be the same next week as it was last week, but Gaiman made it feel just a little bit bigger on the inside.
Those scenes with Amy and Rory also went to some surprisingly dark places. Rory, when asked by the villainous House (the non-corporeal entity who had possessed the TARDIS and was menacingly voiced by Michael Sheen) why he and Amy shouldn't be killed, gave the less than ingenious response that a quick death wouldn't be much fun. The House, and I'm including the 'The' because otherwise I wind up thinking of that other doctor on TV at the moment, certainly took him up on the challenge.
The episode's central theme seemed to be the fear one person feels when separated from a loved one that they won't be forgiven for the time apart, or that the other person won't feel the same way about them when they return. The House played to Amy's worst fears when he divided her from Rory, then made it seem that when she found him again, he had experienced decades of loneliness (abandoning him again after her years in the Pandorica) in what had only been seconds for her. When they were again divided and Amy given the illusion of jumping further forward in time, the thought he had grown to hate and wish her dead before his own death (in a harrowing image where Rory's desiccated body lay surrounded by walls defaced with hateful messages) was the worst thing she could ever see. For once, Rory's death, even if only a illusory act of torture, was far from a joke.
The Doctor was not lacking in such fears either. While Gaiman deserves significant credit for the episode, the story wouldn't have been half as strong had it not found the Doctor it deserved in Matt Smith, whose performance was phenomenal. I was worried at the start of the season that, as happened with Tennant, there would be a danger of him slipping into the same old mannerisms, but Smith demonstrated how vast his emotional range is tonight and how effortlessly he can transition between funny, sad, furious and all three at the same time, each a natural extension of the other and part of the character's inherent volatility. It was an episode that demanded everything from him, and he delivered above and beyond expectations.
I hope Moffat takes the time to develop Smith's Doctor as a distinct character in his own right, just as Russell T. Davies did so brilliantly with Eccleston' war veteran Ninth and Tennant's hubristic jester-hero Tenth. (Whatever criticisms may be levelled against Davies' time in charge, credit him for giving us the most complex and fully rounded Doctors to date). When watching Smith breaking down at his last chance to hear what his beloved TARDIS would say to him after all those centuries (a perfect message) or his dance of delight at the console switch flicking when he asked if she could still hear him after her soul/matrix had been put back in its shell, I couldn't help but wish to see Smith given the chance to reveal who this latest incarnation is beneath the surface quirks. Tonight, we were given a glimpse of that heart. Or should I say those hearts?
That's for another time though, because there was a feast of joys here for anyone who would consider themselves even a loose fan of the series. Suranne Jones was perfect as Idris, the TARDIS in a human body, all jumpy and confused at the sudden change but rediscovering her serenity as she came to understand both the limitations of what had been imposed on her and the wonderful opportunity it allowed for her to interact with the man she chose - another beautiful touch - to take her across time and space.
Her conversations with Smith were hilarious and gave lovely answers to all the questions fans have long been wondering. Why isn't the TARDIS reliable? Because she takes her Doctor where he needs to go, if not necessarily where he wants to go. Her reaction to the scrapyard of her 'sister' TARDIS', seeing them as corpses where the Doctor saw machine parts, was a wrenching appreciation for how she must have suffered through the Time War as much as him, both the last of their kind and faced with the remnants of long-deceased friends. It was a moment to affirm and deepen their bond (sucks to be you, River Song), culminating in them finally being able to take one trip together where they could look each other in the eye and share the wonder and excitement. It was as rewarding for them as it was for us, a reminder of how lucky we all are, sitting silently on the other side of our television screens, to be able to share in the Doctor's ongoing travels.
BEST MOMENT: "I just wanted to say... hello."
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