Warning: spoilers ahoy!
I’ve just finished catching up with Doctor Who, watching The Curse of the Black Spot and The Doctor’s Wife back to back. The former was depressingly unoriginal: not only did we have to listen to hackneyed, unironic pirate dialogue, but for at least the third time in recent memory, an alien medical program turned out to be responsible for everything. (More of the latter later.)
Now, I didn’t grow up with Doctor Who – the reboot served as my introduction to series. My husband, however, was a childhood fan, and at his recommendation, I’ve watched a large number of Tom Baker episodes as well as the two movies. Setting aside obvious points of comparison like special effects budgets, modern technology and so on, what distinguishes the classic episodes is the fact that the Doctor really does just travel about randomly. He has personal moments, yes, and he inevitably saves the day wherever he ends up, but the scope of these adventures is almost always local – by which I mean, the fate of reality itself does not hang constantly in the balance. So even though I disagree with the rest of his argument, I’m inclined to side with Pete May of the Guardian when he says of the new series:
“The Doctor should be a maverick wanderer, a rebel with a Tardis console, not a superhero. Now every plot seems to centre round the Doctor or his companions as being crucial to the very fabric of the universe.”
It’s a valid criticism, and not just in terms of actual plot content. The one thing I’ve found offputting in the new series is the melodrama: David Tennant’s absurdly long farewell, the regularity with which sidekicks are imperiled, put through the wringer, wangsted and woobied. Look: I love heart-wrenching decisions, tragic endings and emotional baggage as much as the next person. In fact, they’re pretty much my favourite narrative tools! But if you’re going to keep upping the ante week after week, season after season, in such a way that there must Always Be More And Bigger Drama, then in order to ensure that the strings of my heart are tugged rather than hardened, your story must meet three very simple requirements. They are:
1) Internal consistency, because nothing harshes the vibe of an emotional climax quite like the sudden realisation that the plot makes no sense;
2) Good writing, because if all your secondary characters are cardboard cutouts and all the leads are lumbered with cliched dialogue, I will swiftly cease to be in a mood for lovin’; and
3) Humour, because tragedy leavened by laughter is both more powerful and uplifting than the regular kind, and also, paradoxically, sadder.
These should not be impossible things! But as keen readers of this blog may recall, I was not impressed with the start of Season 6, primarily because they failed at hurdle number one. The Curse of the Black Spot was likewise felled by its recycled plot, and took a second stumble in terms of writing. Sufficed to say that, when the time came to watch Neil Gaiman’s episode, provocatively titled The Doctor’s Wife, I was very, very nervous. I like Neil Gaiman. I like Doctor Who. The idea of disliking the effective combination of these two things did not sit well with me – and yet, I was fearful, because while I still love the show, the first three episodes have left me apprehensive about its future.
And then the awesome started.
Because Neil Gaiman, among his many talents, does language. Part of what made The Curse of the Black Spot so very disappointing was the fact that Matt Smith’s dialogue lacked the flair and craziness synonymous with his character. Not only was the Doctor wrong about everything several times, he wasn’t even interestingly wrong. But from the very first moments of The Doctor’s Wife, we have secondary characters whose speech patterns and vocabulary set them apart. We have rapid-fire exchanges and glorious mad oracle ramblings from Idris. Just as importantly for my inner fangirl, we have references to Douglas Adams, author of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and several episodes of classic Who. Throughout the episode, Gaiman riffs on a memorable dinner conversation between Ford Prefect and Arthur Dent from The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, and finishes it up by having the Doctor tell House, “Brain the size of a planet, but still so small on the inside!” – a reference to the constant refrain of Marvin the Paranoid Android. Even the villain – a sentient planet – recalls Adams’ classic The Key to Time episode, The Pirate Planet, whose villain captained a moving planet he used to destroy or shrink other worlds.
Yes, we can pick the resolution ahead of time, but it doesn’t actually matter, because let’s face it: you pretty much always know the Doctor will triumph, some sciencey-sounding words will be trotted out to explain whatever has happened, and a slice of the future mystery will be hinted at in passing. Very few episodes of Doctor Who are designed such that the audience is given regular clues and encouraged to solve the mystery before the characters do, primarily because solutions involving alien technology and unknown cultures cannot sensibly be inferred without the use of a plot-spoiling infodump. That doesn’t mean it’s not fun to try, of course, nor that we’re unable to make narrative leaps based on our knowledge of the kind of show we’re watching rather than sticking solely to what we’re shown. But if you start judging the success of individual episodes based on how little you understood of what actually happened, as seems to be the case with fans of the first three installments, you run the risk letting actual gaffes go through to the keeper just because they didn’t make sense, in the mistaken belief that therefore, somehow, they must do. All of which is a way of saying that, in this instance, being able to pick the ending was a good thing. After so many stories that begged more questions than they answered, it was frankly a relief to encounter an internally consistent episode, one where everything you needed to know – and wanted to know – was provided.
I loved Idris, too: not just the idea of the TARDIS in a human body, but the recognition of the fact that she really is the Doctor’s one true love – his ‘wife’, in the way that all great captains are married to their ships. We’ve heard the TARDIS referred to as a ‘she’ before; we’ve seen the Doctor talk to her – pleading, praising, admonishing, laughing – and watched as the other characters tease him for it. In the last moments when her matrix simultaneously inhabits the ship itself and the dying body of Idris, allowing her to say a first and final hello to the man she stole nearly a thousand years ago, the communion between TARDIS and Doctor is oddly reminiscent of the last episode of Firefly, when River Tam speaks for Serenity, addressing the crew in her voice. It’s a resonant concept: ship as lover, as mother, as friend – a silent, unchanging character, and the vehicle for stories without which there could literally be no vehicle.
When, in the closing scene, Rory asks the Doctor if he has his own bedroom on the TARDIS, he doesn’t answer, because there’s no need: the control room is his, the room of his heart, and that’s where we leave him, communing with a ship he now knows is listening – has always been listening – and who alone of all creatures left in the universe shares his backwards/forwards perception of time. The Doctor’s Wife is a gorgeous, clever, funny, touching episode that embodies everything I’ve come to love about the show. I only hope that the rest of the season lives up to it.