Review: Doctor Who – 6×4 – The Doctor’s Wife

Will be remembered as the one Neil Gaiman wrote

The Doctor's Wife

In the UK: Saturday 14th May, 6.30pm, BBC1/BBC1 HD. Available on the iPlayer
In the US: Saturday 14th May, 9pm/8c, BBC America

So I’ve just about got up the energy and enthusiasm to review this week’s provocatively titled episode, The Doctor’s Wife, written by the hallowed author of Sandman and American Gods, Neil Gaiman. Just about.

Review after the trailer.

When he follows a Time Lord distress signal, the Doctor puts Amy, Rory and his beloved TARDIS in grave danger.

Was it any good?
So, erm, yes. A lot of good things about it, a lot to recommend it, but more tantalising than satisfying.

Obviously, a story called The Doctor’s Wife written by a non-series regular writer was never going to be literally about the Doctor’s wife, but this was an attempt to explore the TARDIS a little more. Is the TARDIS alive? Does it have feelings? What kind of mind does it have? That sort of thing.

Which, of course, have all been explored before. The third William Hartnell story, The Edge of Destruction, revealed the TARDIS had a mind of its own and was capable of communicating in odd ways – including totally screwing with the minds of the TARDIS occupants – if it needed to. The New Adventures books had a living TARDIS in female form called Compassion and Big Finish’s audio plays have given us stories in which the TARDIS is ‘incarnated’ (Zagreus) or other TARDIS’s spirits were put into human bodies and turned out to have problems dealing with tenses, be able to see the future, etc (Unregenerate!).

So nothing terribly new under the sun in that sense, although it was new to nu-Who. So there’s disappointment number one.

Disappointment number two was that this lovely idea – the Doctor is finally able to talk to the TARDIS – is largely wasted on fan nerdery. Why did the Doctor steal the TARDIS? Because it wanted him to. Okay. Good. And? Oh, you want to complain he opens the doors wrongly*. And that’s it. No, “why the crap do you treat me so badly”. No, “I miss the Time Lords and Gallifrey.” Nothing, in fact, emotionally, that would actually suggest the TARDIS could be considered “The Doctor’s Wife” of the title.

What a waste.

We also got several other layers of nerdery on top of that, such as the ability to jettison rooms for extra thrust from Logopolis and Castrovalva, and the Time Lord thought cube from The War Games:

Nice continuity touches, which I did like, but in an episode trailed as showing us more of the TARDIS than we’ve ever seen before – clearly someone who’s not seen Invasion of Time or Castrovalva who wrote that there then – do you think we could have had, ooh, I don’t know, more than a corridor if you’re really going to nerd out properly? It was a lovely corridor, but was the budget really so tight we couldn’t have a single new room? Not a one?

My biggest problem with the story, though, wasn’t the lack of real exploration of these points: it was the characters. House – like it. That was good. Very creepy. Well done Michael Sheen. But Auntie, Uncle and Nephew? What are we doing here? “The Idiot’s Guide to Neil Gaiman”? “Paint Your Own Neil Gaiman” script? Short of calling them all abstract nouns, like Death, Dream and Delirium, you couldn’t get more stereotypically Neil Gaiman than that.

And the acting? Suranne Jones was excellent at whatever Helena Bonham-Carter impression she wanted to do for noted Tim Burton-alike Neil Gaiman, but was that the way the character of the TARDIS needed to be played? Not really. It was hard to make any real connection to this squawking TARDIS as a character rather than a bit of Neil Gaiman/Jones showing off.

The good
However, when our Neil stayed away from Doctor Who proper, he did a very nice job. The scenes with Amy and Rory in the corridors were properly frightening and nasty, even though it was a little too obvious everything was being hallucinated by Amy in order to make her feel bad, rather than genuinely happening to Rory.

The revelation that the Time Lords were really just messages in bottles were lovely and creepy. Having House control the TARDIS was an excellent touch which I liked, as was the Doctor having to build his own TARDIS from spare parts to get to them (nerdery) and using the TARDIS telepathic circuits (nerdery) to contact Rory. And Matt Smith actually got to cry! Yey!

But creepiness aside, this just felt like an opportunity lost in shouting, running, plot and Murray Gold music – and he’s been so good of late, too. Just a few quiet moments when something serious and deep could have been discussed seriously, without the needs of the plot driving the story away from characterisation would have lifted this episode to some great heights.

Instead, we got something, that bar a few good scenes is largely going to be remembered as “that one Neil Gaiman wrote” and for some decent imagery, rather than because of anything pioneering. What a shame.

PS Rory died again. Oh no. Because that never happens. That’s a real threat. Do you know there’s actually an “Oh my God, they killed Rory! You bastards!” Facebook page? That’s how seriously people take Rory dying yet again.

* Except it’s only the phone panel that you’re supposed to pull – the main doors on a police box did used to go inwards. You’d have thought the TARDIS would know that.

  • Harsh. I really enjoyed this episode, and I’m much more enjoying Moff-helmed Who than I ever did during RTD’s run. This was no exception.

  • templarJ

    I think it’s valid comment to suggest that the episode was an excercise in pressing buttons that have been pressed lots of times before in a variety of places and by a variety of people (I imagine Lawrence Miles was steaming from some orifices on Saturday night), but the skill was in pressing them so well. Like my favourite Who stuff post 2005 it feels like a love letter.
    And I thought Surrane Jones was sublimely good.
    Doctor Who this year has been proper good.

  • [Rob, I’m obviously insane since I disagree with you, but…] I get why there are those who are at best ambivalent about this episode (for exactly reasons that you articulate Rob), but it was SUCH a love letter, and so beautifully executed that I could not begrudge that.
    templarJ: you will be not shocked to know Lawrence Miles’s take is being much mooted and discussed.

  • Well being a lifelong fan of the show but not really having the indepth knowledge of a really proper fan I don’t get all the references that others might & with this one I just didn’t care. I loved Neil Gaiman’s script, and yes Auntie, Uncle and Nephew could have come out of the Graveyard Book but that’s what appealed to me about them, because they were were pure Gaiman intertwined with Dr Who. Apart from Rory Dying AGAIN, I did really love Amy & Rory trapped in the Tardis, and I thought Suranne Jones was fabulous. And I’m not really a fan of hers. It did feel a BIT as tho it was in the wrong series, and the nods to this series arc a bit tacked on, but I guess that’s a consequence of having been bumped on, but I can even forgive it that. Because it was barking, and witty and moving and oh sod it, Neil Gaiman wrote it, so I loved it!

  • Thanks, Rob, for mapping out the points I had problems with. I was very disappointed because I was expecting so much more based on it being written by Gaiman, whom I really don’t know more than by reputation.
    i didn’t realize there were other examples already of the TARDIS being personified; I just remember speculation in the press before “Voyage Of The Damned” aired that Astrid would turn out to be the TARDIS. So right there I felt let down in hopes of something innovative.
    And all those TARDIS corridors with the ho-hum payoff of the most recent console room? I would have liked a few more rooms to explore as well, and I hated pandering to those who only know nu-Who and who are still pining for Tennant. I would have loved to have seen a console room from the earlier incarnations.
    Still it was an improvement over the week before and Suranne Jones, whom I’d never heard of before, gave a lovely performance.

  • Electric Dragon

    Well, I could say how much I disagree with you, Rob, but I don’t have time so I’ll content myself with dancing outside your window and singing “Sourpuss, grumpy face, sourpuss, grumpy face.”

  • “I’ll content myself with dancing outside your window and singing “Sourpuss, grumpy face, sourpuss, grumpy face.”
    Rob, make sure you get video of that and share it with the class……

  • “I would have loved to have seen a console room from the earlier incarnations.”
    So would Neil Gaiman, but as he (not unreasonably points out in the Guardian Q&A
    But I was not able to reach any of the earlier producers in time and ask them to keep their sets up …
    I doubt the budget would have stretched to remaking a TARDIS interior satisfactorily to please fans…

  • “Rob, make sure you get video of that and share it with the class……” – AGREED!!

  • SK

    Oh, come on. All you need, as Battlefield proved, is a console (some cereal packets and a couple of eggboxes should do fine) and a photocopier.

  • “Oh, come on. All you need, as Battlefield proved, is a console (some cereal packets and a couple of eggboxes should do fine) and a photocopier. ”
    *chuckle* I get what you mean, but suspect while that may please ‘fans’ it wouldn’t please fans… if you get my meaning 🙂

  • Mark Carroll

    I actually thought this one was okay. While the TARDIS’ lines weren’t the most interestingly illuminating given how very alien one would expect it to be, I wasn’t too bothered with the “sqawking” given that you would expect it to be agitated and strange given what it is and the situation it found itself in. Though, I’ve been a little alarmed by how penetrable the TARDIS seems to have become of late; it’s no longer much of a big thing for some external influence to much affect it. I’d have also guessed the Time Lords quite competent to notice and investigate the disappearance of so many of their own. I thought the “Auntie, Uncle and Nephew” stuff fit okay with the general weirdness of things and House not really being human nor needing to go far in emulating people to achieve its purposes.
    I didn’t think the scaring-Amy fakery was too horribly obvious. At least, compared to much of the rest of this season, which has generally made it easy to tell what’s coming up at least for intra-episode things, the hallucinatory stuff doesn’t even make my “a bit obvious” list.
    So, yeah, one of the better ones, I guess, for me.

  • Pingback: The Medium is Not Enough TV blog()

  • Pingback: The Medium is Not Enough TV blog()