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.
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.