Okay, this time more than ever, you must watch the episode before reading anything about it. Spoilers, sweetie…
1. “Less poetry, Doctor”
Do you hear the Whisper Men
The Whisper Men are near
If you hear the Whisper Men
Then turn away your ear
Do not hear the Whisper Men
Whatever else you do
For once you’ve heard the Whisper Men
They’ll stop… and look at you
A simple, but effective, design helps lift the Whisper Men from being the generic henchmen that they would otherwise become. I couldn’t help being reminded of the Gentlemen that Joss Whedon created for one of Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s best ever episodes, the near-silent Hush. True, they stole hearts rather than just stopping them – but they, too, were presaged by a cod nursery rhyme:
Can’t even shout, can’t even cry
The Gentlemen are coming by
Looking in windows, knocking on doors
They need to take seven and they might take yours
Can’t call to mom, can’t say a word
You’re gonna die screaming but you won’t be heard.
2. Sontar-Ha this, ye filthy wee midget
I’ve praised Dan Starkey’s Strax before. His wonderfully dry comic delivery is a gift to the writers – and the idea that he takes his holiday in Glasgow is a delicious conceit that only a Paisley-born writer like Steven Moffat could get away with.
As the Doctor was erased from history, and Strax returned to type, the difference was, if you’ll forgive the pun, stark – and demonstrated Starkey’s ability for characterisation. Even before then, the tensions between the Sontaran and his Silurian boss, Madame Vastra, were visible. The Paternoster Gang consequently gained an extra level of depth that demonstrated they’re more than just one-note sidekicks.
3. A long time ago, in a Gallifrey far, far away
So. That pre-credits sequence. In all the fuss about whether or not the 50th anniversary episode in November will feature more Doctors than just (the previously confirmed) David Tennant, Steven Moffat managed to sneak in a multi-Doctor story in a way that eulogises the Doctor’s life, while respecting those actors who have since passed away.
Utilising colour footage of Patrick Troughton (taken from The Five Doctors, but bizarrely transposed to Venice Beach) and Jon Pertwee (also from The Five Doctors) meant that using existing black-and-white footage of William Hartnell’s First Doctor would have been out of the question. The brief, but respectful, use of a colorised clip was utterly, breathtakingly, beautiful.
Clara helps the TARDIS choose the Doctor in the first place. For the second year running, Doctor Who redefines the moment that, as the Doctor himself said in The Five Doctors thirty years ago, is “how it all started”.
I do hope they’re all Sylvester McCoy in a wig. #DoctorWho
— Scott Matthewman (@scottm) May 18, 2013
4. Don’t blink
No, no weeping angels in this story – although you’d have thought the graveyard on Trenzalore would be the perfect place to hide. Instead, in the pre-credits sequence, notice that right at the very beginning of the Second Doctor clip, someone runs in front of Clara, between her and the camera. We don’t see him for very long, but he has a big white collar and a velvet jacket.
Yes, perhaps fittingly for the Doctor whose television screen time was the briefest of all, Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor makes a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him appearance here.
5. Conference call
Time travelling via narcotic-induced comas? Such fun. It helps reintroduce River Song in an unusual way, although quite how the soporific can interface with her resting place in CAL’s library is probably best glossed over. Her ability to ‘disgracefully’ mess with Vastra’s astral projections is completely in character, and it’s lovely to see Moffat’s two sets of recurring, supporting characters interact with each other so well.
The assault on Jenny, while dramatically important, feels a little less impressive. The best thing about it is that it plays on the ‘dead lesbian syndrome’ (which TV Tropes describes as ‘Bury Your Gays’) – the idea that homosexual characters are disproportionately more likely to die on screen. But Vastra’s dismissiveness of her wife seems out of character for the Silurian. And the relative ease with which she is revived, for all it’s completely anticipated by Professor Simeon, also serves to neutralise the Whisper Men’s threat.
6. I can’t see Traken any more
In the interviews in the run-up to this episode, Steven Moffat hinted at a funereal atmosphere similar to that which hung over Tom Baker’s final story, Logopolis.
In that adventure, the Master destroyed huge swathes of the universe – including new companion Nyssa’s home world of Traken. I always found the sight of stars blinking out of existence one of the more affecting images of that story, and it had much the same effect in its repetition here.
Similarly, the ivy-encrusted Tardis interior that served as the final resting place of the Doctor’s time stream brought back memories of the Cloister Room in the same story – although thankfully shorn of the brilliant white overlighting that removed any atmosphere back in the 1980s.
7. Clara? So she was soufflé girl all along…
So we finally get some answers about the impossible girl. As a result of Clara jumping into the Doctor’s time stream, she appears throughout his timeline, presumably thwarting “Mr G Intelligence” at every turn – surely killing the Doctor just once would be enough? And only the Eleventh Doctor has spotted her, maybe because that’s where the paradox of her existence is strongest.
But if Clara has become so important, why did the TARDIS not like her? Was it because the craft can detect the future as well as the past, and it detected that Clara was tied in with the journey to Trenzalore that should never be taken?
Regardless, I did like the resolution to Clara’s mystery – not least because it means that our Clara, the real one, has a life in the series beyond the mystery of soufflé girl.
8. You’re always here to me… and I always see you
In the ongoing “romance” of the Doctor and River Song, we’ve never really seen the deep emotional attachment that’s been hinted at. Finally, we see that the Professor’s love for the Doctor is completely, wholeheartedly reciprocated. Presumably all the occasions when the Doctor jetted off in the TARDIS without Amy and Rory or Clara, he and his love were experiencing all the adventures that had previously been hinted at.
Because it’s clear here that finally, River’s death has hit the Doctor hard. Matt Smith is superb here, whether it’s barely holding it together in contemporary London or his beautiful exchange with Alex Kingston on Trenzalore. Finally, both characters are encountering each other in near-death, and it feels like all the timey-wimey history-crossing is at an end. I have no idea if this is Kingston’s final appearance in Doctor Who, but if it is, she’ll have gone out on a character highpoint.
One final note – at the door to the tomb, as River tells Clara that she opened the door by saying the Doctor’s name, watch Matt Smith’s eyes. It’s fleeting, but once you know that the Doctor can see River, his silent glances within that scene are superbly done.
9. In the name of the Doctor
Loved that the name of the Doctor isn’t as important as what’s done in the name of the Doctor. Been that way for 50 years. #DoctorWho
— Scott Matthewman (@scottm) May 18, 2013
Yeah, what I said there. While the title of the episode teases us with the reveal of the Doctor’s given name, that’s really not important. It doesn’t matter whether we know it or not. We know what the name “the Doctor” means, what it stands for – what he stands for.
At the start of the episode, we are told that “the Doctor has a secret he will take to his grave, and it is discovered” – the trick being that it’s the grave that is discovered. And then, at the end, Moffat plays on our expectations of language again. The episode title doesn’t refer to his name, but his good name – ultimately, a very different thing.
And, apparently, there is a version of the Time Lord who didn’t stand up to those ideals. Who isn’t one of the eleven as a result. But who exactly is he, and how does he fit in to the Doctor’s chronology as we know it?
Suspicion naturally falls on the Time War, and the time between the Doctor leaving San Francisco as Paul McGann in 1996’s TV Movie and reappearing as Christopher Eccleston in 2005. But if the Doctor doesn’t consider this version of himself to really be “the Doctor”, and doesn’t count him among his eleven selves – could he be from another period? From before Hartnell, perhaps – or between Troughton and Pertwee?
Previous reference (not least in the TV movie) to the number of the Doctor’s used, and remaining, regenerations would seem to suggest that these last two options can be ruled out. But you never know…
Incidentally, the Great Intelligence’s talk about the Doctor having blood on his hands must surely resonate with the audience more surely than it did with the Paternoster Gang. We’ve seen the post-Time War Doctor struggle to cope with the enormity of what he had done. We have seen the Valeyard as a corrupted possible future version of the Doctor. To the Daleks, he is (or was) already known as the Oncoming Storm.
Madame Vastra may protest, but the Doctor does, indeed, have blood on his hands. It always weighs heavy on his hearts, though, so for John Hurt’s version of the Doctor to be so out of kilter, he’ll have had to be dripping in the stuff.
10. Outstanding questions
- Who was the woman who gave Clara the Doctor’s phone number in The Bells of Saint John?
- Who brought Strax back to life?
- Why is the space underneath the TARDIS console so much more visually interesting than the main floor above it?
- Did River’s “ghost” have any other reason for hanging around after Clara has jumped into the time stream?
- How awesome was it that Cavan and Mark’s book, Who-ology, got such a huge plug on BBC1?
- When the Doctor referred to Simeon as “Mister G Intelligence”, did anybody else start thinking of Summer Heights High?
- Why on Earth wasn’t the rest of series 7 anywhere near as compelling as this one episode?
Thanks to all who’ve given feedback to my Ten Things posts over the run of this series. I’ve enjoyed doing them, and the fact that others have enjoyed reading them has been an added plus.
See you on November 23.