The Eleventh Doctor has developed a habit of treating his companions as puzzles to be solved. In fairness, that’s how they are being written, so setting it up as some kind of character flaw is a bit odd, but nevertheless we have already seen Clara take the Doctor to task for this, with the viewers expected to be on her side of the argument. The story of this season is a failure of that plot thread to develop. We see a succession of delaying tactics, never more obvious than here, where we actually get some real progress, only for the reset button to be hit. Steven Moffat is fond of the slightly lazy reset button approach to plot resolutions but he tends to do it with more style than this, mainly because he allows the regulars to retain their memories of the cancelled timeline. Steven Thompson takes a much more lazy approach, and Clara forgetting everything that happens to her is particularly frustrating.
What he does better is to build a theme out of the Clara=puzzle issue, by making the other characters exist as mysteries as well. The identity of the monsters is a puzzle to be solved, and Tricky’s robot/not-a-robot story also places him in the bracket of being a mystery rather than a real character, particularly as the solution to his mystery is so bizarre. Note that the solution to Clara’s mystery will be every bit as bizarre as this, but will function better within our expectations of Doctor Who, and also fare better in terms of originality and believability. Tricky’s story is blatantly absurd.
In fact, all three of the van Baalens are absurd, existing wholly as plot points rather than real people. Gregor is the Bad Guy Bully, Tricky is his Victim, and Bram is the Disposable One, who gets killed off very quickly. We have to be quite charitable to praise this within the person-as-mystery theme, but it is excusable in these terms. Accepting the sub-par acting performances in the same terms is an even more charitable leap.
There is a pretty obvious source of inspiration for this episode in Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth. The clue is in the title! This is a good choice because the book functions in a similar way to the explore-the-world archetype of Doctor Who stories, complete with a Doctor figure in Professor Otto Lidenbrock, and a companion figure in his nephew Axel. The latter exists chiefly to have things explained to him, giving a tidy way for Verne to impart explanations to the reader. Notably there is an exception where Axel does the explaining to the Professor, a role-reversal that Doctor Who occasionally employs. Sometimes it is the companion who has to take centre stage, as Clara does for much of this episode.
There are horror movie inspirations as well, but there are also two more blatant inspirations within Doctor Who itself. The first is the most obvious, and is also the one that Steven Moffat admitted to when he said that he was “haunted” by The Invasion of Time. In case you are not familiar with the story, it is the first to really explore the vast scale of the TARDIS and achieves that with location filming in a hospital. It’s a dreadful approach, for obvious reasons, and on first viewing I didn’t have a clue what was going on because it is very difficult to get your head around the idea that these very obvious hospital corridors are supposed to be what the TARDIS interior looks like. So it is understandable that Moffat would want to have another stab at showing the TARDIS interior to a greater extent than just the console room.
The problem is that he was always going to be on a hiding to nothing with that. There are some things that even a modern-day budget and special effects can’t manage, because they simply exist in our minds on a scale that cannot be replicated. Various things fall into that category, such as Gallifrey and the Time War, but the TARDIS is probably the ultimate in setting yourself up for a fall. That said, this is a particularly dismal failure, because it repeats the key mistake of its predecessor: making the TARDIS a succession of boring corridors. The Masque of Mandragora achieved more in hinting at the crazy, amazing scale and weirdness of the TARDIS by showing the Doctor’s boot cupboard as a large lounge room with a lonesome pair of boots in the foreground. The idea of the TARDIS reconfiguring to provide a maze has an interesting MC Escher idea buried within it, but that is under-developed. It’s a shame, because it could have been brilliant. Imagine what Castrovalva would look like if it was filmed today.
I said that there are two inspirations within Doctor Who, and the other is the Movie. Superficially it mops up the lingering continuity clash of the Eye of Harmony inside the TARDIS. More significantly, it repeats that episode’s trick of the Doctor solving his problems by somehow going back within his own timeline to provide a reset button. This is always a bad thing, because it gives the writers a get-out from the consequences of any kind of jeopardy they have set up, but more importantly it negates the importance of anything we are watching. Over the years some writers have attempted to establish the impossibility of this kind of thing, and it is understandable why Moffat wanted to bend the narrative rules for the sake of some interesting, epic set pieces, but ultimately it is a self-defeating approach, particularly when he is not the one handling the script that utilises the technique. Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS is the moment where the reset-button method of Doctor Who comes apart at the seams. RP
The view from across the pond:
Ending a run of solid stories, arguably starting from Rings of Akhaten, but certainly with Cold War and Hide, Journey to the Center of the TARDIS offers a lot of promise. Giving the fans the impression we would be confined to the interior of our favorite time machine, not unlike the classic Edge of Destruction, automatically boosted interest. How much of the interior of the TARDIS would we actually see? And would the story hold?
If nothing else, it’s fun without being a heavy story. The TARDIS has a fault and is picked up by a salvage crew. The Doctor offers the salvage brothers the TARDIS if they help him find Clara, who has gone missing deep within the TARDIS. The problem I had with it at the time was minor: I still didn’t get to see enough of the TARDIS interior. Ungrateful, I know! But there’s so much corridor; I wanted to see more of the rooms. What about the Doctor’s room? (Admittedly, like his name, that should remain a mystery, but you get my point!) We get to see a library, an observatory, a glimpse of the swimming pool, and the Architectural Configuration system. (About that last one: I will admit that I was like an excited 5 year old when I saw it, because I called it the moment it appeared onscreen. When I learned I was right, I did a dance not dissimilar in form to a “wacky waving inflatable arm-flailing tube man”! We all have our moments…). But I think it was a missed opportunity and we could have had a lot more TARDIS.
What hurts the episode far more in retrospect is how it unintentionally undermines another from the same season: The Rings of Akhaten. Here’s the problem: Rings shows us that the leaf, full of potential days that never came, are infinite and can drown out the star creature. That’s fine, but my argument was that the Doctor has far more “potential” days that should have drowned the star-creature far more effectively than Clara’s leaf. Enter Journey, which proves my very point a mere 2 stories later in that there are plenty of possible timelines that never happened by the very nature of the Doctor’s life. Every choice can lead to a new “Doctor Who Unbound” adventure. The grand finale of the episode has the Doctor effectively rewriting the whole episode. Thus, potential timeline! We saw it happen, and we saw it “unhappen”. So Rings loses some more of its potency, even if only retroactively. But that does not impact Journey so I’ll stay focused and concede that Journey remains unaffected by this and actually holds up well.
The episode does fan service quite nicely too because, beyond the brief images of rooms in the TARDIS, we get an array of auditory flashbacks; clips from the past including many of the past Doctors and companions. How could a fan not love this? Would this episode mean as much to non-fans? Probably not, but it still offers enough of an adventurous story to keep both groups happy. (The adventure is a little contrived since the TARDIS is supposed to be indestructible but it does make for a good adventure if the viewer does not know about the long history of indestructibility!)
Another area this story benefits is that this is the 2nd story with no actual villain (3rd if you consider the Ice Warrior was not actually a villain but a trapped alien looking for his people). The “monsters” in the corridors were more akin to antibodies that the TARDIS was producing as a result of the time glitch than an actual monster. In that regard, I’m actually very impressed by this run of 3 episodes because it’s strange not to have megalomaniacal enemies intent on destruction. Yet here we have 3 in a row! Praise the creativity at the very least, though I’m inclined to praise the whole episode.
The mystery of Clara is far from solved, but at least its acknowledged and that’s a benefit too. These season-long arcs are interesting if they do slightly alienate the casual viewer, but the reality is that it’s the fans that kept the show on for 50 years (at this point), so catering a little to us is not a bad thing.
In the vein of Journey to the Center of the Earth, the TARDIS offers a fun place for a bit of pulp. It takes place during a run of very enjoyable stories and pays attention to the fans; what’s not to like? Sadly it ends that run because the Red Leech turns up a week later and… well, we’ll get there in due course. For now, we can get to the heart of the matter, hit that big friendly button and give this story a solid thumbs up. ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Crimson Horror