To get the obvious remark out of the way, this is by Neil Gaiman, and it’s magnificent. Of course it is – Neil Gaiman is an incredible writer. He is also perfect for Doctor Who, especially if you like your Who to have a fantasy flavour, because Gaiman specialises in creating worlds that are very far removed from the everyday, and then makes us believe in them. Rather poetically, the world he builds here is a junkyard, in an episode wrapped up in the history of Doctor Who going right back to the first episode and before. This is the mythology of Doctor Who extrapolated and made legend.
A junkyard is of course a hair’s breadth from being a graveyard. It is a graveyard for things. And here the things in the junkyard are TARDISes (which of course are not just things), and people who have been repurposed. This is upcycling made horror.
The Doctor is drawn into this world because of his survivor guilt, in search of another Time Lord, the Corsair. This is the first we have heard of him/her, but he/she immediately sounds like somebody we should always have known. And there’s that big moment when we finally get confirmation that Time Lords can change gender, which opens the door to some of the big events over the next few years.
The TARDIS herself is not so gender fluid, identifying all the other fallen TARDISes as her sisters. We have had endless hints that River Song is the Doctor’s wife, and it will not be long before that plot thread comes to its conclusion, so the placement of this episode is utter genius. As fans we know that the relationship between River and the Doctor is never going to be that simple. He is never quite going to have a “wife” in the human terms we understand. So, on the road to that inevitable conclusion, we are shown what a “wife” really means to the Doctor, what it takes to own that place in his heart. And it belongs to the TARDIS.
The way in which this rewrites the fundamental premise of Doctor Who while fitting seamlessly within everything that has gone before is breathtaking. It’s not just that it fits, but it makes more sense of everything we have seen over the last 50 years. The Doctor ends up where he needs to be all the time, and seems not to have a huge amount of control over the TARDIS. All those running jokes about not being able to fly the TARDIS become a matter of the TARDIS being the one doing the flying. The whole series is completely reimagined as a partnership between two beings rather than the adventures of one. It was always written in plain sight. We always knew the TARDIS was alive. But it took a genius like Neil Gaiman to join the dots.
The Doctor: You didn’t always take me where I wanted to go.
Idris: No, but I always took you where you needed to go.
And do you know what, it sounds silly, but things like this blew me away:
Sexy: There are instructions on the door. What do they say?
The Doctor: Those aren’t instructions!
Sexy: You’ve walked by them every day for seven hundred years. What do they say?
The Doctor: …”Pull to open.”
Sexy: And what do you do?
The Doctor: I Push!
Because in all honesty I have watched every single episode of Doctor Who more than once, some several times over, and yet I never once noticed that. But the one crowning moment of the episode, the point at which we go from stunning to sublime, is this:
I wanted to see the universe, so I stole a Time Lord and I ran away. And you were the only one mad enough.
What an amazing parallel, a symbiosis between two concepts: the Doctor and his ship. It’s writ large in that moment where Idris catches her reflection, and her reaction mirrors a post-regen Doctor. He stole her, she stole him. Two amazing beings, working together to make things better. Doctor Who the legend: redefined. RP
The view from across the pond:
Remember that first 25 minutes of Doctor Who back in 1963? Ian Chesterton said something profound while touching the TARDIS. He said, “It’s alive!” Well… we get proof of just how alive it really is with Neil Gaiman’s The Doctor’s Wife.
We’ve already looked at Neil Gaiman’s second outing in Doctor Who with Nightmare in Silver, but his first outing was an incredible tour de force. Let’s call it like it is: Neil Gaiman is an incredible writer. His work in the Sandman series elevated the medium from comic books to graphic novels. Rightfully so, too. Those stories were incredible, mature, and not comic books! On top of that, he also cares about Doctor Who as a series and he treats it with the love it deserves. While Nightmare was a tribute to the Cybermen, making them scarier than they’ve ever been, The Doctor’s Wife is a tribute to Doctor Who itself.
Story-wise, there’s nothing more exciting than finding oneself in a pocket universe where the rules are open to the writer’s whim. Who knows what could happen! House is an entity that needs a TARDIS to get out of the pocket dimension, so it evicts the mind of the TARDIS we know and places that sentience in a humanoid body. It’s up to the Doctor to bring the two back together and reunite with his ship. House is little more than a disembodied voice of tremendous power and a formidable enemy. Using the TARDIS’s telepathic circuits to manipulate Amy and Rory is very dark stuff. The psychological torture is alarming. It’s also amazing how the comfort of the TARDIS can be subverted by dimming the lights. House even speaks with the ominous tone that instills dread. A good enemy, for certain, and like Lovecraft’s writing, we never actually see a creature. (Also like Lovecraft, we have the tentacle-faced Ood making a return again!)
But what really makes this episode fun is the relationship between the Doctor and the human-form TARDIS. Idris, played by Suranne Jones, is quirky, fun and more than a match for the Doctor. In a single line, Gaiman explains 50 years of discontinuity: why can the Doctor never get where he’s planning on going, and yet can still do short hops when needed? Because the TARDIS only took him where he was needed. Finally we have undisputed proof that the TARDIS is sentient and was the true driving force behind these marvelous adventures. But watching Suranne Jones play Idris, I am forced to admit one thing: Helena Bonham Carter would make a good addition to the Doctor Who universe. In many ways, Jones’ portrayal is very much in keeping with most of what Bonham Carter has done; the direction could almost be imagined as “play this scene like Helena”. She channels that energy with remarkable precision. Tell me I’m wrong! Once that thought pops in your head, it’s hard to shake. But her interpretation of the TARDIS also makes sense as she has difficulty dealing with linear time; she offers up a clue that will become important later in the season. It is brilliant writing.
There are a lot of moments of excitement for long time fans, too. The hypercube, used like Time Lord email, dates back to Patrick Troughton’s Doctor in his final episode, The War Games. He uses one to contact the Time Lords to help with the War Lord. There’s the TARDIS graveyard and the broken down console that the Doctor has to pilot to catch up with his own ship. Then there’s the victory, before booting the invader out.
House: …Fear me. I’ve killed hundreds of Time Lords.
Doctor: Fear me. I’ve killed all of them.
It’s at the end of the episode where a few minutes of dialogue between the Doctor and his ship bring tears to our eyes. Finally, after some 900 years together, she’s been able to communicate with her “thief” and she has to say goodbye already. Smith, for all his childlike charm, really can carry the emotional punch as he says goodbye to his love. And then I had a special treat. When I first viewed it, I was watching on an older TV without surround sound. When I heard it later, I got chills. As Idris vanishes, there is a barely perceptible message: “I love you”. It was like Gaiman himself was sending a message to the show as much as Idris was sending one last message to the Doctor. It’s a bonus moment that I missed on my first viewing and was delighted to catch on subsequent viewing! And even after that, Gaiman doesn’t leave us on a heartbreaker. After a tearful goodbye, she communicates one more time to the Doctor.
Again, cast and crew do an amazing job. The music is as much a character as the people; it deserves special attention. Murray Gold is a master.
There are some stories that are epic because they cover a grand scale. Then there are those that are epic because they hit all the right marks even if they are not as grand in format, something that resonates on a deeper level. This is Gaiman making his mark in Doctor Who in epic style.
Do you love The Doctor’s Wife? I think the only answer to that can be: I do. ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Rebel Flesh