Our last finale to a split season, The Wedding of River Song, was something of a box-checking exercise, wrapping up all the loose ends. This time around Steven Moffat focusses the two halves of the season much more tightly, so this doesn’t feel so much like a frenetically paced two-parter squeezed into one. The episode has two important functions to perform: wrapping up the Clara mystery, and launching the 50th Anniversary celebrations as the first in a run of “of the Doctor” episodes. So whereas most season finales are generally backwards looking to the season that is finishing, The Name of the Doctor manages to look forwards while it looks back.
Moffat just can’t resist playing with cancelled timelines for his season finales. It’s becoming a habit. It’s a clever way of raising the stakes because it allows for an apocalyptic feel to an episode, and regular characters can be killed off, only to have all that cancelled out. So you get an epic episode without the consequences associated with the epic genre. The only trouble is, this is starting to feel quite familiar now, so when the deaths start with Jenny we are expecting that moment to be undone, and it is. Twice.
The resolution to Clara’s mystery works very well, and it is a Doctor Who fan’s dream to see a modern character interacting with past Doctors, although by its very nature that kind of thing will always come with a tinge of disappointment due to the limitations of technology. The choice of stories for Clara to appear within seems a little odd: The Invasion of Time, Arc of Infinity and Dragonfire all have their fans, but they are not generally considered to be amongst the finest stories the Classic Series has to offer, nor are they iconic moments that might create a spark of recognition in older viewers. There are also a couple of body doubles used, with Colin’s particularly noticeable. He might as well have “this is a fake” written across his back in marker pen. It’s a brave attempt at the near-impossible. But the crowning moment of joy is the sequence that really does come off, that moment where the First Doctor and Susan escape from Gallifrey. That was the moment every Doctor Who fan in the world sat forward in their seat. I still can’t quite believe they managed to achieve it.
Also resolved here is the story arc concerning the Great Intelligence, which featured in The Snowmen and The Bells of Saint John, and was the formless body-possessing enemy behind the Yeti attacks in two Second Doctor stories, The Abominable Snowmen and The Web of Fear. I have to admit to not being a huge fan of Richard E Grant, who is one of those actors who has somehow become successful despite having a narrow range, in my opinion. Richard E Grant always plays Richard E Grant, which is why his interpretations of the Doctor (Scream of the Shalka) and the Great Intelligence are hard to separate as to which one is the hero and which the villain. It’s not a bad performance as such, just somewhat lethargic. But the Great Intelligence was never much more than a scheming background power who was very good at making toy monsters for himself. Like the Nestene and the Autons, the whole point of the GI is his monsters, and his latest scary army are the Whisper Men.
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.
The obvious inspiration here is Eric Knudsen’s Slenderman, which fits perfectly with the horror movie atmosphere: the dark, scary cemetery, the place the Doctor has never dared to go; the spilled-out dimensions of the broken, dying TARDIS, a troubling distortion of a familiar sight; friends losing themselves to become deadly enemies, trying to kill each other. The Doctor’s wives are both here: one is dying, the other is a ghost from after the point of her death in Forest of the Dead. River and the Doctor get several goodbyes. They started with one, they will end with one, and this is a coda.
Finally we have the big revelation that will lead into the 50th Anniversary episode, the moment that sprang from the inevitability of Christopher Eccleston saying “no”. And so history repeats itself: a 20th without Tom, a 50th without Chris. It’s the curse of a long-running series, which is always a jigsaw with missing pieces. But this time around necessity might just be the mother of invention… RP
The view from across the pond:
I feel like I’m making Swiss cheese considering all the holes I’ve punched in Stephen Moffat’s Doctor Who episodes lately. I have not turned on the show, contrary to the recent evidence, but I have been willing to point out the glaringly obvious holes in Moffat’s work. And I’m not quite done yet.
The Name of the Doctor is the final episode of season 7 prior to the 50th anniversary special. It’s promise is to be huge. That did not mean that the TARDIS had to be a huge police box that also works as a tombstone. The idea that the bigger and more important the warrior, the bigger the gravestone is Moffat not really understanding that the Doctor is not a warrior. It’s a little foolish looking and paints the hero as a possible bad guy. Like “the Doctor lies”, this isn’t the message we want for the children watching. Then there’s the choice of enemy: the Great Intelligence. Really? Dr. Simeon is the one to bring the Doctor down? He’s not a terrible villain, but after all the Doctor has been through, it’s akin to a great samurai dying from choking on an apple! And Moffat clearly was focusing on Sherlock when he wrote this because the Doctor claims to want to retire to keep bees. Come on Steve; wrong franchise… that’s Sherlock; you know, your other series!
One thing we do have to give the episode is that our unloreful lead writer does know how to make an entrance. That opening on Gallifrey “a long time ago” is the kind of mind candy that sets the imagination on fire. Anything we learn about the Doctor’s past is fun, but to see the very departure with Susan long before An Unearthly Child, that’s something special. Well then, why did I call him “unloreful” again? Because did you notice what the Doctor was carrying? That’s right, nothing! Not even his cot from when he was a baby! So I ask again: how was that in the TARDIS to begin with? (He goes back for it? Sure, but when and more importantly, why?) In fairness, that’s less of a criticism of this episode and more of a mark against A Good Man goes to War.
But so much of the story is filler leading up to two critical moments. The “conference call” is more than a little ridiculous. Why has no one ever thought to communicate like this before? Because it was never established that we live in a universe where any idea can become real. Jenny’s murder is actually chilling though and the Whisper Men are fantastic and truly frightening villains. Them teaming up with The Great Intelligence … that’s a bit iffy. The whole point of the embittered Great Intelligence is to step into the Doctor’s timeline to effectively “unmake” him. But that too is a bit questionable. It’s a suicide trip for something that may or may not work. Not the most intellectual choice, for the Great Intelligence. I will give points to River’s grave, since fans know where she actually died; this makes a great red herring for enemies, but easy to spot for friends. Well written! By contrast, I’m not sure the Doctor makes any sense saying there’s one place a time traveler should never go: the place where they are buried. The TARDIS even fights going there. But if that’s true, does the Doctor always know he’ll survive each adventure because he’s never found the place he’s buried yet? This is evidence of poor writing.
We also have the titular “name” of the Doctor which ends up being dodged like Let’s Kill Hitler dodged actually doing anything with Hitler. The Doctor has to say his name to get into the tomb but before he can break out into a Destiny’s Child song (Say My Name), River turns up and says it off camera. So the big lure to the episode is lost. (I guess we can say that Moffat is an unlureful citizen too! I’m on a roll with these…)
So of the critical moments, one is learning that Clara has been scattered throughout the Doctor’s timeline. This is an interesting concept putting her right back at the beginning but it has an unfortunate side-effect. It ruins her interaction with Peter Capaldi from the start. Here is a woman who was present for every incarnation of the Doctor but when Smith regenerates into Capaldi, she seems genuinely confused. She can’t understand what she’s seeing and she can’t accept him until Smith calls her and coaches her. But if she is involved with the Doctor through all of his incarnations, this should not come as a surprise. So it makes that future writing seem shallow and begins the downfall of the Doctor’s most lovely companion. Also, the idea of Clara is that “she was born to save the Doctor” but she doesn’t really save him, at least not in any way we see. She falls into his timeline, he follows and saves her, carrying her out and ending the episode with the big reveal but she doesn’t actually seem to do anything. Which seems weird for a series that, since the 2005 return, makes the companion the hero far too often. The one time she has to be, nothing really happens!
And now: the big reveal is that there was a “hidden Doctor”. This may be one of Moffat’s best ideas. It might jar the numbering scheme, but to learn that there was a Doctor between McGann and Eccleston is a mind-bogglingly awesome reveal worthy of some of Moffat’s very best moments. That cliffhanger of “John Hurt is… The Doctor” is one of the best cliffhangers we’ve ever seen in the show because it’s a reveal about the character we love that we had no idea about. And it leads to the great actor taking the role that, for many of us, trumped all his other works (and he was a master of his craft).
Thus, the episode leaves us on one of the best cliffhangers in the history of the show and we really want more. Moffat did a good job wrapping up a weak story with one heck of a tease and it was down to the 50th anniversary special to see if Moffat could truly write his heart out! ML