THIS EPISODE TAKES PLACE BETWEEN THE
TV EPISODES "THE
CURSE OF THE BLACK
'THE COMPLETE SIXTH SERIES' BLU-RAY DVD
LIKELY TO BE RELEASED IN NOVEMBER 2011.
When he follows a Time Lord distress signal, the Doctor puts Amy, Rory and his beloved TARDIS in grave danger.
14TH MAY 2011
The Doctor’s Wife was once of this season’s most heavily-hyped episodes long before it was bestowed with its contentious title - the prospect of a Doctor Who episode written by acclaimed fantasy author Nail Gaiman was enough in itself to pique the interest of the media and collective fandom alike. With the greatest of respect to the series’ regular pool of writers, it isn’t very often that we’ll see a name on the byline that habitually tops international bestseller charts and attracts every literary award until the Sun.
The look and feel of Gaiman’s episode is very much as I’d expected – deliciously dark, claustrophobic and macabre, but abounding with incredible heart and humour. It’s as if Russell T Davies, Paul Magrs and Roald Dahl had written a script for Tim Burton to shoot on a shoestring budget. What did surprise me though was Gaiman’s central conceit, which I don’t think anyone could have inferred from his playful title - not without a gentle nudge, at least. This episode’s eponymous ‘wife’ is not some mystery-quashing figure from Ancient Gallifrey or some assertive alien seductress, but something altogether more appealing.
“I’ve been looking for a word – a big complicated word, but one so sad. I’ve found it now: alive. I’m alive.”
As a long-standing fan of the series, Gaiman has clearly taken great delight in using his knowledge of it to play on fans’ hopes and fears. The story’s opening seems to be building towards the discovery of Time Lords living outside the universe as we know it, which would have been a momentous reveal, albeit a reckless one in the long-term. Were the Time Lords to return every other year, their ‘destruction’ in the Last Great Time War and the effects of the same on the Doctor’s soul would quickly become about as noteworthy as Rory’s repeated deaths. Instead, Gaiman uses Time Lord distress signal cubes (similar to the one used by Patrick Troughton’s Doctor in The War Games) to lure the Doctor into a terrible trap that sees a sadistically sentient planet – ‘House’ – transfer the TARDIS’s consciousness into a humanoid receptacle and then assume its place at the heart of the universe’s last surviving space / time machine.
The idea of a ‘living TARDIS’, or even the TARDIS in corporeal form, is not a new one by any means. BBC Books made a whole story arc out of the eighth Doctor’s ally Compassion transforming into a TARDIS - giving rise to as many jokes about “entering Compassion” as it did interesting plotlines - and Big Finish’s fortieth anniversary audio drama Zagreus saw the TARDIS temporarily take the form of the Doctor’s old friend the Brigadier so that she could seek retribution against him for what she felt was his mistreatment of her. However, The Doctor’s Wife takes the idea in an opposing and altogether more charming direction - rather than tell of a humanoid woman struggling to come to terms with her new abilities, or a bitter machine looking to settle old scores, The Doctor’s Wife uses the TARDIS’s fleeting corporeality to tell a tale capable of taking us from hilarity to heart-break within the space of a sentence.
“Borrowing implies the eventual intention to return the thing borrowed.
Whatever makes you think I’d ever give you back?”
The actress charged with giving form to the centuries-old blue box is Suranne Jones, who until this Saturday night was better known for being Steve McDonald’s better half than she was for being the Doctor’s. No stranger to the Whoniverse, having played a marvellously melodramatic antagonist in The Sarah Jane Adventures last year, Jones was the perfect choice for the part, convincing right from the moment that she was first imbued with the TARDIS matrix. Jones’ TARDIS is by turns naughty, naïve, and astonishingly brilliant, and it’s a safe bet that Matt Smith’s Doctor wasn’t the only man in awe of her.
The greatest strength of this episode is how it plays with this unique relationship on all sorts of different levels. Anyone watching will have been instantly bewitched by the chemistry between Smith and Jones, but those with a longer-standing interest were better served still. Gaiman plays with the paltriest mythological minutiae, such as the Doctor always opening the TARDIS doors inwards instead of outwards, while in the same breath offering viewers enchanting new insight into the renegade Time Lord’s original back story. I love the notion that the Doctor didn’t just steal an antiquated old time capsule - that “old girl” stole him, and took him wherever she wanted to go; wherever there was adventure to be had and wrongs to be righted.
“Another Ood I failed to save.”
Gaiman’s patent love for the show is also evident in Rory and Amy’s consummately chilling thread of the narrative, in which they are pursued through the ship’s labyrinthine corridors, psychologically tormented by the murderous House. The dirty white corridors spotted with contemporary-style roundels evoke the feel of the classic series whilst still fitting in nicely with the new, and the return of the “archived” Russell T Davies-era console room – or “desktop theme”, if you will – will no doubt have put a smile on no end of viewers’ faces. The Inferno-style console-ride sequence is an equally amorous indulgence, and is made all the more mawkish by the fact that the cannibalised console the Doctor and his TARDIS ride up through the universe’s plughole on was designed by one especially young and imaginative Blue Peter viewer. How apt.
Moreover, the performances are entrancing throughout, not just from the focal four, but also from Adrian Schiller (star of the Big Finish audio production Time Works) and Elizabeth Berrington (The Office, Moving Wallpaper, Psychoville). Uncle and Auntie are loveably ghoulish protagonists that could have been torn from the pages of an ancient, twisted fable, and their murderous green-Ood nephew rounds off the hotchpotch mélange rather nicely. House himself, voiced by the never-seen Michael Sheen, is even more extraordinary still, his sonorous tones dominating every scene that they grace, but particularly those set within the ‘confines’ of the TARDIS.
“You took her from her home, and now she’s free…”
Overall, The Doctor’s Wife hasn’t proven to be half as controversial as I expected. In fact, teeming as it is with corridor chases, scenes to be shot in quarries and even a ridiculously redolent junkyard, it’s actually rather a gushing love song to the series and its staples. The Doctor’s unknowable past remains as mysterious as ever, yet no-one can complain that the episode didn’t deliver what it promised. The Doctor and his amazing conveyance may not wear wedding bands, but they’ve been together for at least seven centuries now, and their love affair is still a long way from over. Companions may come and go, but the TARDIS – she’s forever.
Copyright © E.G. Wolverson 2011
E.G. Wolverson has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.
I’d been looking forward to The Doctor’s Wife more than any other episode this year. Neil Gaiman is one of my favourite ever writers; a master of fantasy whose works typically combine a sense of wonder with a chill of horror, creating a sort of grim beauty. I’ve wanted him to write a Doctor Who for absolutely ages. Gaiman and Who have always seemed perfectly suited to one another. So I had rather hyped this episode up in my own mind. I’m pleased to say that I was not disappointed.
Although I had become aware that Gaiman is a huge fan of the show, I wasn’t expecting a story that was so enmeshed in, not continuity, but rather mythology. Perhaps I should have; his work frequently deals with mythology, reinterpreting classical folklore, twisting it and adding to it to create his own rich tapestry. While there are little winks to past stories here - a brief mention of the Eye of Orion, that sort of thing - there are no references uncom-fortably shoehorned in. Instead, Gaiman takes an intrinsic element of the series since its very beginnings, exploring it from a fresh angle. At the same time, he utilises the ongoing background of the modern series, using the Doctor’s loneliness and guilt at his people’s extinction to propel him into a new story. Back in early interviews, Gaiman had said that something would return from The War Games; I was expecting perhaps a SIDRAT, but instead we got a Time Lord’s telepathic cube, not seen since the second Doctor sent out his distress message all those years ago.
Above: Carnegie Medal-winning writer Neil Gaiman with Suranne Jones and Matt Smith
At the same time, the episode is peppered with little nuggets of new information that fire the imagination. The Doctor’s old mate, the Corsair, sounds like a tremendously cool figure; here’s hoping he turns up someday, in a past Doctor story should they start up again. I foresee plenty of Corsair fan fiction arising in the near future. Plus we get an inescapable admission that Time Lords can change sex when they regenerate, and the revelation that there may yet be Time Lords somewhere out there, as long as they’re not technically within our universe.
Of course, the core of this story is the TARDIS. It’s about time the erstwhile time capsule got an episode dedicated to her; although the TARDIS has been explored and even personified, in the past, it’s never been done to this extent, or with this imagination. Giving the TARDIS a human form seems an almost obvious route to take, yet it’s a difficult one to pull off. Together, Gaiman’s writing and Suranne Jones’s performance achieve it admirably. Struggling at first with a human form and basic, linear problems such as linguistic tenses, the TARDIS adapts to her new form, although she never quite gets the hang of not talking about things that haven’t happened yet. To begin with, Jones looks like she was going to play the part as Helena Bonham Carter; after these first moments of hamminess, she provides a wonderfully subtle, layered performance. The TARDIS as Idris (a shame that Astrid had already been used) is confident, vulnerable, flirty and motherly; she is protective, possessive and dismissive of the Doctor in turns. While I was right to expect the title The Doctor’s Wife to be a big swiz, I don’t feel short-changed as I did with The Doctor’s Daughter. The relationship between the Doctor and the TARDIS is as close to a marriage as we’ve ever seen the Time Lord engage in, equal parts affection and criticism. Matt Smith and Suranne Jones have excellent chemistry, both equally able to imply an ages-old soul within a young, human-like body. However, it does make me wonder how the Doctor would have reacted differently had the TARDIS’s soul been implanted into a male body.
“I wanted to see the universe so I stole a Time Lord and ran away. You were the only one mad enough!”
In spite of the focus on the Doctor-TARDIS relationship, and the relatively Doctor-heavy episode that results, there’s a great deal more here on offer. The junkyard planet provides a fascinating environment, one that I feel could have been explored further (I’d love to go wandering around those sets). It also harks back right to the earliest days of the series, when the Doctor and the TARDIS were hiding in Totter’s Lane. Uncle and Auntie are brilliantly bonkers, macabre characters; two poor unfortunates driven to madness by their patchwork existences and their years of abuse by the monstrous House. Adrian Schiller and Elizabeth Berrington are both utterly hilarious, yet manage quite poignant deaths when they are finally disposed of. House is a fascinating villain; the mind of an alien planet driven by hunger. Michael Sheen, purely in voiceover, creates an arrogant, confident, sadistic being; a chilling performance.
The desperate flight through the possessed TARDIS shell is an excellent sequence. Both Gillan and Darvill are excellent here; particularly Darvill as Rory’s insane older self. While their roles a smaller in this episode than others recently, they’re rewarded with some of the best material they’ve had in a while. The TARDIS has been explored several times in the past, but all such stories have focused on its spatial properties; this time, we get a taste of the nature of time within its walls. Amy’s discovery of the old and dead versions of Rory are chilling, and raise uncomfortable questions; was this merely a hallucination caused by House, or was it a reality he created then averted by reuniting them? The sequence works well, but it’s a great shame we didn’t get to see more of the TARDIS interior, presumably for budgetary reasons. There must be so much we could explore, even after the Doctor’s deleted half of it. I also ended up screaming at Amy and Rory to stop separating and hold onto each other, but such sensible behaviour would have cut the sequence short. It was a nice moment when they stumbled into the old console room. What could have felt like a very forced bit of fanwankery instead worked very well, with the new team stepping into the previous series, complete with a bonus Ood.
“This is when we talked. Now even that has come to and end. There’s something I didn’t get to say to you…”
It’s not a perfect episode. The Doctor’s final defeat of House is clever, but relies on a get-out clause the audience doesn’t know about (albeit one that is sensible and plausible). We never learn anything about the original Idris, who goes unmourned, the victim of House’s plan. Not for the first time, the story feels a little rushed; it could have done with more time to play out. Several scenes have been cut, and summaries of these can be heard in acco-mpanying online material. There’s an inescapable feeling that, as brilliant as the episode is, it could have been even better, given a longer time slot and a bigger budget.
The story is on an unusually small scale; although House would no doubt reek havoc in the universe should he break free, the episode focuses almost entirely of the Doctor and his friends. This is not a bad thing, merely an observation; some of the best episodes in recent years have been the ones that focus on the core characters and their relationships. It all feels very Gaiman - the junkyard evokes the underground world of Neverwhere, with its population of misfits; while the TARDIS access key, made up from psychic impressions, wouldn’t be out of place in an issue of Sandman. Yet, at the same time, it feels perfectly at home in the Moffat-styled series of Doctor Who. It’s undoubtedly, to my mind, the strongest episode since The Eleventh Hour (which I can still watch over and over), and I feel it deserves to go down as a fan favourite. Here’s hoping that it won’t be too long before we get another episode from the wonderful Neil Gaiman. You scrumptious little beauty.
Copyright © Daniel Tessier 2011
Daniel Tessier has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.
The idea of the Doctor being a family man isn’t a contentious one. When we first met him in An Unearthly Child, he was travelling with a young woman – Susan Foreman – that he referred to as his granddaughter, and in more recent episodes he has alluded to having had a family prior to the Last Great Time War (most likely before the events of the original television series, as depicted in the novel Lungbarrow, but possibly after). However, the identity of the Doctor’s one-time wife – if Time Lord culture ever provided for something so prosaic – remains a mystery. That said, the novel Cold Fusion did suggest that the third, nameless member of Ancient Gallifrey’s ruling triumvirate had a wife – referred to in the text as “Patience” – who bore him thirteen children, one of whom was Susan Foreman’s father, suggesting that the Doctor and this ‘Other’ are in fact one and the same. Lungbarrow would make this even more implicit, postulating that the Doctor is, perhaps, a loom-generated reincarnation of this Other. Mysteries upon mysteries.
During the course of this episode, the Doctor refers to a (piratical?) Time Lord – the Corsair – who wore a snake tattoo on all his (and, apparently, her!) bodies. The Doctor wore such a tattoo in his third incarnation, which many have speculated was given to him by the Time Lords as a criminal branding (he was serving a sentence of exile at the time).
The Doctor’s companion Compassion once went through almost the exact opposite of what the TARDIS endures here in the novel The Shadows of Avalon, leaving her corporeal body behind to become the first of new breed of ‘living’ TARDISes.
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