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New Doctor Who Episode: The Doctor’s Wife

Sunday, May 15th, 2011
Spoiler Warning - Post may contain spoilers

So was the new Doctor Who episode, The Doctor’s Wife, a return to the form of The Impossible Astronaut and The Day of the Moon after The Curse of the Black Spot last week with its rather damp powder?  Would Neil Gaiman writing an episode turn out to be a stunt to promote both the show and the writer?

The action opened with a nice pre-title teaser and didn’t let up till the end credits rolled.  The story cracked along at a great pace with twists and turns along the way.  The story was full of nods to Dr Who Lore while adding a few bits itself around the relationship between the TARDIS and the Doctor.  But, like Idris, I’m getting a bit ahead of myself…

Having a writer as famous as Neil Gaiman write an episode brings both expectations and a certain fear.  Sometimes using big name writers or actors can end up being a stunt when they can’t mesh their ego with a show even one they love as much as fans.  Thankfully Gaiman really knew what a Who episode should deliver and the cast and crew delivered his vision 100%.  He packed in some big ideas, some nods to Who lore, some snappy dialogue, some spills, some thrills and some behind the sofa scares too.

The episodes first big idea was having a villain who feeds on the energy of TARDIS and who lures them in using Time Lord psychic distress messages.  A villain that feeds on TARDIS needs to be a big villain a bloke in a latex mask just wouldn’t have cut it.  So we got an asteroid sized villain who to all intent and purpose was a disembodied villain like Tolkien’s Sauron.  Yet disembodied villains are hard to pull off and can go very badly wrong.  Thankfully House, voiced by Michael Sheen, managed to be threatening through his power to shape other characters environment and play tricks on their minds.  To aid him House had the delightfully gothic, patchwork henchmen Auntie and Uncle along with a bad Ood.

I know some fans would have loved to have seen a 1970s TARDIS control room but I think the choice of the now dusty steampunk one fitted better with the story.  The scratch built TARDIS had the honour of getting elements of one of the shaky set 1970s models and got to shake, rattle, roll, fizz and bang its way along in a rare TARDIS chase sequence.

The Junk World or Plug Hole at the end of the Universe (a lovely line echoing the title of Douglas Adam’s book in the week of the 10th Anniversary of his untimely death) was wonderfully realised through the set dressed quarry and matte paintings with joins that didn’t show.  The wonderfully theatrical lighting in blues and greens with shafts of light coming from odd angles really worked to create an eerie, gothic feel.

Alongside shooting in a quarry and the use and nods to old control rooms Gaiman snuck in another Doctor Who cliché with the running down the TARDIS corridors.  I find it odd that fans are complaining about using corridor chase scenes in a Doctor Who episode or that they used the wrong corridors.  It almost seems like some people desperately want something to complain about being wrong with the episode.  If the chases were set in rather uniform corridor sets for budgetary reasons rather than in a disused hospital or other location isn’t that in itself a nod to the truth of Doctor Who having to live within its means?

The snappy, dialogue was littered with great lines just casually thrown away like “Another Ood I failed to save”.  Alongside crowd pleasing great lines delivered beautifully like “Fear me I’ve killed hundreds of time lords.” “Fear Me, I’ve killed all of them…”

The second big idea, which according to confidential was the inception of the idea for the story, was personifying the TARDIS  as Idris.  This let Gaiman play with the origin story. The revelations that the TARDIS stole the Doctor so she could see the Universe and that she takes the Doctor to where he needs to be not where he wants to be are great additions to the shows back story.  This could have been a real disappointment but the writing and the acting both hit the mark.

Gaiman laid the foundations with a great deal of restraint and respect.  Suranne Jones played the part beautifully moving through confusion to acceptance, to understanding and finally to dying.  Along the way delivering some great moments with the Doctor.  By not being entirely tied to linear time even when trapped in a body gave Idris an otherworldly quality. Knowing what people are going to say and do, archiving things that haven’t happened yet.  There was a real intimacy to her relationship with the Doctor the TARDIS really is the Doctor’s Wife and that relationship is complicated. Yet she wasn’t just about big ideas and back story she had nice human moments vanity on seeing herself in a mirror; thinking Rory is the pretty one.

There are some really great lines between the Doctor and Idris but I’ll pick one “I exist across all space and time.  You talk and run around; bring home strays” sums up the show so well.

So inevitably we come to the end of the ride that has had Amy and Rory in jeopardy with first of being eaten and then from a bad Ood and a disembodied threat that plays with the TARDIS and inside their heads. That great Doctor Who cliché of running down identical corridors turner on its head to be a great asset with interesting and scary stuff happening in the corridors.  Meanwhile the bubble universe will reach absolute zero in three hours and Idris dying.  Yet working together The Doctor, Idris, Amy and Rory manage to see off the Ood and the House.  Leaving Idris / TARDIS one last moment for Gaiman’s gothic sensibility “‘Alive.’ I’m alive.” And  after a bit of fun interplay and underlining the new addition to this series’ mystery the last scene a moment between The Doctor and a set, sorry the TARDIS, there aren’t many shows that could have an actor playing to the set as a character.

So if you’ve not guessed yet I think Gaiman, cast and crew have pulled off a top notch Doctor who that worked really well and was also good, old fashioned fun.

Before I go we got one obvious addition to the Series 32 / Series 6 mysteries list:

  • The only water in the forest is the river.

Not really a lot to go on there – River may be River Song and a library is a dead forest where River was left in virtual form at the end of Forest of the Dead or I could be reading far, far too much into one line.

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Sarah Monday, August 29th, 2011

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