'THE NAME OF THE DOCTOR' REVIEW
Doctor Who series finale, BBC1, 7pm,
Series 7 – or Series 33 – came to an end in a ground breaking, triumphant mix of gothic visuals, daring storytelling and emotive performances. But did it completely succeed as TV drama?
There’s no getting away from it. For me – and so, it seems, a lot of the viewing public, both committed fans and viewers in search of something decent to watch on a Saturday night – this year’s 50th anniversary season of Doctor Who hasn’t delivered. I don’t think I expected too much, but four out of the eight of 2013’s stories have been somehow… insubstantial. However, the standard encouragingly picked up with Mark Gatiss’s The Avengers-in-the-Victorian-era frolic ‘The Crimson Horror’ and Neil Gaiman’s Cyberman psychodrama ‘Nightmare in Silver’. By the time Saturday 18 May rolled round, my enthusiasm for my favourite old show had been restored, and, almost ritualistically, just like in the old days, my anticipation mounted as I sat through the supporting features (for the record: the end of Pointless, the evening news and yet another disappointing weather forecast).
Whoever writes the dialogue for the BBC announcers couldn’t have come up with anything more thrilling, apocalyptic and game changing than the statement that introduced the final episode: “Everything you thought you knew about the Doctor is about to change – forever.” Happily, that declaration proved to be an accurate summary of the extraordinary, if slightly frustrating, story that followed.
It really was a bravura piece of television. I’ve always thought that Doctor Who is at its best when it shows you things that no other television drama can, and that was certainly the case here. A nightmarish fairytale version of Victorian England sat side by side with present day scenes that could have come from a daytime soap opera and, in the second act, a high gothic vision of the far future, iconic dead TARDIS and all. Director Saul Metzstein also ensured that the small cast wasn’t overwhelmed by the visuals, and, with a less frenetic pace than has sometimes been the case recently, the menace and threat came from what the characters said as much as the situations they found themselves in.
|Madame Vastra (Neve McIntosh), Strax (Dan Starkey) |
and Jenny (Catrin Stewart). (Image: BBC)
And just look at that supporting cast. Where else would you find a lesbian humanoid lizard in love with a Victorian maid with a militaristic ‘man’ servant who was the Doctor Who equivalent of Corporal Jones from Dad’s Army? Like the story, and the series in general, all these vividly contrasting elements shouldn’t work, but somehow they do. When Steven Moffat took over Doctor Who he said his tenure wouldn’t be as commercial as the Russell T Davies era, and Vastra, Jenny and Strax are the epitome of that approach.
They’re not gimmicks, either. The love affair between the two women says more about humanity being reconciled with the original inhabitants of the Earth than any moral allegory, while the military humourlessness of Strax is both really funny – this episode’s killer Straxism: “surrender your women and your intellectuals” – and oddly touching. The disgraced Sontaran refused to give up defending his friends in the face of overwhelming odds – this episode’s other killer Straxism: “I think I’ve got them on the run, sir” – so that you find yourself laughing and worried for the little potato head at the same time. All these engaging traits, carefully worked into the characters, suggest that the “Victorian Avengers” are far more deserving of their own spin-off series than a certain Captain.
And the man himself? In common with the darkness that metaphorically and visually surrounded the story, Matt Smith was given the opportunity to underplay and show what a sensitive and subtle actor he is – and I do wish the production team would let him do that more often. The Doctor crying seemed rather out of character, but, thinking about it, faced with having to visit my own grave, I’d be blubbing too. Smith’s scene with River, where the Doctor effectively said his last goodbye to her, was one of his finest moments in the role, full of pathos and restrained emotion (although I bet a lot of fans were saying, “Not another bleeding snog!”)
|The Great Intelligence (Richard E Grant). (Image: BBC)|
So far, so brilliantly done character drama. What I’m in two minds about, and this is true of a lot of recent stories, is the logic (or otherwise) of the fantasy elements. For example, the River the Doctor kisses is a projection, but he’s able touch her – how? Likewise Clara’s epic protection of the Doctor at all points on his timeline. What exactly did she do? Save him in every incarnation, presumably. In every story? So it would seem. Doesn’t that make him a bit, well… rubbish as a hero? Does it mean his entire history is different/the same because of Clara? If she was meant to be on the look out for the Great Intelligence (an icily hateful performance by Richard E Grant) how could she know about it, because all the Claras we’ve seen didn’t remember anything about the Doctor… And if the First Doctor met a Clara on Gallifrey – where the word “knackered” is, apparently, part of the Time Lord vocabulary – how come the Eleventh didn’t remember her? And how did the Doctor rescue Clara from inside his own head (or somewhere)? And, and…
The intention seems to be to accept what you’re shown at face value and don’t think about the details, but it’s a long way from the watertight plotting of ‘Blink’. Does that matter? Well, one wag on a recent edition of 8 Out of 10 Cats significantly said that what really annoyed him about Doctor Who was that you’d invest in the drama between the characters, then come the finale of the story the Doctor would wave his Sonic Screwdriver around and magically solve the problem, something that wouldn’t happen in a conventional drama like Vera Drake. He has a point; just because a story is fantasy it shouldn’t give you a licence to cheat or not think things through properly. Don’t forget Doctor Who is made by the same people who produce Sherlock, the most tightly plotted drama on television.
That criticism aside, ‘The Name of the Doctor’ pressed all the right buttons for this fan who is so old he can (vaguely) remember The Power of the Daleks. Using clips of the old Doctors, as well as carefully shot stand-ins, was an inspired way of doing a multi-Doctor story, neatly getting round the drawbacks of ageing or departed actors. It was also satisfying to see the series in its 50th anniversary year acknowledging the novels that kept the spirit of the series going when the show was off the air, with the idea of the Doctor’s death, and the notion that all his regenerations exist together somewhere, riffing on similar ideas in the BBC Books and Virgin New Adventures ranges.
And that cliff hanger? It summed up the whole episode as it was wonderful and vaguely irritating at the same time. Wonderful because we’re face to face with the Doctor’s darkest secret, irritating because it depended entirely for its impact on this Doctor being played by a world famous movie actor, a point reinforced by the on-screen ‘Introducing John Hurt as…’ caption. A failure of the storytelling, or a wildly audacious and self aware piece of direction?
Whatever the case, there was enough in ‘The Name of the Doctor’ that was stylish, moving, funny, innovative and dramatic to have me on tenterhooks for the anniversary story. On the eve of his 50th birthday, the Doctor is in rude health.