Monday, August 5, 2013

The Name of the Doctor

"I don't know where I am. It's like I'm breaking into a million pieces and there's only one thing I remember: I have to save the Doctor. He always looks different; I always know it's him. Sometimes, I think I'm everywhere at once, running every second just to find him. Just to save him. But he never hears me... almost never. I came into this world on a leaf. I'm still blowing. I don't think I'll ever land. I'm Clara Oswald. I'm the Impossible Girl. I was born to save the Doctor."

The Name of the Doctor. That title itself fires a broadside at the show - the Doctor's name has always been a mystery, one of the defining aspects of the show and character. Even threatening to reveal his Gallifreyan name packs a wallop - remember the punch to the gut of River knowing his name in Silence in the Library. And Name of the Doctor opens with a montage worthy of that title.

In particular, it opens with the Doctor stealing the TARDIS, the unseen beginning of the show. But something's strange. Clara shows up and tells him he's about to make a mistake. And, like the title, this opening threatens to rip the show apart at its very core. The following montage of Clara running through the show, trying to save every Doctor, is as gripping as openings get, but it's also just a blast to see all the different Doctors and Clara's decades-specific costumes.

The story proper begins with a psychic "Conference Call" between Clara, River, Madame Vastra, Jenny, and Strax. Making the latter three a presence throughout the season pays off nicely; as with any supporting cast, it's just wonderful having them around. Of course, Moffat's dialogue here is delightful.

JENNY: How did you do that?
RIVER: Disgracefully.

It's a terrific bit that sneaks in a little exposition, but is mostly just about having these characters sit back and hang out for a few minutes. There's all sorts of great details - my favorite bits are Strax taking his vacations in Glasgow because he fits right in and the Doctor having not even mentioned to Clara that River was a woman, let alone his wife. Kingston's reaction to the latter is priceless, as is Strax's response. But Moffat turns the tables very quickly, going from funny to scary in an instant. The Whisper Men ooze creepiness.

It's only after all this that Smith finally shows up, and the result is a beautifully written and acted scene. The Doctor crying is the sort of thing that can easily feel forced or false, but it's neither here; credit both Moffat and Smith for making the Doctor's brief breakdown at realizing he's meeting his fate work so well.

DOCTOR: My grave is potentially the most dangerous place in the universe.
And thus we finally go to the planet of Trenzalore promised almost two years ago. It lives up to it - a massive graveyard, site of the Doctor's final battle in some unforclosed future. The Doctor's grave itself is, naturally, the dying TARDIS. It's a gorgeous, poignant image, drawing us further in. The rest of the middle act brilliantly balances humor, horror, suspense, and drama, moving between them with incredible skill.
STRAX [immediately on waking up]: This base is surrounded. Lay down your weapons and your deaths will be merciful! Surrender your women and intellectuals!
But it's the last act that's important here - the rest is simply a masterful build-up to the final third. While Moffat has two more stories to wrap up the Eleventh Doctor's threads, this ties up a lot of what he's done, and moves the rest inexorably toward its conclusion. River, The Great Intelligence, Clara, and the Doctor all come to a conclusion of one sort or another.

Throughout the story, the Doctor speaks about River in the past tense - as though he knows he won't see her again as such. I'm not entirely clear on why, and I hope this gets followed up on in the last two 11th episodes. Regardless, the sadness here is quite moving, however convoluted the reasons for that sadness are. Smith plays the Doctor's refusal to deal with his emotions as well as ever. And Alex Kingston has been an incredible gift to this show, and if this does turn out to be her last appearance, it's a lovely farewell. (And, in a nice touch, Murray Gold uses his music from Wedding of River Song to underscore it.)

RIVER: How are you doing that? I'm not really here.
DOCTOR: You're always here to me. And I always listen. And I can always see you.
RIVER: Then why didn't you speak to me?
DOCTOR: Because I thought it would hurt too much.
RIVER: I believe I could have coped.
DOCTOR: No. I believed it would have hurt me. And I was right.

And, of course, Moffat is such a genius that he can follow that up with a hilarious joke without undermining the emotion, and then can turn right back to the waterworks.
DOCTOR: There is a time to live, and a time to sleep. You are an echo, River, like Clara, like all of us in the end. My fault, I know. But you should have faded by now.
RIVER: It's hard to leave when you haven't said goodbye.
DOCTOR: Then tell me, because I don't know... how do I say it?
RIVER: There's only one way I'd accept: if you ever loved me, say it like you're going to come back.

Of course, River strongly implies she is coming back, at least from the Doctor's point of view, if perhaps not her own. And in my book, she's always welcome. But that takes away none of the beauty of this moment.

Then there's The Great Intelligence. The Second Doctor's era left a hole - The Web of Fear promised a final showdown between the Doctor and the GI. However, this never happened after its creators, Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln were angry about how script editor Derrick Sherwin handled their script for The Dominators. (Long story short, it was one of the worst scripts in the history of the show, so Sherwin cut it short by an episode and worked with Terrence Dicks to solve the compression instead of hiring the people who had just written said hideous script.) While it's not necessary of course, it's a nice nod by Moffat to fill in a hole from the Second Doctor's era (which turns out to be an echo of what he does with Clara...). As a wrap-up to the GI's trilogy, it's certainly far more clever than anything Haisman and Lincoln would have come up with. His plan to entire the Doctor's time stream and kill him at every point in his lifetime simultaneously has a level of crazed ambition that would impress the Daleks.

Richard E Grant really was wasted, though. He snarls and whatnot well, but any English actor with a whiff of presence could have played it as well. You hire Grant for something with some humor, some energy, maybe even a little camp. The GI, unfortunately, is written by Moffat as a one-dimensional monologuing villain, utterly lacking in wit or depth. And even on that level, Grant doesn't get enough room to do anything interesting. It's a tragic waste of a fantastic actor. Still, at least the concept for the Great Intelligence was worthy of his name.

But that's merely a sidenote to the centerpiece - Clara traveling into the Doctor's time stream and saving him at every moment. On the surface, it works as a clever solution, and it's absolutely thrilling to see her running around the history of the show, saving every one of the Doctors. I wish the scene had been longer and more detailed instead of implied in a quick montage, but that probably wasn't practical, and what's here will do nicely. Moffat's repeated refrain of calling Clara "the impossible girl" gets a little annoying, but what he's doing overall is almost too clever for words.

There are also two brilliant meta levels on which this works. Whether or not Clara as Generic Companion works across a host of stories, it works ingeniously here. Here, she represents every companion. Saying the job of the companion is to save the Doctor so he can save the universe isn't exactly a revelation - it's pretty much worked that way since the show figured out that it should be about the Doctor saving the universe. But having an episode just come right out and say it works beautifully.

The second, far more deviously clever meta level is that Moffat quietly sneaks into the back door of the show and fixes every plot hole his cracks didn't already fix. Every rubbish cliffhanger, every contrived attempt on the Doctor's life was the Great Intelligence in his final assault, and every ridiculous moment of survival was Clara saving him from the shadows.

And, then, naturally, the Doctor has to save Clara, and he finally tells her and us his name.

DOCTOR: My name, my real name, that is not the point. The name I chose is the Doctor. The name you choose, it's like a promise you make.

Because of course his real name is the Doctor. Whatever his Gallifreyan name was doesn't matter; it simply isn't who he is. It could be argued that it's a copout, of course. But no other name could have satisfied, and Moffat realizes the truth about his name. The Doctor has always been his name. What he was before he stepped into the TARDIS doesn't matter. Like his powerful but vacant race, he was nothing, a mere observer from a distance. But he chose the name of one who helps people, who saves them. (And an extremely educated one, because his ego is about the size of the TARDIS interior. His Doctorate is, after all, purely honorary.) And after a few false starts, that's who he became.

... which, of course, leaves that question of who in the void John Hurt is, but obviously we're saving that for later.

Am I the only one amused by the fact that he's both Winston Smith and Big Brother?

So, yes, Moffat's flaws mar the episode and the season. He's too in love with his own cleverness at times, and has left a terrific actress in Jenna Louise Coleman with something of a blank for a character for the sake of a neat bit of meta silliness. He doesn't give Richard E. Grant anything to do; the Whisper Men are far more effective. Moffat's talent in villainy has always been the silent ones. And sometimes he's in such a rush to get to his next great idea that he doesn't take the time he should to fully develop the one he's on.

But he's still a genius who can create a story as layered and complex as anything Christopher Bidmead wrote, but filled with the raw intensity of Saward, the eye for character and humor of Robert Holmes, and the geniune emotion of Russell T. Davies. At his finest, his writing is everything beautiful and wonderful about this most beautiful and wonderful of shows. Like the Doctor, he took a title - lead writer of Doctor Who, and took the promise it required. Even if he trips here and there, he stands back up and lives up to that name.


* * * ½


  • This is now four season finales in a row about the Doctor's death, five if you count the tease in Journey's End. I know the finales have to be big somehow, and Moffat has come up with three very different and clever ways of doing it, but it's starting to lose its impact.
  • There's a payoff to Journey to the Center of the TARDIS here, but I don't think it fixes any of the problems in that episode. A better-written and more thoughtfully plotted version of Journey would have paid off just as nicely.
  • Saul Metzstein has proven himself a reliable (if stylistically anonymous) director who can handle just about anything. A particularly nice touch here is in the conference room scene, where he gradually moves the camera close and makes the lenses longer as things get more tense. But on the other hand, he really doesn't use enough master shots. It's not so much a bad thing in the episode as much as it is really hard to get good screencaps for these reviews. (It's really a plague of modern film making, to be honest; movies and shows feel like they're all close-ups all the time, and while close-ups are important and useful, they don't communicate things master shots can. The art of the Master, so to speak, seems to have been lost.)


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Sorry, made a botch-up of that. 2nd attempt...

    Great review :)

    A couple of little typos (I assume):

    "It's only after all this that Smith finally shows up, and the result is a beautifully written scene and acted scene." I'd omit that first 'scene'. And describing the Time Lords as 'vacant' - I'm not sure if that was the word you meant? Not sure what exactly you're getting at there.

    But other than that, beautifully written, especially the paragraph beginning 'Because of course his real name is the Doctor'. And I didn't know about the Great Intelligence bit from the 2nd Doctor era - I've seen the one surviving episode of 'The Abominable Snowmen' but nothing of 'The Web of Fear' - it's really hard to track down 2nd Doctor stories where I live (New Zealand). I've seen quite a few of the other 2nd Doctor stories though - he's still my favourite ;)

    So yes, great review. I agree about Richard E Grant being underused, I agree about the expert handling of the first two acts with the skilled shifts from comedy to horror and back (the moment when Jenny tells the others in the conference call she'd been murdered was particularly shocking, and Vastra's snarling grief on Trenzalore was really moving. As was her understated reaction to having to kill Strax when he no longer remembered her). That montage at the beginning - repeated later in the episode - was absolutely thrilling, I loved seeing all the older Doctors again (though poor Paul McGann only got a 'blink and you miss it' appearance). Loved it, loved, loved it.

    As for River, her send-off was really moving, and it was nice to see some acknowledgement that the Doctor did actually love her. For the first time, HE kissed HER. Shame she was dead ;)

    I say it's a send-off, because I speculated on seeing 'The Snowmen' that when Vastra was talking to Clara about how the Doctor had suffered 'losses', she was referring not only to Amy and Rory, but to River as well. In River's last appearance before that she mentioned she was a professor at last, indicating the Angels story to be taking place near the end of her life. The series 6 DVD extras also briefly showed River and the older Doctor going on their last date to see the Singing Towers, when he showed up in a new suit, cried, and gave her a sonic screwdriver. I knew then that River's series 7 appearances were probably her last.

    I'm quite glad we won't be seeing the Singing Towers date, we haven't actually seen any of the others, and I doubt anyone could have done them justice, so it's better that we can imagine them. Or not, for those of us who don't like River, or are still clinging to the idea that Rose is his One Twu Wuv, or whatever. Personally, I think Alex Kingston has been absolutely marvellous, and I always thought her a far better match for the Doctor than Rose. 'Let's Kill Hitler' and 'The Wedding of River Song' were a little weak, but on the whole I've loved her story. I don't believe she was hinting that she'd be back at the end of her big scene in 'The Name of the Doctor', I think she was just giving him the hope and courage he needed to go and rescue Clara. But I won't be surprised if the 'woman in the shop' who gave the Clara the Doctor's number turns out to have been River, her one last act to look after him.

    That's probably enough of my babbling. Anyway, like I said, great review. Cheers!

  3. No one I know ever really liked River that much, though I thought she was all right. I'M STILL READING WHOO

    1. Everyone you know is wrong and an objectively bad person