TV Where do we start? Let’s start with Alien Bodies. Alien Bodies is an Eighth Doctor novel by Lawrence Miles. I’m about to spoil the book so if you haven’t read it and have any intention, I’d shift your gaze downwards five paragraphs. As you know, or you will by the end of this sentence, Alien Bodies is about the Doctor attending an intergalactic auction with its single lot of a relic containing his final remains. As with The Name of the Doctor it’s a very funerary piece of work that’s also extremely funny and ultimately changes our view of the character because it gives him a finite end albeit one that’s presumed to be very far in the future.
Like The Name of the Doctor it also references a Time War, one which is revealed in future novels to include the destruction of Gallifrey, an act which actually negates Alien Bodies from happening in the same way because it stops the Doctor’s relics from existing in quite the that form. Part of the story arc involves an alternative version of the Time Lord, the Grandfather Paradox, who has a coincidental resemblance to the Ninth Doctor, but whose actions in actively continuing the war are what the Eighth Doctor is fighting against when he destroys his own planet (as it turns out for the first time).
Why that’s interesting in the context of The Name of the Doctor, is that it too features an alternative version of the Time Lord, the one, we must assume now, who destroyed Gallifrey, and because as we know now he can't be an old version of Eighth or Ninth (see far below), absolves them of the action in quite the way it’s been portrayed over the past eight years on television and in some of the books. In AHistory, Lance Parkin makes a pretty good argument for both destructions of Gallifrey being the same space-time event seen from different points of view, that perhaps the Grandfather Paradox regenerated into the Ninth Doctor.
Even now the climax makes me giggle. Not since The Stolen Earth's surprise regeneration have we had a conclusion this “sexy” and so much metafictionally about the language of tv though in this case it’s one based on we the audience finding out a piece of information rather than something particularly happening to the Doctor who knew about this all along. The fact that John Hurt is somehow playing the Doctor has been heavily spoilt in advanced already, thanks to a tasty set photo ala those early shots of Rose from Partners in Crime and the words coming out of John Hurt's own mouth. It’s the somehow which is interesting (again see below).
Was Alien Bodies and its ensuing arc in the novels rattling around Steven Moffat’s head when writing this series of Doctor Who? Let’s look at the evidence. As I noticed in 2008 when coincidentally reviewing The Forest of Dead (of which this is a semi-sequel), Moffat was an avid reader of the books including the Lawrence Miles material. Alien Bodies also includes the concept of the Doctor’s then companion Sam having alternative versions and in the Time/Space sketches, the Doctor talks about the TARDIS entering “conceptual space”, a Lawrence Miles invention from Alien Bodies (see this review of that here). So if you want to infer all of this, you can.
But and this is a big but, designed especially for those of you who skipped the past five paragraphs (hello again!), The Name of the Doctor is one of those episodes. A glance at the TARDIS Datacore page for it shows that like similar season finales, and more-so thanks to it being an anniversary year, narrative stuff from across the franchise’s half century of existence, and although most of it’s on the nose animated gifs and wav files, some of the underlying html, java and python is notable for those of us who spend more time than we should pouring over Lance Parkin’s AHistory, TARDIS Datacore pages and other reference “works”. See also something Paul Magrs has noticed from his own work.
Did I enjoy it? Yes! Is it any good? Well … I suppose having said all of the above it depends what you want from Doctor Who. To be fair to the show, a few episodes this series have returned to first principles with bases under siege and alien invasions, but there is a point where you have to show more of the Doctor on his adventures saving all of those lives rather than of the Doctor chasing his own tail or indeed tale. Partly the current approach is as a result of this being the 50th anniversary and wanting to respect that past and introducing something new, or at least reveal something new about something in those fifty years.
But (small but this time) I do hope once the 50th is over and the eighth series begins, whenever the hell that’s going to be, though it’s good that we know finally that it is going to be, that we’ll have another brand spanking approach, that the story arc isn’t about the Doctor or the companion or a mix of the two, ending in another paradoxical situation of some form or other related to same existing or not existing or revealing something which is/was already in plain sight. We’ve done that and it’s been thrilling. It's thrilling here, but now even I’m asking for something else. Across a whole series of thirteen episodes because the split season thing isn’t working.
Right, now that I’ve got all that off my chest, what about The Name of the Doctor? What about The Name of the Doctor? Like I said, I loved it. Even though it does have roughly the same structure as The Pandorica Opens, The Wedding of River Song and The Angels Take Manhattan, of the Doctor receiving a message which forces him to confront that which he should never confront which is ultimately resolved by messing about in his own time stream, like the other older standards, it’s how that’s deployed what really matters and this is an excellent example largely because we like spending time with the characters.
If Clara (more on whom later) still seems a bit consistent in relation to how confident she’s supposed to be, which isn’t to criticise Jenna’s playing which has exponentially improved across the season, especially her comic timing, Strax, Jenny and Vastra will remain, like Jackie, Donna and Wilf in Russell’s era, his greatest creation and he clearly loves writing for them, notably Strax, whose line “Surrender your women and intellectuals!” will become the quote we all secretly wish would be put on the posters, t-shirts and badges even though we know that by implication it’s really, really wrong.
Does The Name of the Doctor ruin The Forest of the Dead? No more than everything else which has been inserted into Professor River Song's backstory. The Silence in the Library and its following episode were always stronger when River was a mystery, someone in the Doctor's future. I remember watching the story on the afternoon before the broadcast of A Good Man Goes To War, knowing that I wouldn't be able to enjoy it in quite the same way again. Taking into account my previous comments, she'll also be back despite what happens here; the Doctor still has to pass to her his sonic screwdriver, take her on her final trip in the TARDIS, the dramatic possibilities of which Moffat is unlikely to ignore (even if the fact Clara didn't recognise her rules her out of the being the person who gave Clara the Doctor's phone number).
His handling of the Doctor is also really strong. Having built him up, as usual, as the great, fearful mythic god like figure, he’s shown entirely outwitted (apparently) by teenagers and a blindfold. When he’s confronted with his greatest fear, his first thought is to ask Jenny, who last he’s heard is dead, if she's ok. Whether that is Moffat or “business worked out in the rehearsals” (which judging by the production subtitles on the classic dvds how the entire Troughton era was thrown together) (“The scripted line was…”) it’s an attention to detail which hasn’t recently been deployed that often. Jenny was kind to him. Saved his life. Now she’s under his protection.
Moffat's handling of the Doctor’s darkness is equally muscular. Notice how, when listing his vanquished, those bathed in blood, Solomon the Trader is included. Remember how annoyed some of us were about his death, how it seemed to be in cold blood, how it was somehow, along with his approach in A Town Called Mercy, an indication of there being something wrong with him. Well, Mr G Intelligence seems to be suggesting here that it’s just him. That’s just the way he his. He’s The (Oncoming) Storm, The Beast, The Valeyard. Even in these earlier incarnations he’s capable of the inhuman, the morally ambiguous. Unless you’re under his protection.
None of which should really be a surprise. We all like to hold him up, largely because most of the time that’s how the franchise tends to portray him, as a white-hatted figure, Roy Rogers. But he’s The Man With No Name, or man with a name though not even, really a man. In comics terms, his publicist might portray him as Superman, but really he’s The Batman. Which when glancing back at my review of Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, makes me feel rather foolish. Nothing happened between seasons as I suggested there. Moffat’s saying he’s just like that. The Doctor, can be, and often is a shit. He’ll still brain you with a rock if you’re in the way.
Much of this is the Great Intelligence’s own moral justification for his upcoming actions, gutturally spit out in one of REG’s best ever performances (and if only he’d played the Shalka Doctor with this conviction) (not that it would have mattered in the grand scheme of things but at least it would have made it a bit more watchable) (perhaps he’ll do it again for the dvd as a special feature) but I suppose the retrospective point being made about Solomon and the Dominators and all the other human looking people he’s exploded is that they’re all monsters even if they look like the people he’s usually defending.
Trenzalore. Remember back in The Wedding of River Song when the descriptions of what would happen here gestured towards the epic? Again we're in "arguable" territory. Arguably Silence did fall when the question was asked. Or rather time imploded in on itself when the GI entered the Doctor's time stream causing a cataclysm big enough to destroy the universe. It's interesting there were no specific callbacks or explanations, apart from a mention of poor old Dorium. But it is another example of Moffat's slightly woolly approach to story arcs which assumes we've forgotten why things are happening anyway.
Now then Clara. In my review of The Snowmen I pondered, “it is still possible that she is fragments of the same figure blown across time Scaroth like?”, to which the answer is yes, yes it is. Of course everything else I said in ensuing paragraphs is utter bollocks and most of the speculation from the past seven reviews, but I was in fairly early. Like Scaroth from City of Death, she’s blasted across time with a goal, her goal being to save the Doctor. A lot. Through a method which makes about as much sense as Amy Pond remembering a whole universe plus Time Lord and TARDIS back into existence, Clarke’s Third Law in full effect.
How are these adventures supposed to play out? Does the Great Intelligence arrive at all points in the Doctor’s timeline inserting himself into all of his adventures at some point forcing them to go wrong, helping the Drahvins to invade the Rill’s ship, manufacturing more evidence of the Doctor’s guilt in Cranleigh Halt and buying Chloe Webber a Costco sized batch of crayons before one of Drahvins suddenly realises she doesn’t need to take orders and sabotages their ship, one of the flappers in the hall happens to witness the Doctor edging out of the hidden passages or as a teacher buys out all of Costco’s crayons for her school’s Olympic art competition?
Are we supposed to now watch Doctor Who on the assumption that every coincidental piece of luck and continuity error might not just be due to the Time War, the Faction Paradox or the cracks in time, but on a more human level, one of Clara’s aspects keeping an eye on the Time Lord? If that’s the case, no wonder the TARDIS took a dislike to her. While she’s taking the Doctor where he needs to go, Clara’s already there to help out, unseen in the background. She’s a benevolent version of Mila from the dying embers of the Sixth Doctor and Charley Pollard audios, at which point I refer to the comments I made some paragraphs ago.
Except there’s an inconsistency. When Clara appears in all of these eras, “Doctor?” she asks. “Doctor?” Except as per her three appearances in the series, these fragments, recreations, whatever, don’t know who he is initially, he has to explain to them anew each time. They don’t have his name. Yet here they are peering at him in his literal cliffhanger from Dragonfire entirely recognising who he is despite his predicament and it has to be the same set of events because this is an ontological paradox. Clara wouldn’t be there if the Doctor hadn’t found her intriguing enough in her other versions to have her as his companion/assistant until he worked out who she is/was/will be.
The rendering of Claras appearances through time should be squee inducing but there’s no way of getting past how these don’t quite work. For one thing, the merging of Jenna with the old footage simply doesn’t match in most shots, often cutting between 80s video and 10s HD, or between actual footage and stand-ins running at a different pace. Much of it looks like a poor cousin of similar YouTube experiments and indeed many people on Twitter noted afterwards that they should have asked “the Babelcolour guy” Stuart Humphreys to have done the colourisations, especially since he’s apparently achieved magic on The Mind of Evil restoration.
The lack of accomplishment in these scenes was illuminated still further last night during the Eurovision Song Contest, when presenter Petra Mede was also merged seamlessly into a similar variety of footage in various states of restoration from the history of that franchise, with the ABBA footage a particular success thanks to the engineer noticing the halo effects on the tape and replicating that in Mede’s appearance. Perhaps if the Gallifrey footage had appeared in black and white retaining the mis-en-scene of the era we might not have been pulled out of it quite so much. Perhaps if Jenna had been acting opposite David Bradley instead.
Which is a shame because Clara’s costumes are well chosen to evoke their given era, especially in the case of the Seventh Doctor era in which they recreated almost companion Ray from Delta and the Bannermen’s threads to the nearest stud. Some doubling up across Doctors, and what looks like Emma’s jumper from Hide. Incidentally I’m not sure where all this leaves the Doctor’s remark about Clara’s dress being a little bit “too” tight from last week. I generally didn’t notice it but friends have thought it a bit creepy. I’m still not sure especially having watched how the Doctor talks to Liz in Spearhead from Space earlier which is very in period, my dear, my girl. Such a man's man.
The use of stand-ins works much better later in the episode, running through the Doctor’s essence in their various costumes, the First Doctor version looking not unlike Richard Hurndall version anyway. The Eighth Doctor is here too briefly, twice, with his velvet jacket. Say what you like about the JNT costumes, at least they’re immediately recognisable. Notice how the Tenth Doctor isn’t much here, saving his cameo presumably for the 50th. Will he be the Time Lord? Will he be the human version from the alternative universe (my hunch?). Still plenty of time to go until we find out.
Woody Allen says, though I’m paraphrasing, that he has a perfect version of each of his films in his head beforehand and what we receive his failed attempt at recreating that. All of my writing is like that and this review in particular, due to my cold, so thanks for keeping with it. Sometimes these things need to be written simply so that they're not in my head and the idea of waiting another few days until my head cleared was unbearable. Who knows what last night’s version would have been like. If I wasn’t perpetually knackered and coughing. If Eurovision hadn’t been on. If this hadn’t been the season finale but just episode eight.
Glancing back across these thirteen odd episodes, has the whole thing been the creative failure some have suggested? Well, no, at least not more or less than most previous seasons in the show’s history. Always remember: between The Sensorites came between The Aztecs and The Reign of Terror. The Twin Dilemma happened after The Caves of Androzani. The Curse of the Black Spot segwayed into The Doctor’s Wife. Even The Name of the Doctor brings some sense to a couple of its weaker instalments, metaphysically recreating the leaf from Akhaten and repairing a reset button, making it clear the Doctor remembered the Journey all along.
It’s still never less than watchable. Mostly. It’s still Doctor Who. The Snowmen’s still a triumph, closely followed by Hide and The Crimson Horror. Asylum of the Daleks could have been a classic if we’d been able to see more of the older models instead of having to squint (notice the parallel with The Name of the Doctor which brought us some their foes older models at the other end of the season). The Power of Three is excellent up until the final moments when Berkoff’s boredom unbalances everything. The Angels Take Manhattan falls apart under the weight of its own existence. Nightmare in Silver is the catastophic failure of the year. Oh well.
For one final time, cue speculation, or rather repeated speculation. John Hurt’s Doctor. As I said earlier he can’t be the older Eighth Doctor because the stand in version dashed past the prone Clara or some older Ninth Doctor for the same reason which ruins my old theory, so he has to be some interstitial incarnation, the one who destroyed Gallifrey and ended the Time War, the one who had “the moment” in The End of Time, which is both very exciting indeed and disappointing because it presumably removes the Eighth Doctor’s notional cameo from the same story. Let’s hope he’s back for the 50th to make up for it. Paul’s apparently just gone and got a new sonic screwdriver from Weta ...