Doctor Who complete reviews: The Doctor's Wife
|REVIEWS - DOCTOR WHO|
Neil Gaiman proves his Whovian credentials with a sparkling and scary entry...
You would have thought that a Doctor Who reviewer would have seen it all by now. The return of the apparently dead Time Lords. A walking, talking laughing stock of a Dalek. Not to mention the rather joyous fact that a companion from the 1970s can land her very own show and win over a whole new generation of kids.
But what about the idea that The Doctor meets his beloved TARDIS in humanoid form? Never in the show's 48-year history has anyone come up with that idea – well, until Neil Gaiman came up with his first (and hopefully not last) contribution for Doctor Who called The Doctor's Wife. Such an obvious idea, and potentially one that could have failed miserably. Revolving a story around one of Doctor Who's most important icons is always a bit of a risky business, since expectations are always bigged up to infinity. Battlefield brought back the Brigadier, but while Nicholas Courtney received rightful acclaim, the story itself stumbled after so-so scripting, dodgy lines and a bwa-ha-ha-ing mummy's boy. On the other hand, School Reunion proved that you can bring back an iconic figure from Doctor Who to great success while telling a fabulous, well-researched story at the same time.
Linking in with Sarah-Jane for another moment, another potential problem for me was the fact that Suranne Jones was chosen to play the pivotal role of Idris. Now while I could probably count the amount of times I've seen Corrie in the last 10 years on one hand, I did see that odd Sarah-Jane Adventures episode in which Jones played The Mona Lisa in the manner of a one-woman hen party auditioning for the latest Boddingtons advert. So when it was announced that Jones would make the transition to Doctor Who, I wasn't expecting great things – especially given that her character Idris resembled an over-wacky re-imagining of Miss Haversham: The Junior Years. But still, all the pre-press hoopla suggested that both Jones and the episode itself were outstanding and that this was a real treat for Old School Who fans – being the cynical old git that I am, I always find that the hype machine never quite tells the truth. Nine times out of ten, I'll always come away from a hugely fanfared TV programme feeling a bit short-changed.
Luckily on this occasion, my fears were put to rest, since The Doctor's Wife is a sparkling return to form after the lacklustre Curse Of The Black Spot. It's interesting – in format and content, both adventures are pretty much the same. They're standalone adventures that deviate from the over-riding story arc. They rely on many nods to the past. And of course, Rory dies yet again – quite why ACME Gravestones are not calling this man up for a quick blast of sales pitch is a head-scratching mystery.
"There's a fresh, fun feel about The Doctor's Wife, and just as importantly, Neil Gaiman is a man who obviously knows his Doctor Who inside out"
The difference between the two though is that everything that Black Spot gets wrong, The Doctor's Wife gets right. OK, so it's a standalone adventure, but both the premise and the script are so compelling that the mystery overload of the story arc pale into insignificance. Yes, there are countless nods to the past, but this time around, they don't feel like blatant copies of earlier adventures. There's a fresh, fun feel about The Doctor's Wife, and just as importantly, Neil Gaiman is a man who obviously knows his Doctor Who inside out and back to front.
Let's see – deep breath... We get: The Time Lord communication box devices last seen in Episode Nine of The War Games. A reference to The Eye Of Orion from The Five Doctors. The return of the Ood, again used as a hapless pawn as in The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit. The note of The Doctor's rebuttal of the Time Lords from The End Of Time. The jettisoning of rooms harks back to the Christopher Bidmead days of Logopolis and Castrovalva . The travelling console from the Gurning Pertwee Hall Of Mirrors in Inferno . And hey – the old control room from the Davies days! All of these past continuity nods don't feel crowbarred in for the sake of it – instead, this is all the sign of a skilled writer who's demonstrating his Who knowledge with much aplomb. Even the Rory Dies Yet Again motif works on a creepier level than in the last story, and equally as important, both Rory and Amy get some meaty character background that presents them as real people rather than the annoying ciphers of the previous season.
So having answered a mayday from a Time Lord (or should I say, apparently a Time Lord), The Doctor and co land in a smelly old junk-yard on a desolate asteroid. And this is proper intergalactic Steptoe junk-yards that we're talking here, to the point where Amy comments that the place smells of armpits. Well, she should try taking a trip on the tube in the peak of high summer – the stale onion stench of crowds of BO-affected commuters is enough to make any sane man chop his nose off in desperation. Still, at least the planet's not crowded though, given that there only seems to be the enigmatic Auntie and Uncle, Idris and a lone Ood called Nephew making up the numbers. And when The Doctor follows the trail of the distress signal, it only leads him to a cabinet full of Time Lord communication boxes. Turns out that even Auntie and Uncle have no real lives of their own, given that they're no more than “Patchwork people” as The Doctor calls them - “You've been repaired and patched up so often, I doubt there's anything left of what used to be you”.
It's all thanks to the clever asteroid, a sentient asteroid thing with the voice of doom called House – not a very, very, very fine House but a being hell-bent on eating the TARDIS. I can't quite see the culinary appeal of eating a TARDIS myself – the wood might cause splinters to get between your teeth for one thing – but again, it's still quite a fresh idea to have a being who doesn't want to control or capture the TARDIS, but eat it (“House feeds on rift energy and TARDISes are bursting with it,” explains The Doctor. “And not raw – all lovely and cooked!”). Not only that, but the stakes are raised as House now controls the TARDIS with both Amy and Rory on board, doomed for an apparent lifetime of creepy mind games and corridor skulking.
Now the Trapped Amy and Rory sub-plot doesn't sound like much – running up and down corridors is an age old cliché when it comes to Doctor Who, but in The Doctor's Wife, that old cliché works on two counts – one in its character-building, the other in its real psychological horror. Rory, in particular, gets a lot more characterisation than he got in his first few stories. Take the sequence when he's chinwagging with House and accusing the being of killing Auntie and Uncle for fun – “Someone to make suffer. I had a PE teacher just like you. You need to be entertained...” We've all seen it – they say a lot of adult psychology stems from those awkward childhood days: Not so much to do with parenthood, but with school. After all, it feels like most of childhood was spent in the classroom than at home with mum and dad and siblings. So if you get the short straw with bratty bullying pupils or equally dictatorial teachers, that's going to make an impression, to say the least. So pity poor old Rory, quaking from a rugger bugger style teacher throwing the dodge-ball at his trembling knees. Just that one sentence alone starts the ball rolling with Rory's background, conjuring up images of a well-meaning but shy, awkward, gawky kid who didn't quite have the same social skills as the cool kid in the corner.
"A welcome return to the 'Behind The Sofa' tag in this story"
That's taken one step further with the grim chase around the TARDIS corridors. Both Amy and Rory are reduced to playing cat and mouse around the corridors, as House plays psychological tricks on them – whether they nearly fall headlong into pits or are separated by doors, it's the sequence in which Amy finds an aged Rory (who actually looks more like the 'It's...!' Man from Monty Python's Flying Circus, but never mind) that chills the most. Time's presumably playing tricks, but judging from the dialogue, there's deeper subtexts at work. “You left me!” howls Rory. “How could you do that? How could you leave me?” Hmm, ring any bells from the last season, when Amy was more in love with putting Rory down and abandoning him for her Raggedy Doctor? Arthur Darvill plays this crazed old version of Rory to perfection, while Karen Gillan is just as good in her suitably terrified reactions – ditto in the equally grim scene in which she chances upon Rory's rotting skeleton. It may be another example of the Rory Dies charade, but it's probably one of the most effective of the lot. It's certainly the scariest.
So it's a welcome return to the 'Behind The Sofa' tag in this story (it's also nice to see an apparently hostile Ood skulking around the TARDIS, too), but the most notable aspect of The Doctor's Wife is The Doctor's interplay with Idris, who has the personality of the TARDIS matrix (albeit on a temporary basis, as she hasn't got long to live either). Like I said, it's such an obvious idea, but it's brought to the screen with much care and attention in Gaiman's script, whether they're bantering about their initial 'meeting' (“And then you stole me – and then I stole you”), arguing over the TARDIS' somewhat erratic ability to get to the right destination (at least Idris confesses that she always gets The Doctor to where he NEEDS to be) or deciding on names (“I think you call me... Sexy” says Idris to which a spluttering Doctor replies “Only when we're alone!”).
The Doctor's always had this sort of attitude with the TARDIS though. In many adventures past, we've seen The Doctor treat the TARDIS as a living thing, going right back to The Edge Of Destruction. In The Time Monster, for example, Jo laughs in amazement that the TARDIS can be a living thing. In Tom Baker's time, there's plenty of console pats and pep talks of encouragement. He even treats the TARDIS console as a sick patient in The Ribos Operation after Romana's gone and somehow drilled a hole in one of the panels. Just like that all-important wife figure, The Doctor regards the TARDIS as the most important constant in his life – note that in a good number of regeneration stories, The Doctor tries to make it back to the blue box as some sort of safe haven where he can undergo the metamorphosis into the next man.
"The acting is stellar across the board, with the regulars on top form, and Suranne Jones stealing the acting honours out of the guests"
So to have The Doctor actually get the chance to talk to his beloved TARDIS in the 'flesh' is a lovely idea, and it also works thanks to two fantastic performances from both Suranne Jones (whose earlier misfire as The Mona Lisa can be forgiven, given that she plays the part of Idris to quirky, charming perfection) and of course, Matt Smith, who's on electrifying form here. Whether he's bounding about like a madman without a box trying to rig some improvised console from the scrapheap or breaking down in tears at the end when he's forced to say goodbye to his corporeal best friend (“Please... I don't want you to... Please...”) in a surprisingly moving scene, Smith continues to demonstrate his range and also sheer joy at playing The Doctor.
All in all, The Doctor's Wife is a treat not only for young 'uns who will be gripped by this quirky idea that the TARDIS can come to life for a bit, but also by the scary scenes of Rory and Amy getting freaked out by House – but also by the faithful fans who will be well rewarded by the continuity all-you-can-eat buffet and the fantastic script. The production values are darn tootin' too. Richard Clark, after a lengthy-ish absence returns to the pen to deliver some strong direction, full of claustrophobia and wonder. The acting is stellar across the board, with the regulars on top form, and Suranne Jones stealing the acting honours out of the guests. Having said that, Michael Sheen makes for a creepy presence as House, using just his voice to great effect, while Elizabeth Berrington and Adrian Schiller also do well as Auntie and Uncle respectively.
It's stories like The Doctor's Wife that make NuWho Season Six a far better one than its predecessor. It encapsulates everything that's great about Doctor Who. Scares for the kids. Unusual, quirky ideas. Great acting. And a care and attention to detail when it comes to exploring its long, rich tapestry of the past. Few TV shows can do this or even hope to achieve this sort of thing, but The Doctor's Wife makes it look deceptively easy.
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