“Don’t get into a spaceship with a madman. Didn’t anyone ever tell you that?”
This week’s hotly anticipated episode of Doctor Who was always going to divide its ever-fractious fandom. Any episode that explores the mythos of the show always does, and especially when it’s one dealing with the show’s one constant (other than the Doctor himself) – the TARDIS. Neil Gaiman managed the virtually impossible last year, pleasing virtually all of fandom with his ‘character dissection’ of the Ship, The Doctor’s Wife.
It’s perhaps a little odd to have another exploration of the Ship so soon after, but while The Doctor’s Wife was a thoughtful, meditative piece that explored the Ship from a philosophical perspective, Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS was an action-packed exploration of it physically. Inevitably, this ‘guided tour with monsters’ suffered in comparison, being pretty lacking in depth for all its spectacle.
We’ve seen explorations of the TARDIS before, of course. The third story ever, 1964’s The Edge of Destruction, was a curious ‘bottle episode’ featuring only the four main characters, in which the Ship seemed to be ganging up on them to drive them insane. It turned out, of course, that she was trying to get them stop her hurtling back to the Big Bang after a switch got stuck. The 70s showed us a bit more of the interior; 1976’s The Masque of Mandragora has Sarah Jane Smith discovering the surprisingly large ‘boot cupboard’, after which she stumbles on the elegantly designed secondary control room:
Later in the 70s, The Invasion of Time featured a Big Chase through the TARDIS interior, which disappointingly (due to budgetary restrictions) resembled the interior of a half derelict brick hospital (mainly because it was one). But the show really went for it in the early 80s, as 1981’s Logopolis featured incoming companion Tegan getting lost in the Ship’s labyrinthine corridors, while the Doctor brooded around in the never-before-seen Cloister room:
Castrovalva showed even more of the endless corridors, and introduced us to the serene Zero Room, while barely a story passed in Peter Davison’s era without the camera snooping on one of his companions’ bedrooms. And in 1996, The Paul McGann-starring TV Movie blew basically half its budget on an impressive, cathedral-like series of sets for the TARDIS interior – which sadly would never be seen again.
One of the criticisms of the show since its 2005 return has been that it never shows the TARDIS interior outside of the Console Room. The Doctor’s Wife rectified that – a bit – with the scary sequence of Amy and Rory being hounded round its corridors. But corridors – disappointingly generic ones – were all we saw outside the Console Room in that story.
Sad to say, those corridors were back in Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS, and still just as generic – a shame, as they were mostly what we saw of the Ship’s interior. But that’s not to say they were all we saw. There were plenty of spectacles on display here (some of them rather fleetingly) that at least gave the idea that the interior was a thing of infinite wonder.
But the ep couldn’t just be a 45 minute guided tour, fun though that might have been for fans. Actual jeopardy was introduced as the TARDIS, its shields turned off so Clara could have a go at flying it, was seized by a Magno-Grab belonging to unscrupulous space salvagers the Van Baalen Brothers. The effect of this was to cause catastrophic damage, with the Doctor thrown clear while Clara was left stranded in those corridors. Teaming up with the salvagers to rescue his companion, the Doctor introduced even more jeopardy by seemingly activating the self-destruct mechanism, while Clara discovered yet more jeopardy as sinister, red-eyed figures began to pursue her from room to room.
All these plot threads and mysteries – not to mention those of the three guest characters – were arguably a bit much to throw into the mix while also giving us a tour of the TARDIS. And it showed – there were some very interesting ideas on display here, but they were generally lost in the frantic, incoherent pace of the thing. If you didn’t pick up on seemingly throwaway lines – such as the one explaining that the grenade-like object was actually the Magno-Grab remote control – you might completely lose track of what was going on.
It didn’t help that the sound mix was as erratic as ever, though this time dialogue was lost under thunderous explosions rather than Murray Gold’s orchestra. Throw in some more teasing about the show’s ongoing arcs, and it becomes clear why this ep, though fairly enjoyable, came across as rather a jumbled, incoherent mess.
To take the good stuff first, I enjoyed the conception that the TARDIS – very much a living thing – could jumble time every bit as much as space in her interior. True, this was partly because of the Time Fissure opened up in the accident. But the resolution of the plotline involving the monsters – and the plot entire – depended on yet another ‘timey-wimey’ resolution.
It was a nice touch that the terrifying, red-eyed ‘monsters’ turned out to be none other than our characters themselves, future echoes hideously burned by exposure to the Eye of Harmony (though the script didn’t make clear why their horrific injuries would also turn them into snarling murderous psychopaths). And plainly the only way to resolve a plot which meant the complete destruction of the TARDIS was going to be the good old Reset Button, telegraphed from the very beginning of the script:
While I thought that appropriate for a story like this, I can see how some fans are getting a bit narked with this being a constant way to resolve plots – in a way, it’s as bad as RTD’s constant deus ex machinas. Not to mention that Star Trek: The Next Generation already did it, in season 5’s Cause and Effect, which featured the Enterprise stuck in a time loop repeating the events that led to her destruction until Data figured out how to avert it.
Still, other timey-wimey aspects were intriguing, such as the Doctor being stuck in an echo of the Console Room, with Clara stuck in the same echo but slightly shifted sideways in time. Or the Doctor’s frantic attempt to avert the oncoming future he knew to be happening by stopping the Van Baalens from touching, so they wouldn’t fuse into the burned monstrosity banging on the door.
The Van Baalens were fairly inconsequential guest characters – a result, probably, of this story trying to squeeze in so much. Their sibling rivalry was well-established from the start, but ‘unscrupulous space salvagers’ was pretty much their only USP. The sole twist in their tale was pretty predictable too – that supposed ‘android’ Tricky was really their little brother, cybernetically augmented since a terrible accident, then conned into believing he wasn’t human for his brothers’ ‘entertainment’.
The performances were good – and it’s always nice to see Ashley Walters in anything. But they were all that lifted these from being very one-note characters. It’s notable that Bram, who had very little to do plotwise, was dispatched pretty quickly. And the resolution to their plotline defied logic – if time has been reset, why does Gregor still remember that “tiny scrap of decency” he regained on the adventure. And how did the torn photo reform itself to include Tricky if the events never happened?
I know, I know, we’re not meant to think too much about the ‘timey-wimey’. But that still doesn’t excuse it being used a replacement for RTD’s deus ex machinas.
At least we learned much about the TARDIS, though I’d question whether the hints we’ve already had needed making into explicit certainties.The method by which the Ship reconfigures its internal architecture (conveniently explaining changes in set design) was finally revealed as a ganglia-like device that blurred the line between mechanical and organic:
While the vexed question of how the TARDIS is powered by the Eye of Harmony, first mentioned in the TV movie, was shown and (half) explained. The Doctor’s description of the star being permanently suspended in a state of decay covered how it works (sort of) but doesn’t explain how it can be in the TARDIS and also on Gallifrey (as stated when it was first named in 1976’s The Deadly Assassin). Still, it seemed likely that that level of technology would easily lend itself to objects co-existing in multiple locations. It looked pretty good too.
As did the white void of the TARDIS Engine Room, temporally frozen in mid-explosion; though it was hard not to think of The Matrix’s similar void.
Visually, then, a very interesting episode. But already it felt it had tried to cram too much in at the expense of measured pacing, which wasn’t helped when the Doctor and Clara outright confronted the two Big Issues of the ongoing plot – what is the Doctor’s name, and just who the heck is Clara?
The first was almost actually answered, as Clara stumbled across a book in the Library entitled The History of the Time War, nicely embossed with the old Seal of Rassilon.
This did give rise to the vexed question of who exactly wrote such a book about a War which we know to have had almost no survivors, together with how one could write any kind of narrative account of a War that transcended linear time. Still, we probably weren’t meant to think of things like that, but rather be distracted by Clara’s sudden declaration, “so that’s who-“. This was later enlarged on when Clara asked him, “Why do you call yourself the Doctor? You’ve got a name.” to his obvious discomfiture. Still, that’s as nothing compared to the discomfiture of many fanatical fans horrified at the impending (apparent) revelation of it.
Conveniently, the Big Reset caused her to forget all about it. Along with the Doctor actually coming right out and asking her what she was, explaining that, Rory-like, she kept dying. It seems that, whatever she is, this version of her has no conception of any existence but her own. That pretty much confirmed what we’d already thought. And didn’t go far towards making me warm to her as a character rather than a puzzle. She still seems like an identikit clone of every Moffat ‘spunky, feisty heroine’ ever. She even got described as “feisty” in the script!
There were plenty of fan-pleasing references. The cot from A Good Man Goes to War, the Cloister Bell, the “conceptual geometer”, and most enjoyably (though bafflingly) of all, the dismantlement of the Console caused echoes of old voices discussing the TARDIS from way back – Susan, Ian Chesterton, the Third Doctor, the Fourth Doctor and so on.
But, fan-pleasing references or no, the story felt a bit of a disappointment to me. Not terrible, by any means – it’s still miles better than Victory of the Daleks, for example – but not brilliant either. Steve Thompson’s script tried to cram in far too much for a 45 minute episode, and Mat King’s rather frenetic direction didn’t help make it any more coherent. The trouble is, you want a story that explores such a central element of the show’s mythos to be something really special. Neil Gaiman managed that with The Doctor’s Wife, but ultimately Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS felt pretty average.