“I’m Clara Oswald. I’m the Impossible Girl. I was born to save the Doctor.”
Steven Moffat loves to engage with the fans of Doctor Who. And he particularly loves to bait some of the more humourless fans whose presumed ownership of the show makes their gorges rise in anger at the thought of anyone doing something with it that they personally don’t like. He’s got form, provoking them with titles like Let’s Kill Hitler and The Doctor’s Wife (which turned out not to be literal), then having the Doctor seemingly actually get married – or did he?
Moffat was at it again with this highly anticipated ‘series finale’, letting everybody know that it was called The Name of the Doctor well in advance. Predictably, many of the more humourless fans were immediately outraged. “HOW DARE HE RUIN THE MYSTERY BY TELLING US THE DOCTOR’S NAME???” they thundered on Gallifrey Base, as if this would somehow change the very nature of the character they’d loved for years.
This somehow never bothers Superman fans, though the revelation of his Kryptonian name Kal-El took place well before the internet enabled entitled fans to pour out their vitriol. Come to that, the world of Who fandom wasn’t exactly rocked when fellow Time Lord Drax referred to the Doctor as ‘Theta Sigma’ in 1978’s The Armageddon Factor (this was later retconned as being his ‘college nickname’).
Other humourless fans sourly declared that Moffat plainly had no intention of making such a revelation, and that the title was no more than the misdirection he’s become renowned for. And, unsurprisingly, they were right. But it wasn’t just misdirection; that title, built up to over the last couple of years, reflected a very pertinent and important plot thread in this quite complex episode. The only title I can think of that would have been more to the point would be The Grave of the Doctor – and I can’t see that one going down well in fandom either. Though from a thematic perspective – and this was actually in the dialogue – In the Name of the Doctor might have been even more appropriate.
After the excessive spectacle of previous years’ series finales, The Name of the Doctor was a surprisingly low key and cerebral. No warring armies of Cybermen and Daleks here; but for all its fairly small cast and murky settings, the stakes have rarely been higher. At stake was the Doctor’s entire existence – and given the amount of times he’s saved people, planets and even the entire universe, his erasure from existence was obviously going to have massive consequences. This was nicely visualised by the stars winking out one by one; though the show has done this before, in both Journey’s End and The Pandorica Opens (and 1981’s Logopolis for that matter).
But here, the intellectual nature of the plot was well-balanced with emotions, especially Moffat’s own towards the series he loves. Every episode in this 50th anniversary year has had some kind of callback to the series’ past, but it was never more evident than here, as we started at the very beginning – the First Doctor stealing a TARDIS and making a run for it from “Gallifrey – a very long time ago”.
Previous Doctors were all over the place here, mostly in a lovely montage digitally inserting Clara into old footage, or digitally inserting them into new footage. Brilliant though this was, my nitpicking techie side couldn’t help but find some of the technical details a bit lacking. People on YouTube without BBC resources have done better colourisations of William Hartnell, and the interlaced video that the shot of Tom Baker was drawn from meant that he seemed to striate into disconnected lines as he moved. Much better to have drawn his appearance from the film-based material used for most of the others, or find a shot where he wasn’t moving so fast like the one used for Sylvester McCoy.
Still, that’s quibbling. How many viewers will have noticed that kind of minutiae? Even I was charmed by the sequence, though admittedly I was beginning to tire of it by its third appearance. All three appearances were necessary plotwise though, and I guess they didn’t have the budget available for three wholly different montages. It was, nonetheless, a charming and inventive way to pay tribute to the show’s past without wheeling on a visibly chubbier Colin Baker in a blond wig.
Nostalgia aside though, this episode had a tall order to fulfil in giving viewers answers to some of the mysteries Moffat has intentionally strewn his run with. He plainly loves his plot arc puzzles, and at one point they were in danger of overwhelming the show rather – could anyone have made sense of A Good Man Goes to War or Let’s Kill Hitler without intimate knowledge of all the preceding Matt Smith episodes?
Thankfully he seems to have backpedalled on that for this series, making most of the episodes self-contained with only glancing references to the ongoing plot. That’s as it should be, in my opinion; this is Doctor Who, not Babylon 5, and the stories should be easily accessible for the casual viewer.
The Name of the Doctor managed to pull off the trick of following up the convoluted plot while still not alienating those who haven’t intently watched every Moffat ep for clues. The focus was on the Impossible Girl, and on that Question That Must Never Be Answered. Once it was clear that those were the stakes, further knowledge wasn’t really required. Of those two, we finally got an answer to the first, which actually made sense, and (which will please those humourless fans) we decidedly didn’t get an answer to the second.
Moffat’s imagination, sense of humour and distinctive dialogue style were all over this, as we were led from 1893 London to the Fields of Trenzalore via a mysteriously well-informed murderer, a dreamtime ‘Conference Call’ and an unwilling TARDIS literally dropped onto a planet from orbit. It was nice to see Vastra, Jenny and Strax again; I particularly liked Strax’s vacation destination of pub brawls in Glasgow (“I wish he’d never discovered that place”).
Slightly less welcome (for me at least) was the return of River Song. Still, this is a Moffat series finale, and like her or loathe her, she’s a vital component of his ongoing narrative. Alex Kingston, to give her credit, was less of a ham than usual, though this was as much down to the script as to her acting choices.
In an ongoing narrative begun way back when David Tennant was still the Doctor, this felt like it was actually the end of River’s story. After all, there is little left to discover about her, and little left for her to do. No surprise then that the River we saw turned out to be the ‘saved backup’ the Doctor had left in the Library that very first time he met her, when she really died. Their farewell scene was tender and touching, and left no doubt that, however much some fans may protest, the Doctor was genuinely in love with his ‘wife’. That was a deep, heartfelt kiss, followed up by an equally heartfelt farewell: “Goodbye – sweetie.”
Appropriately in this anniversary year, the villain turned out to be reconstructed Troughton baddie the Great Intelligence. This was hardly a surprise given its return appearance in The Bells of St John, but it’s always good to see Richard E Grant pop up to chew the scenery. And at least it wasn’t the bloody Daleks again.
The Intelligence’s sinister henchbeings, the so-called Whispermen, were disturbing creations, with their blank faces and tendency to speak entirely in rhyme. Moffat loves a bit of lexical jiggery-pokery, and it was to the front here with the ambiguous phrase “the Doctor has one secret he will take to his grave, and it is discovered”. The neat twist being the ambiguous subject of the sentence; it isn’t the Doctor’s secret that’s been discovered, it’s his grave.
This may also wind up a lot of fans, as the Doctor now, technically, has an expiry date – at a mysterious battle on the gloomy planet of Trenzalore. Of course, that event can be postponed as long as the show needs it to be; but the fact that the giant, dying TARDIS had the current console room, along with the crack in the window caused by the fall from orbit, rather implied it wasn’t that far off. Still, time is mutable, and never more so than in a Moffat episode – who knows what changes may occur to avoid this version of history ever happening?
It turned out that the Doctor’s grave was the key to everything, and the key to getting into it was saying the Doctor’s name. Hence, we were treated (hopefully for the last time) to the Intelligence repeating The Question over and over again, with the Doctor’s friends’ lives at stake: “Doctor Who? Doctor Who?”
As it turned out, we didn’t find out. The tomb was opened, from the inside, by the one person who did know his name – River Song. And we never heard what she said. It’s arguable that she made things worse by letting the Intelligence in, but the alternative – the deaths of Clara, Vastra, Jenny and Strax – would be unthinkable in this show. And in the event, River saved the Doctor from having to spill his secret; though I would have wished he’d made more of a deal of the relative unimportance of his actual name compared to the one he’d chosen.
So, when Time Lords die, they don’t leave a body (“Bodies are boring. I’ve had loads of them.”) but a conveniently accessible map of their own timestream, the wounds they’ve torn by battering their way through history. This was rather at odds with the previous Time Lord deaths we’ve seen; I don’t recall the Castellan in The Five Doctors turning into a glowing helix. Still, as the Doctor commented, “I’ve travelled in time more than anybody.”
The Intelligence’s revenge plan was typically timey-wimey in concept. Leap into the Doctor’s timestream and kill him over and over again, shattering history in the process but at least leaving the villain satisfied (although technically, dead). By this point, if you hadn’t guessed the answer to the riddle of Clara, you hadn’t been paying attention. The only possible resolution to save the Doctor was for somebody else to leap into his timestream after the Intelligence. And as Clara pointed out, we’d already seen it happen. It was the only possible explanation to her repeat appearances throughout the Doctor’s personal history.
So now Clara’s always been in the show, from the very beginning, even advising the First Doctor which TARDIS to steal. Retconning the entire history of the show is audacious, but again Steven Moffat’s done it before. The end of The Pandorica Opens features the destruction of everything ever, and The Big Bang features it conveniently restructured, perhaps differently. Besides, continuity in a 50-year-old TV show is a nightmare, and Who’s already has plenty of contradictions – what’s one more?
The ep could have ended there, with the Doctor’s timeline safe thanks to Clara’s noble self-sacrifice. And I wouldn’t have minded a bit – I’ve never really warmed to Clara, finding her more of a plot device than a well-defined character. Still, having her catchphrase as her parting shot – “Run, you clever boy. And remember me.” – was a bit tear-jerking.
But no, she’s not gone for good. Because a surprise epilogue revealed that this isn’t the end of the story. Clara has – for reasons still unrevealed – survived the process, and is stuck in the Doctor’s timestream, which is full of subtly shot lookalikes of past Doctors to please fans. So the Doctor takes on the ultimate paradox – leaping into his own timestream to rescue her. And along the way, there are further ruminations on the ongoing theme of just how ‘good’ the Doctor is.
Moffat’s been banging on about this for a while, and it was brought to the fore here as the Intelligence contemptuously mentioned the billions he’d slaughtered, including such recent victims as Solomon from Dinosaurs on a Spaceship. He also mentioned that, whatever name he might have chosen, in the future the Doctor will be known by other names – including ‘Valeyard’.
So was it that dark, future incarnation of the Doctor that we saw at the cliffhanger climax? Matt Smith’s speech to Clara brought another dimension of meaning to the episode title as he explained the significance of names we choose for ourselves – ie, “The Name of the Doctor” meant precisely that, that ‘the Doctor’ really is his name.
It also played in to what this dark, future version of the Doctor has done to deserve his predecessor’s shame. “What I did, I did without choice,” stated the very recognisable voice of the silhouette before them, “in the name of peace and sanity.”
“But not in the name of the Doctor,” spat Eleven, getting to Say the Title. It was a spine-tingling moment, though it did render the immediately subsequent, and madly dramatic, caption – “Introducing John Hurt as the Doctor” – rather contradictory.
Who is he then, if he doesn’t deserve to be called ‘Doctor’ any more? Is he, indeed, the Valeyard – that dark version “somewhere between his twelfth and final regenerations” we saw in 1986’s (awful) Trial of a Time Lord? I don’t normally plot my calendar so far in advance, but it’s safe to say that when the story is continued, on the actual 50th anniversary of November 23rd, Microsoft Outlook will show me as ‘busy’.
I really enjoyed this, and found it, both intellectually and emotionally, the most satisfying series finale Steven Moffat has done. It was a clever and sophisticated bit of writing, with real heart alongside the obligatory timey-wimey puzzles. It wasn’t without flaws – once again the jeopardy was undercut by revoking the actual onscreen deaths, something Moffat’s been doing since he started. And there were loose ends – how exactly did the murderer DiMarco know so much, and what became of him? For that matter, how did The Silence know so much about this in previous eps, and why does it matter so much to them?
There is, of course, still time for these questions to be answered. And some of them may be answered in the forthcoming 50th anniversary special. Now that we know the Doctor’s stuck in his own timestream, it makes perfect sense of why other Doctors might appear in the show, though who knows how many…