I wanted to see the universe, so I stole a Time Lord and ran away. You were the only one mad enough.”
Wow. My brain is still reeling! Where to start, where to start? With Neil Gaiman of course! Neil Gaiman wrote this episode! Wait… I’ll write that again, but bigger. NEIL GAIMAN WROTE THIS EPISODE!!!
As you may have guessed, I’m a bit of a fan. Forget your Richard Curtis and your Simon Nye (much as I loved their episodes), this was written by the guy who created Sandman. And Neverwhere. And American Gods. Fan or not, it’s fair to say that I was worried Neil wouldn’t live up to my high expectations. But I needn’t have been. This was every bit as special, as lyrical, as weird, inventive and beautiful as I could have hoped for – and more besides.
The title was either pretty clever or a sneaky bit of misdirection, depending on your point of view. The Doctor’s Wife was first floated around as a possible episode title by John Nathan-Turner in the 80s, hoping to bait easily riled and humourless fans who thought the very idea of their hero having a romantic relationship would mean the end of the universe. And I think similar fans may have had similar reactions on hearing the title this time around. But this was far more interesting than the Doctor getting married, or even having some kind of daughter. I don’t know if you could call the relationship the episode centred on a romantic one (though I wouldn’t rule it out), but it’s the longest standing relationship in the history of the show – the Doctor and the TARDIS.
It’s a brilliant concept, particularly for those of us who talk to our cars. Imagine if the car suddenly talked back! Sentient TARDISes have been done before in the BBC books (though I don’t know if Neil will have read them), but this wasn’t some Johnny come lately of a timeship like Compassion. This was the original, the one and now the only TARDIS. All those little hints the show has dropped about the ship’s sentience and telepathic abilities were crystallised by having her ‘matrix’ installed in a living, breathing woman.
Suranne Jones gave a marvellously batty performance as Idris/TARDIS, though the look she’d been given made it difficult not to think of Helena Bonham-Carter in some of her madder roles. Not being a Coronation Street fan, this is the first time I’ve ever seen Suranne Jones, but I have to say I was impressed. After all, it’s a pretty weird role to get your head around… “What’s my motivation?” “Well, you’re a shapeshifting box who travels in time and space.”
It helped that she had excellent chemistry with Matt Smith, enlivened by some brilliantly witty and lyrical dialogue. “Do you have a name?” “700 years, finally he asks.” Anthropomorphising the one the Doctor has always loved above all others gave them a chance to have an almost flirtatious relationship, with him calling her ‘sexy’ while she remarked on the hilarity of his chin. Matt was at his most exuberant, running around like an excited little boy half the time, but still carrying the gravitas to convey his guilt at having wiped out his own race.
But central concept aside, there had to be a plot – which my friend Kim has already described as ‘The Edge of Destruction on acid’. The plot was as typically weird as one might expect from a writer whose plot for Stardust is actually accurately summarised by the lyrics of Take That’s Rule the World. So a sentient asteroid that eats TARDISes has been luring Time Lords outside the universe to kill them for their craft, while maintaining a ‘family’ constantly rebuilt patchwork people put together like the Morbius creature. And finding that the Doctor’s TARDIS is the last one, said TARDISophage is desperate to get back into the universe to find more tasty timeships.
It’s a much more fantastical idea than recent Doctor Who has ever done, though still less weird than things like The Mind Robber from 1968. As a result, I think some fans might find Neil Gaiman’s lyrical fantasy style not what they were expecting from Who – though if so, his episode of Babylon 5 could have given them a clue as to what to expect. I must say, I was a bit worried at first by the visuals I saw in the trailer – it looked like identikit Tim Burton/Terry Gilliam/David Lynch stuff, and I was concerned that we might be getting a blend of two styles that didn’t quite mesh. But in context, it worked perfectly. The ‘TARDIS junkyard’ planetoid and its patchwork inhabitants were very much of the style that could have crept out from Coraline or Stardust, which for me is no bad thing.
It was a shame that we had to get rid of the witty but crumbling Auntie and Uncle so quickly, but there were so many ideas packed into this episode that there wasn’t really time to explore many of them in depth – if there was a flaw at all, that was it. It was nice to see some menace restored to the Ood in the persona of Nephew, with his eyes that green colour representative of House. And the possessed TARDIS, green light glowing from its windows, brought an element of chills back to the ship and its multitudinous and infinite corridors.
The visualisation (finally!) of the TARDIS interior being more than just the console room was just one of many continuity references in the script, too. Apparently Time Lords can officially regenerate into other genders – the Doctor’s old friend Corsair had been men and women. The room delete function has a failsafe to ensure no occupants are deleted with the rooms – makes you wonder what Nyssa was so worried about in Castrovalva when deleting rooms randomly. And Time Lord distress messages are (were) still sent in little telepathic cubes as seen in The War Games!
Rory and Amy continued to be a strong double act as House menaced them in the possessed TARDIS – great voice for House by Michael Sheen, incidentally. Though the old, bearded Rory did look unavoidably reminiscent of Monty Python’s “It’s…” guy, and Rory looking like he was dead again was fooling no-one. Nice that the TARDIS thinks of him (to the Doctor’s incredulity) as “the pretty one”!
In the end, though, House was perhaps too easily vanquished by the TARDIS as she was set free from her corporeal prison, but that final scene between her and the Doctor was absolutely heartbreaking, knowing that he will never speak to her like that ever again. Convincing tears on the part of everyone in the scene – and a few from me at home too.
There were almost no references to the big story arc this week, beyond a short exchange between Amy and Rory, which meant no mysterious, eyepatch-clad Frances Barber gazing through a hatch in reality. But the TARDIS’ final words to Rory must be a big clue – “The only water in the forest is River”. No idea what that actually could mean, but I’m sure all will become clear…
In the end, this episode was, for me, very special indeed. I don’t love Neil Gaiman’s work uncritically, but I thought this was a marvellous blend of his trademark style with Doctor Who. And I’ve never heard the series better summed up than in Amy’s remark in the final scene – “A boy and his box, off to see the universe”. And that’s the magic of Doctor Who. Thanks, Neil.