I am a long-time Doctor Who fan. My first memory of seeing Doctor Who comes from 1976. My parents and I were visiting some aunts, and one of them asked if we could turn on the television to TV Ontario as there was a show she was watching, and the last part was on tonight. The show turned out to be part six of Genesis of the Daleks, and the scene I recall is when Davros addressed the Kaled scientists and turned to a big red button, offering said scientists the chance to blow up most of the bunker and end the Dalek production before it even began.
My reaction at the time was to leave the room and to go play with some other toys.
But my parents tuned into Doctor Who in the weeks and months to come, and I gradually got into the show. I think it was The Robots of Death that confirmed me as a fan. My interest intensified even as my parents’ interest settled down. I collected the books, came to learn of the full mythos and, when I was twelve, I joined the Doctor Who Information Network fan club.
Fandom, for me, has been an almost universally positive experience. I fell in love with fan fiction, and I wrote fan articles on various Doctor Who subjects, both acts which built up my skills as a writer. I met many good people, including best friends and the woman who became my wife. But if there’s one thing I’ve noticed about fandom is that some elements are notoriously pessimistic.
It’s one thing to criticize elements of the program, including plots that don’t make sense and directorial choices that don’t quite come together, but sometimes fandom goes beyond that. Fans like myself care deeply about the things we love, to the point that I fear a few of us lose our objectivity. Episodes are ripped to shreds for their flaws, characters and the actors that play them are derided for perceived mistakes, or simply not being as good as companions or Doctors in the past. And the problems are amplified to predictions of doom in some cases.
This reality exists even today. A handful of fans have elevated legitimate criticisms of the direction Steven Moffat has taken the program since taking over from Russell T. Davies to extreme concern. They fret over ratings, pointing to every small decline as a sign that the show is about to come to an end, and it’s all (insert name here)’s fault. Never mind that Doctor Who has survived fifty years with a single continuity. Never mind that the show remains in a position (within the top 20) eight years in its revival that it only infrequently achieved in the 26 years of the original series.
To these few fans who are so upset over where things stand, I have to wonder why they continue to invest so much time and energy attacking the show that they used to love. But, at the same time, I can understand. This is a show that, at some point, touched us deeply and became an important part of our lives. It hurts us deeply when something like that disappears or, worse, changes into something that we either don’t recognize or don’t agree with. Just because I’ve strived to stay objective doesn’t mean that I’m special. More likely, I’ve just been lucky.
Which is one reason why I loved The Name of the Doctor. Much as I still love the revival and everything in it, I note that when we watched Doctor Who on Saturday, once the end credits ended, we immediately went back to the beginning of the episode and watched it again. We haven’t done that in years.
How does one review an episode like, The Name of the Doctor? It’s breathtaking in its ambition. It promises much. It answers a lot of questions and raises many more. It faces the challenge of high expectations inherent in just the title. The secret behind Clara is revealed, and a deeper secret in the Doctor is hinted at. In short, you have to respect that it tried very hard, and it had every potential for blowing up in writer Steven Moffat’s face.
But what The Name of the Doctor did, was that it reminded me of what it is like to be a fan of Doctor Who — and I’m talking about the whole series. I came away from this episode remembering the sense of wonder that I had when I first saw the Doctor vanish off into his TARDIS.
You could ask for nothing better for the lead-in to the 50th anniversary of the program. Ultimately, Steven Moffat gets it. He knows what it’s like to be a fan because he’s a fan himself. In The Name of the Doctor, using just six major characters and a handful of studio sets, he captures the indescribable essence that unites fifty years of episodes in a program that has seen more than eleven actors take the lead role; a show that has switched styles and genres multiple times, and which keeps on bringing the fans back for more.
A full spoilery review can be found after the break.
In this episode, we return to the trio of Paternoster Row (get these guys their own spin-off, already!). Vastra visits a condemned murderer who has been muttering cryptically about the Whisper Men. He conveys a stark warning about the Doctor (told creepily in rhyme, as all things seem to be nowadays). Alarmed, Vastra calls for a conference on the astral plane. Joining her, Jenny and Strax are Clara (who is rendered unconscious with a letter held, I assume, by a lawyer for 120 years and delivered on the correct date — the scene is lovely to behold; having only seen the real Clara once, Vastra knows the woman all too well)… and Professor River Song.
The scene serves to move along the plot in a number of ways. While the trio are unconscious, they’re attacked by a faceless group of monsters known as the Whisper Men. Jenny takes on the role of damsel in distress, and Vastra gets to show just how important Jenny is to her life. River shows off her leadership skills, taking charge from a shaken Vastra to wake everyone up. Most importantly, Clara is able to learn of the cryptic message and relay it to the Doctor, who has arrived while she is sleeping.
The cryptic message talks about Trenzalore — a name we’ve heard a few times before. It seems to be a planet of prophesy, and when the Doctor hears it, he’s clearly affected by it (kudos to Matt Smith for acting his heart out in this scene). After running off to the TARDIS, nearly in tears (!), he confesses to Clara that Trenzalore is the planet where the Doctor’s future grave can be found.
This, of course, is the one place in the universe the Doctor must never, ever, evereverever go. However, the Great Intelligence and his manufactured minions the Whisper Men have snatched Jenny, Strax and Vastra, and have taken them to Trenzalore. There they will die unless the Doctor comes to bargain for their lives. And the Doctor knows he has no choice. He recalls how much of a help they were during his “dark times”. He frankly admits that he owes them a hell of a lot, so of course he’s got to go (and, again, can we get the trio a spin-off, already?). And, of course, there’s no way he’s going to dissuade Clara from going.
Some plot points are glazed over for expediency. How did the condemned murder get the cryptic message that he chose to relay to Vastra (Whisper Men, probably. But, if so, why choose this prisoner?)? How did the Great Intelligence transport Vastra and Company from 1893 London to Trenzalore (mind you, if you’re worried about that, I suspect you’re a little pedantic)? Me? I was swept away by the whole imagery and concept of Trenzalore.
This is the planet where the Doctor dies, and there has been a battle here. The Great Intelligence calls this a small battle “by the Doctor’s standards”, but it’s clearly of great import. And there were clearly survivors (who, after all, buried the bodies and put up the gravestones?). And just by these brief strokes, Moffat has put an image in my mind of an aging Doctor (possibly played by John Hurt?) leading fighters against some unnamed foe. Imagine what it would be like to be in at the end? Imagine what it would be like to witness all of that and survive? How would you get on with your life afterward, dealing with this sense of loss?
This sense of future loss imbues The Name of the Doctor with tremendous energy, but this is not the central focus of the story. There is actually a lot going on here. Moffat addresses not just Clara’s tale, or the Doctor’s long-running battle with the Great Intelligence, but River Song’s story seems to come to a close, here. The River Song that’s in this tale is not the Doctor Song of the eleventh Doctor stories, but the River Song copy in the Library’s data banks. This River Song knows the sum total of her life with the Doctor.
This is elegant plotting, actually. It explains how you can have a story titled The Name of the Doctor without naming the Doctor (the fact that River Song knows the Doctor’s name allows her to save the Doctor’s friends without the Doctor revealing this key data to the Great Intelligence), but it also allows the Doctor and River to have some real closure to their relationship. There are still questions, here — I don’t believe we’ve yet seen just how River Song learned the Doctor’s name (remember, he doesn’t tell her in The Wedding of River Song, he merely tells her to look him in the eye to show her that he’s a Tessalecta) — but this is a good place to end their tale. If River Song shows up again, I’ll be happy, but if not… well, I will still take comfort in the fact that their story was well and properly told.
The climax of this story resolves the questions raised by Clara’s storyline. It’s not perfectly done — why does no one make any attempt to even stop the Great Intelligence from entering the Doctor’s time stream, for instance? Having Strax struggle would have addressed this. Also, Clara spends a little too much time talking about what she has to do. The mystery resolved may not be very complicated or mysterious but it is, in my opinion, lovely. To see the breadth and depth of the Doctor’s time stream, Clara becomes the embodiment of fandom. After all, haven’t we witnessed the breadth and depth of the Doctor’s life experience, and cheered him on every step of the way? Clara does in this story what we have been doing all our fannish lives.
In terms of tone, you can’t ask for anything better in the lead-up to the 50th anniversary. And speaking of lead-up, there’s a nice scorpion sting at the end. John Hurt as “The Doctor”? That was perfectly introduced to stoke expectations, not to mention wild fan theories, as we wait through the long summer months for November 23…
…Much, as I point out, fans have done during big cliffhangers of the past, like Star Trek’s summer of the Borg. For me, Steven Moffat has made being a fan of Doctor Who fun again (not that it hadn’t been before). And for that, I am immensely grateful.
That’s my review. Baseless speculation proceeds after the break.
Further Thoughts and Unanswered Questions
- Okay, so is this what the Silence were worried about regarding the big question? Or is it the battle of Trenzalore itself? It should be noted that silence did fall when the Doctor’s name was spoken (by River), but I don’t think this threat is quite showy enough to merit that much alarm. The Battle of Trenzalore, on the other hand…
- An unfortunate side-effect of Clara’s intervention is that she is now the answer to every unanswered question of the classic series, up to and including whose mysterious hand prevented Sutekh from rising from his eternal seat with his pillow attached to his butt, and there’s Photoshop to prove it. And, when I say “unfortunate”, I of course mean “hilarious”.
Finally, there’s the appearance at the end of John Hurt as “The Doctor”. Clearly the antagonist in the upcoming anniversary special, he’s clearly a part of the Doctor that the Doctor himself hates. I suspect he may well have been what the Doctor saw when he witnessed his biggest fear in The God Complex. But who is he?
I think a reasonable explanation could be the Valeyard (who was namechecked in this episode). I think it’s significant that the Valeyard was implied to be an amalgamation of the last two incarnations of the Doctor, and given that Clara saw eleven faces in her whirlwind tour of the Doctor’s timeline, it’s significant that there are only two left to be seen. However, as Cameron noted, John Hurt’s Doctor did not seem evil, only defeated. He defends his actions as having “no choice” and doing what he did to preserve “peace and sanity”. I would counter by saying that the Valeyard might not be evil so much as simply ruthless. A theme of the show in later days is that the Doctor is a dangerous force, and only a good man because of the rules he imposes on himself. I argue that the Valeyard is simply the Doctor without those rules.
On the other hand, the Valeyard seems too convenient an explanation. I suspect Moffat would have more up his sleeve. We shall see what we shall see. I invite similar baseless speculation in the comments below.
- Asylum of the Daleks and The Snowmen show that many of Clara’s scattered remains through the Doctor’s timelines are actual, physical embodiments of Clara, with their own memories and life experiences. So, that was a real Clara that appeared to the first Doctor when he stole the TARDIS. Was it the same Clara that digitally took Leela’s place in the flashback to the fourth Doctor’s Invasion of Time? Does the Doctor have a Gallifreyan stalker with Clara’s face? What if she survived the Time War? Fan fiction writers, to your posts!