The Smell of Dust After Rain
(The Doctor's Wife Reviewed)

The Doctor's Wife

The title of this review is courtesy Cameron Dixon, who used this line from the episode in an e-mail he wrote to me to send his thoughts. He’s very good at picking out the key details of episodes and understanding what works and what doesn’t. And as the title implies, this episode has a poetic feel to it that’s rarely achieved anywhere else. The plot structure is actually very simple, but the ideas that ground it are big. The actors, especially Matt Smith, know that they’ve been given an opportunity to grow their characters, and they clasp that opportunity in both hands.

In a review of last week’s episode, The Curse of the Black Spot, Dan Kukwa defended the pirate adventure as a “palate cleanser”. And while Neil Gaiman illustrates that much can be achieved in a small storyline, it is a good point to say that it was a good decision to have The Doctor’s Wife run fourth instead of third in this season, as originally mooted. To plunk this episode next to the opening two-parter, and to place The Curse of the Black Spot ninth would have seriously unbalanced the season.

Despite making great use of the series’ continuity, The Doctor’s Wife is stand alone episode. The season-spanning plot makes little intrusion here. Despite this, the underlying story is so simple, and the concepts behind it so big, that I’m hesitant to spoil it, even with spoiler warnings. You really should see it before you read the reviews. If you still want to carry on, or if you’ve already seen this episode, then the spoiler-ful review is after this break.

We open on a junkyard world, as two dishevelled characters, known as Auntie and Uncle, and an Ood named Nephew, prepare a woman named Idris for what at first appears to be a ceremony. Idris is scared, but she does little to save herself. All of the characters, in fact, have a sense of resignation about them that, throughout the episode, comes off as more horrific than any more emotional response would have been. Auntie and Uncle gently place Idris on a sort of dais (they do not tie her down), and explain that her soul is about to be removed from her body, leaving her an empty vessel, and she should lie back and think of England. And hurry up about it, because a Time Lord is coming.

Meanwhile, the TARDIS is deep in deep space, and Amy and Rory are still fretting over the events at the beginning of The Impossible Astronaut. They are interrupted, however, when someone knocks on the TARDIS door. Opening it, the Doctor finds a glowing box, which is apparently a portion of the soul of a Time Lord, boxed off and sent out into the Universe when the Time Lord is in distress (and, somehow, imbued with enough whimsy to deliver a “shave-and-a-haircut” knock to the TARDIS door). The Doctor is… ecstatic. Despite the fact that this is a Time Lord distress signal, it doesn’t dampen the fact that he’s no longer alone, and he sets about taking the TARDIS out of the universe to a bubble universe where the distress signal originated.

This takes him to the junkyard world. Upon landing, however, the power goes out of the TARDIS. The Matrix, the housing of the soul of the TARDIS, has vanished, leaving the Doctor to wonder where it went. Quick cut to Idris, who writhes in time to the sound of the TARDIS dematerialization sequence.

Leaving the darkened TARDIS, the Doctor and company meet Auntie, Uncle and Nephew, along with Idris, who appears to have gone completely insane (though it’s worth watching this episode twice and paying special attention to what she says here, knowing that what she says will influence future events). Auntie and Uncle explain, in that horrifying laconic style, that this place is “The House”. It’s a living asteroid; Auntie and Uncle live on its back, breathe its air, eat its food (though no food is anywhere in sight; think about that for a minute, especially considering that the House repairs them when they ‘break’. This could easily be I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream level of horror) and are easy vessels for the House’s will.

House chooses to introduce himself at this point, speaking through Auntie, Uncle and Nephew, in a voice that would do Sutekh proud (Michael Sheen does a great job here). He has hosted Time Lords and TARDISes in the past. He expresses regret when the Doctor tells him that he’s the last one, with the last TARDIS, but bids the Doctor welcome and encourages him to stick around a while. The Doctor, who has heard the voices of dozens, if not hundreds, of Time Lords, speaking through the translator of the Ood, is more than happy to comply.

Of course it’s a trap, but it’s a pretty darn effective one. Knowing what we know about the past five seasons, we know that the Doctor isn’t going to pass up any chance to meet up with some of his people. However, it is Matt Smith’s own sense of desperate longing that really sells this. Very early on, he realizes that the House is up to no good, but he cannot resist. He has to investigate this lead, on the off chance that he might not be alone in the Universe. His grief and anger when he realizes he has been played (even though it comes as little surprise to him), is fearsome to behold.

But it’s not all bad. There’s Idris, who has started to come to her senses, and is honestly shocked to find that human bodies are far bigger on the inside than on the outside. The Doctor is shocked to realize that he’s actually talking face-to-face with his own TARDIS, and the relationship between the two is as rocky as you might expect, but there’s no time to waste. The House eats TARDISes. And having learned that there are no TARDISes left to be lured into his trap, he’s set about possessing the shell of the Doctor’s TARDIS and taking it back to the main universe in search of new morsels to feed on.

The plot is simple; almost too simple. Once the Doctor and Idris set about building a second TARDIS console to go and rescue Amy and Rory, the scenes with Amy and Rory in the House-abducted TARDIS, while nicely nasty, still have the feel of marking time before the cavalry come in. Indeed, the extent of the Doctor’s plan is to play for time until the soul of the TARDIS can finally re-emerge to kick House’s butt. But there’s nothing unrealistic about that, and it is good to see the Doctor really improvising, knowing that he himself has no ability to defeat the enemy on his own, and that he has to rely on someone else for a change.

Besides, this is the TARDIS. She’s been kicked out of her own shell. It would be very unsatisfying if she wasn’t the one to go marching in, metaphorically rolling up her sleeves, to deliver the glittery ass-kicking. And, I’m serious here: the music and the sound effects led me to imagine the TARDIS actually giving the boot to the House; I could picture her doing this in Idris’ form, and the image was very gratifying.

This episode wouldn’t work if there was no chemistry between the Doctor and Idris, and actress Suranne Jones rises to the occasion. It’s easy to dismiss her early on as just some madwoman, but gradually her character gets a hold of herself, and you realize that a fair chunk of the babble is actually her reaction to coming events (all of which pays off, incidentally, which is a testament to Neil Gaiman’s skill as a writer). Jones ably conveys the sense of something very big waking up in something very small and strange, and her affection for the Doctor is clear. I really like the idea that she stole the Doctor as much as the Doctor stole her.

But it’s Matt Smith who really shines, here. Up to now, we knew that he could do comedy, and could ably convey the sense of being a very old man in a young man’s body, but in this episode, we see genuine grief, and a seething anger that’s terrifying to behold. Then there’s the lost look on his face as he admits to himself that he has absolutely no idea what to do now (which brilliantly slips into an expression of joy over having experienced a new emotion, before the Doctor slaps himself).

Neil Gaiman and Matt Smith convey the full range of the Doctor’s emotions on a very small canvas. Yes, Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant were all emo about the Time War, but consider Matt Smith’s response to Amy’s accusation of, “you want to be forgiven”. His “Don’t we all?” is just three words, but they hit with a hammer blow thanks to his delivery. Matt Smith comes close to crying on at least a couple of occasions, and it’s wholly believable. We see hope rise in him, as he believes on two occasions that he’s no longer alone (first when the Time Lord distress signal materializes, and again when he realizes that he’s actually talking to his TARDIS), and it hurts when it comes crashing down. Although he takes solace in the fact that the TARDIS is still there for him (and clearly sentient), it’s still a bittersweet ending.

In terms of a final rating, I give this an easy nine. It’s hard to compare it with The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon two parter and decide which is better, because the opening two-parter feels too unfinished and too full of potential. But Gaiman has delivered a self-contained story that is among the best the show has to offer. I’d love to see it again, and to show it to my friends.

Further Thoughts

  • Cameron notes, “At first I thought House was messing with the temporal dimensions inside the TARDIS and that Rory really did age and die in that section of corridor, in some six-dimensions-to-the-left kind of direction; but since the lights went out for Amy but not Rory in the same stretch of corridor, it’s more likely that House used the telepathic circuits to get inside Amy’s head and screw with her perceptions. So it’s probably significant that not only was Amy traumatised by having something terrible happen to Rory, but that when she was picturing “delight,” she pictured herself at her wedding. Hey, the TARDIS understands, she thinks he’s the pretty one.” I think he’s right about that.
  • Given that the asteroid is, essentially, a TARDIS graveyard, anybody raise their eyebrows a little over just how fearsome some of the leftover TARDIS bits are? Evidence, if any was needed, about the extent of the Time War, perhaps? I have to say that I did love how deftly Gaiman was able to allude to the Time War without explicitly spelling things out.
  • A number have already commented on how this episode feels like a cross between Gaiman and Moffat (no surprise there), but one place I really noticed it was in Murray Gold’s music. As the Doctor explores the junkyard, I thought I heard musical snatches that were straight out of the movie Mirrormask. Was I imagining things?
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