I wanted to like the latest episode of the Doctor Who revival, entitled Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS. I mean, look at the potential inherent in just the title alone. We’ve always known that the Doctor’s ship was massive. We’ve heard hints of fantastic rooms “yonder”, like the library and the swimming pool. And, maybe it’s just me, but I liked the in-TARDIS runaround of The Invasion of Time, way back when. Yes, my adult self can see that as the plotless diversion that it was, but perhaps with a better director and a tighter script, we could do more… much more.
And Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS did give me a lot to like. The director (Mat King) pulled out the stops, here. His scenes are rich and action-filled and his visuals are truly remarkable. The acting is up to the series’ usual standard. We have some intriguing ideas presented before us, some development in the Clara storyline, and some hints that the Doctor may have some secrets that are going to be revealed, soon.
But for the first day after I watched Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS, my primary emotion was confusion. I had great difficulty making a judgement because I had difficulty figuring out what all had happened. And I wasn’t sure what was wrong: was the dialogue delivered too fast (I struggled to catch some of it)? Were some of the concepts inadequately explained? Did writer Stephen Thompson (who gave us last year’s The Curse of the Black Spot) know something we didn’t?
I’ll give Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS its due on one department: it made me think. Unfortunately, after thinking long and hard about what I witnessed, here, I would have to say that, as good as the direction was, and as fun as the story felt, what was delivered was an incoherent plotting mess.
A full spoilery review follows after the break.
We open with a great visual of a ship in space that just screams “scavenger vessel”. It follows with scenes of life aboard the vessel, run by the Van Baaten family — two brothers and an android. It’s here where director Mat King establishes his credentials. There is an attention to detail here that’s remarkable even on the revival. You just knew what the ship was and who the brothers were with very little scripting.
On the TARDIS, however, the Doctor has finally called Clara on the sense of hostility she gets from the TARDIS. Although he doesn’t connect it with Clara’s odd ability to be alive three times and dead twice, he is desperate for Clara and the TARDIS to get along (methinks the TARDIS has had similar hostile reactions to characters in the past. I’m thinking Adric). So, to teach Clara how to fly the ship, he sets the TARDIS into “basic mode” which, incidentally, takes down the shields and makes the TARDIS visible to the salvage ship.
The salvage captain (played by Ashley Williams) senses a good haul from the tiny speck, and uses a magnetic beam to grab the TARDIS and haul it aboard. This act, done with the TARDIS shields down, and in spite of the TARDIS’ wooden exterior, produces a big explosion and essentially disables the ship.
There is, incidentally, a magnetic beacon suddenly rolling about in the console room. It burns Clara when she picks it up. It’s not initially clear how this beacon got there (more on this later), but it does appear to belong to the Van Baaten family. Although there is an explanation of how it got into the TARDIS console room at the end, there’s still a lot of confusion, here. Does it have anything to do with the Van Baatens’ ability to grab onto the TARDIS? How did they get it aboard in the first place? But this is a minor detail.
There’s a bit of a time jump in the narrative. When we see the Van Baaten crew come upon the carcass of the TARDIS (excellent sad music from Murray Gold — he truly is a treasure for the show), we discover the Doctor buried outside among the bric-a-brac, and we see Clara deep inside the TARDIS, well away from the console room. How could an explosion do that to two people and leave them relatively uninjured?
The Doctor knows the TARDIS is in trouble, but worse, he knows that Clara is trapped inside. So, he ropes the Van Baaten family aboard by promising them “the salvage of a lifetime” and, once inside, he locks the doors and sets the TARDIS self-destruct. If they don’t find Clara in an hour, the ship blows up and they’re all dead. To increase the incentive, he then shortens the time to thirty minutes. “Don’t get into a spaceship with a mad man,” he says. “Didn’t anyone ever teach you that?”
So we follow Clara, the Doctor and the salvage crew through the corridors of a wounded and hostile TARDIS (the salvage crew promptly make things worse by doing, you know, what they came here to do, pissing off the TARDIS something fierce). There are also monsters aboard, very nicely presented by the director, which appear to have ossified skin, a body temperature in the hundreds, and red, glowing eyes.
I really like how this discovery shocks Clara into confronting the Doctor. Thompson gives her an utterly brilliant line: “What do you keep in here? Why are there zombie creatures? Good guys do not have zombies creatures. Rule one of basic storytelling!” And the moment when the Doctor reveals that these monsters are, in fact, Clara and the salvage crew from a possible future where he isn’t able to rescue the situation is nicely horrifying.
But hold on.
Okay, let’s see if I get this straight: the accident has caused the TARDIS core to explode and has produced temporal rifts. Check. I can accept that without suspending my disbelief. This produces echoes of the past and the future which menace the TARDIS crew. Check. I can get behind that (although the past echoes element is woefully underused).
I can also accept that the TARDIS is powered by a room containing a dying sun balanced in the exact moment of its conversion to a black hole. I can absolutely 100% accept that standing around in that room would cause Bad Things to Happen (™), eventually. I can even accept that, as a result of having such a Bad Thing Happen to Clara and company, the pain they experience would drive them so insane, they’d be indistinguishable from hostile, unintelligent, wounded animals.
But why, for the love of all of Whodom, would being in such a room cause your skin to turn to molten rock, and not — oh, I don’t know — turn you into vapour?
This is called a bridge too far. The consequence doesn’t really have a logical connection to the problem. I, for one, wasn’t able to buy it because writer Stephen Thompson just throws it out there, rather than building it in our mind. And with this critical loss of my suspension of disbelief, a major component of this episode falls apart for me. Why are those monsters there?
I’m not saying that they couldn’t have been there, but more work should have been done to lead the viewer along the path. Possibly the path, as it stands, leads the audience too close into saying, “well, I get why they burn up, but why don’t they just vaporize?” Given the nature of what has happened to the TARDIS, possibly the Doctor should have thrown some temporal technobabble into the mix.
But this sort of confusion happens elsewhere in this episode. The big friendly button, for instance. What is it? Does it belong to the Van Baaten family or not? How did it come to be rolling around in the TARDIS console room the first time around? What does the Doctor do to the button to make it useful to resolve the temporal loop at the end?
And, why do we need the salvage crew aboard this story at all? In spite of the fine contributions the actors make, and the interesting relationships between them, they don’t really contribute to the plot. Why does the Doctor see the need to bring them aboard? He could find Clara just as easily without them (probably more easily, in fact, since despite his threats, they don’t have any real commitment to finding Clara given all the wonderful, wonderful salvage around them). This failure to give them a reason for their existence undercuts a key element of the episode, and a key element of the season.
A lot of this episode turns on the Doctor’s seemingly uncharacteristic decision to threaten the salvage crew in order to obtain their help. True, he reveals later that he doesn’t mean it, but if he sees the need to make the threat, then you should expect his actions to pay off in having them do more useful things than run around, poke the TARDIS in sensitive areas, and die.
And while this is more of a personal preference than an actual flaw in the structure of the story, the salvage crew’s presence makes this episode a lost opportunity in dealing with the TARDIS’ enmity towards Clara. It’s especially disappointing since the early scenes with the Doctor and Clara suggest that the Doctor, at least, wants to address this (also, is it my imagination, or is one of the “past echoes” with Clara not a past echo at all, but possibly the TARDIS taking her form and acting cattily towards her?).
The fact is, the salvage crew could be largely removed from the narrative, and the story would still flow. You’d need to find another way to make the TARDIS crash, but that’s not too difficult. What you are left with is the Doctor and Clara struggling to find each other amidst the labyrinth while a wounded and frightened TARDIS finds itself in no mood to deal with Clara’s presence, and her earlier enmity turns into outright physical hostility. Use some of the time to create a more credible explanation for the magma monsters, and I think you have quite a story, here.
Others have complained about the big friendly reset switch at the end of this episode, but I can’t fault Thompson’s episode here when others do the same thing. Besides, when you have a program about time travel, the use of temporal rifts to wipe out recent history is a pretty prominent tool in the toolbox waiting to be used. I think, though, there are more serious problems here. In spite of the acting, in spite of the fine directing by Mat King, and in spite of some snappy dialogue on Thompson’s part, the plot as a whole just doesn’t come together.
It’s very disappointing to be confused by an episode, to struggle to figure out what’s there, only to discover there’s no “there” there. That’s how I feel after having watched Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS. Like The Angels Take Manhattan, I wanted to like this episode in spite of its flaws, but the magma monsters are no angels, and Stephen Thompson is no Moffat.
Oh, well. At least the piece looked good. And maybe better things are in the offing next week. Nice to see the trio at Paternoster Row back!
- The appearance of the TARDIS library was really well done, and Thompson does show a good eye for wacky detail here. I love the Encyclopedia Gallifraya that you can drink. Also intriguing was the appearance of the book, The History of the Time War, which Clara reads and obtains the Doctor’s name. Given that the season finale is entitled The Name of the Doctor, you can bet that this will come up again.