Spoiler Level: High
November 23, 1963 saw the premiere of “An Unearthly Child,” the first episode of Doctor Who. In the very first scene, the viewer’s eye moved along with the camera through the gates of a spooky junkyard at 76 Totter’s Lane in London, past scrap metal and abandoned objects, to finally settle and linger on a strange and incongruous thing: a police telephone box, standing silent and solitary and full of mystery. That was our first glimpse of what would become the most consistent and iconic element of Doctor Who: the TARDIS. Even before the Doctor or any of the dozens of companions who would travel within her, before we even knew what it was or what it meant, we saw this mysterious blue box that promised to be the gateway to all the stories to come.
And last night, after more than 47 years, in yet another junkyard just beyond our universe, we finally met her.
“It’s always you and her, isn’t it? Long after the rest of us have gone. A boy and his box, off to see the universe.” —Amy Pond
So many things could have gone wrong with “The Doctor’s Wife,” and yet everything about it is right. So great was the anticipation and speculation that preceded this episode by world-renowned author (and lifelong Doctor Who fan) Neil Gaiman, it was hard to imagine the episode itself could rise above the hype and avoid being a disappointment.
And to make the endeavor even more uncertain, we’d been told that “The Doctor’s Wife” would forever change the way we think about a key piece of the Doctor Who mythology, which sounded like a very dangerous thing to do. As I’ve argued before, this is a show that relies on both the consistency and the mystery of its premise: change too much, or tell us too much, and you risk upsetting the delicate balance. (Done badly on a large scale, you risk a total mythological train-wreck, like the brief return of the time lords in 2008’s “The End of Time”; done badly on a small scale, you risk inserting something into the mythology that every writer and fan to follow will agree to pretend never happened, like the Eighth Doctor’s claim—in the 1996 TV movie—to be “half human.”)
So I confess, I was worried—but as it turned out, I needn’t have been. I have been a Neil Gaiman fan for nearly 25 years, and he’s been a Doctor Who fan for more than 40. I should have remembered that this is a man who understands how these kinds of stories work.
“I believe we owe it to each other to tell stories. It’s as close to a credo as I have or will, I suspect, ever get.” —Neil Gaiman, in Fragile Things
Gaiman grew up watching Doctor Who, and has cited it as a major influence on his writing— “Before I ever discovered the Egyptian, or the Greek, or the Norse, or the Aztec mythology, I knew what a Dalek was” —and certainly there is evidence and echoes of what he learned from it all over his work. I don’t know whether Gaiman would cite Doctor Who as a conscious influence on his critically-acclaimed and groundbreaking Sandman series, for example, but the two works share more than a few strands of narrative DNA. Both function simultaneously as ongoing, serialized stories and as elaborate framing devices that allow for absolutely any kind of tale to be told within their overall narratives.
(In Dream—the protagonist of Sandman—Gaiman even created a central character who is unknowable, inscrutable, and fundamentally unchanging—until he meets his death, when he is reborn into another version of himself, still the same, but slightly different. Sound familiar?)
Building mythologies is one of Gaiman’s greatest strengths as a writer—from the rich faerie world of Stardust, to the underground kingdoms of London Below in Neverwhere, to the dozens of various gods, angels, demons, and other puissant beings who populate his novels Good Omens (co-written with Terry Pratchett), American Gods, and Anansi Boys. He is also adept at writing for young audiences without writing down to them—as he’s proven in his “children’s’ books” The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish and The Wolves in the Walls—and equally good at scaring the crap out of them without traumatizing them, as he does in his “young adult” novels Coraline and The Graveyard Book.
Finally, Gaiman has proven time and again that, in addition to nurturing his own creations, he is very good at reverently tending other people’s gardens and leaving them a bit more verdant and fertile than he found them. (To name a few examples, he did this with Batman in “Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader,” with Miracleman in the wake of Alan Moore’s impossible-to-follow run, and with Babylon 5 in his critically acclaimed episode “Day of the Dead.”)
In other words, Gaiman was shaped by, and tailor-made for, Doctor Who. His love of the show, his knowledge of its history, and—most importantly—his understanding of what makes it work, are evident in every scene of “The Doctor’s Wife.” This is an episode that doesn’t revise the show’s mythology, but greatly enriches it.
“I wanted to see the universe, so I stole a time lord and ran away. You were the only one mad enough.” —The TARDIS
“The Doctor’s Wife” is Neil Gaiman’s love letter to Doctor Who, and to its marvelous vehicle for telling stories. Like the Totter’s Lane reference, the script is full of callbacks to the history of the show, which won’t alienate the new or casual viewer but are sure to elicit squeals of glee from long-time fans. The psychic cube that sets the story in motion, for example, is a time lord communication device last used by the Second Doctor (Patrick Troughton) in 1969’s “The War Games.” (Significantly, this was the story in which it was first mentioned that the Doctor stole his TARDIS.) From the mention of Artron energy and the Eye of Orion, to the presence of a shaving mirror atop the Doctor’s makeshift console, Gaiman fills the episode with winking details from the Doctor Who of his childhood—without, somehow, making it seem overly clever or overly cluttered.
And of course—in perhaps the greatest homage to classic Doctor Who—we get lots of running through corridors, as Amy (Karen Gillan) and Rory (Arthur Darvill) are sent racing through the infinite inner halls of the TARDIS. We haven’t seen these corridors since the 80s, and what we find is that they haven’t changed very much; they still look like the same long corridor, slightly retro, a little cheap, redressed and relighted and shot from different angles. I’ve already read some reviews that complain about the cheapness of these corridors—and the fact that we don’t get to see any actual rooms (or the swimming pool)—but this nod to old-school studio Who worked perfectly for me. It was a nice reminder that Doctor Who once managed—as Gaiman, Gillan, Darvill, and director Richard Clark do here—to create fear and suspense out of some cheap sets, some good writing, a cast with conviction, and the viewer’s imagination.
The heart of the story, however, is the Doctor and the TARDIS. A sentient asteroid called The House (voiced by Michael Sheen) has been luring time lords to the plug-hole at the end of the universe for millenia, in order to eat their TARDISes. Before it can eat this TARDIS, however, it must remove her matrix—her soul—and so it dumps that soul into the body of a woman called Idris (Suranne Jones), giving the familiar blue box a human form, and a human voice, for the first time. This is the conceit at the center of the episode: What if the Doctor could finally have a conversation with his oldest friend and most constant companion, the TARDIS?
Suranne Jones has what must have been, on the page, a nearly impossible role to play: her Idris/TARDIS is disoriented and confused, owing to the strange circumstances, but she is also playful, funny, sexy, maternal, and—like her Doctor—a bit mad in her own right. What is challenging about this concept—and this role—is that the TARDIS has always had a personality, and it is a great testament to both Gaiman and Jones that their embodiment of that previously-implied personality delights and surprises without grating against anything that has come before.
They’ve known each other intimately for 700 years, but this is the first chance they’ve ever had to talk. She greets the Doctor with “Goodbye,” for she exists across all of space and time simultaneously, and sees the past and the present and the future all at once. She calls him “my thief,” saying, “You’re going to steal me. You have stolen me. You are stealing me. Oh, tenses are difficult, aren’t they?”
But later—wonderfully—she reveals that she stole him, too: “I wanted to see the universe, so I stole a time lord and ran away. You were the only one mad enough.” As in all the best love stories, the pursued was also the pursuer: she needed him as much as he needed her, and they’ve been running together ever since.
Jones’ Idris gets many funny lines— “Biting is excellent: it’s like kissing, only there’s a winner” —and offers her perspective on all the adventures and companions she’s seen come and go over the centuries. (“I exist across all of space and time, and you talk and run around and bring home strays.”) She chastises the Doctor for never reading instructions, and for pushing open, for 700 years, doors that are clearly labeled “Pull to Open.”
Best of all, we finally get an explanation for why the Doctor has such trouble controlling the TARDIS. “You know, you have never been very reliable,” the Doctor accuses her. “You didn’t always take me where I wanted to go.”
Her reply confirms what every Doctor Who fan has long suspected. “No, but I always took you where you needed to go.” Of course she did: why else would the Doctor always arrive somewhere where there was a mystery to solve, somewhere where people needed saving? The TARDIS has never been just the vehicle; she’s been the pilot, the motivator, the driving force, as it turns out, for the entire series.
This is a delight, but a little of this sort of insight, spoken aloud, goes a long way; fortunately Gaiman has a very light touch, and knows exactly how far to take it. While she greets him with a kiss, there is thankfully no make-out scene between the Doctor and the TARDIS, no messy proclamations of love, and no possibility that a lesser writer will one day revisit this delicate concept and screw it up. This is a one-time event, as the TARDIS—who sees all of their time together at once—confirms: “I’ll always be here, but this is when we talked, and now even that has come to an end.” Her last words, fitting for a time machine who greeted him with “Goodbye,” are “Hello, Doctor. It’s so very, very nice to meet you.”
After our first viewing of this episode, the first thing my girlfriend said was, “Neil writes good characters,” and I thought: Yes, yes he does. Gaiman is known as a high-concept fantasy writer—he has a world-class imagination—but in admiring the ideas and images it is very easy to overlook just how good he is on the human level, how sharp his characterization and dialogue truly are. Amy, Rory, and the Doctor are all as well written here as they’ve ever been, with Amy in particular getting some of the best lines. (When Rory says the Doctor will be fine, “he’s a time lord,” Amy replies, “That’s just what they’re called; it doesn’t mean he actually knows what he’s doing.” And upon discovering that the TARDIS has become a woman, she asks the Doctor, “Did you wish really hard?”) Amy is not always written as a caring and mature character—she can come across as brittle and selfish—but in this episode her concern for the Doctor—and her understanding of him—are worthy of the best of the show’s companions. She understands that the Doctor makes mistakes when he gets emotional, and she realizes the reason he is so excited about finding surviving time lords: “You want to be forgiven.”
As far as I’m concerned Matt Smith has never been less than great in this role—he finds a way to make every line he speaks interesting and surprising, and elevates even mediocre scripts to make them watchable. With material like this, however, he shines beyond all measure. His elation at finding survivors from his planet turns to devastation, and then rage, when he discovers the cabinet of distress calls that are all that are left of those he hoped to find. “Well done,” he says, sad and simmering into anger. “I really thought I had some friends here.”
And his final scene with the personified TARDIS is heartbreaking; he is a quivering boy losing his imaginary friend, a sad old man saying goodbye to his longtime companion. She will always be with him, but this is when they talked, a moment that will never come again. All he can do—as we see him doing immediately after—is lovingly tend to his mad, unreliable TARDIS, splicing cords together experimentally with showers of sparks, without reading the instructions. He’s made a new bedroom for Amy and Rory— “Bunkbeds are cool! A bed…with a ladder!” —but when Rory asks him if he has a room, the Doctor just goes about his repairs: he may have a bed somewhere in the infinite depths of the TARDIS, but this is his room, here beneath the console, close to her heart.
“OK, the Eye of Orion, or wherever we need to go,” he says to her, and she kicks into life without his having to touch a thing. She speaks to him in the familiar TARDIS wheeze, and flashes her eyes at him, and he spins and flails and circles her console in joy.
The kids have gone to bed, and the Doctor is dancing with his wife.