Welcome back, Mr. Moffat. My, how I’ve missed you.
I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’ve been disappointed with Series 7 of Doctor Who. By my count, it’s given us a couple of very good episodes (“The Snowmen” and “Hide”), far too many fairly terrible ones (“Dinosaurs on a Spaceship,” “The Power of Three,” “The Bells of Saint John,” “Cold War,” and “The Crimson Horror”), with the rest falling comfortably in the middle. Opinions vary, of course, but by my arbitrary reckoning this makes this arguably the weakest season since the show returned in 2005.
It has been particularly disappointing not just because of the absence of individually exceptional episodes, but because of the season’s overall lack of cohesion. Simply put, I haven’t known what—if anything—this season was about. In Steven Moffat’s first two seasons as showrunner, it felt like there was a multi-layered Moffat Masterplan at work, a purpose and an emotional arc that infused even stand-alone stories with larger meaning for the show as a whole. We had the recurring theme of the dual-nature of the Doctor (as warrior and healer), and the related themes of his dangerous influence on his companions (culminating in the heartbreak of “The Girl Who Waited,” and his decision to leave the Ponds behind at the end of “The God Complex”); and the Doctor’s (and the show’s) growing realization that his legend had grown “too big, too noisy” (as he admitted in “The Wedding of River Song”).
But somehow, Season 7 seemed not to know where to go from there: it has felt, frankly, like a bit of a gap year, like two half-seasons full of placeholders without any larger purpose. For example, having spent Season 6 bringing all parties concerned to the inescapable conclusion that Amy (Karen Gillan) and Rory (Arthur Darvill) should no longer travel with the Doctor, they still came back for five aimless episodes so we could say goodbye to them again, as though everything they and the Doctor had learned last season meant nothing.
Then the show got a welcome breath of fresh air in the introduction of new companion Clara (the delightful Jenna Louise-Coleman), but the show didn’t seem to know what to do with her: Clara’s “Impossible Girl” mystique has never quite had the emotional resonance of Amy’s status as “The Girl Who Waited,” and her deep connection to the Doctor has never felt quite earned. Their special friendship has been presented as a fact, but it has not been really shown—let alone developed—and Clara remains strangely underwritten, without the fully rounded personality we’ve come to expect from companions.
Mostly, the show just seemed to have lost its direction: too many episodes have felt like silly runarounds with no depth at all, and none of them seemed to relate to each other in any significant way. Shuffle the order, or drop episodes out altogether, and nothing would change, because there was no ongoing character development, overall theme, or emotional arc to be affected. Nothing seemed to matter.
“The Name of the Doctor” is not perfect, and it does not make up for all the filler in this uneven and scattered season, but it feels like a return to form for Steven Moffat, and a welcome revisiting of the underlying themes that made his first two seasons so powerful and so resonant. If it has felt like the Moffat Masterplan was on hold for the past dozen episodes or so, it now seems we’re picking it up again with gusto going into the 50th anniversary. It may feel like the finale not so much to this season as some other Season 7 I wish we’d gotten, but better late than never: this was an excellent, important episode.
I’m not going to do much recapping this week, because it’s much more interesting to talk about what it all means and where it might be going. Because this one matters.
First of all—and this may not mean anything to those of you who aren’t plugged deeply into the forums, podcasts, and Twitter exchanges of the truly rabid fan community—can those of you who’ve been moaning about how Steven Moffat isn’t showing proper respect for the classic series please kindly shut the fuck up now? For months, fans have been bemoaning and lambasting what they thought Moffat was—and more importantly wasn’t—going to be including in the 50th anniversary special in November: no classic Doctors, no actors from the classic series, etc. Since Moffat and the BBC have actually said virtually nothing about the plot of this special—and since Rule No. 1 is that Moffat lies—premature wrath based on off-handed comments and fan speculation seemed like a lot of wasted energy. Did anyone seriously believe that Moffat—who was a huge fan of Doctor Who long before he became its showrunner—wouldn’t do right by the long, proud, batshit crazy history of this show? And did anyone for a moment believe that the Patron Saint of Wibbly-Wobbly, Timey-Wimey Stuff would be able to resist taking us back and forth through that history in some convoluted, self-referential way that pays homage to the past while advancing the show into its future? Are you kidding me? Do you not remember how perfectly Amy’s story ended exactly where it began? Do you not recall how Season 6 began on a beach in Utah, and then wound a serpentine path until it circled back around to swallow its own head in the finale? Have you forgotten “Blink?” “The Girl in the Fireplace?” Moving forward by going back to the beginning: Moffat lives for that shit.
Now “The Name of the Doctor”—not so much the conclusion of Season 7 as the prelude to the 50th anniversary special—proves that we’ve got nothing to worry about. From the opening moments, in which Clara falls through space and time and experiences fleeting encounters with Doctors 1–7, we know we’re in for something that doesn’t just pay passing tribute to the show’s history, but actually plays between the fibers of its very fabric.
In common with many of Moffat’s best episodes—”A Good Man Goes to War,” for example—”The Name of the Doctor” seems bigger on the inside: after it was over I had to check to see if it was an extra-length episode, but no, Moffat somehow managed once again to cram a lot of stuff into the standard 45 minutes, and generally keep it from seeming rushed or crowded. (A few elements, admittedly, feel underdeveloped. No, I have no idea why a random serial killer in Victorian London happened to know—and understand—the most important secret in the universe, but I’m fine with not spending any more time on it than we did.) Moffat had a lot to accomplish in this episode, and he accomplished the hell out of it: he gave us an explanation for the multiple Claras the Doctor has met, he provided some very welcome resolution to the story of River Song (Alex Kingston), and he reestablished some of those themes I mentioned earlier while retroactively making some of the weaker episodes of this season seem as though they had more relevance. (For example, The Great Intelligence [Richard E. Grant] mentions “Solomon the Trader” among the Doctor’s crimes: it’s always bothered me that the casual way in which the Doctor murdered this character in “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship” never received any mention, and it’s nice to see the belated recognition here that what the Doctor did there was kind of fucked up.)
Most excitingly, “The Name of the Doctor” expands the mythology of this show by leaps and bounds. First of all, we have the story of Clara, who in one brilliant moment goes from being the “new companion” to becoming the Doctor’s oldest companion: entering his personal time-stream, fragmented into a million pieces, she becomes the über-companion, the one who was there before the beginning and for every step along the way. (This is a very Moffat idea: in “The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang” the TARDIS exploded into infinite fragments along the space/time continuum, burning simultaneously at every place in every moment in history: now Clara is similarly scattered throughout every moment of the Doctor’s past.) I suspect there will be discord in the fan community over both this move and the way it was handled, but I kind of love it. There must have been temptation to play this episode with Clara interacting more substantively with archival footage of previous Doctors—and I suppose that could still happen in the 50th anniversary special—but my guess is that Moffat wisely recognized that the gimmick milked too long would get old very quickly. Instead, her presence along the Doctor’s timestream is implied with just a few fleeting glimpses of previous Doctors and some witty use of era-appropriate film processing and costumes.
We also have the introduction of Trenzalore, which—unlike his “official” death at Lake Silencio— is presumably the true end of the line for the Doctor. This is another move that may be controversial, but I think it’s brilliant. As Alan Moore said in his introduction to the graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns, every hero’s journey is incomplete without an ending:
“All of our best and oldest legends recognize that time passes and that people grow old and die. The legend of Robin Hood would not be complete without the final blind arrow shot to determine the site of his grave. The Norse Legends would lose much of their power were it not for the knowledge of an eventual Ragnarök, as would the story of Davy Crockett without the existence of an Alamo.”
Now, Moffat has given the Doctor his Ragnarök. It may be hundreds or thousands or millions of years away in his personal future—because this is a time-travel show, there are still infinite numbers of stories that can be told between Gallifrey and Trenzalore—and we don’t need to ever find out exactly what happens in that final battle. But the introduction of a mysterious concluding chapter to the Doctor’s story expands and deepens his mythology in rich and rewarding ways.
And this, of course, does not even turn out to be the most important surprise Moffat has in store for us: he saves the best for last. After the Doctor enters his own timestream in order to save Clara—who is surrounded by ghosts of the Doctor’s past selves—the two of them encounter someone new. Clara has seen all the Doctor’s faces—as we have—but this is one incarnation neither she nor we have ever seen before. “I said he was me, I never said he was the Doctor,” the Doctor says. “The name you choose, it’s like a promise you make. He’s the one who broke the promise. He is my secret.”
What could be bolder, in this 50th anniversary season, than introducing a new, previously unknown regeneration of the Doctor, rewriting everything we think we know about who the Doctor is and has been? And without knowing exactly where this is going, I think it’s safe to say that this is all about the theme that has been present throughout Moffat’s run of Doctor Who: the two sides of the Doctor. He has always been the pacifist, the playful hero, the healer of worlds and doer of good—but he has also been the vengeful god, the Oncoming Storm, the warrior with endless blood on his hands. In “The Pandorica Opens,” we learned how a good deal of the universe sees him:
“There was a goblin, or a trickster, or a warrior. A nameless, terrible thing, soaked in the blood of a billion galaxies. The most feared being in all the cosmos. And nothing could stop it, or hold it, or reason with it. One day it would just drop out of the sky and tear down your world.”
And in “A Good Man Goes to War,” we learned that many people see a Time Lord as a weapon, and that the very word “doctor” has become synonymous with “warrior” in some parts of the universe. As River Song accused him then:
“You make them so afraid. When you began all those years ago, sailing off to see the universe, did you ever think you’d become this? The man who can turn an army around at the mention of his name. Doctor: the word for healer and wise-man throughout the universe. We get that word from you, you know. But if you carry on the way you are, what might that word come to mean? To the people of the Gamma Forests, the word doctor means mighty warrior. How far you’ve come. And now they’ve taken a child, the child of your best friends, and they’re going to turn her into a weapon just to bring you down. And all of this, my love, in fear of you.”
Now, we meet the version of the Doctor who committed such terrible acts that he did not even deserve to be called “Doctor.” Moffat has played with this idea before in passing: in the second episode of Moffat’s run, “The Beast Below,” the Doctor contemplates having to euthanize an innocent creature. “I murder a beautiful, innocent creature, as painlessly as I can. And then, I find a new name, because I won’t be the Doctor anymore.”
That was the justifiable killing of one innocent creature, which would have been an act of mercy. How much more terrible were the Doctor’s acts during the Time War, which annihilated the entire Dalek empire (temporarily, as it turned out) and his own civilization (permanently—don’t talk to me about “The End of Time”)? For—though we don’t know for sure yet—the logical conclusion is that this version of the Doctor is the one who fought the Time War, the one who is actually soaked in the blood of a billion galaxies. In the first episode of the revived series, “Rose,” the Ninth Doctor [Christopher Eccleston] seems to have just regenerated, so most of us have always assumed that it was the Eighth Doctor (Paul McGann) who fought the Time War (which happened off-screen, between the classic series and the new).
But McGann’s Doctor—who was only on-screen once, in the 1996 TV movie, but who has thrived in the non-canonical Big Finish audio productions—is an incredibly gentle soul—too gentle, perhaps, to have committed genocide. Now it seems there was someone else, a nameless, terrible thing, soaked in the blood of a billion galaxies. “What I did, I did without choice,” the stranger says here, “in the name of peace and sanity.” But not, our Doctor responds, “in the name of the Doctor.” This is the Doctor who was not the Doctor: this is the warrior, this is the goblin, this is the Oncoming Storm.
In my discussion of this season’s opener, “Asylum of the Daleks,” I mentioned that, under Moffat’s reign, it is worth paying particularly close attention to each season premiere of Doctor Who as they are likely to seed the structure and themes of the entire season. “Asylum” reintroduced the themes of love and hate—the words were tattooed on Amy’s hands, and the process of Dalek conversion was described as subtracting love and adding anger. It was the key theme, I argued, of the entire Moffat era:
Is the Doctor a figure of anger, or one of love? Moffat has been grappling with that question since he first took the reins of this show, and I suspect we’re in for more exploration of that theme this season. He ends this episode the way he ended last season: with a repetition of the question that must never be answered: Doctor who? It began as a self-referential joke, and it became a plot device, but I suspect that the question of who this man really is, deep down, will turn out to be at the heart of Moffat’s masterplan.
Part of the reason this season disappointed me so much was that it looked like I was wrong. (I hate being wrong.) But now—though we took a long and sometimes pointless path to get here—it looks like I was perhaps right after all. We are left with a world-class cliffhanger, and the 50th anniversary special—on November 23, 2013—promises to bring the Doctor face to face with his darkest side, and bring the Moffat Masterplan to a thrilling, franchise-enriching boil. I can’t wait.
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits
- I gave short shrift to most of the plot of this episode, which was good, if a bit magically-minded and loosely-plotted. The “conference call” didn’t completely work for me in that regard, and the explanation of the Doctor’s grave/time-wound probably doesn’t make a lot of sense if you care to think about it too much. (I don’t.)
- I continue to enjoy Vastra (Neve McIntosh), Jenny (Catrin Stewart), and Strax (Dan Starkey). Strax gets the best comedic bits, but Stewart’s Jenny is proving to be the secret weapon in this trio: the moment where she apologizes to Vastra for being murdered was powerful and heartbreaking.
- I was less enamored of River’s presence here; Kingston is always a pleasure, but her storyline here felt a little shoehorned in. Still, there were some wonderful moments between she and Matt Smith—including, at last, a real kiss—and I am relieved to have River Song’s storyline done with.
- The Whispermen were creepy: they were almost as creepy as their previous incarnations (complete with creepy nursery rhymes) as the Gentlemen in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Let’s call it an homage.
- As a bit of fortune-cookie wisdom, “The souffle is not the souffle, the souffle is the recipe” does not exactly roll off the tongue, but it’s a nice tie in to Clara’s first appearance, and a nice metaphor for the fact that both Clara and the Doctor remain the same person at their core, no matter what incarnation they inhabit.
- The best character moment of the episode was between the Doctor and Clara. I’ve complained that Clara is a little underdeveloped, but one thing we do know about her is that she is loyal. “You don’t run out on the people you care about,” the Doctor observed of her, in “The Bells of Saint John.” And now she doesn’t hesitate to join him when he explains why he has to go after Vastra, Jenny, and Strax. “They cared for me during the dark times. Never questioned me, never judged me: they were just kind.” Clara understands that implicitly, and that loyalty informs her final decision to jump into the Doctor’s timestream.
- The keen-eyed and completists among my regular readers may well wonder, “Hey, did I miss the Unaffiliated Critic’s review of ‘Nightmare in Silver’?” Nope, you didn’t: I did. I’ve been a bit slammed recently, and fell behind, and so I ended up skipping that episode. For the record—though I know it’s been extremely polarizing—I thought it was neither great nor terrible, just kind of middling. And that’s okay: I’m a tremendous fan of Neil Gaiman, but they can’t all be “The Doctor’s Wife,”and we shouldn’t expect them to be.
- Prediction time: there were exactly two Doctors we did not even glance in this episode, and their absence is telling. One of them is already confirmed to appear in the 50th Anniversary Special, and I’m going to go out on a limb and say that we’re going to see the other one there as well—which will be awesome. [EDIT: The always reliable fan community has now corrected me about my failing eyesight: all 10 previous Doctors do appear, albeit fleetingly. (Thanks, @Rednax42.) Still, I stand by my prediction: it would not surprise me at all if the 50th special includes a surprise appearance from Paul McGann, in flashback, regenerating into John Hurt.] And does anyone want to place bets on the title of that special? If it’s not “The Twelve Doctors,” I’ll eat my fez.