Doctor Who Series 7 Episode 14 review: The Name of the Doctor

Posted: 7 November 2013 in entertainment, television
Tags: , , ,

The Name of the Doctor remains a secret as the mystery of the Impossible Girl is solved and an almighty cliffhanger lays the seeds of the 50th anniversary special in a disjointed series finale.

Doctor Who - The Name of the Doctor

It’s the repair shop. What kind of idiot would try and steal a faulty TARDIS?

From “Gallifrey. A very long time ago…” and the First Doctor’s “borrowing” of the TARDIS (slightly rewriting The Doctor’s Wife in the process) to the battle-scarred world of Trenzalore and the final resting place of the Doctor, The Name of the Doctor is one of the most sweeping, ambitious and epic adventures that Doctor Who has attempted. For the most part it succeeded in atoning for the generally lacklustre Series 7b, though faults remained that dragged the story down to a status of “pretty good” rather than “exceptional”.

For his third series finale as Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat used the same basic plot as he had for the previous two: a tale featuring River Song (Alex Kingston) revolving around the “wibbly wobbly time-y wimey” consequences of attempting to remove the Doctor from history. The Big Bang, The Wedding of River Song and now The Name of the Doctor all feature this basic trope to varying degrees. This time around it was the turn of the Great Intelligence, in the guise of Dr Walter Simeon (Richard E Grant returning from The Snowmen and The Bells of Saint John), to mess up the Doctor’s place in the history of the universe by entering his time stream and rewriting it to remove him completely. The sight of the future deceased Doctor as a pulsating column of light scarring space and time situated within a decaying TARDIS console room was a disquieting image representative of the funereal tone that pervaded much of the episode.

The concept of the Doctor encountering his own ultimate death isn’t a new one within the Doctor Who universe. One of the best of the generally naff Eighth Doctor Adventures published by BBC Books between June 1997 to June 2005 is Alien Bodies by Lawrence Miles. In this novel the Doctor discovers that the Relic being sought by various alien races (including the Krotons from the Patrick Troughton era) is his own remains from a distant point in his own personal future. An often controversial and contentious figure within Doctor Who circles for his “forthright” views, Miles also married off the Doctor (The Adventuress of Henrietta Street) and conceived a “war in heaven” to destroy the Time Lords long before Steven Moffat and Russell T Davies conceived of River Song and the Last Great Time War.

Alongside the sneering Dr Simeon came the taut-faced Victorian gentleman-styled Whisper Men. Reminiscent of “The Gentlemen” from the classic Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode Hush, the Whisper Men were avatars for the non-corporeal Great Intelligence’s last human form of Dr Simeon. Created by Steven Moffat because he didn’t want to use old monsters for the finale after recent appearances by the Ice Warriors and the Cybermen these new creepy affectations fulfilled the need to scare whilst not being anywhere near as memorable as those classic Moffat creations the Weeping Angels and the Silent.

The Silence, the religious order devoted to preventing the Doctor from ever visiting Trenzalore and answering the oldest question in the universe (“Doctor who?”) were notable by their absence from The Name of the Doctor. Given the lengths they had previously employed (including effectively breeding River Song to be the Doctor’s assassin) in order to prevent the Doctor from going to Trenzalore it would have been eminently logical for them to have been present to oppose the machinations of the Great Intelligence. A case of the Doctor’s enemy becoming a temporary ally for the good of the universe. Many questions surrounding the Silence remain unanswered, particularly the Series 5 plot thread of how the TARDIS was destroyed and who uttered the phrase “Silence will fall”. Hopefully these questions will be answered in the forthcoming specials concluding the era of the Eleventh Doctor.

I just know I’m running. Sometimes it’s like I’ve lived a thousand lives in a thousand places. I’m born, I live, I die. And always, there’s the Doctor. Always I’m running to save the Doctor. Again and again and again. And he hardly ever hears me. But I’ve always been there. Right from the very beginning. Right from the day he started running.

Unravelling the plans of the Great Intelligence was Clara Oswald (Jenna-Louise Coleman), the so-called “impossible girl” whose presence as multiple individuals at multiple points in the Eleventh Doctor’s time stream had been the underpinning mystery of Series 7b. Clara scattering herself along the Doctor’s personal time stream in order to defeat the machinations of the Great Intelligence was a clever concept and, like all good mysteries made more sense once the solution had been revealed, but better scripted seeding throughout the various episodes would have rendered the resolution far more memorable. After borrowing Douglas Adams’ idea of “the Doctor retires” for The Snowmen, Steven Moffat appears to have been inspired by the legendary writer once again for the concept of Clara being splintered throughout the history of the Doctor. In City of Death Scaroth, last of the Jagaorth race, is fragmented through human history after his spaceship explodes. His various selves are able to communicate across the centuries and influence the evolution of human society. Though Clara is unable to interact with her thousands of other selves and was previously unaware of them, the similarity to the idea of Scaroth is undeniable.

Despite the resolution of the Clara mystery being made clearer with repeated viewings what won’t change with being viewed time and time again is the ineffectual acting of Jenna-Louise Coleman. A stronger actor would have shored up the underdeveloped material delivered by the scriptwriters but Coleman just doesn’t have the required acting ability. Over and over and over again she’s incredibly wooden, especially when ranged against more experienced actors like Richard E Grant, David Warner and Diana Rigg. Even when she lands in the “hell” that exists within the Doctor’s personal time stream it’s difficult to associate with her plight. There are far stronger so-called amateur dramatic actors who could pull off what Coleman is failing at.

Far easier to associate with is the fantastic Matt Smith as he concluded his third series as the Doctor. After a few bumpy moments in recent stories Smith is once again at the peak of his powers in The Name of the Doctor. Whether it’s being childlike in a one-sided game of hide and seek with Clara’s charges, the tearful realisation of his own final demise or trying to forestall the pain of an ultimate farewell to River Song, Smith makes you feel each and every emotion he’s going through. Though he’s become inordinately fond of pirouetting when delivering his lines…

The doom-laden atmosphere of The Name of the Doctor even extended to the normally flirty, feisty and fun River Song. Granted this River is a projection from the Library where she died in her very first story (and death may well take away some of the humour of life) but Matt Smith and Alex Kingston just weren’t given the opportunity for the playful screwball comedy-like interaction characteristic of previous encounters. A few embers of the old River burnt brightly in moments such as when she turns her cup of tea into a glass of champagne but in the main it was a subdued River on show. For all that it’s to be hoped that Alex Kingston graces Doctor Who for many years to come. She’s now clocked up as many episodes as Christopher Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor.

Though given far less to do than in The Snowmen and The Crimson Horror the trio of Madame Vastra (Neve McIntosh), Jenny Flint (Catrin Stewart) and Strax (Dan Starkey) were as entertaining as ever in their fourth appearance. It was interesting to see the change in their characters in the wake of the Doctor’s excision from history – in particular the comic relief version of Strax being replaced with a true warrior Sontaran complete with vicious attitude to other species. With the confirmation of an eighth series of the revived Doctor Who it’s a fair bet that the enjoyable Paternoster Gang will be making further investigations come autumn 2014.

Amongst the generally downbeat atmosphere of The Name of the Doctor came moments of innovative heartwarming nostalgia for long time fans of Doctor Who. Never before has there been such technologically brilliant and prolonged interaction between the classic and revived series. With the assistance of CGI effects, body doubles and Back to the Future-style insertions into existing footage, the production team brilliantly placed both Clara and Dr Simeon within the Doctor’s past. The Time Lord’s first ten incarnations came back to life for a brief and glorious instance. The pièce de résistance came with the use of colourised archive footage of William Hartnell’s First Doctor (cribbed from The Aztecs) in order to create the scene predating An Unearthly Child where he steals the TARDIS and flees Gallifrey with his granddaughter Susan (which ties in with Big Finish’s The Companion Chronicles adventure The Beginning). Nearly 50 years after he first appeared in the series (and 38 years after Hartnell’s death) it was incredibly moving to see the original Doctor appear in a new scene so pivotal to the mythology of the series.

Aside from the Hartnell footage lifted from The Aztecs (together with audio from that story and An Unearthly Child and The Web Planet) the other incarnations were represented as follows:

My name, my real name – that is not the point. The name I chose is the Doctor. The name you choose, is like… it’s like a promise you make. He’s the one who broke the promise.

The Name of the Doctor wasn’t about revealing the true identity of the Doctor (which must never never never be considered) but the actions this particular Time Lord undertakes under the title he has chosen for himself. As legendary Jon Pertwee era script editor Terrance Dicks once put it – “the Doctor is never cruel or cowardly”. And the almighty twist in the tail here was the possibility a hidden incarnation of this Time Lord exists – wiped from the face of history because he didn’t live up to the worthiness of the self-chosen title. There’s no denying that the climatic credit of “Introducing John Hurt as the Doctor” left millions of jaws dropping and viewers salivating for the 50th anniversary special The Day of the Doctor on 23 November 2013.

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