Saturday, 11 June 2011

Doctor Who: The Doctor's Wife

“Did you wish really hard?”

No more Don’t Scare the Hare! Oh no… what are we Doctor Who fans going to talk about now? Never mind: this is utterly superlative stuff. It’s a one-off, of course. It would become quite tiresome if Doctor Who was like this all the time. But this is right up there with the very best. Neil Gaiman may be oh-so-slightly overrated in my book, but “overrated is a relative concept. He’s no Alan Moore (we long-haired blokes from the East Midlands rule!), but he’s head and shoulders above most writers.

It all looks great, too, and the visual style is very… well, Sandman. Just the opening scene, with the junkyard planet (an obvious nod to 76 Totters Lane- Gaiman, like all right-thinking people, appreciates ‘60s Who). The characters of Uncle, Auntie, Nephew and Idris come across as very endless-like, too. It’s a very atmospheric, dark, funny and, well, Gaimanesque scene. Incidentally, I’ve just looked up the name “Idris” on the ever-faithful and in all ways reliable Wikipedia. Apparently Idris was a (male) prophet and philosopher sometimes identified with the Biblical Enoch. Not sure if there’s any actual allusion there…

Anyway, on a slightly less pretentious note, we get a quick scene in the TARDIS- and another arc-related “We saw him die,” from Amy to Rory- and there’s a knock on the door. In mid-flight. It turns out to be one of those box thingies, as used by the Doctor to summon the Time Lords in part nine of The War Games. How very fannish.

So, there is at least one Time Lord still alive, it seems: the Corsair. In just a few lines, Gaiman gives us a fantastic sketch of the character, who keeps the same tattoo in all of his (or her!) regenerations. The Corsair is apparently outside the universe, though; for the first time since Castrovalva the Doctor has to burn up some TARDIS rooms to “give it some welly”. After all these years of travelling between universes being nearly impossible, it happens in two stories in a row.

The TARDIS power drains away; it’s “soul” has gone. The TARDIS crew seem to be stuck on this little asteroid in this pocket universe with no stars in the sky. And then, Idris, with her new soul (and we’ve already guessed what this “soul” is) comes running to her “thief” and kisses him, among other things (“Oh, biting’s excellent! It’s like kissing, only there’s a winner”). Idris is great, and Suranne Jones does a perfect job of making her exactly the right kind of eccentric while still being sympathetic. I love the timey-wimeyness of her speech, which gives the sense that she doesn’t quite exist in the same three dimensions of space and one dimension of time that we do.

The Doctor, Amy and Rory are taken to meet the “House”, an extremely large sea anemone creature surrounded by a massive, world-size shell. Right from the start we get the impression that House isn’t very nice. He “mends people” when they “break”, and lots of TARDISes have landed on him in the past. Already this is wonderfully fantastical and, well, Gaimanesque, always a much better fit for Doctor Who than hard sci-fi.

It seems there are lots of Time Lords here, and there’s an interesting conversation between Amy and the Doctor; he’ll have to tell the Time Lords what he did in the Time War. But that’s just it; he wants to be forgiven.

Incidentally, the Doctor seems to have told Amy an awful lot of intensely personal things about himself off-screen. He isn’t usually so open with his travelling companions. But some things about Doctor / companion relationships are timeless, and one of these is the classic “Doctor sends companions back to TARDIS when things get a bit scary” trope.

The little boxes make the Doctor angry: Time Lord have been lured here, exploited, and eventually killed, many, many times over. His confrontation with Auntie and Uncle reveals a lot; they’re patchwork people, like Frankenstein’s monster, made up of bits of other people, Auntie has the Corsair’s arm.

The Doctor finds Idris, and they start the wonderful conversation that lasts for most of the rest of the episode. The dialogue sings, and the relationship between them is so heartwarming. They’re like an old married couple, but they obviously love each other. There are so many great things here. When the Doctor first touched the TARDIS console, he said that it was “the most beautiful thing I’d ever known”. Wonderfully, he didn’t just steal her; she stole him because she wanted to see the universe and he was “the only one mad enough”!

It seems that House feeds on TARDISes, deleting the matrixes first to make them edible. As just destroying the matrixes would cause lots of unpleasantness, he simply dumps them into a convenient receptacle (or body) and feeds off the residual Artron energy once they die, usually quite quickly. This is really quite nasty when you think about it.

The nastiness continues to rack up during the middle of the episode. The moment Rory says to Amy that “We’re in the TARDIS, so we’re safe”, it turns out that they so aren’t. While they’re aboard the soulless Ship, House had an absolute godlike ability to do any sadistic thing to them that he wants to. As many people have said, House can be seen as an analogy of the power of the writer.

Just as nasty, if blackly and Gaiman-esquely humorous, is the scene in which Auntie and Uncle “pop off”. Oh, and Idris has eighteen minutes to live. But one thing that Neil Gaiman is very, very good at is mixing nastiness, humour and beautifully poignant feelings, all with a real lightness of touch (“I think you call me…sexy.” / “Only when we’re alone…”- it’s funny but it says a lot).

There’s a lot of fanwank at this point, all in the best possible way. For the first time in decades we get to see the corridors of the TARDIS. And they have old-fashioned roundels. Yay! And it seems the Doctor has been travelling in the TARDIS for “seven hundred years”, meaning that he spent his first two hundred years on Gallifrey, unless it’s more complicated than that. I’ve recently read the latest version of Timelink and it has some very interesting, and quite complicated, theories about that sort of thing. Most of it flew right over my head, but it’s a fascinating read.

The relationship between the Doctor and Idris / the TARDIS is great here- they argue like happily married couples do, in a way which is actually quite sweet and affectionate (“No, but I always took you where you needed to go.”). It’s actually quite romantic.

The scenes between our other married couple are not nearly as nice. House plays cruel games on Amy, exploiting her guilt over Rory waiting two thousand years for her. Back in The Impossible Astronaut, Moffat dealt with the psychological impact of this on Rory- his memories of all that time are quarantined away behind a door in his brain, hence his not being completely insane- but what must it be like for Amy to have the overwhelming knowledge that her husband did all that for her?

The Doctor and Idris set to building a functional TARDIS out of all the old dead ones (with old-fashioned roundels, again!), Idris communicates with “the pretty one”, and the plot chugs along. We get to see the old control room again- well, the oldest one that can reasonably survived in an HD-friendly condition- as they’re all archived. I love the fact that the TARDIS has archived “desktop themes” from the Doctor’s personal future!

The Doctor and Idris manage to outwit House rather cleverly, and the Doctor and Idris have a completely wonderful final conversation. The Doctor cries, and the Doctor never cries. It’s the end of a wonderful love story. And we end, of course, with the Doctor asking the TARDIS to take them “wherever we need to go.”

Idris has some final words for Rory:”The only water in the forest is the river”. What could that possibly mean, he asked, pretending he hasn’t yet seen A Good Man Goes to War?

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