‘I always took you where you needed to go.’ This explores the show’s history in a very safe way, casting fresh light on events fans have known about for years by telling the story of the Doctor’s “borrowing” a TARDIS and fleeing Gallifrey from a different perspective. Making the TARDIS an active participant in the event (in her view, ‘I wanted to see the universe, so I stole a Time Lord, and I ran away’) is lovely. Finally giving her a voice and an adventure side by side with her thief is beautiful. Suranne Jones is compellingly odd as the TARDIS, trying to work out how to be a human. Matt Smith responds with his best performance to date: his grief when the TARDIS is restored, and their adventure ends is heart-breaking.
The episode that sits around this is less than perfect, although it still has a lot of great moments. There are fan-pleasing bits, like The War Games memory cubes or the secondary control room, or the shaving mirror on the junkyard TARDIS console, or even the JNT spoof title. The Doctor’s investigation of the Karn-like junkyard planet (and its Morbius inhabitants) is ominous, and the possibility of finding Gallifreyan refugees only for it to be snatched away is a devastating twist, and the Doctor’s need for forgiveness from the only people that can is a clever character wrinkle.
I’m less enthralled by the Amy and Rory sub-plot. Partly that’s aesthetic: I’ve never been a fan of long scenes in the TARDIS corridors, especially when they look this boring. Mainly, though, it’s the sense that they’re only there to keep Amy and Rory from doing anything more interesting. I guess having Rory yet again forced to wait forever for Amy to turn up (this time ageing and dying in the process) at least gives Gillan a chance to prove that even Amy can lose control and break down if she’s upset enough. But there’s a real feeling that these scenes are an impatient distraction from the main event rather than a way to both cast light on Amy and Rory’s relationship and draw out thematic parallels to the Doctor’s relationship with the TARDIS.
Still, any quibbles don’t detract from the strength of the main plot, and it’s obvious why this was so well received. I’m glad that Moffat and Gaiman resisted any temptation for Idris to come back, as I suspect repeat appearances would just have diminished the strength of the final scenes here. The first Doctor’s first reaction to the TARDIS: ‘You are the most beautiful thing I have ever known.’
Next Time: The Rebel Flesh