Doctor Who episode 814: The Name of the Doctor (18/5/2013)
‘The trap is set for the Doctor’s friends. They will travel where the Doctor ends.’ Although The Wedding of River Song positioned ‘the fields of Trenzalore, the fall of the 11th, and the question’ as the next big story arc, they’ve largely been forgotten in favour of Series Seven’s central mystery: ‘the impossible girl’. The Name of the Doctor brings them back into play in an episode that in theory ticks all the boxes: the TARDIS (and the 11th Doctor) falls onto the battlefields of Trezalore, and the answer to the question ‘Doctor who?’ is the secret to accessing the Doctor’s tomb – allowing the Great Intelligence to rewrite history.
These are not, to be sure, entirely satisfying answers – and the complete absence of the Silence (as we’ve learned, a religious order committed to preventing ‘Doctor who?’ from being answered at Trenzalore) suggests this can’t be the pay-off promised by Dorium. But if this were the last time the planet turned up, Moffat could have got away with it as a sort of sleight of hand – the Silence were just there to stop the Great Intelligence from ending the universe. The ’impossible girl’ was an ordinary woman who did a Donna – when the stars went out, she threw herself in front of a metaphorical lorry to save Time and the Doctor. And in so doing uncovered an even bigger question: who on earth is the John Hurt Doctor?
The episode is built so much around these revelations that there isn’t much beyond them. It was a good move to bring back Saul Metzstein to direct the last in the Victorian trilogy. This is full of the same macabre horror as The Snowmen and particularly The Crimson Horror; the Whispermen are the best new monsters since the Silence: they look like someone crossed the Hush Gentlemen from Buffy with the Mouth of Sauron. It was smart to use the Paternosters and River, as it short cuts needing to establish new people for the audience to care about and gives some emotional heft to the Doctor’s choices. The script includes some very scary moments, some Moffat cleverness (the Doctor’s grave, not his secret, being discovered), and creepy, foreboding nursery rhymes.
I think it falls apart if you look beyond the impressive visuals (that TARDIS tomb) and neat use of archive footage. Specifically, what does the Great Intelligence attacking every moment of the Doctor’s timeline mean? We see the effect (the stars go out, Jenny vanishes and Strax goes bad), but I’m not absolutely sure what it all entails. Does the Intelligence corrupt the Doctor and ‘poison every friendship’, ultimately turning him into the Valeyard, ‘the Vessel of the Final Darkness’ (perhaps, we might speculate, via incarnations like the Shalka Doctor that increasingly resemble Dr Simeon), or does it just mean he’s ‘dying all at once’? Is Trenzalore the graveyard it is because the Intelligence turns The Time of the Doctor into a defeat, or is it like that because the corrupted Doctor failed to save the Time Lords and so died there? We know, from The Time of the Doctor, that he never becomes the ‘cruel tyrant’ the Intelligence says fell at Trenzalore – unless that cruel tyrant is the version averted by Clara’s intervention.
And how does Clara defeat the Intelligence? Does each splinter push him in front of a speeding Bessie or off an ice cliff? I would have liked this more had the script been clearer on what is supposed to be happening at the end. If only an editor had sat down Moffat and asked, ‘In a sentence, explain this.’
Niggles aside, there’s so much else going on that it’s only afterwards that there’s time to ponder these imponderables. The pre-title sequence might have a few shonky effects (and performances) but is breathtakingly audacious. Matt Smith is at his best since The Angels Take Manhattan, as though Alex Kingston’s presence makes him up his game – the farewell with River is a gorgeous moment. Seeing Strax revert to Sontaran type is genuinely unsettling, and goes a long way to illustrating the impact of the Intelligence’s actions. The chutzpah of ‘Introducing John Hurt as The Doctor’ then leaving the audience hanging six months until 23rd November was genius. It really felt like the 50th anniversary began here.
Next Time: The Night of the Doctor