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Monday, May 20, 2013

Review: Doctor Who, The Name of the Doctor



Series 7, Episode 14
Grade: A
Summary: In what is likely the best Doctor Who finale in series history, we not only get a succinct answer to the central mystery of this season, but viewers are also faced with a culmination of the mysteries that have been running in the background of Steven Moffat's entire tenure on the show. It's as intense and exciting an hour of television as the show has ever produced, and it leaves me salivating for the November 23rd Anniversary show.

"Silence will Fall, when the Question is Asked..." thus spoke the prophecy uttered by Dorium at the end of the Series 6 finale "The Wedding of River Song". While the Seventh Series has focused more on the mystery of the "Impossible Girl", the question of "Doctor Who?" has still flitted away in the background. I've made no secret that I've loved how arc-heavy Steven Moffat has made his run on Doctor Who, and "The Name of the Doctor" as promised on the tin, brought all of this to the forefront. As these two big pieces come crashing together, I'll tackle the two major threads separately.




Within the opening moments of the episode, we flash forward to what we learn is the near-climax of the story, as Clara is split in time and impacting the various incarnations of The Doctor. This was a thrilling nod to the history of the show and while I recognized all of the clips from the various serials in which they were culled, I enjoyed the "Clara as Forrest Gump" in Doctor Who history. I particularly enjoyed the William Hartnell clip which was pieced together so well, the interaction between Clara and he was nearly seamless. The placement of the scene was also of note, as its set before The Doctor even hops in his TARDIS for the first time. We actually get to see what a TARDIS looks like without its Chameleon Circuit turned on. Granted, it looks like a stone cylinder, but all the same, this is big mythos stuff that I can't remember ever having been revealed before. Only the clip of the Second Doctor running through what looks like San Diego doesn't fare as well, as the source material looks a little shaky with the background in which he is placed. But credit must be given for the effort.

By the episode's end, we find out just how Clara wound up in this position, in an attempt to thwart the Great Intelligence's scheme: essentially, The Doctor will eventually die, and at his grave (which is made up of a growing Kubrickian-looking TARDIS) the remaining energy/residual time junk that he's built up lies active like an open wound within its Console-room. Instead of a body, the Doctor leaves behind infinite possibility, a fairly elegant visual. The Great Intelligence seeks to destroy the Doctor's multiple timelines by jumping into the "open wound" all of which lie at the Fields of Trenzalore. Clara jumps into the wound/vortex as well, in order to stop this plan. In all, a fairly elegant solution to the mystery, as it's just a matter of pre-destination, a staple of time travel fiction. There isn't a grand plan at work, or some evil villain working in the background. Clara is simply acting to protect her friend, and her very actions are what end up setting the stage for that friendship to even come to be in the first place. I'm not quite sure how she became a Dalek in the future, probably a consequence of what was already occurring in "Asylum", but I now feel the need to revisit that episode to see what I may have missed. My only regret in this regard is that we didn't get to see more detail of these interactions beyond Clara making sure The First Doctor picks the right TARDIS. Unfortunately, short of recasting the part of some of the past Doctors, raising the dead, or actually going back in time, this is about as good as could be managed. But, in so far as Clara is concerned, mystery solved.

Now, as for the Doctor's prophesy; Clara is made aware of it fairly early, as when she's pulled into subconscious counsel with Jenny, Strax, Vastra, and the returning River Song (the deceased "Forest of the Dead" version) to discuss a criminal who claims to know the secret of The Doctor. Once their bodies are attacked by The Whispermen (at the behest of The Great Intelligence), Clara awakens and relays this info to The Doctor and the look on Matt Smith's face says it all...he is in utter fear of going to Trenzalore. It at first seems like he's afraid of crossing his own timestream to visit what we learn is his grave. The final reveal is far more interesting. Chasing Clara into the vortex, he saves her from the sort of limbo space in which she's found herself post-splintering. It's there that Clara and The Doctor notice the Doctor's greatest secret.



In the end, the prophecy that The Silence was trying to avoid coming to bear wasn't related to the Doctor's actual name, but instead the concept of who the Doctor actually is. It's a clever twist, albeit very subtle. Apparently John Hurt's (Ninth? First?) Doctor did something that wasn't worthy of the name. The implication is that this may be the Doctor that ended the Time Lord race in order to end the massive Time War conflict. Certainly, genocide would be a good reason to be shamed. Curiously though, if this is the big secret The Doctor has been hiding from us all along, just what is it about this heretofore unknown Doctor that caused such an issue for The Silence to want to destroy The TARDIS (in Series 5) and engineer The Doctor's supposed death (in Series 6)? I look forward to finding out this answer in hopefully the upcoming Fiftieth Anniversary Special on November 23rd. I am hopeful though that the Special will be the concluding note to this plot strand, which does have its origins as far back as "The Eleventh Hour", though one could argue some minor seeds were planted in "Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead". Each finale has built upon the next in terms of adding to the mystery while giving the viewer a sense of answer to each primary question presented by the premiere and finale previous. But, as with every good arc (and this has been a wonderfully drawn three season epic, with only a few lulls) there has to be an endgame in place. If Moffat is able to clear out some info on the Time War at the same time, even better. Having an acting legend like John Hurt onboard, who may be the best pedigreed performer the program has ever had (give or take Ian McKellen's voice over in "The Snowmen") is certainly something of note.

As for the rest of the episode, the Whispermen are well realized, even if conceptually they look a little bit like Victorian members of The Silence. The Great Intelligence's involvement in the episode certainly did it's job to be the villain that puts everything in place, and I'm glad there was a somewhat reliable big bad involved that at least carried a hint of menace (unlike last season's Madame Kovarian, a bit of a dud), but I do feel like we got very little sense of the history of the conflict between the Doctor and himself. Frankly, instead of the dull "The Crimson Horror" and the downright filler Neil Gaiman episode last week, another story involving The Great Intelligence would have been preferred to properly lay that foundation in. In truth, the narrative is still effective enough, and to have any kind of arch-villain that isn't Dalek related, and has some bit of bite is good enough for me.

I've found myself less taken with Jenny, Strax, and Vastra over the course of their appearances, but their narrative function works well enough here. They basically act as a support unit for The Doctor, and we get a couple of choice lines of humor from Strax, far funnier than his somewhat forced gags in "The Crimson Horror". I thought the murder scene, when Jenny is killed by the Whispermen was excellently done. It's a shame that they had to muck it up by reviving her. The one thing Doctor Who lacks occasionally are stakes, as it seems like our heroes will always get out of it. The loss of Jenny wouldn't have been a big one, but at least it would have added an extra layer of menace to the Whispermen. Pity for the wasted opportunity, it's probably my only complaint. As an aside, River Song's function in the plot was pretty perfunctory. She appeared, filled in as an exposition relayer, was the out to keep the Doctor from saying his name, and then got a nice goodbye. I'm not sure if this is the final goodbye for River, but it felt a bit that way. If so, that last kiss was a great note to end her run on. I enjoy the Alex Kingston well enough, but the character does have diminishing returns. The line "I always see you" as just perfect, maybe the first time I've actually bought into their romantic chemistry.

But above all, can I just mention again how much I enjoy Matt Smith as an actor? Certainly David Tennant had wonderful moments, but I never felt his Doctor the same way Smith is able to pull me in and make me believe in what he's doing and what he's feeling. I think I can unequivocally say the 11th Doctor is my Doctor. 

One key question I have though: when does this episode occur in the perspective of The Great Intelligence? After "The Bells of St. John"? Before it? He's still in full Dr. Simeon garb at this point, is it possible that the events of "The Bells of St. John" are just another effect of the time splintering and is his present day attempt at destroying the Doctor via the time vortex? Talk about paradoxes if so! Clara's time splintering creates her own time splintering! I'm likely over-thinking this.

"The Name of the Doctor" really was the finale I had been looking for. Not only did it feature Moffat's best script of the entire Series 7, but with the startling cliffhanger, it left me actively wanting to see what happens next. While I thought last season's ending question of "Doctor Who?" was clever, it didn't have the "oh shit moment" that John Hurt's appearance left me with. This was a terrific end to a very nice stretch of episodes in the second half of Series 7. In terms of grading this particular Series as a whole, the first half was a significant drag with the aimless Amy/Rory plot and its terribly underwhelming finish. In retrospect, it seems like they front-loaded their filler episodes into the first half, a good move, but it makes the idea of sitting through 7.1 a bit of a chore. Perhaps I'll give it a reevaluation someday, but until then Series 7 gets a B (C+ for 7.1, A- for 7.2).

See you in November!



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1 comment:

  1. This really was a great finale, if only for, as you said, its succinct answer to the mysteries of the season. With a lot of the 11th Doctor finales I get caught up in the excitement and really enjoy them the first time, but the more I think about them I realize I have no idea what happened. This one had an elegant but (relatively) simple explanation.

    Maybe more importantly thought, its like they're finally acknowledging the classic series more than just a few bits here and there! I'm with you, my only complaint was that they could do a whole movie length episode of Forrest Gump Clara aiding previous Doctors :D

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