Contains vague spoiler-y type things. Maybe.
Every year, I tell myself I’m not going to be dragged in to write a review of every single new episode of Doctor Who. Or at the very least, to keep them super-short. How much can there be to say week-in, week-out about a single show without looking like a complete geek, after all?
It turns out there’s invariably a lot to say (and as for looking like a complete geek – well, guilty as charged. I’ll live.) That’s because the show is so completely flexible that rarely are two episodes alike in style, tone and content, which is almost unique in an ongoing, non-anthology series. Two weeks ago we had a classic “alien monster loose in a ship,” last week it was as close to a “haunted house” story as it could get, and this week it was … Well. This week was certainly very different.
“Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS” was more of a visceral roller-coaster experience than it was a coherent story. You held on for dear life at the start and then concentrated on not letting go and getting thrown off by what followed. And at the end if left you dazed, confused, excited and breathless like few other Doctor Who stories in the show’s entire 50-year history.
In summary: the TARDIS is badly damaged after an encounter with a salvage vessel in deep space (which is manned by just three people, a very Alien-esque blue collar set-up which even includes an android crewmember who is not what he initially appears to be.) Clara is trapped as the TARDIS engines start to explode and leak time energy causing everything to go very weird indeed, and the Doctor’s attempts to rescue her are thwarted not only by the captain of the salvage vessel Gregor Van Baalen (chief guest star Ashley Walters) but also by horrific humanoid creatures prowling the corridors. Just what has the Doctor been carrying aboard the ship all this time?
On one level all the plot is just an excuse to take us deep into the heart of the TARDIS in a geek wish-fulfilment way that we’ve never seen before. Oh, sure, the classic series did it with a brief chase sequence in “The Invasion of Time”, but that was woefully executed on a a pitiful budget that did more harm than good to the show’s core mythos; then there was some exploration in the Paul McGann TV movie, but the less said about that instalment all round the better; and we’ve seen some of the ship in last season’s “The Doctor’s Wife”, but that was limited to some anonymous (and not even all that well-done) hexagonal corridors and a welcome return to an older version of the console room that the production team had kept in storage since David Tennant’s day.
This episode vastly exceeds any of those precedents, however. We finally get to see parts of the ship that have been off-handedly referred to for decades (the library, the swimming pool, the Eye of Harmony and the engine room) as well as parts that we never even knew about, such as the mechanism the ship uses to create new console rooms out of thin air. And they’re all – at last! – a match for what fans had in their minds all this time. It’s an episode that’s stuffed full of grace notes to the past such as the Time War (but in such a way that they don’t interrupt the running or annoy newer fans not interested in such things) and which also effectively crams in a lot of this season’s overarching threads about Clara, while setting up the big finish to the series by putting the mystery of the Doctor’s real name front and centre. In fact it’s the prospect of this latter secret being revealed that is the one thing that really seems to terrify the Doctor more than anything else.
Visually, this is a very impressive and inventive episode. I genuinely wouldn’t fault a single bit of CGI in the entire show, which is saying a lot for what was a very FX-heavy episode. The TARDIS interiors were convincingly trashed and well lit in ’emergency’ mode and of course there’s another outing for the ship’s ‘red alert’ klaxon otherwise known as the cloister bell. The only production detail for me that didn’t immediately click were the humanoid creatures, which it seemed that the artistically slo-mo shaky-camerawork was having to work overtime to avoid revealing as stuntmen in rubber suits. However, considering that the classic series never failed to disappoint fans by shooting its monsters in static long shots under flat flood lighting that revealed every wrinkle and zipper in the costume, you really had to commend new-to-Who director Mat King for his work here in making sure that didn’t happen. In fact, as the show progressed and the creatures became more visible, they were actually increasingly effective and terrifying: the final moments became more like an episode of “The Walking Dead” in its zombie scares.
I could get picky and start talking about plot holes; but really that seems like a pointless endeavour, especially when addressing a story that deals with ‘broken time’ in the first place and which is therefore structurally impervious to linear examination. Besides, I’d need to rewatch the episode a few more times before I have a sufficiently coherent grip on events to know whether there are plot holes or not, such is the breakneck complexity of the thing. The one thing I will say is that at the end of the 45 minutes, it felt to me like it all made sense – or would do, once I understood it. That’s pretty much 90 per cent of the battle.
Others I know have rolled their eyes and been particularly off-put by the resolution, which involves a ‘big reset’ so that nothing much has happened after all. Now it’s true that Doctor Who as a whole does use this rather a lot, although to be honest I personally feel it’s not only understandable but virtually built-in to any plot that involves time travel gone awry. For example, regular readers will know how much I loathed the series 3 series finale “The Last of the Time Lords”, but the one thing I didn’t object to was the ‘big reset’ it uses at the end which was actually one of the better thought-out parts of that episode’s problematic plot.
So I don’t actually think that the show as a whole over-uses this ploy, and here it seems particularly apposite. Nor does it lessen the tension of the Doctor’s predicament, since when he’s standing in the exploding heart of his beloved vessel and frankly admits he doesn’t know what to do, he really means it – he’s scared too, and out of options. Moreover, the ‘big reset’ isn’t some deus ex machina out of no where but is a plot detail built in to the fabric of the episode from virtually the very first scene, making it a satisfying but simple revelation rather than merely a piece of arbitrary unintelligible technobabble out of thin air.
Commendable writing and plotting, then. While understandably focussed on the Doctor (Matt Smith in top form) and Clara (Jenna-Louise Coleman, still delightful) the episode even manages to make sympathetic and rounded characters of the three salvage crew members in exactly the way “Cold War” wasn’t able to do with its guest cast that week. It’s therefore strange that the writer for this episode is Steve Thompson: he wrote the season 6 episode “The Curse of the Black Death” that I really thought was a very sub-standard affair, and then also contributed the weakest episode of the first season of Sherlock. I’d come to cringe whenever I saw his name on the opening credits of a show, but now he’s made a fantastic job of “Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS” on top of what is perhaps the all-time best episode of Sherlock, “The Reichenbach Fall” so actually I’m completely revising my view and becoming a bit of a fan.
Still, this is not an episode for everyone. It’s a challenging and imaginative story that will have non-SF fans rolling their eyes at the silliness of it all and the non-realistic nature of the events. Fair enough: this is a bit of a Marmite episode when it comes to a wide mainstream audience who probably prefer the more down-to-earth tales set on a London council estate albeit with murderous shop window dummies springing to life. This episode is a world away from where the modern series started, no question.
For harder core Doctor Who fans, however, this will very likely be the best episode of the uneven season 7 of the show to date, the kind of ‘knock it out of the park’ success that is a joy to behold and which transcends any coherent, sensible discussion about its merits, its plot holes, its use of a ‘big reset’ and the like. It either squeezed the breath out of you with its sheer amazing-ness, or left you cold. For me, it was most definitely the former.
So much so that when I saw the next week trailer for “The Crimson Horror”, then despite the fact it features the welcome return of Madame Vastra, Jenny and Strax not to mention guest starring the wonderful Diana Rigg, I was oddly unmoved. Still processing the previous 45 minutes, I thought: “Oh. That looks awfully old hat.” Hopefully I’ll be wrong by the time we get to next Saturday – and moreover that my head has stopped spinning so that I can properly appreciate it!
Doctor Who continues on BBC1 on Saturday evenings starting around 6.30pm, with repeats on BBC and also available on the BBC iPlayer. Series 7 part 2 is out on DVD and Blu-ray on May 20.