Not, I should immediately make clear, by the story and events of “The Name of the Doctor”, the series finale of the extended staccato season 7 of Doctor Who. As has so often been the case with Steven Moffat’s work down the years, what appeared at the outset to be brain-scrambling head-twister of a puzzle is by the end almost charmingly simple and straight-forward by the time it’s explained – and I mean that as a sincere compliment, an example of the craft of writing at its highest level.
Most of us had already figured out that the secret to Clara Oswald (Jenna-Louise Coleman) was that she had somehow been ‘split up’ and scattered (“like confetti”, as the show itself described it) across all of time and space in a manner akin to the fate of the last of the Jagaroth from the classic serial “City of Death”; all that this new episode did was provide the mechanism for how this did indeed come to happen, and why it was that the Doctor kept running across her. It was not coincidence, it turned out, but an essential part of the design – no accident but rather completely unavoidable.
The episode as a whole was one of Moffat’s best-written and the team’s best-executed adventures in some time. It looked brilliant and was well paced, epic without resorting to the sorts of ‘running around blowing things up’ season finale approach beloved of Russell T Davies in his tenture as showrunner. It contained some of Moffat’s best ideas of late, from the ‘seance’ acting as a ‘conference call’ across time and space, to the graveyard at Trenzalore and the symbolism of the headstone on the Doctor’s tomb as it weeped out transcendental dimensions in all directions. The idea of what the grave contained at its core was really quite brilliant, and the visual execution of it by director Saul Metzstein as a sort of pure-white but hyper-complex strand of temporal DNA was exquisitely beautiful.
Moffat also brings out his best characters for the occasion. Once again – like “The Crimson Horror” – the first ten minutes of the episode are almost entirely Doctor-free and concentrate instead on his Victorian surrogate family of Madame Vastra, Jenny and Strax (Neve McIntosh, Catrin Stewart and Dan Starkey) and I could once more go on about how brilliant they are and how much I dearly want to see the spin-off show, but I won’t – just take it as read: far from outstaying their welcome by their recurring appearances, they truly get better every time. Here they’re joined for the first time by Professor River Song (Alex Kingston), still wonderful even though she’s a markedly different version of the character from any we’ve seen before. Also back is Richard E Grant as the Great Intelligence from the Christmas special “The Snowmen,” and he’s great albeit a little under-utilised.
As is fitting for the fact that this episode deals with the concepts of death, mortality and that the end must come even for an immortal Time Lord, this is a very downbeat and funereal episode that’s much more sombre and melancholy than you’d ever expect from a season finale. It’s also a very creepy episode, perhaps inevitably given the amount of running around in shadowy graveyards there is to be done. The episode goes from the deeply unsettling (the moment during the conference call when Jenny realises that her corporeal form is under threat is nightmarish in the extreme) to the existentially terrifying (the reveal of the lack of substance to the Great Intelligence’s presence) to the ‘jump out of your seats’ scares such as when one of the Great Intelligence’s Whispermen sidekicks suddenly crashes through a projection of River Song in the underground catacombs. Those sidekicks are terrifically effective as a whole, even if they are rather near to being rehashes of the incomparable ‘Gentlemen’ from the all-time best-ever episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, and visually also very similar to the Trickster seen in Doctor Who children’s TV spin-off The Sarah Jane Adventures.
So, it sounds like everything in the garden (or rather, graveyard) is rosy with this episode, right? I certainly found it engrossing, thrilling, intelligently written and emotionally accessible, perhaps the best of the entire run of episodes of a ‘season’ that has stretched all the way from Christmas 2011. So what’s to complain about? Why did I start this review with a declaration of confusion?
It’s this: in the lead up to the season finale and also the upcoming 50th anniversary special to air on November 23, Steven Moffat – discouraging fans from expecting a load of guest appearances from former stars of the show – has said that this years’s shows can’t just be (if you’ll pardon the expression) a load of ‘fanwank’ but must appeal to a wider general audience and look to the future as much as to the past. I wholly agreed with that, disappointed as the 12-year-old Who fan inside me was at not having an ’11 Doctors’ reunion special on the cards. So what does Moffat go and deliver for the season 7 finale at the end of the day? Well – what can only be described as exactly the ‘fanwank’ he said mustn’t happen. And to raise the stakes on the matter still further, he only goes and makes the season finale into a 45-minute lead-in to the 50th anniversary story, meaning that the forthcoming special – the best shop window to spread the word of Doctor Who if ever there was one – is now a ‘part two’ that relies on having seen this episode first.
More problematic yet, I can’t imagine this episode being very appealing or even intelligible to anyone who has not been watching the series avidly not just for Moffat’s tenture (as it pays off a lot of things from the last three years) but the entire 50 years, right back to the moment that the original Doctor stole a TARDIS from Gallifrey to begin his adventures. What would a casual viewer have made of the dizzying array of weird characters running around the screen at various points? The episode did not even mention the concept of regeneration, let alone lay the groundwork for who these people were within the 45 minutes of its run time. There’s even mentions of parts of Who mythology that pretty solid fans of the show won’t know: the mention of the Valeyard for example comes from the period of Doctor Who commonly held as its absolute creative low, just before the first semi-cancellation ‘hiatus’ crisis in the late 80s.
And I have to say, the integration of the Doctor’s past regenerations was not well done. Even though that 12-year-old fan in me was thrilled to see William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker, Peter Davison and Sylvester McCoy back in the show as something other than static photographs, the technical execution fell short of everyone’s hopes. That’s to do with the limitations of the source material, which despite impressive digital restoration work simply can’t hope to stand comparison with a modern high-definition production, especially when those antiquated sequences are intercut with modern-shot ones using stand-ins dressed in the Sixth and Ninth Doctor’s old costumes albeit with the faces obscured to represent those incarnations. Why they didn’t do the whole thing as a ‘period’ flashback along the lines of the exquisite one Metzstein himself delivered for “The Crimson Horror” is beyond me; maybe there was a creative imperative behind needing to show all the Doctors as being equally as ‘modern’ as the 11th rather than old and stuck in the past. Unfortunately the reality of the passage of time caught up with them and made the end result so much less than the idea hoped for; it was jerky and ineffective, bumping us out of the story for the duration while we “Oooh, ahhh,” and generally try to work out which episodes the archive clips come from.
If a few shots of uneven quality were all there was then it would have been okay, but the entire story that followed pretty much entirely rested on this explicit bit of ‘fanwankery’ right up to its shock ending (well, a shock if you haven’t been reading the papers in recent weeks …) The other thing that the episode did was deliver on things from earlier in the stop-go season 7 that had felt odd even at the time: it made sense of events in “Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS” for example, and resurrected the importance of the leaf from “The Rings of Akhaten”, while also going someway to explaining why “The Angels Take Manhattan” had the emphasis on that weird coda in a New York graveyard, and even retroactively explaining why the end of “The Snowmen” needed that clumsy end in which Dr Simeon was briefly taken over and re-animated by the Great Intelligence. Things that appeared like mistakes and missteps at the time were suddenly presented as part of a bigger plan that we just weren’t privy to at the time – although whether this was really Moffat’s masterplan all along or a bit of opportunistic revisionism is known only to the man himself. (The mention of the Doctor’s cold-bloodedness towards the fate of Solomon the trader in “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship” for example seemed like a bit of a retroactive nod and acknowledgement that this simply hadn’t been originally well handled at the time.)
That’s all well and good, and certainly helps make the season finale feel all the more satisfying as it pays off so many story points. But my problem with the entire approach is this: however well this episode ties off those hanging threads into a little ribbon bow, it has only won this moment by compromising a dozen shows before it with (intentional or otherwise) plot flaws and oversights. That’s not a good trade off: I’d rather have had 12 brilliant, exciting and enjoyable episodes and one damp squib of a finale rather than a terrific finale after a dozen compromised, flawed outings – but then I’m a mathematician, I trust the numbers, and 12 > 1 (or: “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few; or the one.”) I can’t help but shake the feeling that Moffat’s view of how to run a season is out-of-whack and rather than concentrating everything on this climax he should have kept an eye to the bigger picture instead.
Even the episode itself contained one massive new ‘flaw’ which I suspect will have frustrated many of those who watched, long-time fan or casual Saturday-night viewer alike. The title of the story was “The Name of the Doctor” and an entire season (let alone the heavy BBC promotion in the week before the episode aired) was orientated around the promise of this revelation, that we would finally get the answer to the question “Doctor who?” first framed in an October 2011 episode and arguably stretching back to 1963. Personally I had my doubts about this being the central notion of a story – what, really, can a mere name actually deliver? How can it really ‘change everything’ as the BBC trailers kept insisting? More likely it would be a letdown and leave us rolling our eyes, but still: having set up the question so fixedly at the centre of everything, there had to be a payoff and an answer. And … There wasn’t. There was a total cheat, which if you’re charitable you can write off as ‘creative misdirection’ on Moffat’s part but which if you’re not can leave you so frustrated that you’re apt to demand your money back under the Trades Description Act for failing to deliver the promised item.
And hence we get to where I’m so very confused. As a long-time fan there was a great deal to love about “The Name of the Doctor,” from its vintage clips and story arc pay-offs to the return of the brilliantly vibrant characters that only Moffat can come up with. On a wider level the episode looked wonderful, had great moments and a real poetry to it, and perhaps the best performance of the year from Matt Smith after what I felt was rather a misstep in “Nightmare in Silver.” It was thrilling and absorbing and paid off so much that I ought to be jumping around the room as light as a moon beam with delirium. That I’m not – and find myself more irked by “The Name of the Doctor” than I have justifiable right to be – says a lot; and none of it very encouraging.
I have, perhaps for the first time, the cold certainty that the show has taken a wrong turning and found itself in a cul-de-sac from which there seems no escape, only an inevitable and fast-approaching end.
The Name of the Doctor is repeated on BBC Three on Friday, May 24 2013 and is also available on the BBC iPlayer. The DVD and Blu-ray release of Series 7 part 2 has been delayed by a week and is now scheduled for Monday, May 27.