DOCTOR WHO: Series 6 - The Doctor's Wife / Review

BBCHD - 14 May 2011 - 6.30pm

"I'm a madman with a box, without a box!"

"She's a woman. And she's the TARDIS."
"Did you wish really hard?"

An eagerly anticipated episode, The Doctor's Wife manages something pretty extraordinary. It breathes new life into the origins of the mythology at the heart of the series, particularly the Doctor's long relationship with his ultimate of companions, the TARDIS. It very carefully enhances and enriches the accepted folklore of the Doctor stealing the TARDIS and his erratic ability to control it while delivering the results with a heartbreakingly emotional sophistication. Oh, and Neil Gaiman's a very wicked man. The episode's title was clearly enough to get some fans in a bit of a dither but in hindsight it effectively combines the artistry of misdirection coupled with the episode's specific allusion to that eternal partnership between Time Lord and time machine. For indeed, the Doctor and the TARDIS are like an old married couple. She always was "the old girl" who took him to the trouble spots of the universe and in Gaiman's lovely script we find out why when the Doctor meets her in the flesh and has a bit of barney with her.

The long understood personal bond between the Doctor and the TARDIS - the madman and his box - forms the singular framework of the story here as the Doctor receives a psychic message from a fellow Time Lord and goes in search of the messenger.  There was much teasing prior to the episode that we would see something that we hadn't seen since The War Games in 1969. Naturally, fans went into overdrive and convinced themselves that Gaiman's script was about to feature the return of the War Lord. While being true to his word, Gaiman clearly was being less obvious than that. It was therefore delightful that, as such a fan, he would reintroduce the idea of the Time Lord's ability to send for help telepathically in boxes that could travel through time and space.

This opening scene where the Doctor becomes very excited about the message, happy to discover that he may not be alone in the universe, allows Gaiman to extrapolate from the current era's Time War history, reminding us that the Doctor is the last of the Time Lords and that he was responsible for the death of his race. He does not merely pay lip service to this concept but also underlines the emotionally raw nature of the Doctor's actions when Amy later questions his desire to find the Time Lords whose call for help he hears through the Ood Nephew's communication globe. "You want to be forgiven" she concludes and indeed he acknowledges this to be true with his response of "Don't we all?" as he starts out to look for them on the junkyard asteroid.

The original message is from the Corsair, a fellow Time Lord and a "fantastic bloke" whose snake symbol on the outside of the box, the Ouruborous that eats its own tail, represents his eternal self but also speaks of mythical return, the phoenix rising from the ashes and the eternal soul of the world. It is an aptly self-reflexive visual motif that summarises the story as the TARDIS must undergo death, transformation and rebirth, the Doctor's relationship with his ship becoming significantly altered as Rory and Amy's own relationship is again severely tested.

Gaiman cheekily mocks, as the Doctor discusses the Corsair's past, that as a Time Lord he was often a she ("oh, she was a bad girl!") and he thereby causes several million Doctor Who fans to have palpitations at the thought that Time Lords can indeed change their gender as well as their faces. Again, this notion of transformation is carried throughout the story, unfortunately with the Corsair reduced to component parts of the animated patchwork Auntie and Uncle, with the Corsair's tattooed arm alerting the Doctor to the danger of the situation, and the last psychic calls from the many Time Lords simply reduced to "cries for help... from the long dead."

Gaiman delves fully into the primary building blocks of the show - the Doctor and his TARDIS - using the mythology of Doctor Who as deftly as he explores the many mythical archetypes and the relationship between materialism and spirituality that features prominently in the rest of his work. The idea of telepathic messages and the essence of the self trapped in a box, with the Corsair's own call for help and those from a number of Time Lords suggesting many escaped from the effects of the Time War, perhaps represents the dichotomy between the physical and the spiritual ambitions of the characters in the story. It is a journey that takes us from flesh and blood physicality and into the realms of the soul. This is a Romantic theme, akin to the philosophical arguments in Shelley's Frankenstein for example, writ large throughout the episode.
"a vast necropolis. Those who are not yet in their graves soon will be - they are the living dead." 
In the pre-titles we see Auntie and Uncle, patchwork creatures whom we discover are animated by the demonic House, instruct Nephew, the green eyed Ood, to remove Idris's soul from her body. The body is seen as merely a vessel to be commanded by whichever force can possess it. House possesses Auntie and Uncle, having repaired their bodies countless times from the Time Lord castaways crashing onto the asteroid (lovely if rather mordant jokes about Uncle having "the eyes of a twenty year-old" and "two left feet" underline this idea), and the TARDIS similarly animating Idris as a way of staying alive continues this theme.

Uncle and Auntie are wonderfully played by Adrian Schiller and Elizabeth Berrington, a pair of Dickensian characters, tapping into Dicken's own motif of likening inanimate objects to people and vice versa where Steven Marcus aptly sums up Dicken's depiction of England (one we could appropriate for the asteroid, the dead Time Lords and their TARDISes), in The Myth of Nell, as "a vast necropolis. Those who are not yet in their graves soon will be - they are the living dead."

Essentially, as well as their 'living-dead' status, we also see the death of Idris right at the start of the episode, her body then becoming merely a receptacle for the TARDIS matrix (a 'soul' other than her own) and we never find out what the real Idris was like just as the Doctor claims that Auntie and Uncle have "anything left of what used to be you." Later, there's a scene where Auntie informs the Doctor that "it's time for Auntie and Uncle to pop off" as they prepare to die now that House has ceased to manipulate them and Uncle declares, "I'm against it." It's also at this juncture that the Doctor discovers that Idris's body is in a 'living-dead' state and they only have a certain amount of time before she too will die.

This theme of repair and patching together of bodies begins with the Doctor recounting the story of the robot king and the reattaching of his head (a bit of Tin Man symbolism there) in the pre-titles and is carried through into the effigies of Auntie and Uncle, into the slow decay of Idris as the TARDIS burns up her body. They all substitute inanimate matter for animate matter, where House and the TARDIS translate form through copying or abstraction, and in the case of Idris and the TARDIS, driven by a passionate desire to keep, to make permanent, to preserve that which will eventually decay.

The bubble universe works along the same principle, its spark of life merely down to the presence of House (the asteroid another physical container carrying a psychic imprint), and where this universe, Idris, Auntie and Uncle die as soon as it hijacks the TARDIS and attempts enter our universe. The malevolent House trapped in the asteroid, the TARDIS matrix downloaded into Idris, the Time Lord messages in boxes, the cage (the bars of the cage have a design that suggests the hive-like walls of the TARDIS interior) that the Ood places Idris in, are all symbolic of matter, and the human body in particular, becoming a TARDIS-like vessel.

The merely mortal flesh of the body here offers an existence that is bigger on the inside with its attendant feelings, intellect, consciousness and soul all swirling around inside. The theme of the brief span of mortality (where "the boxes will make you angry" warns Idris) set against the freedom of the soul to transcend these limitations and exist as a universal consciousness is essentially at the heart of the story.
"our instinct for the sacred and for religious feeling is alive and well"
After Suranne Jones practically ruined The Sarah Jane Adventures story Mona Lisa's Revenge for me in 2009, I was initially full of trepidation at her casting as Idris. She played Mona Lisa with a broad Northern accent and I had visions that we were about to be treated to the same. However, she is rather brilliant in this, shifting her performance from "bitey, mad lady" in the first quarter of an hour, giving no hint of what is to come, to a sweet, quite dignified performance as the TARDIS herself. The initial hint of this is when the Doctor frees her from the cage and she convinces him of her real nature.

She takes us back to that day when the Doctor stole the TARDIS and first touched the console, deliciously building on that myth by saying matter-of-factly, "and I stole you." This is Gaiman's clever bit of ornamentation he's added to the established back-story and as Neil Perryman illustrates in his review, it effortlessly provides an explanation as to why the Doctor doesn't always get to where he's going.

The TARDIS simply takes him to the scene of the crime, to where he's needed. Time Lord and TARDIS are inextricably linked here and director Richard Clark gauges the moment perfectly as the Doctor turns to face her and acknowledges she is the TARDIS. Jones offers a witty performance, posh and diffident, like the Helena Bonham-Carter of Gallifrey one minute and then fragile and innocent the next. "Are all people like this?" she enquires. "So much bigger on the inside? I'm..." suggests succinctly that she understands her eternal sentient nature within Idris's decaying, mortal frame and that being alive is "so big, so complicated."

This connects to a theme that Stephen Rauch picks up on in his book Neil Gaiman's The Sandman and Joseph Campbell: In Search of the Modern Myth, where he discusses the desacrilised world as a starting point for much of Gaiman's writing and offers that "our instinct for the sacred and for religious feeling is alive and well" in Gaiman's mythologically inspired storytelling. Rauch links Gaiman's approach to a discussion about the profane as the "time and space of everyday life" and the sacred as "that which exists behind ordinary life and supports it." This duality is at the heart of the Idris/TARDIS character and her attempts to grasp at both the physical mode of being and the way the soul can transcend mere flesh.

There is some beautiful interplay between Jones and Matt Smith, both rapidly firing lines at each other and yet still maintaining the core of the characters. Much of this is conveyed through the TARDIS's ability to pre-empt what the Doctor is about to think and say, her diagnosis of the House's desire to feed off the ship's Artron energy culminating with her pointing out, "Oh, you were about to say all of that. I don't suppose you have to now." It perfectly underlines the idea that they are a partnership, as clever as each other. Smith also finally shifts up a gear in his performance here, matching Jones and adding some much needed emotional drive to the Doctor where we see him momentarily lost at sea when he realises that House has trapped his companions and he confesses to himself, "I really don't know what to do."
"Oh, my beautiful idiot. You have what you always had - you've got me."
The Doctor has of late been rather too over-confident about his abilities and it's nice to see that sometimes he's genuinely fallible. "That's a new feeling," he admits and then promptly gives himself a slap to snap out of it. This aspect to the character is also emphasised throughout by both Amy and Idris advising him that he will lose focus if he gets emotional. However, after ranting at Idris, Gaiman self-reflexively brings that origin story of the Doctor and the TARDIS in the Totter's Lane junkyard full circle when the Doctor states, "I'm stuck down the plughole at the end of the universe on a stupid old junkyard!"

It's at this point he has his 'Eureka' moment and realises he's surrounded by the equivalent of a Steptoe's yard full of TARDIS bits and bobs. In an episode full of wonderful moments, they stand above the plain of half-eaten TARDISes with Idris mourning and reflecting on the necropolis before them, "I'm thinking that all of my sisters are dead. That they were devoured, and that we are looking at their corpses."

Another stand out moment is the husband and wife argument in the junkyard as they build the TARDIS and it comes complete with a very witty acknowledgement of the 'Pull to Open' instruction on the TARDIS door and the Doctor demanding an explanation for the TARDIS's erratic flight patterns. The Doctor indignantly scoffs, "I think I've earned the right to open my front doors any way I want!" when the TARDIS observes he pushes the door open in contravention of the instruction. She explains that her unreliability is in fact her determination to take him to places where he's needed.

Although she's momentarily distracted by examining her own face in the mirror on the console, she eventually charges the Heath Robinson time machine with power, understanding fully the symbolism of the Doctor and the TARDIS, as 'the madman and his box', with "Oh, my beautiful idiot. You have what you always had - you've got me." They set off after the possessed ship now torturing Amy and Rory. It culminates with a real punch the air feeling where visual effects, performances and music combine to produce an exhilarating sequence.

Running in parallel to the developing relationship between Idris/TARDIS and the Doctor, is the possession of the TARDIS by House. The cloister bell doomily rings out as Amy and Rory realise they are trapped in a sub-conscious, dimensionally transcendental world.  It is a world that can be manipulated as Rory and Amy must entertain this booming voiced metaphor (you can spot Michael Sheen's vocal mannerisms if you concentrate very, very hard) and thereby undergo yet another trial of fidelity. It perhaps offers one of the weaker moments in the script as well as some of the most deeply disturbing imagery in the series thus far. Having already done the 'quarry as alien planet' with the asteroid sequences, here Gaiman ups the ante by then using the 'running through corridors' trope, that catch-all description of much of Doctor Who's chase sequences, to turn the TARDIS into Rory and Amy's personal hell.

It's one where Rory is reduced to a tortured Pythonesque 2,000 year old man (with a spectacularly huge prosthetic nose that makes Nixon's in the opening two-parter look positively petite) ranting at Amy. His pent up rage at her regard for him is fully articulated and Arthur Darvill is very scary as the crazed, if ancient, husband demanding answers of her. However, that private hell is somewhat marred by the fact that the "Oh, my God. They killed Rory" emotional wringer is trotted out yet again with Rory seemingly reduced to a decaying corpse in one of the corridors, now decorated with the appropriate graffiti representing his bile toward her. I don't blame him for the hate mail if at every turn she seems to get him bumped off these days.
... the Doctor's guardian angel, she who must keep a general account of the Time Lord's relationship with events
It gets even better when the Doctor and Idris materialise in the old Tennant console room after passing a telepathic message to Amy and Rory ("hello, pretty!"), again emphasising Gaiman's love of the TARDIS concept. Another spectacular feast of visual effects leads to the crowning glory of Smith's quite stunning performance that comes in the final encounter with Idris, now the physical manifestation of the TARDIS's soul.

For a brief period the TARDIS experiences the profane and physical limitations of what Rauch describes as "the ache of life, the anxiety, dread and loneliness" and her rapture at, momentarily, being alive. "Alive" is the one word she seeks to understand throughout the episode and in the final encounter with the Doctor she triumphantly transcends the flesh and connects to her own subjectivity, as the goddess at the heart of the machine. It's a very moving scene, beautifully played by Suranne Jones and Matt Smith.

Burning up or deleting TARDIS rooms ("goodbye swimming pool, goodbye scullery, sayonara squash court seven") to provide enough "welly" to get the Doctor, Amy and Rory into the bubble universe (another box within a box) refers back to Castrovalva, of course, and here it's the way the Doctor hoists House with its own petard, gaining entry back into our universe and leaving the way for the TARDIS matrix to kick some serious ass. House and Idris are binary opposites. She is the benevolent soul of the TARDIS, he the angel of destruction, a medieval force of nature, a tormented demon who can only find relief in tormenting and destroying others.

Indeed, after a serious bout of House cleaning, the image of Idris saying farewell is bathed in golden light here, suggesting an angelic presence and one Gaiman perhaps sees as the recording angel of Judaic, Christian and Islamic religious symbolism. What is the TARDIS if it's not the Doctor's guardian angel? She must keep a general account of the Time Lord's relationship with events, history and people across time and space, archiving not only the 30 console rooms but witnessing his triumphs and failures. She acts as both the remembrance of things past and present and as prophetess for the future (underlined by Rory's revelation of Idris's last words, "the only water in the forest is the river" and one of the few nods to the ongoing revelations in this series).

A wonderful episode, stylishly directed by Richard Clark, gorgeous to look at, and that is perhaps best summed up by that moment between Rory and the Doctor at the end of the story. There Rory admits that even though, as a nurse, he is used to dealing with the sick and the dying, a death always gets to him even though he shouldn't let it. The Doctor gently reminds him, "Letting it get to you - you know what that's called? Being alive." I'm sure Idris and the TARDIS would agree with that.

For more on Series 5, including all the expanded reviews from 2010, try my book Doctor Who: The Pandorica Opens - Exploring the Worlds of the Eleventh Doctor published by Classic TV Press and also available on Amazon
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Comments
11 Responses to “DOCTOR WHO: Series 6 - The Doctor's Wife / Review”
  1. I'm wondering whether the Ourroboros image has another function.

    Obviously, I hadn't really considered the one you give in your review (nice job, as usual, lots to think about now), but it occurred to me it might be a signpost about this season being a closed loop. Something (else) to ponder.

    I was captivated by Surranne. She includes some very interesting physical acting - moments where she behaves like a puppet with her strings cut, flashes of childlike fascination - which mirror the Doctor's giddy joy at the everyday - and the more stately serenity. It's a joy to watch.

    As was the whole episode. It's a varied and entertaining season so far. I'm really not looking forward to the mid-season break.

  2. I have to say, after the disappointment of last season, this year's output has really picked up. I even enjoyed The Curse of the Black Spot, for all its arrrrrrchetypal trappings. However, Neil Gaiman's episode was probably the best I've seen in years. Tapping into a core element of the programme's decades-old mythology while still providing a witty, exciting and tightly-plotted episode is no mean feat, yet Gaiman triumphs in making it look effortless. I do hope he comes back to write more.

    Performances were also excellent, from regulars and guests alike, and I positively creamed my pants when I read Michael Sheen's name in the credits! Bravo Doctor Who for restoring my faith in you. This episode reminds me of why I'm still a fan.

  3. FRANK says:

    Ah, of course, Dave! The closed loop of the series. Thank you for that. An obvious one I'd missed there.

    Yes, agree with your description of Surane's performance. Very puppet like early on, which is highly appropriate, and then allowing curiosity to take over. Lovely job. She more than made up for Mona Lisa.

  4. Carey says:

    Hi Frank,
    Great post as always.

    I just wrote and incredibly long and detailed reply to your post only for Google to eat it up, so what follows is a précis before I forget what I originally wrote.

    You missed a couple of pieces of symbolism within the Doctor's Wife: the first (and surprising one after you mentioned Mary Shelley) is the visual reference between Idris and Elsa Lancaster's Bride Of Frankenstein-- rather fitting given she is essentially dead matter reanimated by heavenly forces. This may be stretch, but considering Elsa's husband Charles Laughton made "Night if the Hunter,' the Doctor's Wife does examine the "household invader" horror trope with the Amy and Rory sequences. Nicely enough, Gaiman adopts adopts couple of more horror tropes along the way, that of demonic possession and the haunted house, before they all come to a climax with one possessed entity taking care of the other.

    The central dichotomy in The Doctor's Wife is also worthy of examination: the villain, House, represents everything the Doctor and his Tardis is not. He is a fixed entity, while theTardis is an ever moving, ever changing one. This could also be a reference to the programme Doctor Who, one that never remains the same, and undoubtedly survived for so long because of his very ability. It is also fitting that Houses downfall comes from his attempt to change: by trying to become a moving entity he is destroyed by a being far more powerful and far more experienced than he. As the Doctor says, in the end House is far smaller on the inside. Does this also refer to some of Doctor Who's competitor programmes?

    Ee, I'm sure my original post was better written than that, but alas it's lost in the ether. I very much enjoyed The Doctor's Wife-- as much a love letter to Doctor Who as Davies Last of the Time Lords or Moffat's Big Bang. It's probably this years Vincent and the Doctor.

    Keep up the good work,
    All the best,

    Lee

  5. Anonymous says:

    Great write up Frank!

    Really enjoyed this episode, don't think we've had many good standalone episodes since the Moff took over with the exception of Vincent and TEH. Thats where i miss RTD era!

    But here's hoping the good standard continues and we actually get some ANSWERS this season...

    Regards,

    Vish

  6. FRANK says:

    Hello Lee

    Thanks for that long post in reply to the review. Very interesting extensions to some of my own analysis there.

    Bride of Frankenstein - yes, that's a good allusion, especially as Suranne looked rather like the Elsa Lanchester image. Particularly the hair!

    And the idea of House as a fixed point and one that is ultimately smaller on the inside because it can't rationalise on a transdimensional basis perhaps?

    Thanks for popping in! Would like to see you back here with some more thoughts on the series.

  7. Anonymous says:

    A great review, as always.

    The Doctor must have killed "all" the Tardises while House killed only hundreds, as well, of course, re "Sexy"'s mourning of her sisters...

  8. Actually this series being a closed loop would make sense, since that's what Moffat does best (timey wimey ball) last years 3 x altered/repaired/destroyed universe/timeline mind melting ending, seemed very un-moffat (and a bit too confusing if i'm being honest) almost an attempt to show people that he can do Russel T Davies level series finales.

  9. But of course, all the Doctor's ever wanted to do is f*#k (excuse my French) a woman who's the TARDIS! Or something...

    1964 had Inside The Spaceship. 2011 has Are You Being Served - In Space!

    Self-indulgent fanw*#k. And the worst TARDIS corridors ever.

    Excellent analysis, sir, but I fear your skills are wasted on unraveling Moffat's seedy interpretation of our beloved Doctor Who.

  10. FRANK says:

    Liberator Émigré Éire - I think if you're leveling accusations of fanwank at Gaiman and Moffat, at this stage, then it might be prudent to also point the finger at a certain RTD. His own season finales increasingly resembled the outpourings of a fan writer and were equally, if not more, self indulgent. Plenty of examples in the classic series where this was evident too.

    Didn't think the episode was self-indulgent. It stayed the right side of homage and was careful to use the series's established history about the TARDIS, the Doctor's relationship with the ship and the Time Lords.

    Don't forget that Davies developed the idea of the Doctor as a more romantically inclined character when it came to his female companions. What was the relationship between the Doctor and Rose if it wasn't a love story? For me, the Doctor's relationship with the TARDIS is one of deep affection and that's what the episode was about as well as the notion of what it means to be alive, albeit fleetingly, and have that kind of emotional response to the Time Lord you've looked after for 700 years.

    I have no problem with making the TARDIS a woman. Fits with the established conventions that the TARDIS has, whether we like it or not, been referred to as 'she' or 'old girl' since at least the 1970s.

    Granted the 'it's the TARDIS and she's a woman' scene was perhaps a tad heavy handed, and you could argue that it again shifts the Doctor's asexual status/sexual choices but he knocks down Amy's observation that Idris is a sexual wish-fulfillment by claiming he wasn't thinking along those lines anyway. Besides, he didn't deposit the TARDIS into Idris, House did.

    You also have to acknowledge that there is a difference in authorship here between Davies and Moffat. I think that is where many fans are finding the changes, whether deliberate or not, difficult to adjust to. Davies was a gay man writing 'Doctor Who' and this definitely impacted on the emotional development of characters. He also created plots in very broad brush strokes, almost comic book, and then placed his interesting characters into that canvas.

    Moffat is a straight, married, family man. Perhaps this may have some affect on the dynamics of the series. Moffat likes puzzle box, non-linear narratives and has brought that to the fore. He often tells stories from a child-specific point of view. As I've also pointed out in my book, there is also a heck of a lot of straight male-female relationships in his past work ('Coupling' is a good example of this and the use of non-linear narrative) and that is again reflected in the 'Doctor Who' he is making.

    Is the assertion that it was 'Are You Being Served?' in space suggesting that the Doctor is now Mr. Humphries, seen to be desiring every woman that comes his way in fear that his true nature will be uncovered? I think the opposite has happened. If you look at last year's 'Flesh and Stone' and 'The Lodger' I think you see the series shifting the Doctor back to his asexual nature and he rejects the male-female sexual binary. He was more heterosexual in the Davies era in my opinion. So I don't think that there is an insidious 'straight agenda' going on in the current series.

    The difference between Davies and Moffat also reflect the difference I found between the Hinchcliffe and Williams eras. Didn't much care for the Williams era stories at the time and stopped watching 'Doctor Who' regularly from around 1977 onwards. I'm sure that's now happening with the Moffat era - plenty of viewers don't like what he's doing but, equally, plenty more do.

    Not defending Moffat per se. Series 5 was very hit and miss. He's done a lot of things I like but then he's also introduced things I dislike. But I'm not ready to stop watching yet, certainly not based on what I enjoyed with 'The Doctor's Wife'.

  11. Anonymous says:

    Re last couple of comments, I would have supposed that it was because Idris -not 'Neice', significantly- was the suficiently strong, 'whole' receptacle available to hold in the TARDIS that she was chosen by House rather than because female, within the frame, or at the level, of the story. I took the rather fanwankish stuff about the Corsair's change of sex (or should we say, gender presentation?) as a concession in the circumstances, given a felt need for 'concordance' in the body the TARDIS took. If one thinks back to DT doing Cassandra possessing the Doctor in New Earth, it's probably as well.

    It's surprising, perhaps, particularly, given the presence of an Ood and the Doctor's remark on his failure to save it, that the strong resemblances to The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit have not been more picked up on.

    (I assume that loss of script/shoot in editing explains how the Ood got into the TARDIS in the first place, as with the Boatswain last week.)

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