BBC One HD
27 April 2013, 6.30pm
The review contains spoilers.
The Red Queen of Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass probably best sums up the flavour of Steven Thompson's script with her view, 'It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.' And my, the Doctor and Clara do a lot of physical and temporal running around in Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS. Thompson's second script for the series after the rather disappointing and one-note The Curse of the Black Spot back in 2011, like Neil Cross's sophomore outing Hide, is something of a revelation. Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS evolves from a basic premise - the TARDIS is hauled aboard a huge space-faring salvage vessel and the Doctor connives three brothers, Gregor, Bram and Tricky Van Baalen (Ashley Walters, Mark Oliver and Jahvel Hall) into rescuing Clara from the damaged time machine.
From this Thompson has crafted a narrative which works on several levels: as a fan-pleasing glimpse into the unseen and previously mentioned areas of the TARDIS, as a predestination paradox which defines a number of characters, particularly Clara, through their relationship with time and memory and, finally, as an exploration of machine personality and the authentically human. It's an intriguing mix of science fiction sophistry about time and relativity and a voyage of self discovery couched, for Clara, as both Alice's journey into Wonderland and Dante's descent into the Inferno when she is lost inside the TARDIS.
'We're not talking cheese grater here'
Thompson uses the cyclic sub-plot about Tricky, allegedly a downtrodden android, to say something about the restoration of equilibrium between estranged family members. While the Baalen brothers aren't particularly well crafted characters, the storyline about Tricky's treatment is an effective counterpoint to the other themes about identity and memory in the episode.
Tricky, 'a lucky boy' augmented by technology after an accident, occupies the hinterland where our tendency to project mechanisation onto human beings and anthropomorphise objects merge. As the Doctor imprints a personality onto the TARDIS, a living machine, so the brothers reverse the process with Tricky and remove all those traits from him as a human being.
In effect he becomes a slave forbidden to sleep, get bored or show fear because his brothers find it amusing to undifferentiate between human and machine. Perhaps this picks up on the gradual erosion between the binaries established between the body and technology, between objects and the self. Ironically, it's Gregor and Bram who become estranged from their sense of self and conscience and Tricky is the one who finds a way of returning briefly to the state of human, corporeal experience.
In contrast to this, we see the Doctor and Clara looping (a rather appropriate visual allusion to the story) around the console and Clara categorising the TARDIS as simply an 'appliance that does the job'. 'We're not talking cheese grater here,' rages the Doctor as he agrees to offer her a lesson in flying the TARDIS in 'basic mode'. This naturally raises the spectre of gender equality in this unhappy relationship between Clara and the TARDIS, an ongoing dispute we've seen in previous episodes and where the ship is now behaving like a disapproving potential mother-in-law.
It's not helped when, after Clara takes control, the vulnerable TARDIS is grabbed by the salvage ship and transformed into the quintessential expression of 'the bad place', the archetypical haunted house realm of psychological and physical disintegration - everything falling apart for the characters and the TARDIS. It's interesting to note Tricky, as the so-called android, is the only one to understand there are survivors from the TARDIS crash and care if they are rescued from a ship which he senses is 'alive' and 'suffering.'
Reflecting the themes of the interfaces between humanity and machine intelligence, it is also symbolically a machine imprinting a message into the flesh of Clara's hand and one sent back from the future. Essentially, it's a story about restoring a time paradox, a narrative form you can trace back to 1941 and its earliest occurrence in Heinlein's 'By His Bootstraps', but which is probably now more familiar to audiences through films such as The Terminator (1984), Back to the Future (1985) or 12 Monkeys (1995).
On the journey to close the pre-destination loop there is much to enjoy. The spectacular opening of the ship's capture leads us to a descent into the TARDIS, with the Van Baalen brothers hoodwinked into believing they only have half an hour before the ship explodes. It's a nice twist when the Doctor realises his bluff to rescue Clara is no longer a matter of pretence as the TARDIS engines threaten to go critical.
As the race against the clock gains momentum, Thompson grants us a tour through a badly damaged, 'infinite' TARDIS where it might take days to find Clara. 'Don't get into a spaceship with a madman, didn't anyone ever teach you that?' exclaims the Doctor. Clearly a lesson also lost on the dozens of companions in the last 50 years. It's also quite ironic he advises the brothers, 'it's your own time you're wasting', underlining the eventual collapse of their present time under the shadow of the future they will experience later.
Oh, and for the TARDIS aficiando we get mentions on Gregor's scanner, via Time Flight, The Horns of Nimon and The Curse of Peladon among others, of 'dynamorphic generators', the 'conceptual geometer', a 'beam synthesiser' and the 'orthoganal engine filters'. But then amusingly and crucially, it later turns out, the scanner detects Clara as 'Lancashire' and 'sass'. Clara's explorations also provide some welcome call backs to recent episodes and, nostagically, to previous eras. The Doctor's cradle, last seen in A Good Man Goes to War, and the home-made TARDIS toy left over from Amy's occupancy, flipped in the air by Clara just as Mels did back in Amy's Leadworth bedroom in Let's Kill Hitler, are pleasing distractions.
For all of Steven Moffat's bold claims about his disappointment with the interior of the TARDIS in The Invasion of Time, these dull corridors and green screened glimpses are nothing much to crow about. Director Mat Taylor keeps his creeping monsters obscured, filtering them through hazy point of view shots, cutting away before we get too good a look at them, building up the threat and tension, prolonging their mysterious origin.
The scene set in the TARDIS library is excellent and is a perfect expression of Clara being 'down the rabbit hole' in this Lewis Carroll-inspired labyrinth, connecting to his Victorian fantasy as Rosemary Jackson sees Alice entering a 'confused, topsy-turvy world' where 'her ontological insecurity... of not meaning [is] a fear of losing control, of becoming a body which has no stable identity.' The accrued signs and memories of the TARDIS also spill out in three connected scenes: as Bram strips down the console room, as Clara hides in the library and Gregor attempts to steal from the Avatar-esque glowing tree-like architectural reconfiguration system.
As Bram figuratively takes the cork out of the bottle by removing panels of the console, nostalgically we hear voices of the past. Susan explaining the ship's acronym, the Ninth Doctor's claim, in Rose, 'The assembled hordes of Genghis Khan couldn't get through that door, and believe me, they've tried!', Pertwee and Baker explaining the ship's Time Lord technology is 'dimensionally transcendental' and Ian Chesterton's disbelief on seeing the TARDIS for the first time, 'Let me get this straight. A thing that looks like a police box, standing in a junkyard, it can move anywhere in time and space?' were the ones I managed to catch and I look forward to finding out about the rest because Murray Gold unhelpfully and rather typically decided to smother most of the scene with his score.
Again, we're told, via Tricky, the ship is a living thing when Gregor attempts to steal some of the genetic material from the system and the TARDIS defends itself by creating an ever evolving labyrinth of corridors to confuse the unwary salvage men, diverting them from their intentions. As the Doctor notes, 'Smart bunch, Time Lords. No dress sense, dreadful hats but smart.'
Simultaneously, Clara finds the 'History of the Time War' in the library and intriguingly murmurs, 'so that's who...' as she leafs through the pages. We later learn she's read the Doctor's true name, a moment setting us up for this year's appropriately titled finale, The Name of the Doctor. And there are shelves of bottles in the library labelled as an 'Encyclopedia Gallifrey', which she inadvertently disturbs to allow bubbles of recorded history to pour into the air and into our ears.
'one tiny scrap of decency'Like Alice's need to drink the liquids to gain full access to Wonderland, these are signs of orientation in a usually closed off section of the Doctor's past. Although these corridors and rooms seem to be labyrinths with no centre, full of signs which lead nowhere, the TARDIS's instinct for the dimensionally transcendental comes in handy in a very evocative scene when the Doctor gets to grips with the surrounding echoes of time in the console room and manages to rescue Clara from the clutches of a time zombie by dragging her through the adjoining dimensions.
This spillage of time allows them not only to eavesdrop on the history and events which the TARDIS has witnessed but it also poses a threat to their identity. It allows them a glimpse of past and future and to see their own dying and death in the form of the time zombies. Individuals and groups are mirrored by these creatures and while Clara first meets her own zombie in the TARDIS, the brothers face two conjoined zombies in the Eye of Harmony at the heart of the ship.
Time in the story not only threatens identity - in the form of the zombies attempting to assert the future deaths of Clara and the Van Baalen brothers - but it also, paradoxically, establishes it. The zombies are doppelgangers, a very familiar theme in Moffat's Doctor Who, and are omens from the future who threaten to annihilate their present identities in the TARDIS. They also highlight Gregor's lack of concern for his siblings. When Bram is killed, he still insists on securing the salvage, his cold logic mirroring the zombies' own unstoppable drive to possess their human counterparts.
His logic unravels after Tricky is injured by the breaking fuel rods and he confesses to the horrible joke played on his younger brother, a flesh and blood human augmented with bionic eyes and synthetic voice, to change his identity 'just to provide some in-flight entertainment.' The cruelty of human beings is exposed through their own greed as it becomes clear that Gregor and Bram were merely preventing their smarter, younger brother from becoming the captain of the ship.
The Doctor, however, identifies that 'one tiny scrap of decency' in Gregor, rescuing his brother when he could have left him to die, and significantly demands he never forget it. Memory, remembering and forgetting are, naturally, key components in Moffat's era, especially when it comes to creating identity.
The crack in time through which the Doctor drops the message to himself is, of course, not only prefigured in the cracks which appear on the TARDIS scanner as the magna-grab seizes the ship but also offer a little nod to the whole 'crack in the universe' arc dominating the 2010 series. The Eye of Harmony, in its permanent state of decay is also another reflection of the story's theme about time and causality, burning but never consumed. Another key theme is the Doctor's attempts to keep Clara safe from herself, from another future where she dies. Clara, who died again but lived, confronts the future remnants of herself, understands the zombie is her, observing 'that's me, I burn in here' when the Doctor explains the time spillages are from the future as well as the past.
The suggested outcome for Clara is that the Doctor's revelation he has encountered her before, where she has died on each occasion, and her discovery of his real name in the 'History of the Time War' never took place. They have momentarily become, as Richard A Gilmore notes in his essay on time travel as redemption, 'subjectively more futural... more attuned to the urgency of being in the present' and more 'authentic' and 'self-begetting through the mechanism of time travel.' However, 'the big friendly button' traps this in temporal recurrence, where redemption is closed down.
Or is it? We also have the coda where Gregor reacts to Bram's treatment of Tricky, whose true humanity the Doctor has told Gregor never to forget, which reasserts memory of the experience in the TARDIS and repairs Tricky's exclusion from the memories of their father. Are we entirely sure the 'big friendly button' has not left some stray recollections lurking in the back of Clara's mind? Are the versions of Clara in the past and future actually an effect of the 'big friendly button', temporal echoes of Clara which may have been created by that schism in time?
Well directed by Mat Taylor and strikingly photographed by Jake Polonsky, Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS might not quite live up to the promise of its title but it does feature great performances from Matt Smith and Jenna-Louise Coleman, both exposing the heart of the Doctor and Clara relationship, with the Doctor tantalisingly revealing to Clara his interest in the mystery surrounding her.
Added to this are genuinely gripping and visually impressive moments, despite an over-abundance of chases down bland looking corridors. The weakest areas of the episode lie with the Van Baalen brothers and a lot more characterisation would have been welcome. Bram gets so little to do and say that he fast becomes a brother surplus to requirements because Ashley Walters and Jahvel Hall get to play out the major beats of their story.
The zombies are creepy, frightening and are cleverly embedded into the themes of the story with the encounter at the Eye of Harmony a climactic mixture of horror, confession and spectacle that ends on a mountain side where the Doctor asks of Clara, 'why do I keep running into you?' Coleman gets the best line in the episode as she faces a ranting madman at the heart of his spaceship, 'I think I'm more scared of you right now than anything else in that TARDIS.' She puts in a brilliant performance in an intriguing episode.