BBC One HD
18 May 2013, 7.00pm
The review contains spoilers
The problem with The Name of the Doctor is that, nostalgia and fan service aside, it feels familiar and comes across as an exercise in confirming some already astute guesses about Clara's mystery. The revelation about her is rather anticlimactic when it comes. Let's also get one thing out of the way. Anyone remotely believing the episode would reveal the Doctor's name was on a hiding to nothing. The Doctor's greatest secret isn't his name and I'm sure Moffat understands that, after all the attempts he's made to reinstate mystery into the Doctor's character and origins, an episode where the Doctor tells us his real name would be utterly counterproductive. He will always be Doctor Who?
So what is his greatest secret if it isn't his name? That he's already dead, at least in the physical sense, and what we're watching are the traces of a life already lived? Yes and no. It does seem rather apt given the funereal atmosphere in which The Name of the Doctor unfolds but the big secret is he's been hiding an illegitimate incarnation all these years. There's a mad man in the family attic and John Hurt's playing him.
Yes, there's a giddy excitement attached to the opening sequence, a typical Moffat usage of in medias res where the narrative's linearity is rearranged to open an episode with action rather than exposition, and where we see Clara stalking the First Doctor, conveniently in Victorian attire rather than what's passing for regulation Gallifrey gear, as he bundles Susan (we assume) into a TARDIS and absconds from Gallifrey. 'Sorry, you're about to make a very big mistake,' Clara warns the old man. It's the best bit in a series of encounters, designed to be a crowd pleasing montage of Clara trying to 'save the Doctor' in the first seven of his incarnations, but which are ultimately hampered by some terrible green screen effects designed to integrate Clara into some of the footage. A lovely idea not quite as well executed as it should have been.
All this is achieved via reconfigured clips (The Invasion of Time, Dragonfire, The Five Doctors, Arc of Infinity) and new footage - the Sixth Doctor out of focus behind Clara in the TARDIS corridors and the Second scuttling off (courtesy of some of The Five Doctors) through a beach front lined with palm trees. So Clara, rather like Scaroth in City of Death, is scattered through time, along the Doctor's own time stream, always 'born to save the Doctor'. Moffat will return to this sequence again later in the episode with some interesting modifications, particularly in the scene with the First Doctor.
First of all is a return to the London of 1893 and Vastra's encounter with a Ripper-style multiple murderer who has somehow been bequeathed with the space-time coordinates of Trenzalore, a planet with the doom laden reputation for 'the fall of the Eleventh' according to Dorium in The Wedding Of River Song. Why a Victorian sociopath, who burbles in rhyming couplets, has been given the privilege of that information is never really explained. 'There are whispers, if you know how to listen,' suggests Clarence (Michael Jenn) picking up the goss through what must be the Victorian equivalent of social media. The self-explanatory DVD extra Clarence and the Whispermen may offer some expansion on his relationship to the Great Intelligence's verse spouting, top hatted undertakers. For now, you just have to accept the criminal is at the centre of the trap.
'to travel where the Doctor ends'
If The Name of the Doctor is about anything then death, or the suspension of it, is central and as a ghost story writ large the episode plays with echoes, memories, identities, Otherness, physical and spiritual reconfiguration. The Whispermen, the ghostly avatars of the Great Intelligence, are the marginal and uncanny monsters so typical of Moffat, ectoplasmically haunting both the 'real' world and the drug-induced subconscious realm of the conference.
As Vastra commands, it is a gathering of the women, despite Strax's inclusion as a Sontaran who isn't able to tell girls from boys or vice versa, and their deliberations in a faux TARDIS console room (it has a desktop theme after all) certainly underline how Spiritualism or mediumship was directly connected to female sexuality, identity and authority. The conference call may well be a riff on the table tapping repressions of the 19th century but it also indicates Moffat's desire to both complete River Song's story, to exorcise her phantom presence and offer a coda to her demise in the library, and authenticate Clara's role 'to travel where the Doctor ends'. Basically, they've all been invited to the funeral.
Moffat again calls back to Asylum of the Daleks and Clara as 'soufflé girl' as she tries to perfect the recipe. There is foreshadowing, of course, of Clara's eventual destiny and identity in her declaration of 'This time I will be 'soufflé girl' while she prepares pudding for Artie and Angie. The space and time bending séance can even stretch to posting letters from 1893 and inducing her, via this soporific communication, to drop in on the women's meeting in the altered states of the unconscious, the time travel of dreams.
Like a Méliès illusion, River appears in a puff of smoke, the dangerous femme fatale or witch who can, even in her undead state, manipulate the environment and change tea into champagne. She's become less of an archaeologist and more of a magical figure than ever before in this realm and even Vastra's not averse to sprinkling magic dust in the air to create visions of Clarence and the space-time coordinates for the internment of the Doctor on Trenzalore. For Moffat's fantastical sleight of hand, Clarke's Three Laws are doing overtime because its seems the ghostly River can physically exist enough to slap Vastra and chuck champagne over Strax.
And River's right, 'he doesn't like endings' and the Doctor certainly doesn't want to see the damage. Crossing your own time line and arriving at your own grave on Trenzalore is not something a time traveller does every day. Much of The Name of the Doctor echoes The Five Doctors and its own journey to the Death Zone and the phantom haunted tomb of Rassilon as well as the funereal tone of Logopolis and its suggestion of endings and beginnings. Even as the image of Richard E Grant's Dr. Simeon hovers in the air and intones 'his friends are lost for ever more, unless he goes to Trenzalore', we're not that far away from the old Gallifreyan nursery rhyme 'Who unto Rassilon's Tower will go, must choose above, between, below.'
Perhaps the reason why the TARDIS resents Clara is because she takes the Doctor where he shouldn't go. The ship is certainly reluctant to travel to Trenzalore and Clara has to be telepathically linked to her to programme in the coordinates. Even worse, the TARDIS herself is about to visit the monument to her own death. Like the Doctor, she doesn't ever want to go there and start leaking her dimensions everywhere. But as the Doctor observes, he has to go and save his friends because 'they cared for me during the dark times and never questioned me, judged me, they were just... kind', recalling his withdrawal from life after the departure of the Ponds in The Snowmen. Briefly, we see the humanity beneath the 'lonely god' who dominates the universe.
Dorium was, of course, spouting metaphors. 'The fall of the Eleventh' is surely as much the result of turning off the anti-gravs on a TARDIS and plunging to the surface of Trenzalore as it is the Great Intelligence's vengeful scheme to reverse all of the Doctor's triumphs and victories through a casual bit of grave robbing. Such is the power of the forced landing, one of the TARDIS windows shatters. It's a neat visual note not only to the future TARDIS lying in ruins but also prefigures the Doctor's lives broken into pieces, the Great Intelligence becoming bits of confetti in the process and Clara's rescue attempt that scatters her across all of time and space.
The Doctor reminds Clara, 'my grave is potentially the most dangerous place in the universe' and the evidence is hard to deny. The TARDIS's own demise has created a vast edifice on the planet surface, where 'the bigger on the inside starts leaking' and has created a monument to the Doctor's final battle and a marker for his grave. The TARDIS has become a variation of the Dark Tower where the passageways are filled with haunting memories, recollections dragged back to the surface by the spilling out of time and dimensions. Moffat can never resist those sleight of hand touches and somehow River Song's grave is marked, an impossibility which just happens to be the secret entrance to his own tomb. Did the Doctor put it there before his own death? How does River really know it is a false grave?
A powerful scene where Vastra implores Strax to help her bring Jenny back from the dead (another example of how Moffat shifts his characters from living to dead and back again - see River, Rory, Strax, Simeon and many others as examples) ushers in the spectres at the feast proper as Dr Simeon and his doppelgangers join the other characters in the shell of the TARDIS sepulchre, beautifully captured by the brief pan up, following Vastra's gaze, to the huge 'police box' sign. However, at this point, the finale starts to emulate the The Big Bang, a series of conversations between foes in a single location as shorthand for 'epic', and Dr Simeon's return as villain is nothing more than an opportunity to reflect the Doctor's importance.
'The girl who died he tries to save, she'll die again inside his grave.'
Sadly, Simeon only appears in the flesh, as it were, twenty minutes into the episode and then only confronts the Doctor five minutes beyond that. Villains are rather incidental to Moffat's concept and merely underline how central the Doctor is rather than existing as characters in their own right. It's ironic that Simeon and his Whispermen are depicted just as insubstantially as they are written on the page.
Despite this, when Simeon rips his face apart the episode offers us one of its few unsettling moments. A shame really as it is a waste of Grant's talents and the Whispermen, while well executed, are a recognisable riff on the Trickster from The Sarah Jane Adventures or The Gentlemen from Buffy-The Vampire Slayer and probably won't warrant a return. Monsters are not Moffat's real concern.
There's also a striking, genuinely frightening moment when the ghost of River Song is suddenly ripped asunder by one of the Whispermen party chasing the Doctor and Clara through the catacombs of his grave. Clara's statement of 'I hate catacombs' also recalls the Doctor's reaction to similar in Time of Angels. Their journey returns us to The Five Doctors and the hallucinatory forces within the Dark Tower as Clara begins to remember her previous climb through a wrecked TARDIS and the Doctor's revelation to her about the other dead versions of her he's met. Memories, always the prime mover in Moffat's narratives, are unsurprisingly present and correct and the self-fulfilling prophecy of her deaths is underlined by the Whispermen: 'The girl who died he tries to save, she'll die again inside his grave.'
Late to his own funeral, the Doctor refuses to utter his name to open the tomb. Under a heart-stopping threat to the others, it is the ghostly River who relents and telepathically opens the door. The name is uttered but we never hear it and the tease of the title is, of course, subverted by Moffat. However, I did wonder if the telepathic field of the TARDIS is still operating why don't the others hear her send his name too?
And thus we get to the crux of the matter. The Great Intelligence's desire to rewrite all of the Doctor's journeys, to poison the tree in the garden at the centre of the ruined TARDIS, a place echoing with the voices of the past. The Doctor's life is an open wound, a path from 'from Gallifrey to Trenzalore', including the days he hasn't lived yet. And of course, Clara must become 'soufflé girl' and correct the Great Intelligence's action.
And of course, Clara must become the self-fulfilling 'soufflé girl' and correct the Great Intelligence's action by saving the Doctor throughout his timeline, a million copies of her created from the sacrifice of the original. The recipe rather than the end product. How exactly she saves him, how he's never seen her in the last 50 years popping up by all his previous incarnations, how he never remembered her before until now and why she exists to do this are the big questions. They don't really get answered.
Will the Restoration Team now kindly go back through the classic series and please insert footage of Clara into every story because, quite honestly, this is a rather contrived way of explaining her mystery and introduces something of a rogue element into the Doctor's history which, for me, doesn't ring true. The mystery is her character and without this what will Clara become? No doubt, the ubiquity of time travel, now as normal as catching the number 17 bus in the series, will sort it all out and Clara's eavesdropping will not matter a jot.
She stands in front of the First Doctor and tells him which TARDIS to steal, which sort of undoes the gorgeous poetry of Idris's authority in The Doctor's Wife declaring she 'wanted to see the Universe so I stole a Time Lord and I ran away', and Clara's born, lives and dies a thousand times (Rory, you're well off out of it, love). As Clara's story arc folds back on itself, we also get the more satisfying closure of the River song arc. I wonder if Moffat will bring her back again as a ghostly form?
It began all that time ago in the library with 'Hello, sweetie' and now it ends, appropriately with 'Goodbye, sweetie'. It's a great scene between Alex Kingston and Matt Smith which appropriately suggests the Doctor has learned to appreciate the endings River seeks and as a result he's determined to ensure Clara's resurrection. Mind you, we know that she does get rescued. We've seen her in the prequel She Said, He Said that takes place after Trezalore so all this expectation in the narrative is the least surprising thing about it. The big friendly reset button has already been pressed, again.
Finally, the much mooted ending - the so called 'game changer' - which had the BBC with its knickers in a twist when it seemed the episode had leaked early on Blu-ray. I don't know why they were so worried. If you've been following the news stories about the 50th Anniversary filming you'll know full well who it is standing with his back to the camera in that end sequence as Clara tumbles to her safety. 'Introducing John Hurt as the Doctor' is probably going to freak out many viewers I suspect and it's certainly great to see an actor of his calibre in the series and posing another question - just which Doctor is this? - to replace the ones not quite answered in full in The Name of the Doctor.
I could have done without the extras in various Doctor costumes swishing by the camera as Clara recovered from her splintering into a million pieces but clearly anniversary fever demanded it. Just how did the original Clara survive a self-fulfilling time paradox and travelling down the Doctors' time streams without being torn to shreds then? In a not entirely original move, it is purported her faith in the Doctor allows her to survive and the symbolic leaf, the first page of Clara's story and the emblem of rebirth from a million deaths conjured up by the Doctor as he searches for her, provides her with the impetus.
The Name of the Doctor serves the cast well. The return of the Paternoster gang is welcome and fortunately their trials leave them intact for future appearances. Matt Smith and Jenna-Louise Coleman are good and transform all the standard Moffat tropes into something which does have its gripping moments. Director Saul Metzstein shows how capable he is with his visuals and considering he had only a handful of sets to shoot on he makes the production values go a long way in a what is quite a low key episode.
For me the weakness is Moffat's script. I feel like I've seen variations of it many times before and it trots out the same old time paradoxes and self-fulfilling prophecies we've had since 2010 to such an extent that the series is in danger of falling into a rut if they continue to be employed. Although it's been a patchy season the best episodes this year have definitely come from other writers. The Name of the Doctor is neither new nor surprising in the Moffat canon.