The Doctor’s Wife (Doctor Who series 6, episode 4)

[A revised and improved version of this essay appears in my book The Eleventh Doctor: a critical ramble through Matt Smith’s tenure in Doctor Who.]

Doctor Who continues to exhaust superlatives”, Andrew Rilstone wrote back in the far-off days of Series 2 (although I am not sure he meant this altogether positively).  Five years on, I can only echo the quote, if not the ambivalent sentiment behind it.  More and more it feels to me as though Series 6 is a qualitative step up from what’s gone before.  Which, given how much I loved Series 5, is high praise.

The Doctor’s Wife is another episode that’s hard to talk about without giving away some secrets, so be warned that there are SPOILERS AFTER THE BREAK.

Haha, so the picture above is of course a bit of blatant misdirection.  Like most people (everyone?) I assumed that the eponymous wife was going to be River Bleedin’ Song, and I was completely wrongfooted by her not even appearing in the episode.  (Of course, she’d been dropped off back at the Storm Cage at the end of Day of the Moon, so she wasn’t travelling in the TARDIS with Amy and Rory.)

So who is the Doctor’s wife?  As with all the best mysteries, the answer  is near-impossible to guess, but feels obvious once you’re told it.  We’ve known for a long time that TARDIS is sentient — that it’s exerted more control over its own navigation than the Doctor has, for example, so that a long-held fan theory argues that the Doctor’s habit of landing in the middle of invasions and suchlike has the story-internal explanation that the TARDIS takes him where he’s needed.  And the Doctor loves the TARDIS.  We’ve seen that many times.

So when the TARDIS’s life is put into a human body, it makes perfect sense that she is his “wife” — his most faithful and long-running companion, the one who shares not only his experiences but his essence.  And this is by way of being a wish-fulfillment thing, isn’t it?  Plenty of people love their cars, or their bikes, or boats, and think of them (however misguidedly) as sort of human.  If The Lodger was the “what if the Doctor came to stay at my house?” fantasy, then The Doctor’s Wife is the “what if my car/bike/boat was really alive?” fantasy.

Except of course it can’t last.  The body has eighteen minutes to live.

Well, of course.

It’s interesting to compare The Doctor’s Wife with Series 4’s The Doctor’s Daughter.  The episodes have in common that (A) they both “cheat” in that the eponymous character is not literally what the title suggests; (B) they both contain a character called “the Doctor”.  Beyond that, you’d hardly believe they are part of the same show.  Daughter gave us a plot that made no sense, resolved by somersaulting through laser beams and releasing Magic Pixie Dust from a goldfish bowl.  In a very uneven series, it was (along with The Unicorn and the Wasp) one of the two least engaging episodes.  In contrast, Wife gives us a promise of surviving Time Lords outside the universe, the all too believable breaking of that promise, a Doctor who figures things out as he goes along instead of Releasing Pixie Dust, a clockwork plot that ties itself together coherently, and (maybe most striking of all) a moment at the end when the Doctor is genuinely distraught.  As usual with Matt Smith, the moment is underplayed, more implied that stated, and without the funny-shaped-mouth shouty thing that David Tennant ended up doing pretty much every episode as he gradually became a parody of himself.

Please understand me.  It’s not my intention to say that David Tennant was a bad Doctor.  He was very good — he makes it into my top four.  And yet there is a great gulf between his pantomime Doctor and Matt Smith’s much more subtle, nuanced portrayal.  It’s as though Tennant was acting for theatre (but being filmed), whereas Smith is acting for film and trusts the camera to pick up the details.  Although he is in a 28-year-old body, he is convincing as a man who has been alive for nine hundred years and seen things he should never have seen.  The Horde of Travesties, the Nightmare Child, the Could-Have-Been King.  They’re all there, lurking beneath his face, just below the surface.  It’s a superb performance every single week.

Of course, it helps that the recent scripts have all given him rich seams of quintessentially Doctorish moments to work with.  “I’m up here being clever and there’s no one standing around looking impressed”, from The Impossible Astronaut, is particularly memorable, but each episode seems to be throwing up half a dozen of these moments.  Recent Doctor Who episodes are making me laugh out loud a lot — and not always because they are funny.  More often it’s the sheer audacity that makes me laugh (yes, it’s that word again).  Against this backdrop, the Doctor’s occasional moments of vulnerability are all the more poignant.  “You want to be forgiven”, says Amy when the Doctor is excited about finding other Time Lords.  Pause.  “Don’t we all?”, he replies.  The writing is good, but it’s the acting that makes it sing.

And in among all this, there is so much that you miss the first time through an episode.  For example, there’s the conversation that the Doctor and his TARDIS-wife have around the jury-rigged console as it pursues the TARDIS proper.  We’ll land in one of the old control rooms, she tells him.  But I deleted them all, he replies.  I backed them up, she says, I have about thirty.  But I’ve only changed the desktop about a dozen times, he protests.  “So far”, says she.  Idea layered upon idea.  It’s scintillating dialogue, and in context it’s sort of thrown away, like all those gorgeous fragments of melody in a Sondheim musical that he never returns to and develops.  (I am thinking, for example, of the “and maybe they’re really magic, who knows?” line in Into the Woods.)  That whole conversation is hard to make out against the background sound-effects, and with so much else going on at the same time.  It’s there for when you go back and watch again.  And I think this must be deliberate — it’s happening a lot in this series.  Moffat and co are deliberately throwing too much at us at once, to make re-watching a rewarding experience.  They’re making TV, in other words, that is meant to be watched twice or three times, not just once.  That’s ambitious.  And I always respect ambition.

By coincidence, I re-read The Doll’s House [,], volume 2 of Neil Gaiman’s classic comic-book series Sandman, last week.  It’s justly renowned — rich in images, particularly, and it leaves a strong impression in the imagination.  It also runs half a dozen plot threads in parallel, expects the reader to do some work, and amply repays invested effort, as all the threads come together at the end.  As I read it last week, I found myself thinking how much Series 6 so far resembles Sandman, if not in content or tone then in approach.  Imagine my surprise when I found that the very same Neil Gaiman was the writer of this week’s episode.  I guess this comes under the heading of Celebrity Writer, but he’s actually a perfect choice for Series 6, because what he naturally does fits so well with the way the series is going.

Mind you, this week’s episode didn’t do much to advance the overarching plot of this series.  All the same questions remain open, but we have a couple more options for answering them.  Who is River Song?  Who is the regenerating girl in the spacesuit?  We have another candidate for both roles: the TARDIS, manifesting as a human again.  Is River the TARDIS from the future?  Is the girl?  Are they both?

Tell you what — have some more sushi to finish.


23 responses to “The Doctor’s Wife (Doctor Who series 6, episode 4)

  1. WyrdestGeek

    I don’t know if tonight’s episode did anything to *advance* the plot of series 6, but it was still in keeping with that plot, and the themes are still there:
    Rory dying or being left behind by Amy. Amy seeing things that makes her feel like she’s cracking up. Someone that isn’t the Doctor doing the regeneration thing.

    Furry cows moo and decompress.

  2. WyrdestGeek

    Oh, and I forgot to make this point clear: I LOOVED this episode.

    I saw nearly all of the original Doctor Who’s and it’s so cool but poignant to imagine this weird deal where some 700 years after meeting someone you only then get to say “Hello”.

  3. “a long-held fan theory argues that the Doctor’s habit of landing in the middle of invasions and suchlike has the story-internal explanation that the TARDIS takes him where he’s needed.”

    More than a fan theory. It gets a mention, albeit a passing one, in ‘The Ark’.

    Incidentally, after our saying we tend to take opposite positions on episodes this time we’d seem to be pretty much in agreement.

  4. Patrick Garvey

    The first couple of minutes annoyed me, the Doctor firstly finds out there are time lords still around, and decides to leave the universe, something he says no one has ever done before, and isn’t in the least bit excited (well, no more than usual), simply acting as if things are normal. However the rest of the episode was so great I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and presume it was cut for time.

  5. WyrdestGeek

    Patrick: If you will allow me to quibble a bit about the never having left the Universe part:

    I know this may seem unfairly pedantic, but what the Doctor actually said (with a grin) was that leaving the Universe was “something [i]we’ve[/i] never done before.” He means to say, “I, the Doctor, and you two have never gone outside the Universe all-together before.”

    The Doctor, of course, has left the Universe on various occasions. The 11th Doctor left the Universe when the cracks got sealed and he was stuck on the wrong side. The 10th Doctor might have been outside of the Universe when he went through the Medusa Cascade to deal with Davros’ reality bomb. The 10th Doctor left when he went to that alternate Universe with the blimps where the alt-verse Cybermen got created. The Watcher took the TARDIS and crew [i]outside[/i] of the whole entire Universe to keep them safe. (That crew did not include the Doctor, per se, but the Watcher turned out to be a sort of pre-incarnate version of the Doctor himself.) The 4th Doctor got sucked out of the Universe into E-space way back in the day through a CVE. The 3rd Doctor was “slipped sideways” into a parallel Earth. The 2nd Doctor once went into the Land of Fiction. I think that adventure may have stated that the Land of Fiction was outside of the Universe.

    IMHO, this is why it was such a trivial matter for the Doctor to leave the Universe–he’s actually done it so [i]many[/i] times that it no longer poses a challenge to him.

    Furry cows moo and decompress.

  6. Patrick Garvey

    Hmm, I can’t believe I managed to forget that many incidents, should probably start paying closer attention. Though he still isn’t quite as excited about the presence of Time Lords as I’d like to think he should be.

  7. re: The Doctor not being that excited about seeing other Time Lords

    I noticed that, too, and chalked it up to something akin to a high school reunion for the Doctor. He’s excited about seeing cohorts he hasn’t seen in a very long time…but nervous that they will tell him what they *really* think of him. ;)

  8. WyrdestGeek

    I figured the Doctor was keeping it all in for the moment–only Amy could see he was actually pretty emotional about the whole thing. Plus he was, I’m sure, a little nervous about how they’d all react when he told them about the fate of Gallifrey and his part in it.

    Furry cows moo and decompress.

  9. ‘I figured the Doctor was keeping it all in for the moment’,
    remember how the last of the Time Lords had changed in ‘The End of Time’. The Doctor wouldn’t know which Time Lords he was about to meet.

  10. Also contained another hint that the next regeneration will see the doctor become a woman. The TARDIS mentioning that another time lord had several female personalities during regenerations.

  11. Actually, it was the Doctor himself, not the TARDIS, who said that the Corsair had been female in a couple of his regenerations.

    It wouldn’t work, though. Dramatically, I mean.

  12. WyrdestGeek

    The folks who were writing and producing Doctor Who way back in the day (somewhere around the 5th, 6th, and 7th Doctors) seriously considered (more than once) the notion of casting the Doctor as a woman. Neil is probably familiar with those speculations. Now with this episode, that notion of a gender swapping Time Lord officially enters the TV show’s canon. Kudos, Neil! :-)

    Furry cows moo and decompress.

  13. What I love about Matt Smith’s Doctor is that underneath his quirky, fun, and seemingly youthful laid back self is a dark and troubled old man, with 909 years of witnessing witnessing death and loss causing him to be. Whenever he gets angry, it seems so out of character and that’s what I love about Matt Smith. You don’t expect it.

    And I absolutely loved this episode, though my only qualms were the scenes with Rory and Amy running around the inside of the TARDIS. While some good dialogue was shared, I thought those parts just slowed down the pace of the show and seemed a bit redundant.

  14. Ok, after catching this image last week on your page, but not reading spoilers before I’d seen it, I spent a whole couple weeks thinking “oh a big River episode” and then (finally catching up today) spent half the show waiting for her to show up. So I come here back confused and… hah. Well done.

    That had to be one of my favorite epsiodes for a while. Gaiman really nails the characters and the banter: “you wished really hard, did you?” and it was fun to see some Gaiman sensibilities (e.g. “mad people who fall down the drain”) translating here. While the Amy/Rory “oh no I’ve lost you again” is always over the top (but kudos on the old tunnel sets), the banter made me rank them up there with Harry/Sarah as best companion pair.

    And you’re right on Mike; Matt’s subtle bittersweet moment at the end, swinging in the nest of wires and lovingly tinkering, got to me more than anything in the recent seasons of overacted maudlin.

    Ok, wonder what spoilers aren’t in the photo for the next one…

  15. Pingback: The Almost People (Doctor Who series 6, episode 6) | The Reinvigorated Programmer

  16. I actually really loved this episode. I think this was one of the episodes where Matt Smith’s acting really shines. And the dialogue was very clever and if I ever manage to get a hard copy of the script, I will probably stop eating for a month to pay for it.

  17. Great review of a great episode.

    Here’s my argument for why The Doctor’s Wife is the best episode of television in the 2010-2011 season.

  18. Pingback: A Good Man Goes to War (Doctor Who series 6, episode 7) | The Reinvigorated Programmer

  19. Series 4 Episode 6: The Doctor’s Daughter
    Series 6 Episode 4: The Doctor’s Wife
    Coincidence? I think not!

  20. Austin,
    Em, no… it’s just a coincidence.

  21. Yeah I know, the “I think not!” was sarcastic.

  22. Thgir-Ertnec

    “Please understand me. It’s not my intention to say that David Tennant was a bad Doctor. He was very good — he makes it into my top four…”

    Gosh… I’m thick! On behalf of moronic imbeciles everywhere, I would like to apologise for my unwarranted indignation… I shouldn’t have leapt to illogical conclusions. Sorry about that, old chap!

    Hang on a second…

    “And yet there is a great gulf between his pantomime Doctor and Matt Smith’s much more subtle, nuanced portrayal…”

    I can’t really argue with that statement. You seem to have a point there… That said, his performances in “The Girl In the Fireplace” and the “Human Nature/ Family Of Blood” two-parter were incredible… Tennant’s acting chops weren’t too bad in “Midnight” and “Doomsday” either…

  23. Pingback: What I’ve been reading lately, part 5 | The Reinvigorated Programmer

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