[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 [amazon.com, amazon.co.uk], 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.