The Name of the Doctor

Two prequels to this one: one released before the episode but set after it, and the other released after the episode but set before it. Timey-wimey…

She Said, He Said: We find Clara wandering around on a set filled with old props, pondering the nature of the Doctor and how she has to avoid failing in love with him. We then see that she’s actually talking to a completely inanimate Doctor, and the topic moves on to how she now knows exactly who he is, so I assumed that this was one of her trips through his timeline. But then the second half of the short sees the Doctor in the exact same scenario, recapping the whole Clara arc in front of a stationary version of her, so it’s just a narrative device.

Clarence and the Whispermen: In one of the most disturbing contributions to the Who canon, a condemned man (presumably the eponymous Clarence) is visited in his cell by three scary faceless creatures (presumably the eponymous Whispermen), who force some Gallifreyan co-ordinates into his memory, and as a result he’ll survive the execution but never sleep again. It’s pretty dark, it has to be said.

Blimey, that was a lot of preamble. Here’s a little more. This is one of very few episodes from the Moffat era that I’ve already watched more than once, as it was part of the warm-up on the day of the 50th. After my enthusiasm for the show was at an all-time low throughout most of Series 7, the finale couldn’t have whetted my appetite for the anniversary special more.

I mean, we start on bloody Gallifrey, and we see Hartnell stealing the TARDIS. Holy shit. Then there’s Colin, Tom, Sylv dangling from his umbrella in Iceworld, Pertwee driving Bessie, Troughton running around in a fur coat and Davison trapped in that big net thing from Arc of Infinity… All seven of the classic Doctors, in full physical motion in some form or other, all within the pretitles. I repeat: holy shit. It blew my mind at the time, and that was before I’d seen the entirety of the classic series. There’s even a reference to the Valeyard later on, for fuck’s sake.

This is the anniversary special starting six months early, but the more recent mythology is represented too, with the Paternoster Gang playing a pivotal role in arranging the “conference call”, which entails getting off their tits, to reunite with Clara and introduce her to River Song. Her chronology was quite confusing at first – it wasn’t until much later that we learn that this is post-Silence in the Library for her, and therefore she is in fact dead. I thought I’d missed a story where she and the Doctor had split up or something – I don’t really see why we’re supposed to think they can’t just have another regular adventure with a version of her from some point in her past, which is what this story seemed to imply.

It’s an episode that manages to combine tension and pace, constantly developing and progressing, while still unmistakably all being preamble for a handful of big revelations. It’s arguably better the second (or third) time around, when you know where it’s heading and can just enjoy the ride. And when you don’t mistakenly think that one of the big revelations is that the Doctor’s real name is “Please”, given that that’s what he says immediately before the door to his tomb opens.

Unsurprisingly, Richard E Grant is brilliant, far surpassing both Dr Simeon and the version of The Great Intelligence from The Snowmen now that they’re one and the same. As alluded to earlier, the Whispermen were fantastically creepy, to the extent that the idea could have been used for something more substantial than some one-off henchmen. I can’t decide whether TGI sacrificing his very existence in order to ruin the Doctor’s life is deliciously evil and deranged, or simply a bit of an overreaction to being defeated by him like four times.

Of course, as soon as he dived into the Doctor’s time-corpse, and we saw him in all the scenarios we saw Clara in earlier, it was obvious where she was going to end up. While I didn’t quite buy the soufflĂ© metaphor, it was a very satisfying answer to the mystery, as it means that “our” Clara – the one we’ve been following since The Bells of Saint John – is the original Clara. She chooses to become the impossible girl in order to save the Doctor, and that’s something that goes a long way to turning her from a slightly distant enigma to a relatable protagonist.

There are obviously a few logical niggles (it’s perhaps best not to contemplate how the fact she knew about Asylum of the Daleks and The Snowmen makes this a bit of a predestination paradox), but they’re easy to ignore in the face of such a satisfying and resonant emotional conclusion. The same goes for the Doctor and River – much like with the Paternoster lot’s conference call, the only rational explanation for the Doctor being able to interact with her ghost is that it’s all slightly magic, but who cares the scene between them is so good?

And then finally there’s the biggest reveal of them all – one that we never knew was coming, but that managed to trump the one we’d been waiting all series for. It’s still as spine-tingling and glorious as ever. I remember being utterly blown away by the idea that there could be an extra incarnation of the Doctor, outside of the conventional numerical system, but I bought into it straight away. Without actually spelling out what terrible thing this version did to deserve being disowned, you know exactly what it is, and it’s the perfect teaser for the 50th. Now that we know just how brilliant John Hurt’s Doctor is, it’s even better.

RATING: 9

HALF-SERIES AVERAGE RATING: 6.38

SERIES AVERAGE RATING: 6.46

  • Seasons/Series watched: 33 of 36
  • Stories watched: 239 of 275
  • Individual episodes watched: 798 of 839

Oh crikey, that’s a really bad average score, the second worst of all time behind Colin’s season of 45-minute snoozefests. There are a handful of good episodes, but a disproportionate amount of stinkers, and this finale is the only truly great episode to compensate. Throughout the modern era, each Doctor’s third series has been his worst – although it’s definitely not Matt Smith’s fault, as almost all of the problems have been with the arcs and the companions.

The night is always darkest before the dawn. With The Name of the Doctor, my least favourite portion of the revived series is already over – it’s the first huge step forward towards a new golden age. The very next episode is the dazzling centrepiece, but I’ve got a few minor diversions to get through first, to further build the anticipation for the big anniversary party…

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Nightmare in Silver

I remembered this one as being an absolute stinker, and that may have affected my reaction to revisiting it, as I found it was nowhere near as bad as I feared. I mean, all the ingredients are right: Neil Gaiman, Cybermen and a solid cast that includes Tamzin Outhwaite, Jason Watkins and Warwick Davis, a man I’ve seen in the Shepherd’s Bush branch of M&S Simply Food on two separate occasions, eight years apart.

But then of course there’s also Angie & Artie, two characters so rubbish I had to double check what they were called before typing their names, even though I only finished watching the episode ten minutes ago. Neither of them are particularly well acted, but character-wise, Artie seems like a decent kid, even if he is crap at chess. Angie on the other hand can fuck right off, the precocious, ungrateful little shit. She puts herself in harm’s way because she’s rebelling against nothing in particular, and even when she’s helping to save the day by figuring out who Warwick Davis is, she’s incredibly smug about it.

And obviously the Cybermen are always a bit of a risk, post-1960s, as you never know what you’re going to get. These are a new breed, supposedly a mixture of the proper ones and the parallel universe ones, and seemingly with a little bit of the Raston Warrior Robot thrown in for good measure, judging by their speed. I quite like the design, with the usual caveats that they’re not supposed to all be identical, and that the sleekness doesn’t really help to reinforce the basic idea that they’re part organic. Nor does them being able to completely remove their heads, or send their hands for little walks – they are just generic robots, still.

Despite my misgivings I did enjoy the action sequences, but they were few and far between, with the story instead focussing on the Doctor’s internal battle with the Cyberplanner. Two sides of the Doctor’s personality battling each other is a great idea, but I really don’t like Matt Smith’s choices for the Cyber half. I was expecting it to be more… Cyber-y, but it’s somehow more emotional and unstable than the Doctor normally is. Plus, chess is boring, and it was really obvious that “our” Doctor was bluffing when he said he had a special secret move to win, which the Cyberplanner is really bloody thick for not figuring out.

(By the way, Red Dwarf did the whole two-versions-of-the-same-character-playing-chess-to-the-death thing way better in Queeg. And speaking of Red Dwarf, the military badge that the Doctor gives Clara in this episode later turned up on Rimmer’s brother Howard in Trojan, thanks to the presence on both series of costume designer Howard Burden.)

Anyway, you’ll be forgiven for thinking that I did in fact hate this episode after all, but I think what’s happened is that these issues were so big on first viewing – in the context of a half-series that was turning out to be thoroughly disappointing – that I’d forgotten all the good stuff. I really liked the army of nerds, and Warwick Davis was great in a much more serious role than he’s normally afforded. Clara was on decent form too, taking charge of the situation and consistently making correct decisions, with the impossible girl stuff largely given a week off ahead of the big climax.

RATING: 7

The Crimson Horror

Another one of those that I vaguely remembered, but without any of the details. For instance, I could have sworn this was set in a sweets factory, rather than a match factory that sounds like it should be a sweets factory. I also knew that this was a Paternoster Gang story, but not just how integral they were to it.

You don’t even see the Doctor or Clara until a third of the way through, with the gang acting as the main protagonists, especially Jenny. It’s her who infiltrates the factory and discovers what’s going on, finally stepping out of the shadows of her easier-to-define colleagues to show what she’s capable of. Thankfully, as well as her special skills of lock-picking and kung fu, she’s also got the charisma to pull off the role of Doctor surrogate, laying all the groundwork to set up the plot that he’d normally be responsible for.

All this was in aid of a shock reveal that the Doctor had been there all along, locked up by a blind woman and dyed red. In fact, he had done all the same investigations as Jenny, which were conveyed to us in a neat little montage that also contained references to Tegan – no idea why, but I liked it. The Doctor then de-reds himself by locking himself in an airing cupboard, a process that’s never fully explained, which is a little distracting.

After this exciting opening half, the story starts to stall a little thereafter, despite a strong villain in Diana Rigg. It just sort of plods along with a lot of running back and forth, broken up by the occasional bit of hiding and watching, and doesn’t really get going beyond that. It all relies on the key revelation that the mysterious Mr Sweet is a parasitic leech clamped to Diana Rigg’s tit; I can’t remember how I reacted to it at the time, but the earlier foreshadowing where she sprinkles salt down her cleavage reminded me of the twist, so I didn’t feel the impact this time.

Still, it’s all perfectly pleasant, if a little pedestrian, and any episode with Strax in it has to have something going for it, especially when he’s rebuking his horse for getting lost. His role as the Doctor’s mercenary is a little problematic, though – it’s OK for him to be gleeful as he’s lasering henchmen to death, but it’s a little weird that the Doctor’s happy to have such carnage take place in his name.

We saw very little indeed of Clara in this episode, which doesn’t really do much to flesh out her still nascent character. She spends the majority of the time preserved in a jar, but she does get a little coda at home, where the kids she babysits have discovered she’s a time traveller and demand to go with her. This is why companions shouldn’t go home between adventures – it makes life complicated for them, and now we’ve got to sit through a story with those two brats in tow.

RATING: 6

The Bells of Saint John

Prequel: The Doctor is sad on a swing, and his misery is compounded when a little girl comes along and calls him old. At least he’s sad about Clara now, rather than Amy and Rory, but I’m a bit bored of the Doctor being angsty all the time. After a good old chat with the little girl, which sets up the Doctor becoming a monk at the start of the episode proper, it’s revealed that she is in fact Clara Oswald. Or at least a Clara Oswald, it’s hard to tell.

So it’s back to Series 7, even though this totally feels like a series opener, and wi-fi is evil now. It seems like quite an obvious and uninspiring hook; it would have been a fresh new technology in the first few new series, but not by 2013. Although seemingly Clara was a little behind the curve, given that she doesn’t know how to type in a password. The first thing we learn about the mysterious companion is that she’s shit with computers.

In fairness, this turns out to be a plot point, as she’s later given l33t hacking skillz by Celia Imrie and her shadowy organisation. The stuff with her controlling her employees’ personalities was an interesting concept, but they could have done much more with it; instead, the bulk of the plot unfolded via the medium of 90s-style hacking montages, complete with flailing fingers and strings of meaningless on-screen text.

There are no monsters as such, other than the big spinny spoons who scoop people into the cloud through some unexplained means. Rather than feeling like the whole world was at stake, it was very much focussed on the threat to one individual – you assume the Doctor wants to rescue everyone who’s been magicked into the internet, but he’s only taking a proactive interest in preventing it happening to Clara.

This is of course understandable considering the Doctor’s already seen her killed twice, and it’s good to tell a different type of story, but it was lacking in scares and stakes. A few action set-pieces tried to fill the gaps, but while it was cool to see the Doctor wrestling control of a jumbo jet, all the dicking about on a moped only slowed things down. Him driving it up the side of the Shard was let down by two things: it was mostly portrayed through reaction shots in order to save on effects work, and it turned out it wasn’t even the Doctor doing it.

You can usually get away with all of the above in a companion’s introductory episode – the story often takes a back seat while we meet the new girl – but I don’t feel that this job was done satisfactorily either. You don’t learn nearly as much about Clara as you do with Rose, Martha, Donna or Amy in their first stories; I don’t mean the mystery element to her, but just who she is, how she interacts with people, what’s important to her. All we know is that she works as a nanny and she wants to travel. This is an area that was much improved throughout her stay, but there’s not much to Clara at this stage, and the two previous versions of her probably made better first impressions.

It threatened to get good at the end, with a fleeting glimpse of Richard E Grant to reveal that TGI was behind all of this, and Celia Imrie’s character being regressed into a little girl. It’s a shame that this was skimmed over, as I wanted to know what became of her and the rest of the staff. Instead, we get the Doctor inviting Clara to travel with him… and she turns him down. It’s such an anti-climax to see the Doctor still on his own after all that – I said something similar when I watched the McGann movie, the companion joining gives you the emotional climax to the episode, and without it, it falls very flat indeed.

RATING: 6