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 soufflé 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.
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…