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 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.

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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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

The Snowmen

First of all, another new title sequence? Come off it now. I very much approve of the Doctor’s face making an appearance, but I’m afraid I was too distracted by the godawful new music to notice anything else. It’s way too busy, it’s like we’re back in the 80s. There’s a new TARDIS interior too, creating a clear line in the sand as if it were the start of a new series – it’s most peculiar that this happens when we’re supposedly mid-series. Having Christmas in the middle feels wrong, and contributes to the feeling that these are more like two separate mini-series.

Most notably, this is the first time Clara appears in a companion role, even though it’s not actually Clara. It’s a lot easier to get on board now that I’ve got to know her; at the time, the big mystery overshadowed absolutely everything, and it was impossible to know what to make of her without even knowing her motives. But now you can see that she’s just an inquisitive, brave and intelligent young woman, like any other companion, and it suddenly feels reassuringly conventional.

Well, other than the fact that she alternates between the slightly too posh sounding cockney you’d get in Mary Poppins, and actually being Mary Poppins. You’re never sure which is the pretend life and which is the real one, but nevertheless it’s fun to see her relationship with the Doctor develop. Not so keen on the snogging, which felt like they were just ticking off that particular Doctor/companion combo to get it out of the way. It did seem a bit sudden for the Doctor to go from a total recluse to giving the TARDIS key to someone he barely knows, so it must have been a hell of a kiss.

Another fun twist – and one that’s potentially quite apt to be revisiting given recent announcements – is that the Doctor’s part of a big gang again, with the Paternosters proving to be great company once more. Strax is the best one – the joke of him wanting to destroy everything never gets old, and the memory worm skit was a tremendous way to disguise a Chekov’s organism. Despite all the Doctor grumpiness, there was a high dosage of comedy throughout the episode – there was even time for a Sherlock parody, complete with sound-alike music. I admire the audacity to pull off such a meta joke on such a big stage.

With so much character work going on, the big returning villain was rather low down in the mix, and it left me yearning for a little more from the Great Intelligence. Richard E. Grant is much more suited to being a villain than being the Doctor, but I’d completely forgotten that he’s not actually TGI until right at the end, he’s just his servant for most of the story. It didn’t do a great job of explaining who or what TGI is – I had to wait until I’d seen The Web of Fear until I fully understood it, and indeed fully understood the references to the London Underground in this one.

The eponymous Snowmen are barely in it either; this episode was less about the scares and more about the human drama. That’s OK, because it does that well, but it means that the plot is a little undernourished. In the denouement, the Doctor is completely defeated with no escape plan, until all the snow miraculously turns into water and the Great Intelligence fucks off. The Doctor had no idea that was going to happen, and had no part in making it happen, so it feels very convenient.

Ah, but then again, now that we know that this version of Clara only exists because our Clara went back into the Doctor’s timeline to help defeat the Great Intelligence, the fact that her death helps solve the problem makes it part of the bigger story. This is what was meant to happen all along – it’s our Clara defeating the Great Intelligence in The Name of the Doctor by defeating him in The Snowmen. Our Clara made this happen.

My brain hurts.

RATING: 8

The Web of Fear

Remember when I said this story would have to go a hell of a long way to top The Enemy of the World? Well, it did. And then some. Technically I’d seen this story before, but that was in all in one go, in a big group of people, with us all talking through it – hardly the ideal circumstances to appreciate what is an absolute masterpiece. What a fantastic time in the show’s life this is.

It works so well to have a sequel so quickly after the original, not least because it’s instantly apparent just how much the returning foes have improved in such a short space of time. Last time, the Yeti were a little too slow and lumbering, but the tweaks in the design make a real difference, and the addition of their web-gun weaponry adds an extra dimension. This story also does a much better job of clarifying what The Great Intelligence is and why it’s being such a dick than in any of its other appearances, including in the new series.

It’s also great to have Professor Travers back, with his aged appearance and new mannerisms instantly giving so much context and back-story from the off. And he’s just one of an interesting ensemble of characters, most notably the slimy reporter, the freakish Welsh one and the slightly ropey Staff Sergeant.

The former two are the main suspects in the ongoing subplot regarding the possibility of a traitor in the camp. That layer of intrigue makes the story so gripping – all week I’ve found myself thinking about it all day, longing to be home in front of my DVD. In the end, the traitor turned out to be the other one, and – like last time – it’s a twist that I didn’t see coming, but that made perfect sense as soon as I knew. The slight ropiness was intentional!

Of course, there was supposed to be an extra suspect, but for some reason I never truly believed that this Lethbridge-Stewart chap would turn out to be a wrongun. That’s not to say I didn’t appreciate how well he was written – all the qualities we’d come to love, but under a veil of caution and fear. He didn’t yet trust The Doctor, and so acted in a way that made The Doctor distrust him.

You can tell just from this that The Brigadier Colonel was always destined to become a regular fixture. A few villains aside, he’s by far the most well-rounded, memorable and watchable guest character in the show to date – more so than a number of companions, in fact.

You can also see the seeds of UNIT being sown, and again it’s so easy to see why the producers latched on to the concept, even in this primitive form. It must have been so joyful in the production office when they realised they could take the show in yet another brilliant new direction, because even 47 years later, it’s utterly joyful to watch.

I’m going to have to take another short break, as my sister is selfishly getting married. But I will come back, oh yes I will come back, and dive into the last really big block of missing episodes…

RATING: 10

The Abominable Snowmen

You know I was saying last time about how I knew the big headlines of what was coming next but didn’t know about the specifics? Well, I knew that this story would introduce the Yeti (the clue was in the name, really), but not that it would also see the debut of The Great Intelligence!

I mean, I should have remembered that the two are intrinsically linked (I watched The Web of Fear shortly after it was released), but it had completely slipped my mind, so it rather blew me away when it was revealed in episode three. It’s a weirdly appropriate sign of the timey-wimey nature of this project. Most of the time, I’m getting the same experience as viewers would have done when the episodes first aired, but my knowledge of what’s to come sometimes gives certain things an extra significance and alters the experience. Nobody would have gasped at the name “The Great Intelligence” in 1967, because they hadn’t seen The Name of the Doctor. I feel privileged to find even more to enjoy in those episodes than those feckless 60s idiots did.

The notorious TGI himself was suitably mysterious and intimidating, even if it was all a little Wizard of Oz (we had the same thing not long ago in The Macra Terror). His presence as the overall big bad kind of undermined the Yeti, as they were never quite as threatening once they were revealed to be merely remote-controlled henchmen. But they were great for what they were, the big cuddly lumbering murderers.

Victoria finally managed to announce herself after a couple of false starts. There seems to be a trend for companions to only show a personality on their second or third outing – Vicki, Polly and Jamie were the same. But she’s on good form here, establishing herself as inquisitive, crafty and clever when she insisted on investigating the inner sanctum. There was a hefty deal of high-pitching screaming too, but that’s to be expected and mostly tolerated in this era.

While all the ingredients to this story were good, it did perhaps go on a little too long – it felt like an excellent four-parter stretched to become a pretty decent six-parter. The ending was a tad disappointing too – it basically boiled down to smashing a load of shit up and hoping for the best, when you’d hope that The Great Intelligence would be defeated by The Doctor’s greater intelligence. But still, I know they’re all coming back in just a few serials’ time, so that’s a chance to right that small wrong.

Finally, a small notice to say that the next entry will take place in slightly longer than six days’ time. I’m going to have to hit pause for four days due to my other sci-fi passion. Four days without Who is going to feel like the gap between Survival and Rose.

RATING: 7