In the past 24 hours the legendary status of last night’s Doctor Who episode by Neil Gaiman has been cemented online by a series of awestruck reviewers. It’s certainly a welcome return to the impressive starting form of the opening two-parter. Everything in the Neverwhere bubble universe (the pleasingly and inexplicable eccentricity of auntie and uncle, the orphaned ood and the bewitchingly batty Idris) was perfect. But the rest of the episode, the parts set in the internal architecture of the TARDIS, lacked something: perhaps the time to develop, perhaps the novel excitement and urgency of the new and unfamiliar bubble universe, or perhaps the visual flair design. All the things I loved most were outside: the cubes – the Timelord distress messages conveying the monstrous wrecking, the Doctor’s reaction to the possibility of survivor Timelords, the TARDIS graveyard, the Doctor and the TARDIS surfing the vortex on their jerry-built scrapyard console. When that landed (in a poorly-lit last-season set) the episode seemed to lose some of its buoyancy.
I’m going to indulge in a small digression; a nit-pick that does not reflect the view of my quality of the episode, but which niggles all the same. It is the use of the old console room, from the era of the 9th and 10th Doctors. This did not make sense to me either within the logic of the story or as a design decision. I had thought we saw the old console room destroyed by the last rather energetic regeneration and that was why, during The Eleventh Hour, it was reformed into its current instantiation. If it wasn’t, why did we get the new version? Design-wise, I couldn’t see why all the (rather drab and uniform) corridors reflected the current console room’s “theme” but this one room not just shabby (that could be the lighting) but very “last season”. During the pursuit of this old room I (like, I presume, many other fans at the nerdier end of the spectrum) was wondering which old console room it would be (and hoping it would be the ’60s white roundel version) but of course from a practical point of view there was only one TARDIS ex-interior lying around on the sound-stages of BBC Wales. Building a replica of the old one for one scene would have been unjustifiably costly (and quite possibly very inaccurate anyway) and squirting the actors into a CGI version based on old photos would have looked about as convincing as the colour separation overlay that was much overused in 70s Who. So why make it a console room at all? Especially given that it detracted from the excellent new extemporised console the Doctor had just piloted into it…
So is that console room now gone forever? And are the three or four others that have previously been seen on screen still around somewhere?
A more directly relevant question with regard to the story is: what is House? Initially I understood him to be a corporeal being encased in the shell that was the surface of the planet – but if so, how did he transfer to the TARDIS? And why? If he knew there were no more TARDII, what did he intend to feed on?
Also: how did nephew get into the TARDIS when the door had been locked?
Last week I criticised the pacing of The Curse of the Black Spot for placing the dramatic emphases at the wrong moments; this week the issue was more that there was too little time to explore all of the ideas that were packed into this story. This might have worked much better as a two-parter; I would certainly have enjoyed an entire episode set solely on the strange world with auntie and uncle, and perhaps the shenanigans in House’s Jack-built TARDIS corridors would have been more effective as a slow-paced psychological thriller in the second part.
Next week we start another two-parter. Are we getting more of these this year? If so that can only be a good thing.
However, the next episode of Doctor Who to get its first broadcast on the BBC is, in fact, the first new story they’ve aired featuring Peter Davison since Time Crash in 2007. It’s part 1 of “Cobwebs” which is airing nightly on Radio 4 Extra from tomorrow, a story released on CD by Big Finish last year which I’ve coincidentally just finished relistening to. The companions are Nyssa, Teagan, and Turlough in their first story together since Terminus in 1983. It’s a solid little story, in which the writer, Jonathan Morris, audaciously and very successfully uses the same cliff-hanger three times. If you haven’t heard it, I’d recommend you do.
And speaking of Big Finish, whether intentional nods or coincidence, several elements of The Doctor’s Wife have previously appeared in audio plays: the personification of the TARDIS (Zagreus), the TARDIS graveyard (The Axis of Insanity), the dying TARDIS (Her Final Flight) and jumping into the TARDIS across the Vortex (the late Douglas Adams’ Shada, unfinished for TV and remounted in 2003 for a BBC webcast).
Update: I watched it again. I may have had it slightly wrong: I still think that the TARDIS scenes generally compare poorly to those on House’s world, but it’s the scenes between The Doctor and Idris that are so perfect. I may have rated them 10/10 before, but that may have been an underestimate. Suranne Jones, notable for being just about the worst thing in one of the worst pieces of Doctor Who ever, was undeniable the best thing in one of the best ever. And that’s in an episode with the superlative Matt Smith.
I also seem to have failed to mention the wonderful dialogue:
“We’re coming through! Get out of the way, or you’ll be atomised!”
“Where are you coming through?”
“I don’t know.”
And it does have the magic advertised: it will change our perception of 48 years of Doctor Who. Would have been great to have given it two episodes, though.