Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Doctor's Wife: She Thinks I've Been With Another Woman And That's Enough To Send Her Half Insane

'You gave me hope and then you took it away. That's enough to make anyone dangerous. God knows what it'll do to me. Basically ... run!' In a steampunk junkyard on an asteroid in 'a tiny bubble universe sticking to the side of a bigger bubble universe' The Doctor, Amy and Rory's latest adventure in Time and Space takes place. It starts with an unexpected knock on the TARDIS's door whilst it's still travelling in the vortex of deep space and The Doctor's discovery that he 'has mail.' Arriving at 'the scrapyard at the end of the universe,' in search of actual living Time Lords (and, specifically an old acquaintance of The Doctor's called The Corsair) instead, The Doctor and his friends find themselves caught in a fiendishly cunning trap for the unwary. Not only that, but The Matrix - 'the soul of the TARDIS' - has vanished. The world is The House, we are told. And there's an Ood. A rather nasty Ood. Called Nephew. With me so far? This is Neil Gaiman's take on a show that he's watched - as a fan - for forty years or more. The list of continuity references and allusions within it clearly suggest a fan's-eye on the text. There's An Unearthly Child obviously and The Edge of Destruction (the concept of TARDIS as a living entity). There's The War Games (the Time Lord communication cubes), a TARDIS console in flight independent from the craft itself from Inferno, the secondary console room seen in The Masque of Mandragora. There's Logopolis and Castrovalva (the TARDIS room deletions), The Five Doctors (the reference to The Eye of Orion) and The Deadly Assassin and Four To Doomsday (Artron Energy), plus more recent nods in the direction of The Unquiet DeadThe End of Time and The Eleventh Hour. Gaiman positively revels in taking his background in fantasy and comics - The Sandman, Anansi Boys, American Gods, Coraline - and bringing a touch of realpolitik to the Doctor Who universe. Well, as close as Doctor Who can get to realpolitik, anyway. Faux-realpolitik. Because The Doctor's Wife is actually a tone poem to sentience - in all its forms - wrapped up inside a story about a living Time Machine. In a very literal way, the episode's metaphorical title makes absolute and perfect sense. Idris is a walking, talking representation of the only constant in The Doctor's life for the last seven hundred years. from the moment he first 'touched her console' and said that she was the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen. If that isn't a caustic and pure definition of a marriage of choice then, frankly, nothing is, dear blog reader.

'... Then we discovered it wasn't The Robot King after all. It was the real one. Fortunately, I managed to re-attach the head.' From that excellent non-sequitur start, The Doctor's excitement at the potential discovery of other living, breathing Time Lords leads Amy to suggest that The Doctor 'wants to be forgiven,' for his past actions in, you know, destroying his own race. 'Don't we all?' he asks in reply with what appears to be absolute sincerity. He's looking for compassion to end the loneliness of being the last of his kind. On the asteroid, however, The Doctor doesn't find the Time Lords that he'd hoped for but, rather, the mad-as-toast 'patchwork people' Auntie and Uncle and the so-far-over-the-top-she's-down-the-other-side 'bitey-mad lady' Idris: 'Biting's excellent. It's like kissing only there's a winner.' Idris is a curious creature who considers that 'tenses are difficult' and tells The Doctor that 'the little boxes will make you angry.' There's clearly madness in her method but, before he can discover more The Doctor is told that the asteroid itself is a sentient creature, called House. The beautifully lyrical 'sea urchin' scene follows, during which House tells The Doctor that 'there have been many TARDISes on my back in days gone by.' 'Don't get emotional,' Amy warns The Doctor when his excitement threatens to run away with him. 'That's when you make mistakes.' Soon, The Doctor realises that he's been tricked; that the only Time Lords in this universe besides himself are very dead ones lured there, like he was, by House to feed upon. 'Just admiring your Time Lord distress signal collection,' he says when discovering the horrible truth. Then it gets worse. 'I really don't know what to do,' he confesses to no one in particular as the TARDIS - with Amy and Rory trapped inside - disappears in a puff of green smoke. He gives a short, happy, smile: 'That's a new feeling.'

Whilst Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill are stuck in a - very enjoyable - pocket 'third episode of a Patrick Troughton four-parter' and spending lots of time running up and down corridors whilst being menaced by the boomy-voice of Michael Sheen, Matt Smith is busy being part of a new, and quite brilliant, double act. The former Coronation Street, Unforgiven, Five Days and Single Father actress Suranne Jones is outstanding as the human TARDIS form, Idris. Her conversations with The Doctor are - wonderfully - a dialogue of equals. And opposites. A genius move that gives us lines like: 'Then you stole me. And I stole you.' And, 'Are all people like this? So much bigger on the inside?' And, 'You are not my mother!' It's a beautifully nuanced relationship - effectively old friends meeting for the first time, as strangers. 'You never took me where I wanted to go,' The Doctor says bitterly. 'No, I always took you where you needed to go,' Idris replies and, in one line, explains forty eight years of plots about the TARDIS never ending up where The Doctor wanted it to. The bitching of intellectual geniuses continues as solutions are sought. 'You're like a nine year old trying to rebuild a motorbike in his bedroom. And you never read the instructions.' A mature depiction of ultimately impossible - but never, ever, unrequited - love. 'My beautiful idiot. You have what you've always had. You have me.' Jones - looking like Elsa Lanchester in The Bride of Frankenstein after a really bad night - arguably sets the standard by which all future guest stars will be judged. She plays Idris as a kind of dotty fairytale princess with all of time and space running through her head. It's the kind of performance you expect Tim Burton to get from Helena Bonham Carter (whom she also resembles) once every couple of years. From Idris's initial feral insanity (licking her lips after she's kissed The Doctor), through inquisitive kookiness, and then pathos (best seen in the heartbreaking 'I am thinking that all my sisters are dead and we're looking at their corpses' moment) through heroism to the final - majestic - sequence, she is absolutely electrifying throughout.

Inside the TARDIS, meanwhile, Amy is being stoic, annoyed and insightful all at the same time. 'No sonic screwdriver. Also, the doors seemed to have locked behind us. Rory thinks there's a perfectly innocent explanation. But I think you lied to us!' When House's sadistic schemes become apparent, Rory gets his best line of the episode: 'You need fun, don't you? That's what Auntie and Uncle were for. Someone to make suffer. I had a PE teacher just like you!' House feeds on rift energy (just like The Gelth in The Unquiet Dead) and has a particular penchant for gobbling up TARDISes (a bit like yer actual Keith Telly Topping has a fondness for scoffing curried King Prawns, dear blog reader). 'The Orangey Girl' and 'The Pretty One'(!) thereafter have a devil of a time staying one step ahead of House as they are chased all around the TARDIS interior whilst their nemesis, basically, messes with their heads. Some of this is a tad repetitious but much of it is really disturbing - the sequences with the aged Rory in particular. At the climax of which poor Rory seems to be killed. Again. But, he isn't, really. Again. What's that, the fourth time in about nine episodes?

'She's the TARDIS ... and she's a woman,' The Doctor tells his friends when they're reunited. 'Did you wish really hard?' asks Amy. The Doctor's Wife is one of the finest Doctor Who episodes in quite a long time on the strength of its dialogue, alone. 'I had an umbrella like you, once.' And, 'Sometimes I hate being right.' There's Idris's insider observation of The Doctor's life in just a sentence: 'I exist through all of space and time. And you talk. And run around. And bring home strays!' There's The Doctor's casual dismissal of House as a threat: 'That's your problem. Size of a planet but inside you're just so small.' And, of course, the exchange that got everyone so excited when it first appeared on the sixth series trailer back at Christmas. 'Fear me, I've killed hundreds of Time Lords,' says House boastfully. 'Fear me,' replies The Doctor with a chilling calmness. 'I killed all of them.' The Doctor's Wife is the episode in which we learn that The Doctor calls The TARDIS (and, by a logical extension, Idris) 'sexy.' But, only when they're alone. 'I wanted to see the universe. So, I stole a Time Lord and ran away! And you were the only one mad enough.' When describing The Corsair, The Doctor talks of 'himself, or herself,' which - in one throwaway line - establishes once-and-for-all that Time Lords can, indeed, switch gender with each regeneration. Expect the 'when do we get a female Doctor?' debate to erupt all over again after this. Thanks Neil! It's an episode featuring a precise and conceptually dazzling little essay on the strangeness, beauty and terror of being alive. 'A big, complicated word, that's sad.' In its properly emotional climax it is the place where we learn that 'the only water in the forest is the river.'

This is a Neil Gaiman episode, one didn't really expect it to be anything other than a terrific piece of imaginative, lyrical, complex and - in places - very funny, fiction. And, sure enough, it's all of those things. It would probably be churlish and not a bit disrespectful to expect The Doctor's Wife to be anything more than that. But it is. Much, much more. It's the episode in which the series oldest 'character' - introduced, in An Unearthly Child nearly forty eight years ago, a good ten minutes before The Doctor himself - is finally given a voice of her own. It's the episode in which The Doctor's cries like an unashamed closet romantic. It's an episode about heroism and magnificence and redemption. An episode about life. And death. And of the grey places in-between. It's an episode which manages to give all of those odd little references over the many years of Doctor Who to the TARDIS being 'more than just a machine' (going all the way back to, obliquely, An Unearthly Child and, directly, to The Edge of Destruction nearly half-a-century ago) a context. And a face. A beautiful face. 'I'll always be here, but this is when we talked. And now, even that has come to an end.' Best episode since Blink. Possibly since The Girl in the Fireplace. Yes, it's that good.

Meanwhile, here's Keith Telly Topping's 45 of the Day. Tell 'em all about it, Ox.

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