jason stives looks at the impossible series finale …
Boy, you got some cowboys in here. This is a rather fitting quote I have lifted from the Tenth Doctor because this week we weren’t short on ideas and answers that both seemed inspired and truly ridiculous at the same time. Maybe it’s an initial reaction from a long time fan but the finale of Series 7, “The Name of the Doctor,” was spot on one of the most enjoyable hours of Doctor Who in recent memory. While it’s far from perfect it is fearless in its execution and is delivered to us as one of the most concise finales the show has produced.
Let’s call a spade a spade right now and admit that the episode is not perfect but it’s one of the most entertaining, if not THE most entertaining episodes that has been produced recently. Lots of questions were answered (for the most part) but Steven Moffat has thrown another bag of them into this wild universe which may infuriate some fans while enticing others. I’m not one to get annoyed by an abundance of questions as long as they eventually get answered which is something the Russell T Davies era of the show was known for not doing that often. So while the mystery of Clara Oswin is explained very directly and fluidly there is a lot we still don’t know about her. Coming off of fan favorites like Amy and Rory, Clara has had a rocky ride into acceptance in the Whoniverse but not for a lack of trying and one could even say her relationship with the Doctor while strange is very chummy and friendly. Clara isn’t a push over at all but her ambiguity to the audience can be frustrating and here we have much of that playing out.
The Great Intelligence while the main baddie here felt a bit underutilized mainly because the outcome of their appearance never resolves much. As nice as it was to see Richard E. Grant back in the form of Dr. Simeon it never felt like we were getting much from him being there. Same goes for the Intelligence’s lackeys the Whispermen who visually hold so much potential but don’t really serve the greatest purpose. They are a threat, yes, but minus one chilling moment they are rather a throw away villain of the week which can be said of a good chunk of the newer foes to the show.
Also there was a bit of dead weight in the presence of one Professor River Song. As much as I enjoy her sporadic appearances her inclusion this week served no defining purpose. Sure, I loved the interactions between her and the Doctor but considering this a post death River I didn’t see where her appearance would make much of a difference to the story and it really didn’t. What we really needed to focus on was the Doctor and Clara and we had a lot of big revelations on both their ends to pack into this brisk 44 minute episode.
The idea that struck me the most is that of Trenzalore itself being the Doctor’s grave. It makes sense that it wouldn’t be as simple as a decaying body or a skeleton so the personal time tunnel, the scar tissue of the Doctor’s timeline acting as his dead and living state was genius. Why would an alien time traveler simply just have a casket? The cadaver of a man who can repair his body many times over would necessitate a specific and rather unique form because, well, like the Doctor says “bodies are boring.” Visually this story is the darkest we have seen the show in ages, possibly ever, as the decaying landscape of the TARDIS turned inside out is haunting and more than a smidge foreboding. The final resting place of the greatest Timelord besides Rassilon himself is exactly how you would expect it to be. The Doctor, a man who has always fought graciously in the field of battle till the bitter end lies resting in one of his consequences.
All this visually makes the Doctor’s fears and sadness the more real and once again Matt Smith gives a performance that only he can call his own. The Doctor has always been greatly haunted by death and once again he is encased by this lonely specter but as always there is a sense of possible triumph behind those 1100 year old eyes. Like a light switch, Smith can burn an impression into the mind of his enemy and then leave you weak by the pain written on his face by all the loss the Doctor continues to suffer. Still, there is always a glimmer of hope in tragic moonlight and here it’s love and companionship. Clara is a loyal friend despite her mystery to him and the Doctor despite his pleading understands the sacrifice she is willing to make but that doesn’t mean he will settle for her just throwing her life away. Clara is the impossible girl he always wanted to figure out and now that he has he must save her because she is someone worth saving.
We must not forget what this is all leading up to; the revelation of who exactly Clara Oswald is and for this reviewer despite any theory I could have I was dead wrong and I was glad I was wrong. This all comes back to this column’s very own arc in the discussion of expectations, especially when the mystery of Clara Oswin Oswald still needs to be solved. If there is one thing that makes it happy its watching fan speculation gets squashed by an original idea and despite the many theories of who Clara is (the Doctor’s daughter, Susan, the Rani (rolls eyes) the actual revelation was so simple and yet so original that only a mind like Steven Moffat could concoct it.
Even more than just the actual revelation we were treated to an abundance of call backs not just from this season but also the past. If the first two minutes didn’t satisfy those classic Whovians annoyed by the lack of classic Doctors in the upcoming anniversary special then the opening moments involving Clara’s puddle jumping through the Doctor’s timeline should’ve been a serviceable replacement. Taking a page out of Star Trek’s book by superimposing Clara into moments from the show’s past we were treated to glimpses of all 7 of the classic series Doctors (sorry McGann fans) and while it may seem like a cheap effect it worked very well within the context of the story. The fact that Clara has seemingly been there in the corner of the eye of the Doctor’s past is very interesting. Even more so we as fans have to wrap our heads around the idea that Clara was responsible for making the First Doctor choose the Type 40 TARDIS that he did all those years ago. Mind blown, sort of.
SPOILERS, NO SERIOUSLY, MASSIVE SPOILERS AHEAD!!
The one thing you never do while watching Doctor Who is take any bit of seemingly throwaway info for granted and this episode was no different. When the Doctor explained that the time tunnel was a thread of himself both in past form and those to come I never thought for one second the latter of those two would be something to consider. Seeing that the screener copy I was issued was without the last four minutes I always assumed the ending lead right into the 50th Anniversary special in November. While I wasn’t wrong about that I was wrong about expecting to see Mr. Tennant in his pin stripe suit. But getting instead the form of actor John Hurt as that of, assumingly, the future incarnation of the Doctor was a true stunner. Hurt isn’t exactly a stranger to science fiction and fantasy and his casting a few months back was a wonderful edition to an already momentous occasion but this is a horse of a different color. Who is he exactly? Is this the Doctor who fought in the Time War? Is it the Valeyard? Is the Eleventh Doctor even the eleventh Doctor to begin with? It hurts the mind a bit but it’s that kind of creativity that keeps a 50 year old show going.
So did we learn the name of the Doctor? No. Did we learn what exactly happened at Trenzalore? Far from it. There is a lot here that may insight a riot inside the mind of a fan looking for constant plausibility in the show but for me it was easy to ignore the obvious questions left unanswered here. “The Name of the Doctor” is a rare instance where I find myself incapable of criticizing the overall episode, save for the above mentioned issues, but that doesn’t mean it was perfect. There are many things I can bring up that may not seem right but I will save that for a season wrap-up. Doctor Who is a strange melting pot that is constantly being cleaned and replaced with various contents and ideas and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t; it’s just how all television shows go. While Series 7 as a whole was a rocky one (something I will get into another time) there is no denying that the show has never been more compelling and is till chock full of wonderful ideas and moments. “The Name of the Doctor” was wildly entertaining, fearless in its execution — a dark world with absolutely beautiful glimmers of light shining through at every turn.
As we hurtle towards November and the show’s 50th Anniversary we are reminded how all the basic ingredients still matter amidst a constant stream of new ones. A soufflé isn’t the soufflé, the soufflé is the recipe and Doctor Who isn’t Doctor Who by nature, it’s the love and care of those involved that making it something special that has lasted for half a century.
Rating: 9 out of 10 (Outstanding)
All Photos Credit: BBC America