Season 32 Episode 4 – The Doctor’s Wife, by Neil Gaiman

May 20, 2011

Review by Martin Odoni

Well. Given how twee the title sounds, this episode was incredibly dark at times. The premise was completely bananas of course, in fact one of the more fairy-tale-like episodes in feel and tone since the production changeover, and it still had its share of too-pleased-with-itself dialogue. But in any case, it was dark, dark, dark! We should expect no different from Neil Gaiman, the man who gave us the Sandman comic series. But, given his impressive CV, should we have expected something better? Despite enjoying the episode, I’d have to say the answer to that is yes.

It’s by no means a terrible episode. It’s frequently chilling, imaginative and thought-provoking. But it’s also drearily sentimental, continuity-dependent (albeit in a subtle manner), pseudo-scientific in a very “there’s-no-difference-between-technobabble-and-real-science” kind of way, clumsily-articulated, and sporadically silly. In other words, it’s custom-built NuWho. And just like last year’s misfire by RIchard Curtis, it seems an odd description to apply to it, given that we’re talking about a script by a world-class guest-writer. Shouldn’t formula be the first thing that gets abandoned in those circumstances?

The story idea is a good one, but the execution is wobbly. For a start, the idea of the TARDIS actually possessing an immortal soul of some kind is an unwanted revisit to the messianic/sorcery buggerations of the RT Davies era. For another thing, the technobabble, used as a substitute for an explanation of how the TARDIS was transferred into Idris, is some of the most appalling, meaningless waffle that the series has ever been guilty of, worse even than the Doctor’s pseudo-mathematical gibberish to Adric when trying to repair the chameleon circuit in Logopolis. (And on that occasion, at least the babble wasn’t something that the plot was dependent on.)

The continuity references are not exactly hammered over our heads, and crucially the audience probably doesn’t need to recognise them to understand the story. But even so there are quite a few in there. Mentions of different control rooms aboard the TARDIS (firmly established by the Fourth Doctor during his times with Sarah Jane and Leela), and actual portrayals of older control rooms (the walls of a 70’s-style TARDIS surrounding the Doctor’s makeshift console, as well as a brief return to the control room of the Ninth and Tenth Doctors) might have been confusing to younger viewers, while a not-altogether-necessary appearance by an Ood, and witterings about getting rid of the swimming pool (another link back to the Fourth Doctor’s time, as well as Matt Smith’s debut) seem a little forced as well. Also referencing Smith’s debut is another mention of fish fingers.

Performances are notably better from the guests than the regulars. Suranne Jones is absolutely excellent, her performance as Idris suspiciously reminiscent of (the almost-identically-named) Sidriss from Knightmare. She also has very similar eyes. But original or not, the confused, alarming eccentricities of the character are portrayed with exactly the kind of nervous energy needed. Michael Sheen as the House, sounding and acting much like the Justice Computer in the Red Dwarf episode Justice, manages to be both sinister and threatening, yet uncertain of himself and feckless, a difficult trick. Auntie and Uncle are half-amusing bit-parts, competently performed. By contrast, this is one of Matt Smith’s worst performances so far. Very stagey, over-excited, much too loud over and over, and shedding gratuitous tears aplenty at the end. With his repeated compulsion early on to declare that, “That’s impossible!!!!” it really does feel like the episode was written for David Tennant, and Smith appears to give in to that. Arthur Darvill and Karen Gillan do rather better, largely because Rory and Amy aren’t given much opportunity to be silly, seeing all the really scary stuff in the story happens to them, but even so, they do get a bit stagey and ‘lay-it-on-with-a-trowel’ sentimental in the later stages as well.

Rory really is being reduced to the Arthur Dent of the series. His main role seems to have become standing around and letting bad things happen to him, so that Amy has something to burst into tears about. The proactive, assertive version who had been emerging recently didn’t last. Although he did well with his, “Killing us quickly wouldn’t be any fun” line. Pity about the follow-up PE teacher reference. Silly and ill-timed.

Indeed, ill-timed silliness gets in the way quite a bit, which is another same-old-story. “Look at that! What could possibly go wrong?” *A PIECE OF THE MACHINE FALLS OFF WITH A PATHETIC CLUUNKING NOISE* is an ancient joke that could’ve been written in HG Wells’ time. It’s also silly. “Actually… I feel fine…” *DROPS DEAD* is a joke from the Palaeolithic era of comedy, painfully similar to Sir Talbot Buxomley’s death in Blackadder The Third. Even if it wasn’t familiar, it’s silly. “I think you call me… sexy,” irritates. Because it’s silly. The Doctor and Idris bickering like a married couple as they try to build a new TARDIS could have been lifted from a number of the Doctor’s conversations with River Song, or even from Mr & Mrs Smith. And again, it’s just silly. Standing around applauding the worthy opponent is silly. “I’ve got mail!!!” Silly, silly, SILLY!

STOP I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-IIIIITTTTTTTTT!!!!!

When is the modern series going to learn to stop ruining the drama of a story with badly-timed set-piece gags or self-conscious quips? Some stories do not need, or benefit from, being zany or whacky, and this was one of them.

And so much sorcery-babble is needed to carry the plot; the makeshift console powered by a kiss from Idris, and able to keep her and the Doctor breathing in space, despite the mini-TARDIS lacking a couple of walls. Telepathic security systems. The soul of the TARDIS just ‘phases’ back into the console, and the House is invisibly ‘dispersed’. Magic re-set button time again.

The plot resolution is not well-written at all in fact. At a crucial stage of the story, we have a familiar moment of the villain stopping to talk to the Doctor when he’s perfectly placed just to kill him. “Why should it matter to me where you die?” Why should you stop to ask that question at all? Why not just kill him and speculate about the options some other time? No? You want to carry on talking to him. To learn… what? Um, not much it seems. “Enough!” thunders the House. “That is enough!” Oh, so you don’t want to talk to the Doctor after all? Well why don’t you silence him by killing him then? Nope, you’re going to carry on talking to him anyway. O-… kaaaay… But I thought you just said that was enough?

This is followed by one of those verbose, unnatural info-dump speeches by the Doctor for the benefit of the audience. Very clumsy.

But it’s by no means all bad news. The darker, scarier edge introduced this season is maintained, in fact enhanced, with the sequences when Amy and Rory are trapped by time anomalies in the TARDIS corridors being unusually brutal and chilling for 6:30 on a Saturday night – all the more so, given all they’re doing for the most part is the timeless exercise of “running down corridors that all look the same”. (By the way, aren’t the hexagonal corridors of the TARDIS very reminiscent of the interior of the Liberator in Blake’s 7?) The mind-warping tricks the House plays on them are very surreal and unsettling, The Game Of Rassilon from The Five Doctors, only done right. The ‘Kill Amy’ graffiti on the walls is startling, and the sequences are filmed with real skill and flair. In style and impact, the story has strong tones of the no-holds-barred approach to horror that the series had back when Bob Holmes was script editor.

The plot may be disjointed and poorly-connected, but as a scenario, it is one of the more sophisticated ideas we’ve seen in some time, at least psychologically. Entertainment for the House only ever takes the form of ‘it’s-nothing-personal’ cruelty, hence the fear and torment Amy and Rory experience being little different to the agonies of Auntie and Uncle. The notion of people being assembled from the body parts of dismembered Time-Lords is enough to make the audience’s skin crawl – yes, that’s definitely an endorsement. And the TARDIS being given an outlet for its persona has considerable charm. It might have been more interesting if the story had kept us guessing a little longer before revealing to us who Idris really is.

The actual personality of Idris makes for easily one of the most interesting and sympathetic guests the series has had in years; quirky, jumpy, almost multiple personalities constantly catching each other by surprise with jumbled, confused words of wisdom. “Biting’s… like kissing, only there’s a winner” is a nice line, quirky and slightly macabre rather than whacky. “Are all people like this… so much bigger on the inside?” is one of the best self-referencing ironies Doctor Who has managed in a long while.

The Doctor’s decision to send Amy and Rory back to the TARDIS on a wild goose chase says a lot about his superiority complex. He clearly feels as keenly as ever that humans are beneath the business of Time-Lords. How arrogant he remains.

Some of the sets and effects are outstanding. The griminess, the broken landscape, the wreckage, and the overpowering, dark gloominess of the environment all really contribute to the sinister, doom-laden atmosphere. Also, fairness to Murray Gold, his music score was generally less over-cooked than usual, but I still think he would have been better-advised to keep the music quieter and more sombre for longer.

The Doctor’s Wife is therefore one of those episodes where, when it’s good, it’s very good, but when it’s not, it’s very much not. It is perhaps the most original and imaginative episode of the current season, and as chilling as any of them. The potential in it is there for all to see. However, the suffocating sentimentality of the ending does it no favours, the clumsy methods of conveying information are jarring, the occasional silliness undermines the main strengths on offer i.e. the dark atmosphere and an intriguing guest character, and the plot is incoherent and advanced mainly by contrivance. These are all weaknesses that it is very difficult to see past, and that is why ultimately the episode promises more than it delivers. Given who wrote it, it has to be seen as a disappointment, albeit a worthy one.

Bottom line, 6 out of 10. I wouldn’t say yet that we’re in another slump as we head into mid-season, but the standard is gradually and recognisably declining.

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