Sunday, May 15, 2011

"Doctor Who" and Neil Gaiman: A Match Made in the Universe's Junkyard

Matt Smith and Suranne Jones in "The Doctors Wife." Photo courtesy of

I know that this week is Pencils Down, Pass the Remote's Finale-Stravaganza, and that "The Doctor's Wife," the fourth episode in the sixth season of Doctor Who, is not a finale. However, I loved this episode so much that I couldn't wait to write about it, and I suspect (given the amount of traffic my previous Doctor Who post has been getting) that some of my readers feel the same. So today I will be taking a short break from my finale reviews and writing a little about why "The Doctor's Wife" was such a stand-out episode. The break won't be too long, I promise; if you come back later today, you might just find a review of the Fringe finale. Clearly, I'm in a sci-fi sort of a mood today.

I had extremely high hopes for this episode of Doctor Who, as it was written by one of my favorite authors, the incomparable Neil Gaiman. The great thing about this episode was the way that Gaiman made his influence felt throughout the hour while not distracting from the snappy pace. Gaiman's influence was evident in the episode's setting, a conscious planet named "House" (voiced by an exceptionally creepy Michael Sheen) that exists outside the universe, sort of like a small bubble clinging to the outside of a larger bubble, only not really. The Victorian junkyard look of House and it's patchwork inhabitants - a woman named Auntie, a man named Uncle, and an Ood known as Nephew - was straight out of Gaiman's novel Neverwhere, and boy was it a creepy place. And the ouroboros, or snake eating its own tail, is a fertile trope that has appeared in science fiction stories from Lost to Red Dwarf.

The best element of the hour, however, was Suranne Jone's portrayal of the personified Tardis, trapped in the body of a woman named Idris by House. Gaiman's dialogue for the Tardis was spot-on, her confusion of tenses showing both his quick-witted sensibilities and drawing a connection to Douglas Adam's novel The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. (Adams, by the way, is another former Doctor Who writer). The conceit of having the Doctor finally be able to talk to the Tardis, to explore their long and complicated relationship, was great fun in addition to being extremely illuminating. After all, the Doctor's relationship with the Tardis is by far the longest, deepest one in his life, and it was lovely to see him able to interact with her for the first time.

The dichotomy between the Tardis, the good, wise living matrix, and House, the twisted, evil sentient planet, is a fairly simple one, but it's powerful nonetheless. The scenes in which House tortures Amy and Rory as they run through seemingly endless corridors are, for my money, some of the creepiest in the rebooted series' run. The moment in which Amy stumbled upon a corridor, covered in graffiti that repeats "hate Amy," "kill Amy," and "die Amy," before finding the dessicated skeleton of Rory, ranks right up there with the Weeping Angels in terms of sheer terror. I've mentioned before that I often find the Rory-is-going-to-die moments a fairly cheap grab for emotional resonance on the part of the show's writers, but this scene was so terrifying, and so completely organic to the episode and the character of House, that I believed it completely. Karen Gillan's performance in these moments was perfect, and her grief over Rory's seeming death and hatred of her sold the moment. She also provided a nice counterpoint when, while giving the telepathic password to the Tardis' control room, she summoned "delight" by thinking about her wedding.

The character of House made for an excellent villain, one who I wouldn't mind seeing again at some point (although how he would be brought back I have no idea). The way that he cannibalizes both Time Lords and Tardises - brought home in the moments when the Doctor sees that another Time Lord's arm has been grafted to Auntie, and the human Tardis' grief at seeing the broken corpses of her sisters - is a perfect device for highlighting the Doctor's ultimate loneliness and bringing him closer to the Tardis. One of the great truths about the Doctor is his ultimate loneliness, brought to the forefront here when he discovers that the lost Time Lords he's been hoping to find are nothing more than old messages, constantly playing on repeat.

House, however, was more than just a plot device. His level of sadistic cruelty toward Amy and Rory was disturbing, and the way he made them watch each other die was a nice reminder of the fact that these two companions are constantly haunted by the specter of the Doctor's death. House's pure hatred of these life forms was reminiscent of Harlan Ellison short story, "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream" (thanks to Ben Yelsey for the reference!). This story tells the tale of the last five humans left on earth, who are forced by a cruel supercomputer to live underground, who are kept from death by the computer purely so he can torture them. The character of House is so frightening because of the way he enjoys Amy and Rory's suffering. In that way, he shares similarities with John Simm's incarnation of the Master, who laughs and dances to the screams of the dying population of Earth.

The main thrust of the episode, however, was the Doctor's relationship with the Tardis that he so often takes for granted. I liked the way that the episode's title perfectly fit the hour's happenings, even though some might have been given the wrong impression. (I for one assumed that the episode would be about the Doctor's relationship with River Song.) It was the perfect title because, no matter River's or Amy's or even Rose Tyler's relationship with the Doctor, it can never approach the depth of his relationship with his Tardis. He is, after all, a madman with a blue box. The Tardis is part of his identity, and he finally got to talk to her, to tell her how much he loves her and how important she is. His heartbreak at her death was so genuine, and so well played by Matt Smith, that I could understand his grief despite the knowledge that she had returned to her own body. The final moment, when he spoke to her and she responded by moving the levers and sending him to wherever he needed to be, was one of the best of the season so far.

A few stray notes:
  • I made this episode sound really dark. It wasn't, and some of the funniest scenes came from the Doctor bickering with the Tardis like they were an old married couple.
  • Also loved the way that the Tardis offers her side of the story: she stole the Doctor, and she decides where he needs to go.
  • Amy and Rory requesting that their new bedroom not have bunk beds, and the Doctor replying that "bunk beds are cool!"
  • The return of the old control room! It was nice to see it again.
  • In the old series, the other rooms of the Tardis were explored. Are we ever going to see anything but the control room? I personally want to get a look at the oft-mentioned swimming pool.

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