Monday, 20 May 2013

Doctor Who: The Name of the Doctor (Episode Review)

Along with delaying this review by a day to explore Steven Moffat’s writing habits, I also needed to collect my thoughts on this episode. Truth be told my negative reaction was wrong, the episode isn’t so much bad as it is a series of extremes.  There are many elements which do work well here, but also a great many which do not or are ultimately present only for fan service. Ultimately ineffective fan service which adds nothing to the story or are simply there because they focus upon elements Steven Moffat loves.

It’s hard to deny that The Name of the Doctor has been hap-hazardly constructed, but it’s not as outright bad as I first thought. Simply severely hamstrung by a few writing choices with most of the bad only arising at the very end.

The Doctor must travel to the one place in the universe he would never wish to see. With his companions in danger and a personal secret seemingly at risk, he must travel at long last Trenzalore. Not to his death, but to a time after, to see his tomb and uncover the secrets within. An old enemy lies in wait for him on Trenzalore’s dead earth, amidst the graveyards and standing, watching for his return…

Before you continue, just another reminder that there are spoilers ahead.

The episode’s biggest sins come in two forms:

The first is that while the episode has a great set-up, much of its delivery either comes across as pointless or outright insulting to the legacy of the series. The conclusion to the episode, the remaining ten or so minutes are the ultimate example of this and the answer to what we see in the title sequence is the biggest offender.

And just what do we see in this title sequence? Clara Oswald having become involved with every single last incarnation of the Doctor’s past regenerations. Right from influencing his original actions on Gallifrey, a particularly infuriating bit as nothing seems as it should, to trying to rescue his Seventh incarnation as he hangs from a cliff. All the while Clara herself narrates about this as she seemingly falls through the time vortex.

The obvious problems here start with the fact that the episode is now trying to make Clara an integral part of the entire franchise timeline, and the colourisations and edits to older footage look amateurish. I can only imagine that Babelcolour was shaking his head in dismay as this played out. Guess what else; both of these are only made worse as the episode goes on.

The second is that many aspects are ultimately unnecessary and could be written out with few changes. You could in-fact almost halve the total number of characters within the script and it would barely change. It makes the episode cluttered and ultimately some only feel like they are, at best, there to try and link it back to last series when the writers were crafting very continuity heavy arcs. However, without the reminders throughout this series or any episodes working towards creating a build-up, this seemingly comes out of nowhere. As if Moffat has simply ignored nearly all of this past series and is trying to instead work directly off of when he was last writing.

The presence of River Song is the most blatant example to this as she adds next to nothing to the story. The few points where she actually does things tend to detract from many scenes as Moffat is clearly writing her in full “I’m better than all of you!” Mary Sue mode, frequently having the episode be sidetracked to show her being smarter and more capable than everyone else. Often, unfortunately, without reason or even it making much logical sense.

She can bend a dream realm used for a meeting of minds to her will – Reasoning? She just can.
She is somehow able to follow the Doctor and project herself into their lives without difficulty, despite supposedly being programmed into, and limited to, the Great Library. How? She just can.

It even reaches moments when it robs other characters of opportunities to show their intelligence and guile, as frequently happens with Clara. Worse still, River’s presence and what occurs suggests that the death we saw was but a wrist-slap for her and she can keep turning up whenever she wants. This ultimately makes her final death and overall journey feel diminished and undermines the dramatic weight of her inevitable end. River’s removal from the story would ultimately only improve it and she’s almost as unnecessary here as she was in The Angels Take Manhattan, often just getting in the way of things.

A marginally better story element than her is the villain of this tale, the Great Intelligence. Richard E. Grant returns once again to play the villain, or at least the one taking his face, and thankfully the writing actually knows how to make use of him this time. Rather than simply being evil because it can and thoroughly wasting the actor portraying it, it seems far more affably evil. Going into long exchanges with characters and while it might seem generic at times, Grant’s performance does help elevate the Great Intelligence above “standard hateful villain” levels of characterisation.

Even the explanations for what exactly it is have improved considerably, turning what at first appeared to simply be psychic snow into living conscious data. While still a step down from Yog Sothoth, yes that’s what the Great Intelligence was confirmed to be in some stories, it’s still an interesting concept. The henchmen have similarly been improved, turning into faceless nightmarish creatures called the Whisper Men who are a vast improvement over the ineffective Snowmen we last saw.

The real flaws in this character start to appear when you actually think about A. its plan and B. its involvement with the story and development.

Let’s go through this step by step – The Great Intelligence gives a specific set of time co-ordinates to a raving lunatic locked up in a prison. It does this in the hopes that Vastra will accept them in return for letting the man live and his dubious claims surrounding the Doctor’s secrets. It then plans upon them having a time displaced meeting with Clara, kidnapping them when this is taking place (relying upon them having left the door unlocked during this time) and then using this as leverage to bring the Doctor to Trenzalore. While we’ve seen more unnecessarily complicated plans over the years, it is fairly complex for no reason. It also relies upon a lot of contrivances and uncharacteristic lapses in competence. The former of the two is the bigger issue as Clara somehow ends up with a letter from Vastra, transported through time to her location and filled with sophoric drugs. How does she get it to her throughout time and space? How does she know where Clara is? Why doesn’t she just travel in person to speak to her if she has this ability? All are left completely unexplained.

Getting back to the Great Intelligence, its actual motivations don’t quite add up. While it understandably hates the Doctor for thwarting a few of its plans, it’s built up to the point where it is dead set upon only killing the Doctor. Completely unconcerned with everything else it is determined to bring him down no matter the cost to itself. Even taking into account the classic series episodes, the relationship between the characters really hasn’t been built up to the point where it is believable that this could be the case. With the Master it’s easy to imagine this happening, with Davros perhaps or even figures who have had a far more personal connection, a true hatred for him, but the Great Intelligence?

Thus far they have encountered one another in the TV series a total of five times, including this episode. Twice the Doctor has prevented it taking over Earth, once when it was seemingly created for the first time, once when it was feeding off of the minds of others, and now. Every time they’ve met it’s been impersonal in many respects and the two barely spoke. Unlike the previous examples, rather than ever attacking the Great Intelligence on a personal level or even humiliating it, the Doctor has only stopped its plans. There’s little here to really indicate that the Great Intelligence would be so driven as to sacrifice itself, even everything it might have previously tried to conquer, in order to permanently defeat the Doctor.

We’ll talk a bit more about him in a second but we need to talk a bit about the remaining characters and the setting. Vastra, Jenny and Strax all make a return they’ve easily been the best new addition this series so their presence is welcome, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that they were largely unneeded. Yes, the Intelligence needed someone kidnapped and taken so the Doctor would need to head to Trenzalore, but beyond the needlessly complicated plan there seems to be little logical reason for them to be involved. It’s like Moffat just looked at who was popular with the fans and threw them in to try and boost rating at the last minute. Writing very good dialogue and individual moments for them, even if Strax did undercut a few scenes due to out of place humorous lines, but not giving a definitive justification for their involvement.

Despite all this the Doctor is the real focus character here, I’d talk about Clara’s involvement but I need to save that for the end, and how he was writing would ultimately make or break the episode. Thankfully both Moffat and Smith were on top form with him, as the Doctor’s action and the performance of the character were as great as ever. When Trenzalore is mentioned and the Doctor realises what he must do, the performance Smith gives is definitely one of the series’ highpoints. It’s a true testament to his abilities that he was able to shift gears from a comedic sequence to one of the series’ most serious moments within a matter of seconds, yet make it feel completely natural. Even in the episode’s worst moments his performance remains a high point and genuinely convincing.

A similarly great element was the setting of Trenzalore itself, which was the most terrifying a setting the show could likely manage. A world shattered open, the skies blackened by devastation, graves littering the entire planet, it was a well worked environment which looked like a genuine aspect of hell. The only time when things truly slipped up was when the world was shown from orbit. Both it and the TARDIS falling towards the surface looked remarkably low grade and borderline cartoonish despite the severity of their situation. Still, any memories of this were erased by the sight of the Doctor’s tomb itself which was very fitting of the show, and while initially it looked heavy handed or over the top its presence was well justified. The sight of when it is introduced ultimately served to establish the tone for the episode and enforce the idea of how damned they truly were.

Director Saul Metzstein returns again and it's obvious why as he sets up shots to establish the state of the planet extremely well. Featuring it in a number of very distinct, very memorable establishing shots which really define the episode. Besides inserting characters into old footage there's very little to complain about the visual composition of the episode.

When the story finally confronts the resting place of the Doctor, it’s a sobering moment and quite a clever idea. Time Lords do not leave bodies behind when they die, instead they turn to energy and fade away. In place of a corpse was a wound in time, held there by the TARDIS’ remains and consisting of the “scar tissue” of his travels, mapping out everything from beginning to end.

Unfortunately this is when things officially go down the drain.

Here’s how the story ends:

The Great Intelligence enters this to kill off every incarnation of the Doctor, in every moment in time, all at once, in order to deny him any victory or future. This is at the cost of its own existence and the Great Intelligence burns itself out. The stars begin blinking out to represent the galaxy being destroyed with the Doctor’s loss. Clara then enters the “wound” to save the Doctor at every single turn in existence, all throughout history, and ensure his victories come to pass. She becomes trapped somewhere within it and the Doctor himself is forced to enter his own time-stream to save her. It then ends on a revelation of who the Doctor’s final incarnation is and a cliffhanger.

Let’s go through this one by one. The good: Despite its motivations being rather dubious this plan by the Great Intelligence was actually clever and it was something original. It also served as a good explanation as to why Clara was present all throughout history as it was explained beforehand she would be “fragmented” and with aspects of her scattered all throughout history. Fine, that’s all good.

Now here's everything wrong: Right before she enters the “wound” Clara suddenly switches to being Oswin and repeating terms like “run you clever boy and never look back” despite it sounding nothing like anything she’d say. Why does she say this? Because her incarnation did in Asylum of the Daleks. It feels at odds with her character and doesn’t match with anything else she’d say.

She then enters the “wound” and becomes scattered, appearing in the previous stories she was in. How does this go any way towards explaining her older abilities like completely re-writing all of the daleks’ memories and erasing what they know of the Doctor? No answer is given.

She’s also shown, as in the opening, on Gallifrey and shows up talking to William Hartnell before he steals the TARDIS for the first time. Not only convincing him to steal the TARDIS we have come to know and love, meaning everything in The Doctor’s Wife was apparently a lie, but also she somehow broke the time lock established after the Time War. How? Not a clue.

She then goes on to be seen in brief glimpses continuously saving the Doctor over and over again. This turns every classic story we’ve known from the Doctor’s victories into Clara’s victories via retcon.  Also invoking the “superpowered companion(!!!)” trait we’d otherwise been seemingly moving away from and making her, rather than just an interesting character, someone vital all throughout time and space and all important.

So yes, every moment where any Doctor seemed to achieve some awesome moment, some memorable scene of glory? Some time which always stuck in your mind as establishing how great a character he was? All due to Clara continually keeping him alive, meaning anything he did is ultimately due to her involvement and as a result seems to turn her into the single most vital character in the entire series' run. This is not how you make a character special or important.

The Doctor enters his own time-stream to save her. While this is established as dangerous it’s nowhere near as crippling as previously established and it barely seems to faze him. So why isn’t it effecting him worse or causing him damage by invoking massive paradoxes and problems? Your guess is as good as mine.

The episode ends on not only a cliffhanger to lead into the fiftieth anniversary but a huge cop-out. After all the tension surrounding the Doctor’s name, the questions of what it is, the continual “Doctor Who?” questions rammed into every episode, it’s said off-screen by someone else. It then tries to justify this by having the current Doctor claiming that his future incarnation’s actions were not “in the name of the Doctor” as he had forsaken the moniker. So yes, all that time spent on everything up until now resulted in the question being dodged. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m glad it wasn’t answered, but after all that time spent on it, never changing or deviating from what was set up, Moffat suddenly backed out at the last second. It undermines an a story-arc of an already dubious quality and cheats the audience. This makes the actually cliffhanger all the worse as a result.

Previous celebrations of the show’s history were always successful because they were isolated. The Three Doctors, The Five Doctors, many of the more successful stories always worked because they were self-contained. You didn’t have to worry about outside continuity beyond what was normal for that era and it could be watched from beginning to end without you having to do homework first. This abandons that, meaning what we’ve got is an anniversary which is extremely heavily linked into the life of one Doctor, meaning it can’t celebrate the others and will just be an addition to one specific storyline. It won’t be able to be celebrated as a single event, instead it will be an extension of a bigger tale.

These final few minutes really were what crippled The Name of the Doctor. For all its ups and downs beforehand, throughout the rest of its running time you could at least endure the bad to be rewarded by the good, but this? It ruins something which should have been great, turning what should have been something fantastic into an example of how far things seem to have fallen. You can argue it was a step up from Steven Moffat’s last script but with so much riding upon this one episode, and now the next one as well, it’s a disappointment of the worst kind.


  1. Unfortunately I disliked the episode. It built up Clara's importance at the expense of the Doctor, the original companions, the original series, and even her own character development in recent episodes. To me, she's beginning to come off as a Mary Sue.

  2. Personally, I liked this episode. Yes, it was pretty obvious that Jenny didn't really die and the Doctor's name wouldn't be revealed, yes, River was a little forced in. And yes, it was a little strange how easily the Doctor went into the time scar thing. But you know what? I let it go, because the good far out weighed the bad. Vastra, Jenny, and Strax were fun, and we got to see more of Vastra and Jenny's relationship here. River, while, forced in, is always fun to watch, and who's too say she wouldn't leave a bit of her mind linked to Clara? Speaking of Clara, I didn't really mind her popping back. Like she said, most of the time the Doctor never noticed her. It's more like she sees the G. I. about to, I dunno, shoot the Doctor, and she knocks him off the cliff or something. I do agree it was a little odd her telling #1 to steal the Tardis, but one odd girl was most likely not his only reason for stealing his TARDIS. As far as I remember, the time lock only keeps out time travelers and keeps everyone inside, well, in. This doesn't mean time can't drop a british lady onto Gallifrey in the past.

    Now onto the the ending. I was a little shaky when I heard there was a 'forgotten doctor' coming up, but I'm willing to give him a shot. That said, I agree that the anniversary probably should have been a little more separate, but Doctor Who isn't like it was pre-relaunch. The old show could get away with the lack of story arcs being separate most of the time, New Who is almost always carrying a link story to story, even to and from it's spinoffs (i.e. Tosh in Series 1, the Tricksters brigade in Series 4, Martha in Torchwood 2, and Doctor #'s 10 and 11 in Sarah Jane's show and story-wise we have Rose popping up throughout Donna's episodes, Torchwood appearing throughout Series 2, Harry Saxon in Series #3 and #10 slowly warming up to people again in the specials between Series 4 and 5), so stretching the Season finale into the Fiftieth Anniversary special was always a little inevitable, at least in my opinion.

    Also, a couple of nit picks; "How does she get it to her throughout time and space? How does she know where Clara is? Why doesn’t she just travel in person to speak to her if she has this ability? All are left completely unexplained." Actually, Vastra mentioned in her letter that the Doctor gave her Clara's Address, and Blink showed us that London's mail men are great at delivering ancient letters. “run you clever boy and never look back” Actually, she said 'run you clever boy, and remember', which is a pneumonic she created during the first time she met the Doctor.