Home > Reviews > Belated review: DOCTOR WHO: “The Doctor’s Wife” (SPOILERS)

Belated review: DOCTOR WHO: “The Doctor’s Wife” (SPOILERS)

Spoilers ahead for Doctor Who: “The Doctor’s Wife,” written by Neil Gaiman:

Oh my gosh, this was several dozen kinds of awesome. Cancel the Best Dramatic Presentations Hugo nominations for 2011, we have a pre-emptive winner.

True, a lot of the appeal to this was the loads of continuity porn. No episode of the modern series has been so steeped in Doctor Who history and mythology, such a loving tribute to the series’ past (though some Sarah Jane Adventures episodes have come close). The telepathic distress cubes were a callback all the way to 1969’s “The War Games.” The pocket universe was like E-Space from the Fourth Doctor’s final season. The concept of “deleting” TARDIS rooms and converting their mass into thrust comes from “Castrovalva,” the Fifth Doctor’s debut. The makeshift console room the Doctor builds recalls the look of the consoles from the classic series (though I’ve since learned that it was actually based on the winning entry in a contest held by Blue Peter, the long-running BBC children’s show that often cross-promotes Doctor Who). The Eye of Orion is a vacation spot from “The Five Doctors” anniversary special. There are references to the Russell T. Davies years like the Time War, the Ood, Rift energy (could this be the other end of the Cardiff Rift from Torchwood?  Idris is a Welsh name…), and the RTD-era console room. Even the junkyard setting, as Gaiman explained in interviews, was a callback to the very first Doctor Who episode, where we first encountered the TARDIS in a scrapyard. And so much of the interaction between the Doctor and “TARDIS Idris” (as the closed captioning spoilerifically called her) was an examination of their long history together, complete with incredibly fanwanky references like the “Pull to Open” sign on the door. (Although that’s a bit of an error, because that sign is actually referring to the police telephone that’s in the compartment behind the sign. So the “Pull to Open” instruction refers to the smaller door that the sign is printed on, not to the main doors of the police box. I think it is true, however, that real police box doors open outward.)

And yet Neil Gaiman shows that building a story on the past isn’t necessarily a bad thing. After all, a lot of great fiction builds on the past. Tons of literature invokes Shakespeare, Greek mythology, the Bible, great figures from history, etc. Much of Gaiman’s canon of work is rooted in mythology and folklore. Here he’s using the mythology and lore of Doctor Who in the same way, and really, what’s the difference? What matters is what an author does with that material. In lesser hands, it can be merely imitation, relying solely on the thrill of recognition as a substitute for using a reference meaningfully. (There was a ton of this in Smallville‘s series finale, for example.) But a skilled author can draw on that history and lore and find something new to say about it, some unrealized potential that’s been latent all along. And that’s what Gaiman did here. The relationship between the Doctor and the TARDIS has been a background thread in Doctor Who almost from the beginning, but it’s never been the heart of a story before. And actually giving the TARDIS a voice, letting us relate to her as a character and learn how she thinks of things, was a revelation.

I love the symmetry of it, the way Gaiman takes the familiar mythology and reflects it and shows it to us in a whole new way. The central myth of the Doctor is that he stole the TARDIS and ran away with it to have adventures. Hearing the TARDIS say that she chose him, that she stole him and considers him to be hers, is remarkable, and rather beautiful. And the most thrilling thing of all was hearing her confirm outright what I have suspected for decades: that the reason the TARDIS always lands the Doctor in the middle of trouble is because she was taking him where he needed to be. I’ve long thought that the TARDIS was guiding the Doctor, taking this Time Lord who started out arrogant and self-absorbed and placing him in situations that would stimulate his latent heroism. After all, the more the Doctor embraced an actively heroic role, the more the TARDIS went where he wanted it to. And what has me absolutely stoked is that Neil Gaiman thought the same way I did! Well, more or less, apparently.

Plus we got the nearly unprecedented situation of the TARDIS becoming a threat, being taken over by a malevolent force. The TARDIS has almost always been the safe haven against a universe of enemies, and here it became the enemy while its spirit was ejected into the outside world. How ironic that this story where the TARDIS is no longer itself is the first time in the new series that a story has really explored the TARDIS — its internal layout, its functions and operations, its capabilities. It’s astonishing that this new version of the show has been around for six years and we’ve never had a story about the TARDIS until now. The original series built up so much mythology about its inner workings and we often got to see its corridors, bedrooms, and the like. I’m glad that’s finally been reintroduced here, and I hope the fact that they invested in building the corridor sets for this episode means that we’ll see more of them, and hopefully other parts of the TARDIS interior, in the future.

Even some of the throwaway references are revelatory. With one passing statement about the Corsair, we have an answer to a question Whovians have been debating for decades: Can Time Lords change sex when they regenerate? True, the Doctor’s offhand statements can’t always be trusted (like in his Sarah Jane Adventures appearance when he claims Time Lords can regenerate 507 times but is pretty clearly just trying to shut Clyde up), but he seemed unlikely to be exaggerating here. I guess this opens the door for a potential female Doctor in the future.

The one thing that bugs me is how easily Amy and Rory were separated. They should’ve kept holding hands, especially after the first time they were cut off by the closing doors.  (And how come the TARDIS has sliding doors in the corridors now? Did the Doctor become a Trekkie since the original series?)

Interesting coincidence: House was voiced by Michael Sheen, who appeared in Frost/Nixon as David Frost — and this is just two weeks after the Doctor told President Nixon “Say hello to David Frost for me.”

By the way, I strongly recommend watching this episode more than once. There are a lot of lines that are more meaningful when you know what future event they’re referring to.

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  1. May 18, 2011 at 8:45 pm

    Careful, or we’ll see a future instalment where they’re trying to cast Gene Roddenberry as a character.

    What? After Shakespeare, Agatha Christie, and da Vinci, does anyone doubt they’ve at least considered the idea once or twice?

    • May 18, 2011 at 9:03 pm

      I think you mean Vincent Van Gogh. The Doctor visited Leonardo da Vinci’s workshop in “City of Death” in the 1980s, but Maestro Leonardo did not appear.

      I wonder who might be a good choice to play Roddenberry, hypothetically.

  2. May 20, 2011 at 5:07 am

    Your memory’s working better than mine re: da Vinci and Van Gogh!

    Casting Roddenberry…perhaps Donnelly Rhodes for his later years?

    • May 20, 2011 at 8:20 am

      I don’t see any resemblance between Rhodes and Roddenberry. Let’s see… GR was a big man, tenor-voiced, soft-spoken, yet imposing and charismatic. Maybe Beau Bridges might come fairly close.

  3. May 20, 2011 at 7:17 pm

    I don’t know why it is, but I seem to have Rhodes on the brain today. Maybe it’s the Da Vinci’s Inquest re-runs on TV up here…?

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