Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS

Story No. 257 The engine room
Production Code Series 7, Episode 10
Dates April 27, 2013

With Matt Smith, Jenna-Louise Coleman
Written by Steve Thompson Directed by Mat King
Executive Producers: Steven Moffat, Caroline Skinner.

Synopsis: The TARDIS has been severely damaged and zombies lurk inside it.


A Review by Hugh Sturgess 26/10/16

Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS is close to the spirit of Series 7, in that it is a dead-average story from a consistently weak writer. This is the Under the Lake/Before the Flood of Series 7: a complete and total waste of time with no reason to exist. At least that story was an historically weak work from the pen of Toby Whithouse, while this is pretty much exactly what you'd expect from the writer of The Curse of the Black Spot, Time Heist and the consensus crap episode of Sherlock. Not since the Doctor spent two episodes wandering around a deserted hospital has the innards of his fantastical time machine been so utterly mundane. Letting Steve Thompson handle this or that random episode is acceptable, if not desirable, but giving him one called Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS? Seriously? What was Steven Moffat expecting from him, a miracle?

What is the point of Steve Thompson? What does he write for? Of his three Doctor Who scripts, his first is actually despised and the other two almost actively avoid anything new or exciting. Time Heist took the heist genre and stripped it of its wit, its invention and its suspense. They are all thoroughly bland stories that are mostly successful executions of the Doctor Who formula. If Mark Gatiss scripts always bubble with an acute sense of joy at playing in the Doctor Who sandpit, Thompson scripts feel like a Methodist throwing a party. He is the Jeb Bush of Doctor Who. Then again, you could say all that about Chris Chibnall, and he's going to end up running the whole show. Thompson's greatest virtue as a writer seems to be that he doesn't mind being rewritten from top to bottom by better writers (who revealingly include Mark Gatiss in this context). I can appreciate the benefits of a reliably quick and competent writer who doesn't mind his work being entirely rewritten, but his work does not make for compelling television.

Normally, Thompson is so inoffensive in his blandness and the other episodes he has handled so minor that it really isn't worth getting upset over him. But this is a story called Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS. The TARDIS is possibly the greatest fictional contrivance ever invented. It's a magic cabinet that has a whole world inside it; Narnia as designed by Escher. It is a machine that is also a living thing. In an infinite interior, even the Doctor has only explored an infinitesimal amount of its secrets. It's a pocket universe, that can reshape itself at any moment, it's alive - and it's falling apart. Even the art department that designed the episode's "movie poster" instinctively grasped the possibilities, promising us an Escher-esque confusion of multiple Doctors and Claras. Thompson, on the other hand, appears to have decided that all that is too esoteric and focusses on what is really interesting about the TARDIS: name-checks.

Some fans are like entomologists collecting insects, patiently collecting and collating facts and figures and burying them under glass with encyclopaedic entry epitaphs. For a time in the 1980s, these sorts of people got in a position to impose their vision of the series, and the result was The Five Doctors, Warriors of the Deep and Attack of the Cybermen. It's a vision of the show as a series of references, a compendium of lists. Fans are inveterate list-makers. There is, believe it or not, an entire book called The Book of Lists that is just a book of lists of pretty much anything you can imagine, including all the items of headgear the Doctor has ever worn. This becomes a problem when your idea of capturing THE MAGIC OF DOCTOR WHO is reciting those lists.

Thompson has the entire infinite universe of the TARDIS to explore, and prefers to name-check the Eye of Harmony and the dynamorphic generators. Incredible. We see the TARDIS library (for five minutes) and the swimming pool. At last! The architectural reconfiguration system looks very pretty, and apparently can make you anything you want. Fortunately, Thompson wisely defuses any possible excitement by never showing us how it works.

The absence of any scale or wonder is the only breathtaking thing about this episode. This is Ian Levine's Doctor Who, an indulgent opportunity to recite old lore. Thompson is, based on these obscure references, a fan, but one like Levine, who misses all the magic and imagination and wastes the opportunity of a lifetime on referencing Time-Flight (one of the few stories, The Book of Lists informs me, to have punctuation in the title). Time-Flight is a terrible story that convinced Peter Davison that Doctor Who was crap, but it has more imagination in its first episode than this has all the way through.

It's not as though Thompson's instincts completely fail him. Despite everything, the Eye of Harmony still manages to hold a sense of majesty. Revealing that every TARDIS is built around a star frozen at the moment of becoming a black hole is a rare case of the episode making the TARDIS bigger, not smaller. That the TARDIS, a living thing, has at its heart a frozen act of death, a star dying and becoming the ultimate absence, a black hole, feels very right and fitting for the paradoxical, potentially dangerous entity that has been ferrying us from story to story for fifty years.

My view of the "time zombies" is more benign than most I've seen. Perhaps because I was expecting some dark secret at the heart of the TARDIS, I thoroughly missed all the clues as to the zombies' true identity, and showing us the Doctor and Clara as scorched, pain-maddened monsters forever roaming the interior of the TARDIS manages to have a gruesome nastiness. Their main problem is that seemingly every viewer had their own theory about the creatures that was more interesting than what we got. The episode teases us that the zombies have been in the TARDIS for ages. Clara, who usually has good intuition on this, assumes that they are long-term passengers and objects that "good guys do not have zombie creatures" which, given the Moffat era's repeated questioning of the Doctor's status as "a good man", seems to be setting Clara up for some unpleasant revelation about the Doctor. Somewhat earlier, the Doctor tells Gregor that the TARDIS will become angry if he attempts to remove parts of it - and the first person killed by one of the creatures was Bram, fresh from ripping apart the console. Imagine taking that as a given - why would such creatures be on board? Are they antibodies produced by the TARDIS? Timey-wimey parallel universe things? In an episode jam-packed with weird and wonderful ideas about the TARDIS, the revelation we get would be fine, but, since it is the only interesting thing we learn about the TARDIS, it can't help but be underwhelming.

Thompson has some really strange ideas about what viewers want to see in an episode set entirely in the mysterious, unexplored depths of the TARDIS. The Van Baalen brothers are unforgivable, not because they are particularly bad in themselves (though they are pretty risible) but because they are taking up oxygen in an episode called, I seem to be keep repeating, Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS. Their dad wanted Tricky to take over so Gregor was jealous. Who bloody cares? Tricky was actually not an android. So? It means nothing to us. There is never a reason to invest in these guys. They're unpleasant, selfish morons who do nothing but behave idiotically. It's infuriating watching idiot characters like Gregor and Bram thinking that being trapped in an infinite spaceship poised to explode is a good time to start stealing stuff. The theft of the architectural reconfiguration orb is so stupid, so likely to end badly, that it doesn't make sense as an action a normal human being would perform. Like so much bad writing, the writer thinks he gets away with it because other characters in fiction do that kind of stuff. Furthermore, the oft-mentioned summary of this story - three black guys hijack the TARDIS because the Doctor let a girl drive - is painfully accurate.

The revelation that Tricky was apparently too stupid to realise after years of eating, sleeping and going to the toilet that he was actually not a robot has received justified ridicule, but it's about all you can do with these characters. These are fundamentally not characters we care about or relate to, so expecting us to be on the edge of our seats about their relationship with their father is unreasonable. Revealing that the android is actually not an android, a neat reversal of the traditional sci-fi revelation, is pretty much the only thing that the audience will relate to. The bigger problem with the discovery is that it doesn't change anything. Normally, revealing a character to be an android changes the plot. Here, would there really be that much of a difference had Tricky actually been robotic? Like the "shredders" that were really teleports in Thompson's Time Heist, it's a "twist" for its own sake, not for the sake of the story.

Moffat is on the record saying that Thompson is one of the smartest people he knows (with a "HUGE MATHEMATICAL BRAIN", apparently). Thompson himself was nearer the mark with the too-real quip that he was really a maths teacher, not a writer, and one day people would work that out. None of these characters feel like real people, and nothing they do feels like something that would happen. The TARDIS being crippled by a tractor beam does not feel convincing, and the setup - the Doctor somehow outside the TARDIS while Clara has ended up deep in a corridor somewhere - is really messy. Clara is the epitome of her unimpressive Series 7 characterisation, reduced literally to "Lancashire, sass" and "feisty", almost the most condescending term for a young lady imaginable. Her behaviour frequently makes no sense, stopping to browse the TARDIS library and giggle at the swimming pool while being chased by a monster. It is beyond frustrating that, having clawed her way up towards the more empowered position she held in Series 8 and 9, she is forced back into her previous ignorance by the reset button.

Despite complaints that neo-Who undoes terrible catastrophes too readily (most particularly in Last of the Time Lords), this is actually the first appearance of the dreaded full reset that so plagued Star Trek Voyager. The reset button can be compared to "it was all a dream" cop-outs, but it's actually worse because even a dream allows the characters to change and grow. The reset button just puts everything back the way it started. Clara learns the Doctor's name and he confronts her about her echoes, but hit the big friendly button and the mystery gets prolonged for another week. The plot device is closer to the "imaginary stories" DC Comics used to tell, wherein bizarre or catastrophic changes to regular characters could happen outside continuity. But what is the insurmountable problem here that requires deleting the entire episode? That the TARDIS's engines have already exploded? If the script can't find itself out of that one, it is in serious trouble. With the power of time travel, Doctor Who always has the nuclear option of simply making sure it never happened up its sleeve. Taking it out at all, even in such a minor, inconsequential episode, is dangerous.

Even then, the episode tries to have its cake and eat it. Everything's reset, but Gregor has learned to be nice to Tricky. Great. I was holding out for that.

There are good bits to Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS, but commending basic workmanship feels like grasping at straws. Needless to say this is an historic missed opportunity. Steve Thompson may be good at maths, but he is not good at writing Doctor Who. Truly the biggest disappointment of Series 7, Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS is a good example of what happens when the show takes its eye off the ball in every sphere of production. Whatever we expected to find at the centre of the TARDIS, I'm sure no one thought it would be this boring.

The assembled hordes of Genghis Khan couldn't get through that door by Evan Weston 3/10/20

More than any other Series 7 episode, I was anxiously anticipating the debut of Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS. After all, with a title as tantalizing and exciting as that, how could it not be incredible? My only trepidation came from the story's writer, Stephen Thompson (now going by Steve, apparently), the man responsible for Series 6's ugliest duckling, The Curse of the Black Spot. Thompson does struggle at many points in Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS, and the production team is surprisingly incapable for long stretches, but overall the episode still manages to be a fun mind-bender with some genuinely moving moments.

Those primarily come from Matt Smith, who keeps getting better and better throughout Series 7. At this point, we haven't seen the Doctor played with this much command and maturity since Christopher Eccleston's brilliant Ninth in Series 1. Smith controls the screen every time he appears, snarling in his baritone and drawing emotion from thin air. His "self-destruct" threat at the beginning in genuinely unsettling, but his best moment comes in the climactic confrontation with Clara in the TARDIS engine room, where he finally unleashes what's been building up for weeks. It's an extraordinarily powerful moment, helped immensely by Smith's bravura performance. There's a lot of talk about how Peter Capaldi brought true gravitas to the Doctor, but for my money, Smith has it in spades.

Jenna Coleman nearly matches him in that climactic scene, though her character continues to do things that make absolutely no sense. At times, Coleman brings the appropriate fear and confusion to the role, particularly near the end when she realizes she's about to forget what the Doctor has told her. But we also see her stopping to read a book when she's being chased by a burning zombie, and it's hard to take her seriously when she's being written that poorly. It seems obvious at this point that Moffat and occasionally Neil Cross know how to write Clara, but no one else can figure it out. Thompson fails more than he succeeds, with the best parts being arc plot inserted by Moffat in script editing.

The main supporting characters are the Van Baalen brothers, played by the trio of Ashley Walters, Mark Oliver and Jahvel Hall. The actors are trying, but the brothers are too one-dimensional to be all that interesting. Walters' Gregor is easily the best of the bunch, as the actor brings a nuanced performance to what could have been just a one-note villain. Gregor does some pretty nasty and stupid things throughout the story, but Walters gives him justification for all of them. Oliver's Bram, on the other hand, is just annoying enough for me to briefly fist pump at his mid-episode death, and Hall is touching but not enough to save Tricky, who is basically one of those puppies in the Sarah McLachlan commercials. With everything else going on, it becomes difficult to care about Gregor and Tricky's problems, and their death in the Eye of Harmony room actually allows for the episode's best moment (the Doctor-Clara confrontation).

The Van Baalens are failed by a script that's too busy running around to develop them. There is a ton of running in Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS, so much so that I felt a bit winded afterwards. It actually felt like a far-more competent version of The Doctor's Daughter. You know, without the stupid daughter character and Catherine Tate. While he's busy logging cardio points, Thompson simultaneously writes himself into a corner, requiring a reset button in order to resolve the plot. Thankfully he pokes fun at this "big friendly button" concept by actually giving the Doctor a button to press, but that doesn't excuse the laziness with which Thompson ends the story. The resolution, for the third consecutive week, is also very poor. The Van Baalens remember everything that happened, or at least enough to fundamentally alter their personalities, but Clara and the Doctor don't know a single thing? I don't think so, guys.

Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS does have elements that transcend its weaker plot points, especially concerning its genre of the week, psychological mind-benders. The episode pokes fun at movies that attempt to mess with your head, particularly Chris Nolan films (the giant cliff followed by the abstract heart of the TARDIS was clearly an homage to Inception), and a lot of this is great fun. The leaks in time were an excellent touch, the otherwise forgettable and derivative Time Zombies were given a touching explanation, and the never-ending labyrinth of the TARDIS kept things interesting throughout. The episode also features a legitimately freaky set piece, when warped coils begin to shoot out of the walls at the Doctor and Clara.

However, in an exceedingly rare moment for Series 7, the production lets down Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS. This appears to be one of the cheaper episodes of the season, but why didn't this story receive a larger budget considering the possibilities of the TARDIS? The famous swimming pool gets a two-second cameo on a green screen, nothing else we've heard about is even shown, and the only real room we get to see is the library, which looks straight out of Harry Potter. Mostly, we're shown trademarked BBC corridors, and they are a plain, boring disappointment. In addition, the effects work is a bit weak at several points, particularly when green screen is used. It's also one of the worst-directed episodes of Series 7, as Mat King is a bit too quick on the trigger during some of his action scenes, and there are a couple cringe-worthy jump cuts at key moments.

So, oddly, in an episode you'd expect to soar thanks to its production and premise, Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS is a watchable bit of midseason fun thanks to its acting and genre-aping. Smith is legitimately excellent, in what's becoming a trend just as he prepares to leave the series, and Coleman and Walters both do quite nicely in their supporting roles. While this is a solid story, I much prefer The Doctor's Wife as the definitive TARDIS tale. It's a shame, though - with a more capable writer and a bigger budget, Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS could have gone from merely good to great.