The Name of the Doctor
|Production Code||Series 7, Episode 13|
|Dates||May 18, 2013|
With Matt Smith,
Written by Steven Moffat Directed by Saul Metzstein
Executive Producers: Steven Moffat, Caroline Skinner.
|Synopsis: The Doctor will take his name to his grave... but it is revealed.|
Spoilers: We Mean It This Time by Hugh Sturgess 20/10/13
This is a profoundly difficult episode to assess. All reviewing is ultimately subjective, but here it is exceptionally so. The Name of the Doctor has, for the first time since the series returned to our screens in 2005, levered open the rift between fandom and the general public. By "fandom", I don't just mean Old Skool fans from way back when, but also the wider core of regular viewers who are aware of the "mythos" and are emotionally and intellectually invested in it. Broadly, this means "devoted" viewers of all ages and most kids. As fans, we know how it plays to fandom, but unless we know plenty of casual viewers who watched it too, we have no idea how it went over with everyone else, beyond an anecdote or two. I can't help but think that someone who missed last week but liked that one with the green alien on the submarine would have found it a bit bewildering.
A friend of mine, whose a new/casual fan of the series, watched it and enjoyed it. He's really only seen the New Series, though I've shown him The Deadly Assassin and City of Death (he's been known to sing "Running through Paris..." at times), and yet he appreciated The Name of the Doctor perfectly, enjoyed its links to the rest of the series and thought the cliffhanger was fantastic. But again, despite not realising that Davros had appeared before Journey's End until I told him, he's a "fan", not a "viewer". Plus, he's experienced other cult shows like Game of Thrones, The X-Files and The Wire, and has a cult sensibility to viewing Doctor Who. He expects arcs and multi-story threads, and watches the series digitally - not merely "on the internet", but non-linearly, with liberal recourse to Wikipedia to fill him in on bits that he doesn't get. So even someone who is essentially a casual fan is still too much of a fan to really give us an insight into what "ordinary" people thought of this tangled little episode.
I usually reject the idea that "continuity references" confuse casual viewers. The notion that Paleo-Who killed itself off by injecting references to The Tenth Planet into Attack of the Cybermen or putting Sontarans in The Two Doctors is ludicrous. The "kisses to the past" of the JNT era are obvious and generic, and are explained to the audience. The comparison with Timelash, which references a story no one has seen (because it doesn't exist) and yet somehow isn't incomprehensible, is illustrative. That said, I think The Name of the Doctor is in a different category. This goes beyond reintroducing the Ice Warriors or having a picture of William Hartnell. This episode demands - nay, relies - on the audience having an appreciation of the series as a mythos, an appreciate that sees Clara's great triumph as shaping the course of history, rather than being inserted into stock footage. E. John Winner has described it as "assaultive" on nostalgia for the Doctor. Nothing could be further from reality. The Name of the Doctor only works for an audience that considers the series a kind of modern legend and the Doctor as a modern myth: we are meant to feel a chill up our spine at the episode's many revelations and its use of old footage. At the climax, the series' heroes literally go inside the history of the series. (Or, to put it less charitably, the series goes up its own arse.) The episode is almost meta in its recognition of the series itself as a cultural artefact, the first genuinely "nerdy" episode since the series' revival in 2005.
I can only think of Remembrance of the Daleks as another story that is so obvious about recognising the mythology of the series. This is more than "continuity references"; rather it is explicitly connecting itself to the history of the series by (subtly) rewriting that history. Other old-series examples might be Genesis of the Daleks or even Mawdryn Undead, with its partial deconstruction of the Brigadier. This might be seen as "attacking nostalgia", but really it's the deepest kind of nostalgia. Call it "homage through alteration", a tacit (and deliberate) acknowledgement of the cultural and personal weight of the original text by daring to rewrite it. "Rewriting the Bible" only makes sense if one admits that the Bible is of immense importance. Frankly, I think only a capital-F fan can fully appreciate this episode. Which is what concerns me. Moffat takes us to Trenzalore for the same reason that Lawrence Miles took us to Borneo in Alien Bodies: the belief that all legends need an ending, which is itself an event laced with nostalgia.
(Incidentally, after The Name of the Doctor, how much more can Moffat bait Miles until the latter hits the BBC with a plagiarism lawsuit? It's getting ridiculous.)
Moffat-era Who has always been more focussed on sci-fi concepts than RTD's before it, and this is that tendency taken to its extreme. Those viewers, like the doltish Kevin O'Sullivan of the Sunday Mirror, who were confused as to how the Doctor could die at the beginning of The Impossible Astronaut and then come back to life, might ask: is River Song a ghost or what? Does she die at the end? What is the swirly light stuff in the wrecked TARDIS console room and why does it lead to a series of old TV clips? What does Clara do to save the day? And who is John Hurt meant to be?
This last is an important point, since it's been mentioned elsewhere. Like Rob Matthews, I've encountered people who received the impression that John Hurt is Matt Smith's replacement. My aforementioned friend did not have this trouble, but two others (including my dad) saw what I considered to be an unambiguous piece of television and saw something completely different. New York Magazine's Comic-Con correspondent believes that Hurt was an "alternative, older version" of the Doctor. Now, it is a wonder to me how they could have got that impression. What do they think Hurt's dialogue with Smith means, if Hurt is the Doctor after Smith's? The Doctor's shameful secret is something he hasn't even done yet? If "ordinary people" were flummoxed by what we, for whatever reason, consider obvious, then how much of the episode did they understand?
As you can tell, I'm particularly anxious how accessible this episode is. I don't think Doctor Who should dumb itself down - The Big Bang and the Silence arc demonstrate that a show can be popular (and populist) and complicated - but this is swinging the pendulum too far in the opposite direction. The Name of the Doctor is high-concept: it's brimming with big ideas that are great and clever - visiting the Doctor's "grave", "size leak", the seance, Hurt - but non-intuitive, so require patient explanation. The result is an episode that is essentially fifty minutes of characters going from one room to another explaining things. There isn't really any "drama" as such: there's no time for incident, only exposition. Most viewers watch Doctor Who for a gripping story, but this is a string of gripping concepts with some rather bloodless incident. When the Doctor and Clara arrive on Trenzalore, they are pursued by the Whispermen through the catacombs, fleeing to where the Whispermen would have taken them anyway. The Intelligence's plan is a sci-fi conceit that feels, at first glance, to be too similar to the climaxes of both previous seasons (The Wedding of River Song and The Pandorica Opens) to be exciting, and Clara's act of heroism has to be explained with a voice-over.
The Name of the Doctor is, of course, like almost all of the rest of Neo-Who, an exceptionally well-acted and well-produced piece of television, and largely enjoyable to boot. Vastra, Jenny and Strax don't feel like add-ons, and are a welcome bit of levity amid the (literal and figurative) gloom. You can tell Moffat really enjoys writing for Strax, since he gets all the best lines: "Do not divulge our military secrets!" "It was an unprovoked and violent attack, but that's no excuse." Jenny's "I think I've been murdered" is good too, though it loses something by a) being very reminiscent of The Matrix and b) being undone, then repeated, then undone again. Furthermore, it feels like the epic that it wants to be. It begins with the Doctor stealing the TARDIS from Gallifrey and ends with the Doctor and Jenna knee-deep in his own time stream facing his darkest secret, and both of those set pieces have the impact that you imagine they should. But again, the impact is fannish.
And, as a fan, I will say freely that I enjoyed The Name of the Doctor a lot. It's the first Doctor Who story since The War Games that really does throw an enormous spanner in the works of who the Doctor is. Only discovering his own people and seeing him regenerate for the first time pack the same kind of disorienting punch Moffat hits us with at the end. In practical terms, it's a nullity, and will have its place in the sun in the 50th anniversary and then (presumably) not affect the series ever again, but it serves to dislodge us from our comfortable sense of familiarity with the Doctor. Just as Andrew Cartmel felt that the sense that we knew everything about the Doctor except for his name needed to be destroyed, Moffat is reminding us (particular us old viewers, who probably learned our numbers counting through the Doctors) that we think we know so much about the Doctor, and yet in fifty years he hasn't even introduced himself. It's a worthy object and Moffat achieves it with style.
The words that flash up on the screen at the end of the episode made me excited about Doctor Who in a way I haven't been in ages. But I also know that they left many viewers confused, and many more non-plussed, and any appraisal of The Name of the Doctor ought, in my opinion, to begin from that realisation.
A Review by E. John Winner 24/5/14
This includes spoilers, so if you haven't seen this episode... I don't really care. This childish paranoia against spoilers (which Steven Moffat both feeds and feeds on) has grown very tiresome. Knowing that everybody dies at the end never detracted from my enjoyment of Hamlet. When reading Tolstoy's War and Peace, I was unsurprised that Russia defeated Napoleon's army; I think I'd heard that before. I knew before watching The Seven Samurai that 40 bandits and four samurai would bite the dust, that didn't prevent me from being both thrilled and moved when finally experiencing it. In a different (yet related) way, knowing that John Wayne's character would never die in the B Westerns he made in the '30s did not make them any less fun. The fact is, there's no such thing as a 'spoiler' except, perhaps, in mystery fiction, which involves a certain puzzle game between the writer and reader. But even there the spoiler is only important as long as the reader knows that there is a solution, which the detective hero finally explains at the end.
But it has finally become obvious, with this episode, that the Moffat Doctor Who is a puzzle game without solution, just a never ending soap opera of misleading teases. Despite Steven Moffat's promotional promises, there are no explanations in The Name of the Doctor; no solutions to any problems. We don't know why the Great Intelligence has become obsessed with the Doctor, we don't really know how Clara became the 'impossible girl' - genetically programmed? by whom? River Song? - who of course hints that, despite a supposed final goodbye, she'll be back, still 'connected' to Clara. And then there's John Hurt. He's supposed to be the Doctor's secret that gets revealed - except that his secret is not revealed, since we know nothing about him other than that he is a secret. (It's as if I were to tell you, "I've got a secret and this is it: that I've got a secret.")
I'm going to cross-post a little; this is the episode plot summary I wrote in a review at the Internet Movie Data Base (website name winner55):
"THE PLOT: A problem is not introduced, it is arbitrarily generated - a Victorian serial killer pulls a reference to the Doctor out of nowhere and some smarty lizard gets her knickers in a twist over it. This brings about a set-piece seance with a data-stream from the hard-drive of a computer, as well as a young woman from the 21st century (who has all the personality of a cardboard cut-out, but after all, the Doctor fancies her). Then some bad guy who's everywhere and nowhere brings everybody to some dead planet (how?) where the Doctor is buried in the future, sort of, or his time-streams are, sort of, whatever that means. Then the Doctor finds a way into his own tomb, runs around a bit to no purpose, suddenly appears outside the tomb, then the bad guy attacks and the data stream opens the tomb, then everyone goes in and 'omg wow!' the Doctor's time streams, sort of. The bad guy commits suicide so he can cause the Doctor a lot of pain (now that makes no sense, but what has so far?). Then everybody dies. Then the Doctor's companion Clara follows the bad guy and dies and and begins chasing previous Doctors around shouting 'Doctor!' for no discernible reason. Then everybody's not dead anymore. Then a brief kiss from the dead woman's data stream, effectively assuring a return visit from her or it or whatever - 'spoilers!' - yeah, aren't we all just a little tired of that tease? Then the Doctor enters this own time streams because, y'know, he's god or something, and he finds Clara only god knows where and - oh, look, there's John Hurt, whatever he is, and - roll credits."
My argument in that review is that Moffat simply hasn't delivered a real story to us, only a 'narrative' stringing together unconnected scenes. This isn't just sloppy or lazy writing; it is BAD writing. Very bad.
I won't go into that further. I will say that my interest in Doctor Who began to diminish as Series 7b dragged on - weak scripts, unsteady performances, hyper-rushed direction and editing, and the growing embarrassment of Clara: a two-dimensional 'character' evoking no interest beyond her supposed mystery (which is no reflection on Jenna-Louise Coleman, a capable young actress). Somehow, the base of the Doctor's heroism was getting eroded in weird ways: Moffat's decision to abandon science fiction in favor of slap-dash fantasy had never before been so apparent, and the character of the Doctor was clearly losing any sense of heroism or problem-solving intelligence; he was simply becoming a minor god in some remotely Hinduistic pantheon, who bounced around quipping one-liners and supposedly important truisms that were really hackneyed borrowings from 18 century verse.
And then came The Name of the Doctor, and I could see it as clearly as a train wreck.
What's needed now is a summary of 'what went wrong with the Moffat era.' It's as plain as what went wrong with the JNT era, but the implications are more unsettling; on some level, John Nathan-Turner tried to be a professional producer for a show he loved. But with Moffat, I have this unpleasant suspicion that he hates the Doctor - the Doctor of whom he was supposedly a fan at an early age. Clearly he envies the Doctor to the point of loathing him, and is trying to reshape him in Moffat's own image - or, rather, of course, what Moffat would like to be, were he a Time Lord. Failing that (and he must fail that, since the series has a 50 year history he can't undo - no matter how he tries), he seems determined to put an end to the series: 'No Moffat, no Who!' his episodes scream at us.
Which is a pity, because the Doctor's greatest strength has been that he is a shared experience.
But The Name of the Doctor, unfortunately, doesn't share anything with anybody - except those 'fans' who function as cultists of Steven Moffat, excusing his every flaw as some weird turn of 'genius.'
There is little more to say about The Name of the Doctor, other than it is an appalling example of truly bad television - and the absolute WORST episode of Doctor Who in any medium whatsoever. Like most long-time fans, I will probably tune in for the 50th, but I doubt I will be watching after that. I am tired. Tired of the unsolvable puzzles, tired of the soap opera, tired of the fake magic, tired of the two-dimensional characters, tired of the rushed, discontinuous plotting, tired of the 'epic', tired of the misuse of that term (epic) by Moffat and his cult, tired of watching my hero deconstructed into some pseudo-myth... But let me make that clear: I do not come to genre fiction of any kind for an experience as messy and disappointing as real life. I want my genre heroes to be heroic, to know how to resolve problems and find some ethical resolution to conflicts that in reality continue to plague us unceasingly. I found that in Doctor Who forty years ago when I first bumped into the program on a local PBS station; along with some solid scares, thrills and a good dose of humor.
The Name of the Doctor ripped that all away from me. Of course, it had been going that way throughout the Moffat years, but there was enough to hold onto, and the occasional story that made sense and delivered some real fun. But this latest episode is so baldly in-our-face BAD that it can no longer be denied. There is nothing left of Doctor Who on television.
Well, the good Doctor has suffered hiatus and cancellation and weird, Post-Mod assaults on his history and character before, and he kept coming back. I assume he'll come back post-Moffat as well. There is something about the Doctor that haunts us, and I think I'm beginning to get a sense of what it is. As William S. Baring-Gould once wrote of Sherlock Holmes fans, to such readers "it is always London, 1890..." But that is the subject of another essay, and, if I were to go on - well, that would be spoilers.
Say it like you're going to come back by Evan Weston 21/12/20
And so, after dithering and dallying through several weeks of pretty good but utterly pointless filler, Series 7 pulls back and roars forward into its home stretch with a phenomenal season finale. The Name of the Doctor is, by leaps and bounds, Steven Moffat's most successful finale, and yet it feels like it's building up to something bigger. More on that later, but for now know that this is a touching, dramatic and powerful finish to a series that, while it meanders and makes a few fundamental mistakes, contains far more good than bad and bookends itself with its two strongest episodes.
The Name of the Doctor marks the first time in new Doctor Who history in which the series finale is the strongest episode of the run, and it's the show's second best finale, behind Bad Wolf/Parting of the Ways (which only fails to be Series 1's strongest story thanks to the incredible strength of both Dalek and Father's Day). It's a very simple tale with one of the thinnest plots of the series, yet it justifies that with powerful emotional moments and deep themes that it, for the first time since Asylum of the Daleks, dives in and willingly explores in depth. It's everything Series 7 trained us not to expect, and it's phenomenal.
The story begins with the Paternoster Gang, now beloved after their terrific appearance in The Crimson Horror, getting the band together to discuss the impending threat of the Great Intelligence on the Doctor's greatest secret. I would've liked to have heard at least something about the War Doctor before the episode in which he makes his appearance, but it's still nice that Moffat is providing some foreshadowing for The Day of the Doctor here. Regardless, the focus of The Name of the Doctor is not on the secret he will take to the grave, but on the grave itself, and once the Great Intelligence kidnaps the Gang and forces the Doctor into action, we spring to Trenzalore for the main chunk of the episode. This build-up is well-plotted and very well-written, as Strax gets to play comic relief (and it's still not old) and Vastra shows some genuine emotion for the first time when Jenny is killed. McIntosh, Stewart and Starkey own these roles now.
We also have Alex Kingston back as River Song, in what is implied to be her final farewell to the Doctor. This is the first time since her debut and death in Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead that River appears later in her timeline, and the saved database copy is still River enough for me. Her reaction to Clara is hilarious, and she provides helpful exposition and moves the plot along without being too overbearing. Her final conversation with the Doctor, though, is a serious tearjerker, something the Moffat era lacks compared to its predecessor. Kingston and Matt Smith are wonderful together, and it's a true shame that we won't see the pair together any longer. This was the perfect way for her to go out, though, and I couldn't have asked for a better send-off to the character. Will we see her run into the Twelfth Doctor, perhaps? Spoilers...
With River coming along for the ride, the Doctor and Clara run from the Whisper Men for about ten minutes while the Paternoster Gang comes to and fends off some others. This sequence threatened to be boring, and yet there's so much emotion and so many layers to the proceedings that it never gets too tiring. It's not quite the breathless opening sequence, but it keeps our attention as we move to the finish. Clara remembering her conversation with the Doctor from Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS is a really nice touch; the overt use of the reset button in that episode was annoying, and it's nice to see Moffat bring moments from that story back.
The action really picks up once the Doctor and Clara arrive in front of the TARDIS-grave ("What else would they bury me in?"; terrific concept) and confront the Great Intelligence. Except, "action" isn't really the right word. The Name of the Doctor really embodies the spirit of the classics in a sense, choosing to present its climactic moments through words rather than action. The episode's most suspenseful moment simply involves the Doctor and the Great Intelligence shouting at one another as the Whisper Men advance on the gang and Clara, and it's a thrilling, edge-of-your-seat moment. Series 7 has been about huge set pieces and gigantic action climaxes, but the majority of its successful episodes (Asylum of the Daleks notwithstanding) have been built around character and themes, with extraordinarily talented actors there to carry it through.
Matt Smith is excellent once again as the Doctor, though he doesn't have quite as much to do as in previous Series 7 highlights of his like The Rings of Akhaten and Nightmare in Silver. He's still a grounding presence who's really settled into the hero role without stepping on the shoes of his predecessor, and the role is truly his own at this point. The real star of the show, though, is Jenna Coleman, who gets her character's mystery solved and finally gets to do something that makes sense. Moffat clearly knows how to write Clara, and while it's a shame he didn't tell anyone else writing for the show how to do it, she's an excellent companion in his hands. Her final resolution works perfectly as a satisfactory end to the mystery, and Coleman is appropriately emotional and heartbroken over her sacrifice. She's got the chops to live up to actresses like Billie Piper and Karen Gillan, and the character has a bright future going into Series 8.
The Great Intelligence also returns as the season's Big Bad, and this is his finest appearance in the run, thanks to a particularly horrific plan and the talents of Richard E. Grant, who makes the most of his limited screentime to project ultimate evil quite deliciously. The idea of invading the Doctor's timeline in order to turn every victory into a defeat just for the sake of revenge is unspeakably nasty, and while knowing the Second Doctor's battles with the GI certainly helps provide context, even New Series viewers can believe the Intelligence's anger with the Doctor. He's removed from the episode a tad early, but he needed to be in order for everything to make its way into the story. His Whisper Men don't quite do enough as henchmen, but they're creepy and don't ever project a real weakness, which is cool.
The final moments inside the Doctor's tomb are really quite exciting, and it's mostly exposition doing the work. That's the secret to The Name of the Doctor's success: the whole thing is built on themes, not on plot. The Great Intelligence's main beef with the Doctor is the Time Lord's hypocrisy. The Doctor is held up as a savior by so many, and he believes himself to be good, but he has left billions dead in his wake. The Doctor's morality is a central theme in the New Series especially, and it's the driving force behind The Day of the Doctor, so it's cool to see it raised and discussed here. The answer is partially provided within the action - Clara sacrifices herself to save the Doctor, and then you see. Of course the Doctor is a good man, and you take the bad with the good. Except when the good commits genocide, but we'll get to that in The Day of the Doctor, which finally addresses the much-discussed Time War.
After the Great Intelligence puts the final stage of his plan in motion, Jenny disappears and Strax (but for some reason not Vastra) reverts to primal form, Clara enters the timestream to save the Doctor. We've discussed Clara's sacrifice thematically and in terms of Coleman's performance, but the production element behind it is really its true genius. The pre-credits sequence, while a bit too spoilery, is an absolute belter. It's so great to see Clara running around and interacting with all the classic Doctors, even if the production team can't quite match her to the footage quality of the 1960s and 70s. Jenna Coleman sharing the screen with William Hartnell is a great moment, no matter how you slice it, and the presence of the old Doctors really makes this feel like a precursor to the big 50th anniversary celebration.
Really, that's one of only two niggling issues with The Name of the Doctor. The whole story has a feeling of rising action to it, and when the Doctor says goodbye to River and enters his timestream to save Clara, you feel as if the climax is imminent. But instead, the Doctor just discovers Clara at the bottom of a hole and then the episode ends on a huge cliffhanger, as John Hurt is revealed as the War Doctor. It's an underwhelming finish, not to the saga but to this particular story, as the Doctor and the Great Intelligence never get a real showdown over Clara. I adore how it works thematically - "just once, just for the hell of it, let me save you" - but it all feels like build-up to the rest of the "of the Doctor" trilogy, and you'd be forgiven for thinking The Name of the Doctor is just a prequel to those (admittedly massive) stories. Its other problem is a lack of scale: while Russell T. Davies finales, for better or worse, always felt like huge events, The Name of the Doctor is scripted to be very intimate, while the production and Murray Gold's score want it to be huge and momentous.
The Name of the Doctor (well, really the whole trilogy) still ranks as Steven Moffat's greatest triumph as a showrunner, a satisfying and emotionally fulfilling end to a season-long story arc and a crackling piece of intelligent sci-fi television in its own right. It manages to fit a deep thematic discussion, big moments for several supporting characters, a conclusion to the Clara mystery, a celebration of Doctors past and a goodbye to River Song (who, let's remember, has been around for five years at this point) all into 45 minutes without ever feeling rushed, save for the ending. It ends on the series' biggest cliffhanger since the TARDIS blew up back in The Pandorica Opens, and, instead of waiting a week, Whovians were forced to suffer for six months. However, at the end of all that, the Davies and Moffat eras finally collide in perhaps the biggest episode of Doctor Who ever produced.