The hype surrounding this episode did its intended job; it got the fans excited and/or angry, and it got them talking. Though I never bought that any writer or producer would ever be stupid enough to actually name the Doctor (“The Question That Must Never Be Answered” is as much a metafictional reference to the show itself as it is about the character/plot within it), I admit I can at times get swept up in hype. What will they reveal? It’s a misdirect, but from what are they misdirecting? Will we find anything out about Clara? Can we get through a finale without bringing in Daleks or Cybermen? This season has had some great episodes, but some stinkers as well. I thus viewed it with some cautious optimism.
Why am I just getting around to writing this review a week later? I have a good reason. The episode is so full of glitz and excitement, I wanted to watch it again to make sure that alone wasn’t flavoring my perception. Now that viewing number two is complete, I feel more confident about making a decision. It had some problems, but over all it really was spectacular.
I’ll get my complaints out of the way first, starting with River Song. I like Alex Kingston. I really do. I loved her as Dr. Corday on ER, and I have loved her as River Song. I love the idea of River Song, and in the past have welcomed her appearance in episodes. Where her character is concerned, I’ve even been able to quiet that beast in me that keeps screaming “Stop creating all these love interests for the Doctor! It’s getting stale!” Even the idea of a romance with her seemed to work originally because she was brilliant, mysterious, ultimately good with a possible dark side, and a larger-than-life character–just like the Doctor (and thus was a bit more worthy of his affection than a certain teenage shop girl I might mention).
Having said that, though, she’s grown a bit stale. The reveal that she was Amy’s and Rory’s daughter was a big one, but it also made her a bit less extraordinary. She also needs a strong, plot-driven reason to be included. In this episode, she seemed extraneous, as if the writers simply wanted to ramp up the “wow” factor of the episode by including a big guest star without really creating a strong reason for her to be in the story. Oh, except that someone in charge clearly thinks the Doctor needs to make out with someone in front of us on a regular basis. So there’s that, I guess.
How ’bout those Whisper Men? Hmmm. Other than looking like creepy knock-offs of The Gentlemen from the Buffy episode “Hush,” what purpose did they serve? What are they? Where did they come from? Why are they under the control of the Great Intelligence? If they’re so scary and powerful, how is it that Vastra and Strax are able to fight them off? If their purpose is to leave everyone alive, then why try to kill Jenny? How are they invading the dream where River and Clara are? It seemed like a lot of nonsense. I can respect that the writer wanted to bring in a new monster without resorting to the standards (and for that I thank him), but the Great Intelligence would have done just fine as a scary villain all on his own. Perhaps, had these nasties been introduced in a previous story explaining what the hell they were supposed to be, I would have accepted them as the background set pieces they were in this story. But, no.
Here is my last real complaint: Matt Smith needs to stop crying in episodes. Seriously. We’ve already done the human, vulnerable Doctor who whines like a bitch when he’s sad. Tennant covered that just fine. It was nice–perhaps even interesting–for a change of pace (and I liked Tennant okay, he’s just not a favorite), but the Doctor is a different man now. Returning to the idea of the Doctor as a strong, mysterious, mythical creature means he doesn’t bawl when he hears he may have to visit his own grave. He’s been through tough patches before. I can’t be the only fan tired of seeing the Doctor cry. Viewers don’t always want to see human vulnerability. Sometimes–especially from a hero like the Doctor–we want to see unwavering strength. So he needs to show some. Between the crying and the snogging, I may as well be watching a soap opera.
These are relatively mild complaints, however, as the issues didn’t overwhelm or ruin the show in any way. As a whole, the episode really was brilliant. It wasn’t just glitzy, it was high quality. It had in spades the qualities which make for a great Doctor Who episode, and may be the best season ender the new series has yet seen (sorry, series 4). Even the inclusion of one of my least favorite plot devices is excused here, for obvious reasons.
What about the paradox of the Doctor meeting himself? What about my clear hatred of the overused plot device where a Doctor from the future (or the past, depending on how one looks at it) saves the current Doctor–deus ex machina style–from an impossible situation? I am indeed typically annoyed by such nonsense, and consider it to be a lazy writer’s crutch. However, this is a landmark anniversary year, which means we soon get a story including (whether in person or in spirit) multiple Doctors. This finale is setting up such a special, so–just this once–I will forgive such a crutch. No, these multiple doctor stories usually don’t make any sense (see any classic series episode titled “The <insert appropriate number> Doctors”), but they exist more for fun and nostalgia purposes than to be taken too seriously. If someone like me–who clearly thinks too much about this stuff–can deal with the nonsensical paradox for the sake of an anniversay special, anyone can. So I say enjoy it for what it is and spend more energy being pissed off about the Doctor crying and making out with everyone. It’s called choosing your battles.
I realize that some may not approve of Clara and may resent how she was essentially just inserted into the entirety of the series, but I absolutely loved that. What makes Doctor Who fantastic is when writers add more and more to the mythology without changing the heart of what the show is. After all, viewers didn’t know until the end of Troughton’s run that the Doctor was a Time Lord, and the word “Gallifrey” had never been mentioned. The trick is to add more and more to the mythos while at the same time retaining the spirit of the show by adding more mystery. Here, it has been accomplished–no question. The show reveals why Clara keeps turning up, but I believe deliberately keeps some aspects of her character a mystery. I’m going to pretend I didn’t see the prequel where she talks about being in love with the Doctor, as I like the character and really appreciate where the show is taking her.
Though the flashes of previous Doctors were perhaps overused a bit (the same clip is shown three times), seeing them in the opening sequence gave me chills. I have always been relatively happy with the way the current series pays homage to the original, but this current season has really made it clear that there is a strong respect for what came before. It may be to some extent because of the pending anniversary special, but it is highly appreciated nonetheless. Clara suggesting to the first Doctor which TARDIS to steal was brilliant, and the verbatim bit of the fifth Doctor’s dialogue from “Castrovalva” (“Dimensioning forces this deep in the TARDIS tends to make one a bit giddy.”) made me squeal with delight. No, really. I actually squealed.
As I’ve said before, I always welcome Vastra, Jenny, and Strax. I am remaining optimistic at this point that they won’t eventually be overused to the point of becoming a prop like River Song, but that hasn’t happened yet. And unlike River Song, they are well-used in this episode. The dream-state meeting place was a lovely little touch, and the scene where Jenny is killed was a spine-tingling moment. Who has been a gay friendly show since its rebirth, but I really appreciate the way this same-sex couple has been fully realized. There is genuine warmth there, and a sense of loss when Jenny is killed (temporarily). And though I wouldn’t want them overused on Who, I would agree that the three of them could likely pull off their own show. I hope someone is taking the time to consider that.
Richard E. Grant was once again brilliant and menacing as The Great Intelligence, which has been a lovely nod to a classic series villain. It is again made clear that these villains can and should be revisited, as it opens so many new doors for the series that yet another Dalek or Cyberman episode won’t. I may even be bold enough to state this villain could even rival the Master for status as the Doctor’s chief nemesis, and I’m willing to take it as consolation for the fact that no one seems to want to bring back the Mara (come on, Janet Fielding!). It was a genuinely creepy portrayal without going over the top. I have a feeling we will see more of him, and I don’t mind it one bit.
Crying aside, Smith and Coleman really come together here as Doctor and companion. The sense of what a companion is and why they are needed has never been stronger, as the two cling together in a way that is rarely seen in the series. Clara makes the kind of sacrifice few companions ever do, and does it in the most emotional way the series has yet seen (sorry, Adric). She isn’t just willing to die, she’s willing to split herself into pieces and help the Doctor across time. When she says “Run, you clever boy,” I got a bit choked up. It was so well done.
Aside from Clara retroactively injecting herself into the Doctor’s previous adventures, it is now apparent there will be even more interesting additions to Who mythology. Who is John Hurt portraying? Is it Doctor Zero, long before the time of even Hartnell’s Doctor? Is it the darker Valeyard? What was the promise? How was it broken? If the Doctor insisted that the dark figure was indeed him but not “the Doctor,” why was there a caption that said otherwise? The resolution of old mysteries and the creation of new ones are more than enough to keep fans desperate for what is to come.
We only have six months to wait. Sigh.