The Doctor’s Wife: A Modern Classic
Adam James Cuthbert on the Series 6 favourite.
The Doctor’s Wife is, in short, a modern classic. Timeless and memorable, the story uniquely reinterprets the origins of the Doctor’s relationship with his TARDIS. Neil Gaiman’s original conceit was to focus on the TARDIS itself, the TARDIS becoming a threat to the main characters. The introduction of Idris signified the foundation of a love story, as Gaiman subsequently explored the idea of the Doctor engaging in conversation with the TARDIS.
I myself first became acquainted with Neil Gaiman’s work through his collaborations with Dave McKean, specifically the comics Mr Punch and Signal to Noise. They were stories about identity, nostalgia, and memory. These motifs are also present in The Doctor’s Wife.
As the story begins, the Doctor responds to a Time Lord distress signal. The hypercube is identified as belonging to the Corsair, a gender-switching Time Lord with a tattoo of an Ouroboros and acquaintance of the Doctor. The Doctor, elated (and convinced he’s not alone), sets off for a bubble universe existing outside N-Space. The TARDIS materialises on an asteroid, only for its matrix/soul to be unceremoniously removed from the control room and relocated in the body of Idris. The asteroid is revealed to be a sentient entity known as House, a “sea urchin” according to the Doctor. House’s ‘shell’ – an expansive junkyard – is inhabited by the peculiar Auntie and Uncle – themselves marionettes within House’s control – and catered to by an Ood, Nephew. The Doctor repairs Nephew’s translation-sphere. He is astounded to hear it broadcasting a cacophony of Time Lords’ desperate cries. The Doctor asserts his belief there are other survivors of the Time War: he expresses his desire to be forgiven for his actions. His hope is short-lived, however, when he learns House has killed them all, and devoured their TARDISes.
“Hello, Doctor. It’s so very, very nice to meet you.”
So why is The Doctor’s Wife so acclaimed? For me, the story’s appeal lies in Gaiman’s singular creative vision. Gaiman draws on previous intimations of the TARDIS possessing an authentic ‘soul’, and adroitly incorporates them into a human body. It’s to Suranne Jones’ merit that she effortlessly communicates a centuries-old sentient time-machine’s love for its owner. Jones is suitably “sexy”, and amusingly bizarre, in her faux-Victorian attire, more than a match for the Doctor, as her prophetic visions enable her to anticipate his speech and movements, justified by the TARDIS’ scope of perception throughout time. Her palpable chemistry with Matt Smith is one of the story’s highlights. Matt Smith is typically enthused in the role, and Gaiman’s script complements the actor’s strengths.
Gaiman audaciously parts with tradition. The TARDIS explains she stole the Doctor and fled Gallifrey. Gaiman’s also unafraid to tease his audience. There’s a moment where the TARDIS and the Doctor seem to embrace, only for the TARDIS to note the deterioration of Idris’ body, ending it. However, the TARDIS finally professes her love for the Doctor. It’s a beautiful, enrapturing scene. Matt Smith delivers a subdued performance, as tears form in the Doctor’s eyes, overcome with sudden, renewed, feelings of loss and forlornness. Of course, loved ones never truly die, but remain with us always (symbolised by the TARDIS lever pulling itself in the denouement).
“I got the arm, and then Uncle got the spine and kidneys.”
The story also illustrates Gaiman’s propensity for disquieting surrealism. Auntie and Uncle are grotesque “patchwork people”, reassembled over time from sundry body parts of House’s past victims. They have been dehumanised to the extent only vestiges of their original visage are intact, presumably compromising their integrity (or lack of) to become the playthings of House, evading death. House’s name emphasises their status as the denizens of his all-encompassing domain, thus his power.
Furthermore, House’s sadistic illusions in the TARDIS are explored to startling effect, notably Amy’s encounter with what she perceives to be Rory’s corpse, in a corridor with reiterations of “Hate”, “Kill”, “Amy”, and “Die” graffitied on the walls.
“Fear me. I’ve killed hundreds of Time Lords.”
House himself is a conniving, deceitful, arrogant, and malevolent entity. Michael Sheen embodies the role with relish: a powerful, chilling presence, akin to the invisible, and equally sadistic, Midnight entity. By employing a dual focus within his narrative, juxtaposing Amy and Rory’s plight with scenes of the Doctor’s pursuit, Gaiman can maintain a human core to his antagonist’s chicanery, by exploiting Amy’s love for Rory: incredulity and speechlessness, coupled with heartbreak. (It’s telling that Amy’s thought of “delight” should be her wedding day.)
Finally, the story is particularly enriching in its scenery and characterisation. For example: the panoramic wide-shot of the Doctor and the TARDIS surveying the junkyard, with the TARDIS lamenting: “I’m thinking that all of my sisters are dead […] that we are looking at their corpses”. It’s an intriguing layer of vulnerability and pathos to the TARDIS, cementing its classification as a living being. Famously, the TARDIS retorts to the Doctor: “I always took you where you needed to go.” It’s an admirable revision of the TARDIS’ traditionally-understood malfunctions, and enhances the story’s overall lyrical atmosphere.