The Name of the Doctor Review (Part 1)
Clint Hassell gives his verdict on the Series 7 finale.
One thing I can honestly say about Steven Moffat: the man is certainly full of grand ideas about Doctor Who. I may not like the plot holes inherent to his scripts, or how he portrays female characters, or that he writes from a plot-first/characters-second perspective, but I cannot fault the man for his imagination. In each new episode, Moffat tries to give the audience a new twist on a standard plot device.
An example of this can be found in the Paternoster Gang’s use of a soporific to induce a shared dream state, allowing for communication with both the present-day Clara and the future River Song. I know that long-time readers will find this shocking, but I’m actually OK with this plot device. It’s basically astral projection, just, through time as well as space. Certainly, the séance was tinged with mysticism, bordering on the same fantasy logic which proved problematic for “Nightmare in Silver” (my review of which can be found here). However, I can see the creativity in Moffat’s scripts as characters, separated in time, communicate with each other via messages recorded as DVD Easter eggs and surveillance footage, carved onto cliffs and into wheat fields, and written into the afterwords of books.
Other grand Moffat ideas from “The Name of the Doctor”:
- As a TARDIS dies, the “bigger-on-the-inside” starts “leaking” to the outside, causing the TARDIS to grow.
- A Time Lord’s tomb doesn’t contain a corpse – after all, which of their many incarnations would you bury? – but the scar in time created by all of their time travels.
- Time scars are enshrined inside a Time Lord’s TARDIS, which can then only be opened by speaking their true, Gallifreyan name. This ensures that the time scar is never accessed by someone who wouldn’t recognize the inherent danger of traveling along someone else’s time stream.
- Time Lords protect the power inherent in their Gallifreyan names by choosing new monikers which they consider representative of their vow to stay true to their self-identity and moral code, despite the personality changes that may accompany regeneration and immortality.
At times, Moffat’s execution undercuts his grand ideas. For example, Moffat likes to play with the audience’s expectations, but these shifts sometimes create plot holes. Series 6 and 7 led us to believe that the Doctor’s “grave” secret (yes, pun intended) is his true name. This makes sense, as that name opens the derelict TARDIS and exposes his time scar, allowing anyone to undo all of the Doctor’s good works, thus killing untold numbers of beings. Except – twist! – it’s revealed that the true secret of the Doctor is a previous incarnation, who committed detestable acts, presumably as part of the Time War. While it certainly makes sense that the Doctor would feel extreme shame and guilt over the actions of that incarnation – especially considering the Time War resulted in the loss of the Time Lords – that shame is a personal struggle and wouldn’t be cause for two series worth of guest stars to whisper rhyming couplets about the Doctor’s secret. To the universe as a whole, the end of the Time War was a good thing, and, therefore, the secret of a forgotten Doctor doesn’t affect all of reality in the same way as the actual name of the Doctor. (This same problem plagued “The Rings of Akhaten,” as the true identity of the “god” was shifted mid-narrative.)
Moffat’s use of death as a plot device is another way in which he undermines his own grand ideas. “Sorry. ma’am. So sorry. I think I’ve been murdered.” The line is chilling, especially coming from Jenny, the most relatable of the Paternoster Gang and beloved after “The Crimson Horror.” However, her tragic death is cheapened when she is revived so easily, barely 10 minutes afterwards (though, mad props to Moffat for remembering that Strax is a trained battlefield nurse). Jenny’s later disappearance from the time stream is a subtle effect, brilliantly accomplished, but it also lacks emotional weight as it is her second fake death in 22 minutes. (I wish that Jenny’s second “death” had been Vastra’s instead, allowing us to see Vastra’s initial grieving reaction to be mirrored in her spouse.)
Seeing a changed Strax attack Vastra, causing her to defend herself with lethal force, is also a profound moment, though, again, Strax’s death carries no sting as his vaporization is accomplished so cleanly. (Where did she get that gun? Her cloaca? Jack Harkness would be proud!) Better that Vastra kill Strax using a blaster similar to those in “Cold Blood,” and have her cradle her fallen comrade, perhaps with him noting his death in battle, no?
The script pointedly has both the Doctor and River state that it is impossible to enter the Doctor’s time scar and not die in the process, scattered by the winds of time to a million different points. Except, Clara survives. So does the Doctor, with no real consequence. (Can we assume that the Great Intelligence, who was disembodied to begin with, also lives?) After all of Doctor Who’s warnings about crossing one’s own time stream, nothing seems to come of the Doctor doing exactly that, “in the biggest way possible.” That kinda lowers the stakes on future admonishments. The episode ends with Clara and the Doctor in some nameless, foggy netherworld – presumably, the Doctor’s subconsciousness, due to his memories taking physical shape. (How else to explain the presence of the leaf that Clara fed to the parasite in “The Rings of Akhaten,” which, again, is so full of narrative power as to be a magical fix-all? That leaf, like the soufflé, has become an incredibly strained metaphor.)
Despite Moffat’s insistence that no one could guess the secret of Clara existence, I did just that, in my review of “The Snowmen”:
“Oswin and [Miss Montague] are, in fact, aspects of the same person, echoed through time. . . . It’s the same character, leading two lives, each of which seems to contain some aspects of the true ‘Clara.’”
Not that I’m disappointed in the idea. An ontological paradox-as-companion is a massive concept, and the thought that Clara sacrifices herself to encounter and save the Doctor time and again is rather momentous, and especially appropriate for Who’s 50th anniversary.
However, the execution is rife with problems, and therein lies my one real gripe with the episode. In most of the flashbacks, Clara seems to approach the Doctor, but fails to actually interact with him. How does this change his fate? The idea is that Clara gets the Doctor to “turn left” for all of the times the Great Intelligence had influenced him to turn right. However, aside from convincing One to steal a different TARDIS (a moment which feels unearned, and seemingly contradicts “The Doctor’s Wife” – and I cannot believe I am defending “The Doctor’s Wife”), she seems to barely miss the Doctor, each time. Further, Clara seems to remember the Doctor in each of their failed encounters, yet in “Asylum of the Daleks” and “The Snowmen,” she has no memory of him and only helps him by chance.
Still, to have the Doctor meet a companion from his relative future, who knew all the secrets of his past would seem too, well, River-ish, no? I wish, instead, that Clara had just flickered in and out of the Doctor’s lives, appearing just as she’s needed to save the Doctor. Surely, in 50 years worth of episodes, there is a scene where the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver is out of reach in one shot, and suddenly within reach the next. What if “The Name of the Doctor” had revealed that Clara suddenly appeared to kick it towards the Doctor, only to disappear again? How mind-blowing would that have been? (How many production errors could have been fixed? Perhaps it was Clara who wrote “fast return switch” on the TARDIS console, saving the Doctor in the Edge of Destruction? The possibilities are endless.)
Again, I love the idea of Clara’s repeated encounters with the Doctor; it’s just not capitalized upon. It’s as if Moffat knew that we’d be so mesmerized by seeing the other Doctors that we’d look past the lack of truly momentous payoff. (For the most part, he’s correct. After everything we’ve been told about the classic Doctors not returning, I was jubilant to see this massive piece of fan service. Still, this could’ve been “series-redefining,” instead of merely “fan-affirming.”) Moffat’s scripts have always focused most on heavily-foreshadowed plot twists, sometimes over character development or a cohesive narrative – the idea being that, once you’ve seen the finale’s big payoff, you’ll love the characters via association. That might’ve worked for me, had Clara actually died sacrificing herself for the Doctor’s cause, but as it stands, Series 7 did little to develop the current companion beyond Who’s standard “modern, talkative, resourceful, English girl” roots. Only Clara’s final, “Run. Run, you clever boy, and remember me!” felt triumphant and earned.