Doctor Who: “The Name Of The Doctor”
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Doctor Who: “The Name Of The Doctor”

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Doctor Who

“The Name Of The Doctor”

Season 7, Episode 14

The cleverest moment in “The Name Of The Doctor” is, of all things, a grammar lesson. A mysterious criminal relays the following message to the Doctor’s friends: “The Doctor has a secret, you know, one he will take to the grave, and it is discovered.” Madame Vastra, Clara, and likely a decent chunk of the audience assume the “it” refers to the secret, because “secret” is the intriguing word there, the one that promises the latest incredible revelation about the Doctor’s true nature. The whole bit about the Doctor’s grave sounds like a rhetorical flourish, and so everyone except the Doctor and River Song misses the pronoun’s real antecedent. The secret isn’t the important bit, because secrets and their explanations are never the important things in Doctor Who. The fact that “The Name Of The Doctor” so often forgets this is its fundamental weakness.

This is Steven Moffat’s third season finale, and it’s the third straight time the Doctor has faced his own demise. In “The Big Bang,” he sacrificed himself to reset the universe, and it was only through some deviously clever manipulation of Amy that he was able to return. “The Wedding Of River Song” was all about the Doctor accepting and then ultimately defying his apparent death at the beginning of the sixth season. This episode, on the other hand, takes us to Trenzalore, the site of the Doctor’s final battle at some indeterminate future point in his timeline. This fateful, fatal day could lie a week or 5 million years in the Doctor’s future, but whenever it does come, it will be his final end. The real significance of Trenzalore is easily the episode’s strongest aspect, in part because it has the clearest emotional stakes.

Matt Smith long ago reached the point for me where he could make even the weakest Doctor Who episode watchable, and his acting here is masterful. The thing I’d argue that he does better than any other Doctor is the lightning-fast emotional pivots; when he first encounters Clara, he goes from cheerily goofy to deadly serious to utter despair in less than a minute, and each new emotion feels connected to the one that comes before it. By the time the Doctor and Clara gaze upon his tomb—which is the TARDIS, because what else could it possibly be?—Smith has conveyed grief, rage, quiet determination, irritation, and melancholy, and all that while the vast majority of his lines are plot explanations and references to past adventures and characters. The worst day of the Doctor’s life is the one where he is forced to look upon the remains of his last day; a particularly beautiful moment comes when the Doctor gazes upon the charred planet and wistfully observes that he had always hoped he might someday retire to watercolors or beekeeping, but apparently not. At least some of the criticism of Steven Moffat’s characterization is warranted when it comes to companions and supporting characters, but he and Smith consistently bring out the Doctor’s emotional core in a way few before them have.

But that still leaves the actual story, and I’ve put off discussing it because, well, it’s barely comprehensible—and I say that as someone who loves “The Wedding Of River Song” and thinks it makes perfect sense. Essentially, when the Doctor died (or will die), he left behind the scar tissue of all his travels through time and space, and this, his own personal time tunnel, was buried in the remains of the TARDIS console room. The Great Intelligence wants to enter this tunnel, split itself into a million fragments scattered throughout the Doctor’s timeline, and use these fragments to kill the Doctor always and forever. When the Great Intelligence carries out its plan and utterly corrupts the Doctor’s timeline, Clara throws herself in there to fix all the damage, in the process creating the two fragments that the Doctor encountered in “Asylum Of The Daleks” and “The Snowmen.”

Theoretically, this is a sound explanation for Clara’s impossible status—certainly, it’s better than any other theory I’ve read, and it’s amusingly sort of close to my very first insane, obviously wrong theory—especially since it tells us something about Clara as a character. Despite her occasional lack of nerve in previous episodes, Clara decisively proves just how brave she really is, and how much she is willing to sacrifice for a man she knows has never really been honest with her, except about all the things that actually matter. The show certainly could have gone further with this; in particular, there’s potential pathos in Clara’s realization that she has to enter the tunnel because the Doctor already met two of the fragments. There’s a theme about the lack of free will inherent to time travel lurking around the edges of the episode, but it gets swallowed up by all the other business.

Still, the real trouble with the time tunnel fragment solution is that it’s just so abstract. The crux of this episode relies on first the Great Intelligence and then Clara interacting with the Doctor throughout his entire history, which is a wonderful, insane idea, but what we get is a bunch of shots of Richard E. Grant staring menacingly at archival footage, followed by shots of Jenna-Louise Coleman running after the same archival footage. Indeed, there’s not even any direct interaction with the Great Intelligence and Clara once both pass through the time tunnel, which makes it even more difficult to understand just what the former did or how the latter undid it. To be fair, these are problems of a limited budget, and I’m not about to start taking Doctor Who for task for having ideas that exceed its financial resources. But to tell “The Name Of The Doctor” properly, the show would likely need a couple hundred million dollars… or maybe just a time machine, which would allow the show to go back film the required footage of the previous Doctors with the actual actors as opposed to these awkwardly assembled clips. Give the show points for audacity—it really is rather wonderful that an episode of Doctor Who made in 2013 used old, colorized footage of William Hartnell to depict the original Doctor and Susan stealing the TARDIS all those eons ago—but the story’s central idea is just so huge and crazy that it defeats the episode.

It doesn’t help that the Great Intelligence feels like an afterthought, despite being the central threat of the episode. Leaving aside its original appearances in the Patrick Troughton stories “The Abominable Snowmen” and “The Web Of Fear”—neither of which are even mentioned here, a quick glimpse of a stock footage Yeti notwithstanding—this is a villain the audience has only met twice before, and neither “The Snowmen” nor “The Bells Of Saint John” suggested a villain who hated the Doctor so much that it would undertake a revenge as all-encompassing as this; indeed, the Doctor and the Great Intelligence never even directly interacted in “The Bells Of Saint John,” and it only supplanted Dr. Simeon as the primary antagonist relatively late in “The Snowmen.” If there had been even one more episode in which the Doctor confronted and defeated the Great Intelligence, then it might be possible to understand the depths of its hatred, but when the Great Intelligence talks about peace at last, I’m not sure what the “at last” refers to. His role in the episode depends on his history with the Doctor, but the audience isn’t actually aware of any such history.

I’m hesitant to suggest a character like the Master or Davros would have filled this role better, because that implies this story should have just brought back some famous enemy from the show’s past (again ignoring that the Great Intelligence is from the show’s past, because the Richard E. Grant version really isn’t that similar to his Troughton-era counterpart). It’s not so much that as the fact that this episode is trying to accomplish so many different things that it doesn’t have time to properly establish the Doctor’s adversary, and so a character with a long, well-known history of defeat at the hands of the Doctor would have provided the narrative shorthand for the audience to understand just why this particular enemy would want to do this to the Doctor. As it is, “The Name Of The Doctor” just relies on Richard E. Grant’s considerable talents for villainy. Grant gives the role his all, and he’s legitimately menacing when he confronts the Doctor in front of the doors to the tomb. His line readings and body language indicate infinite hatred and malice, and inasmuch as the Great Intelligence’s story works at all, it’s because of Richard E. Grant. But the script doesn’t provide any clear motivation for his villainy, and so there’s no real substance behind all that evil.

The secret of the Doctor’s name is supposedly at the heart of this story, but that isn’t really the case. After all, whatever name he was born with is unimportant, because we’ve known his name for 50 years now; the Doctor’s name is the Doctor, and surely that’s the end of it. The Doctor more or less affirms this view at the end of the episode, although this just sets up the next great mystery, the one this November’s 50th Anniversary special should resolve. The Doctor says the name he chose for himself is a promise he made, and the eleven Doctors we have met all kept that promise. But one didn’t, and he just so happens to be played by acting mega-legend John Hurt. When Matt Smith angrily delivers his final line, in which he says the terrible act Hurt’s Doctor committed was “not in the name of the Doctor,” the real significance of the title finally becomes clear.

That, really, is at the heart of Steven Moffat’s approach to Doctor Who’s overarching narrative. He delights in setting up impossible mysteries—the identity of River Song, the Doctor’s death in Utah, Clara’s multiple deaths, the Doctor’s name—that seemingly require hopelessly convoluted explanations, and then he offers relatively straightforward solutions that are meant to reveal something about the show’s characters (some of these were more successful in that regard than others, admittedly). The Doctor’s name isn’t a bunch of Gallifreyan letters, but rather a symbol of all he represents, and so that opens up the possibility that one incarnation of the Doctor could have proven unworthy of that name. That’s an intriguing solution, and it means far more than finding out the Doctor’s name is Old High Gallifreyan for Bill or Pat or whatever else.

But the show keeps forcing the focus onto these mysteries that it isn’t truly interested in resolving, and so the question of Clara in particular dominated these past nine episodes in a way it shouldn’t have. Moffat’s Doctor Who is all about the narrative bait and switch, and I personally haven’t minded that because the switch has consistently been more compelling than the bait would have been. But all the cheap hooks and fake-outs can distract from what the show actually has to offer. I haven’t had as much of a problem with that as some fans have this season, but “The Name Of The Doctor” becomes so enveloped by all its unanswerable questions that there’s precious little real story left over. It’s a disappointing end to what has generally been a marvelously fun run of episodes, but ah well. Here’s to November 23rd.

Stray observations:

  • This episode introduces a version of River Song that postdates her death—or maybe that’s her apparent death—in “The Forest Of The Dead.” That’s interesting, I guess, but she really serves little purpose in this story beyond opening the tomb doors. I don’t mind River as a character, but her story seemed more or less resolved in “The Wedding Of River Song,” and I haven’t been convinced by her return appearances here or in “The Angels Take Manhattan.” In this episode in particular, she just seems like another mysterious element that distracts from… well, from whatever the main story is supposed to be.
  • You know, if ever there was a time to break the glass and bring in Paul McGann for a cameo, the trip through the Doctor’s past might have been it. The fact that Clara and the Great Intelligence couldn’t interact with the past Doctors rather blunted the sequence’s effectiveness, so even a bit of indirect contact with the Eighth Doctor (or any of the others, but McGann is one of the only Doctors who could realistically return without looking too old for the role) just to clarify either of their plans might have helped the story.
  • So, was that the Fall of the Eleventh? Because the Doctor sure seemed to be able to fail to answer, which goes against Dorium’s prophecy back in “The Wedding Of River Song.” Perhaps all that refers to the real battle of Trenzalore, the one in which the Doctor dies. Or maybe it’s all just hopelessly muddled at this point.
  • For what it’s worth, I did think Colin Baker’s Doctor was rather well-integrated, if only because he just had to walk through a corridor behind Clara. I also did like the sight of various body doubles of past Doctors running through that final sequence. And the audio montage of past Doctors coming out of the time tunnel really was lovely.
  • Insane, Obviously Wrong Theory Corner: I’ll just use this space to say thanks for reading along this season; it’s been a real privilege not only to write about one of my most beloved shows but also to try to follow Keith, who did such a fantastic job with these reviews for so many years. If I’ve managed to be the Peter Davison to his Tom Baker, I’ll gladly take it. Oh, and finally, just so we’re clear, John Hurt’s Doctor definitely isn’t the Valeyard. He’s the Rani.

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