Doctor Who – “The Doctor’s Wife”

“The Doctor’s Wife”

May 14th, 2011

It isn’t exactly news that Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who is expressly interested in the poetic: between The Girl Who Waited, The Boy Who Waited, and the tragic love story of the Doctor and River Song, Moffat’s world is filled with characters whose relationships are defined by strong emotional hooks. Even when the show built towards the fifth series’ grand finale, watching as the Doctor is slowly erased from time as he rewinded through the events of the series, it all turned into one big poetic moment where the “Old, New, Borrowed and Blue” story began to make so much more sense.

“The Doctor’s Wife,” scripted by acclaimed author Neil Gaiman (my relationship to whom I will discuss after the jump, is a truly wonderful outing on a large number of levels, but it’s the poetry of it all that makes it work. There’s a point early on where the Doctor can’t come up with a proper analogy to explain their location “outside of the universe” to Amy and Rory, and that’s very much part of Moffat’s approach: we don’t need to know what it means or how it works, all we need to know is what it means.

Or, rather, all we need to know is that we enjoyed the bloody hell out of it even though we’ve still got a whole lot of questions.

I don’t mean logistical questions, of course: I don’t particularly care whether the junkyard was outside of the universe or at the end of the universe, and the logic of deleting TARDIS rooms and swapping souls is all explained away by the fact that it’s a fictional and amorphous technology that can become anything the show wants it to be. Indeed, part of the charm of this world (even in the limited time I’ve spent in it) is its capacity for imagination, a canvas that can become anything within the limitations of the show’s somewhat limited budget.

While I’ve read some Gaiman in my time, it’s fairly limited: I believe that his collaboration with Terry Pritchett, Good Omens, is the only thing I’ve read in its entirety, and that was a while ago (I’ve also seen Coraline, of course). What has stuck with me, though, is just the capacity for imagination, and a certain “joie de vivre” with a darkness to it (as indicated by the biting satire of Good Omens and the more unnerving qualities of Coraline). In other words, he and Moffat seem like kindred spirits, and Gaiman is incredibly quick to capture the rhythms of Doctor Who at its best in terms of comedy, horror, and (of course) the poetry.

The latter is the most prevalent, captured so beautifully in the central relationship between the mad man and his box. I almost don’t want to do any sort of broad theorizing regarding this storyline, given how gosh darn wonderful it all was. Obviously, this is perhaps the foundational relationship of the entire series, a back story that you never imagine you’ll get given the fact that the Doctor would have to be having a conversation with himself. Obviously, the Doctor talks to the TARDIS all the time, but the idea that the TARDIS could speak, and that over the course of 700 years it has been developing a relationship, and that it somehow chose the Doctor as much as the Doctor chose it, and…I just can’t even start to wrap my head around how much Gaiman accomplished in forty-five minutes. By the time “The Doctor’s Wife” was over, you realized that the title was an undersell rather than an embellishment: the Doctor and the TARDIS are more than husband and wife, they are kindred spirits who are forever intertwined and forever separated but for this single moment.

It was wonderfully played by both Matt Smith and Suranne Jones, especially in that final scene as the Doctor said goodbye while the TARDIS finally managed to say hello. It was enormously poetic, which is an accomplishment given the fact that I had honestly never given a second thought to this relationship in my time watching the series. It’s possible that true Who fans have dedicated countless hours to the connection, but what I liked about the episode was that it didn’t rely on this. Despite the fact that this clearly draws on the long history of Doctor Who by returning to this relationship which has been consistent throughout every iteration, it didn’t rely on knowledge of specific events or anything of the kind. Instead, it focused solely on the idea of time having passed, the notion of a 700-year relationship being translated into a decades-long relationship being communicated to people who’ve only been kicking the show around for a year or so (that would be me).

And the way this idea filtered through Rory and Amy’s experience, as House plays with time and space in order to mess with their sense of loyalty, was both successfully unnerving (as I would expect from Gaiman) and meaningful to their own relationship. Even the idea of people whose bodies are all different ages was important: note that the Doctor doesn’t notice that the eyes were not his own, but rather that they were younger, implying that they were not only made up of different people but were also dislocated temporally. Just some really strong work in building what was really a very strong world, all of it to service a bit of imaginative fan service designed to explore a relationship that nobody knew could be explored in this way.

It even allowed the show to finally find a less awkward way to deal with the specter of the Doctor’s death – while the beginning of the episode offered yet another side conversation between Rory and Amy where they remind the viewers that they saw the Doctor die 200 years in the future, the end of the episode gave Rory that beautiful bit where he uses Idris’ death to try to get the Doctor to offer them some guidance on how to just stand by and watch someone die. It doesn’t work, the Doctor too distracted to focus on such things, but I like the idea of seeing Rory and Amy trying to work through it instead of talking about how they need to try to work through it. Little moments built into the meaning and poetry of the story which connect back to ongoing character developments beat disconnected codas every day, and it was just another level on which “The Doctor’s Wife” succeeded brilliantly.

I didn’t review last week’s “Curse of the Black Spot,” primarily because I didn’t have time and also because it just wasn’t very interesting. The truth is that Doctor Who thrives on poetry and imagination, and something about “Curse of the Black Spot” just felt rote: there were attempts at poetry, with the cursed captain traveling into space with his crew to ensure he could keep his son alive and give him an adventure, but everything else within the story felt “typical,” right down to yet another near death for Rory. While Gillan continues to play them well (and even got to play a more interesting twist on one here), there’s only so much the show can accomplish in that space. It doesn’t cease being entertaining, but it stops being poetic, and there was none of that imaginative spark which was almost overwhelmingly evident here.

Part of me almost wonders if “The Doctor’s Wife” isn’t one of those episodes that won’t make whatever came before and whatever comes after that much more disappointing. However, as was evidenced by my path through the series to this point being entirely defined by standout Moffat episodes, it’s not as if the show has ever been seen as consistent. Rather, it’s always had its ups and downs, bolstered by our connection to the characters who jump from world to world. While my perspective is obviously filtered through the fact that I’ve seen almost exclusively Moffat-scripted Doctor Who (with only the final Tennant specials as an exception, and I skipped “Planet of the Dead”), there has been more than enough poetry and meaning in just those episodes to make me feel as though I’ve tapped into a decades-long mythology.

“The Doctor’s Wife” is certainly another step in that journey, telling a story far larger than its running time would indicate and creating some truly great television in the process.

Cultural Observations

  • There’s a lot of enormously fun little details here, which is not surprising given Gaiman’s affinity for humor – I think Rory as the pretty one was probably my favorite, but I also enjoyed the “Bunk beds are cool” discussion at episode’s end.
  • Suranne Jones and Matt Smith have an obnoxious amount of chemistry, to the point where I almost wonder if this didn’t undercut the Doctor’s relationship with River in some way. Mind you, Matt Smith has chemistry with everything so I shouldn’t be too surprised, but still.
  • Speaking of Ms. Song, I have to presume that “The only water in the forest is the river” has to do with our favorite time traveling archaeologist?
  • I also presume that the proliferation of orange regeneration dust during the Doctor’s death, the little girl’s regeneration (or what we saw as a regeneration) and here are building towards something as well.
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5 Comments

Filed under Doctor Who

5 responses to “Doctor Who – “The Doctor’s Wife”

  1. garik16

    “orange regeneration dust”

    Eh, the dust has been used in NuWho always when dealing with regeneration situations (see also The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End). The use of it here, while it could be seen as making it clear that the little girl was likely used by the Silence to control their imitation TARDIS, was essentially required by the script.

  2. Tom

    Surprised you didn’t mention Michael Sheen’s contribution to the episode. Although I only realized it after seeing his name in the credits at the end after thinking “I recognize that voice…” for the whole episode.

  3. Jen

    “Bunk Beds are cool. It’s a bed AND a ladder!”

    Excellent review, I really enjoyed this episode. I have to believe that the “the only water in the forest is the river” quote had to do with River Song as well.

    Gaiman should write more episodes. He seems like a perfect fit for this show. Comedy, creativity, and a healthy dose of whimsy.

  4. Amy (itwasmynamefirst)

    “Did you wish really hard?”
    My favourite moment :-)
    I LOVED this episode though… it will completely change the way I look at the TARDIS now, both watching old episodes and new ones.

  5. Gill

    I’m an old-timer, having watched the first episode before my eighth birthday, and I loved the way it played with the mythology of the show – the fact that the Tardis chose the Doctor and stole him as much as vice versa makes total sense, but is also a flash of genius it takes a Gaiman to come up with. He and Douglas Adams are amongst a select group of skilled writers with impressive credentials who have stamped something given of themselves on the show; long may that continue.

    how gosh darn wonderful it all was. – yes indeed. It flowed just perfectly. The rest of the cast was also extremely strong, I thought; the couple who announced they were about to die, sat down and just did so, for example.

    Did you see the “Dr Who Confidential” that went with it? There was something utterly adorable about Gaiman in awe of meeting The Doctor, while Matt Smith was in awe of Gaiman. And the latter was such an excited fanboy on set – he would have been a very small child when the show started and probably cannot remember a childhood Saturday not involving watching the programme.

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