Doctor Who reviews: The Name of the Doctor

The long-awaited finale of Doctor Who Series Seven has aired.  There was a hell of a lot of anticipation concerning “The Name of the Doctor.”  Would writer & showrunner Steven Moffat finally reveal the secret of Clara Oswald, the “impossible girl” who kept reappearing throughout time & space?

First off, a great deal happens in “The Name of the Doctor.”  Twelve hours later, I am still absorbing everything that happened in it, wondering about the consequences and implications.  But I will say this: Moffat certainly did a heck of a job with this one.

The Great Intelligence, now wearing the form of its deceased pawn Dr. Simeon (Richard E. Grant), and utilizing its sinister, faceless servants the Whisper Men, kidnaps the Paternoster Gang.  The Intelligence leaves free Clara, who had been in a psychic “conference call” with the Gang and River Song, to lead the Doctor to the planet Trenzalore.  Although he wants to rescue his friends, the Doctor is extremely apprehensive.  He reveals to Clara that, at some point in his own personal future, he will die and be buried on that planet.

The Doctor crash-lands the TARDIS on Trenzalore.  It is a desolate planet, the surface covered with the gravestones of countless warriors who fell in a battle.  And on a hill is a massive monolith, the remains of his older self’s TARDIS, its time energies spilling out, distorting its dimensions, serving as the future Doctor’s tomb.  River Song (Alex Kingston), now the disembodied consciousness seen at the end of “Forest of the Dead,” is still in psychic contact with Clara.  Following instructions given by River, Clara leads the Doctor into a network of tunnels, hoping to avoid the Whisper Men.  Traveling underground, the psychic energies of the fallen TARDIS restores Clara’s memories of events from “Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS,” and she remembers the Doctor telling her how he had previously met two other versions of herself on the Dalek Asylum and in Victorian London.

The Doctor and Clara finally arrive at the TARDIS grave, where the Intelligence and Whisper Men are holding Vastra, Jenny and Strax captive.  The Intelligence wants the Doctor to open the doors to the tomb; the key is the Doctor’s real name.  If he will not speak it, the Whisper Men will kill the Doctor’s friends.  River, still invisible, and unheard by anyone, voices the Doctor’s name.  Inside the TARDIS, it is revealed that the Doctor’s corpse is a glowing “scar” of energy, a hole in the fabric of reality linked to the entirety of the Doctor’s past existence.  The Intelligence enters the scar, traveling back in time, infecting the Doctor’s past, altering his history, undoing all his victories.  The stars above Trenzalore begin to go out, and then both Jenny and Strax are erased from existence.  Vastra, still present, explains that all of the evils the Doctor thwarted, all the lives that he saved, all of it is being reversed, leaving the universe a much, much darker place.

Clara sudden realizes that she herself must plunge into the scar in time.  She is splintered into a million aspects all along the Doctor’s timeline, living an infinity of lives across time & space.  But this puts her in a position to displace the Intelligence in his history and undo the damage, unseen even of the Doctor’s numerous incarnations.  History and the proper state of the universe are restored.  The Doctor himself now jumps into his own time stream, and he is able to reintegrate Clara.  Before they can return to Trenzalore, though, Clara spots a shadowy figure, one she has not witnessed before.  The Doctor admits that this is a previously unrevealed incarnation of his, one who has forsaken even the name “Doctor.”  The figure turns to face them, and the credits roll.

The Name of the Doctor

Whew!  That was a hell of a ride.  First off, in terms of unraveling the mystery of Clara, Moffat did a top-notch job.  The revelation of how she became the “impossible girl” made perfect sense.  Jenna-Louise Coleman was absolutely fantastic in this.  Really, my admiration for her as an actress has grown by leaps & bounds over the last several weeks.  Truthfully, I initially found Clara to be an annoying character, just too smart and witty and competent.  But as Series 7B progressed, various writers developed her very effectively, and Coleman took the material and ran with it, turning Clara into a character I really liked.  When she sacrificed herself to save both the Doctor and the universe, I was genuinely upset, because I had no idea if this was going to be the last we would ever see of her.  And when the Doctor was able to restore her, I felt a real sense of relief.

Also, great work by Matt Smith.  As I mentioned it my review of last week’s episode “Nightmare in Silver,” his over-the-top lunacy was the weakest aspect of an otherwise good episode.  So I was relieved to see a very restrained, subtle, nuanced, emotional performance from him this time around.  Confronted by his inevitable demise, haunted by his past, and faced with the possibility of losing Clara, the Doctor had a great deal to cope with in this episode.  Smith certainly rose to the occasion.

This was one of the first times I could actually believe in the relationship between the Doctor and River Song.  Their exchange at the end of the episode felt emotionally genuine and real.  And when the Doctor kissed River, it felt real, like there truly was this incredible connection between the two.  Smith and Kingston played the scene very well.

I also felt that Richard E. Grant had a lot more to do this time around.  He seemed sort of wasted in the role of Simeon in “The Snowmen.”  But here, portraying the Great Intelligence itself, he was a suitably menacing villain.

The Whisper Men were downright scary.  When I first saw them, I thought they might be part of the Silence.  But they were quickly reveled to be the creations of the Great Intelligence.  They definitely make much more effective servants than its past tools, namely those robot Yeti who looked liked big, cuddly teddy bears, or the animated Victorian snowmen.  At the end of “The Name of the Doctor,” the Intelligence has seemingly been destroyed.  But if it does resurface again, I hope it will have the Whisper Men in tow.

Oh, yes, speaking of the Silence… was this what they were so worried about?  In “Let’s Kill Hitler,” it was stated that the reason why the Silence want to kill the Doctor is that he is destined to be asked the oldest question in the universe, at which point “Silence will fall.”  Later on, in “The Wedding of River Song,” it is revealed that this question is the Doctor’s identity, in other words “Doctor who?”  We were also told that the question would be asked on “the fields of Trenzalore.”  Well, that seems to be just what happens here in “The Name of the Doctor.”  The Great Intelligence asks the Doctor what his name is, and the question does get answered, albeit by River Song.  And as a result, the Intelligence infects the Doctor’s timeline, history is massively rewritten for the worse, and all the stars in the sky begin to go out.  That could very well be interpreted as silence falling across the universe.

In addition to tying in to recent continuity, there was a lot of other material in “The Name of the Doctor” for a long-time fan like myself to geek out to.  We saw both the Intelligence and Clara popping into various points in the Doctor’s timeline via the use of stock footage and some clever editing.  There is even a very brief scene set in the distant past on the Time Lord world of Gallifrey, as the First Doctor steals the TARDIS, in the process running into one of Clara’s aspects.

Also in the episode, the Intelligence tells Vastra about the darkness in the Doctor’s being, of how he has a great deal of blood on his hands.  “He will have other names before the end: the Storm, the Beast, the Valeyard.”  Yep, the Intelligence mentioned the infamous V-word.  For those who don’t know, the sinister Valeyard made his debut in back in the season-long serial “The Trial of a Time Lord,” and was revealed to be a possible future incarnation of the Doctor, “an amalgamation of the darker sides of your nature, somewhere between your twelfth and final incarnation.”  Moffat has quite a few times explored the darker side of the Doctor, having both Amy Pond and River Song warning him of the importance of not traveling alone.  Given that, in the back of my mind I occasionally wondered if Moffat would ever return to the issue of the Valeyard.  Certainly this shows that he’s very aware of it.

John Hurt as The Doctor

And then we get to the end, with the revelation of an unknown incarnation of the Doctor.  Is he a future regeneration of the Doctor?  Or perhaps he is from the past?  He says that his actions were committed “in the name of peace and sanity.”  Could this have been the Doctor who fought in the last great Time War?  If so, is he actually the true Ninth Doctor?  And would that mean that the current version is actually not the Eleventh, but the Twelfth?  Which could mean that the Valeyard might be lurking around the corner?  Oh, man, so many unanswered questions to occupy my thoughts for the next six months, before Doctor Who returns for its 50th Anniversary special!

“Introducing John Hurt as the Doctor.”  I try to avoid spoilers like the plague.  So I totally did not know this was coming.  What a shock.  I mean, since its revival Doctor Who has gotten some really prominent guest stars:  Simon Callow, Derek Jacobi, Timothy Dalton, David Warner, Diana Rigg.  And now John Hurt is going to be on Doctor Who.  Hell, John Hurt is the Doctor… somehow!  I have no clue how any of this is going to play out, but I’m really looking forward to finding out.

So that’s it for Series 7B.  It was a bit of an uneven set of episodes.  But, on the whole, I enjoyed most of them.  And it certainly ended on a high point with “The Name of the Doctor.”

Doctor Who reviews: The Angels Take Manhattan

In last night’s Doctor Who episode “The Angels Take Manhattan,” Amy Pond and Rory Williams, after years of traveling through time & space with the Doctor, bid farewell to the man in the Police Box.

The news that actors Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill would be leaving Doctor Who in this episode had been circulating for several months now, leading to much speculation as to how exactly Amy and Rory would be written out of the series.  I was personally wondering if they would be given a dignified exit that didn’t feel silly or nonsensical, because, to be honest, I always found the two characters to be inconsistently written over their two and a half year period on the show.

At times Amy could be very likable, one of the best companions the Doctor had; at other times she was just plain annoying.  My feelings ran hot & cold for her from episode to episode.  Rory, likewise, was great as the unassuming everyman who became a heroic figure, the immortal Last Centurion who guarded over Amy for two millennia while she was in suspended animation in the Pandorica.  I wasn’t quite as enamored with Rory when certain writers cast him as a bumbling fifth wheel whose presence felt extraneous to the friendship between Amy and the Doctor.  So it was actually very fortunate that writer Steven Moffat brought his A-game to “The Angels Take Manhattan,” giving both Amy and Rory a very good script to exit on, one that really highlighted their strengths as characters.

Another character whom I’ve have fluctuating feelings towards is Amy and Rory’s half-human, half-Time Lord daughter, the time traveling archeologist River Song, portrayed by Alex Kingston.  Part of the reason why I think the character has been so variable is because the Doctor is always meeting her chronologically out-of-order.  And when she is a younger individual, River is just, well, annoyingly smug and ridiculously impulsive.  I like her better during her appearances from later on in her personal timeline, when she’s mellowed out and become less bat$#!+ crazy.  Given that “The Angels Take Manhattan” is the last appearance of her parents on the series, it makes sense for River to pop up in this episode.  Fortunately, we mostly see her in a more low-key, introspective state here.

The Weeping Angels

This episode also sees the return of the Weeping Angels.  Their 2007 debut story “Blink” is probably the all time scariest Doctor Who episode ever made.  I was underwhelmed by their return to the series in the 2010 “Time of the Angels” / “Flesh and Stone” two-part story, though, and subsequently wondered if they should have been a one-off villain.  But “The Angels Take Manhattan” definitely restored the Weeping Angels to the status of one of the Doctor’s most terrifying foes.

In “The Angels Take Manhattan,” the Weeping Angels have infested New York City.  This time, though, instead of simply sending people back in time decades and feeding off the energy of their lost lifetimes, the Angels are also imprisoning their victims in an apartment building near Battery Park, keeping them trapped there for the rest of their lives, using them as living batteries.  It takes an already horrible fate and makes it infinitely worse.

The Doctor is completely unaware of all this, of course, when he lands the TARDIS in NYC in 2012.  Relaxing in Central Park, having a picnic lunch with Amy and Rory, the Doctor is reading a mystery novel he happened to find in his jacket pocket.  Then Rory disappears on the way back to the Park from a coffee run, and the Doctor realizes that he is reading no ordinary book.  It’s actually penned by River Song, and it tells him that Rory has been sent by the Weeping Angels back to the 1930s.  Taking the TARDIS back in time, the Doctor and Amy meet up with River and track Rory to the apartment block in downtown Manhattan, where they hope to rescue him from a lifetime of imprisonment by the Angels.

The quality of “The Angels Take Manhattan” that meant the most to me is that it finally, after two and a half years of episodes, cemented Amy and Rory’s relationship.  For all the time Rory has been with Amy, he has been plagued by doubts that Amy really loved him as much as he loved her, that she would rather be with the Doctor than with him.  As a viewer, I have often wondered which relationship is supposed to be the closer, stronger one, Amy and Rory’s marriage, or Amy and the Doctor’s friendship.  It really is a very moving scene when Rory, to escape being trapped by the Angels, is willing to take his own life, thereby creating a temporal paradox which will wipe out their presence in New York City, and Amy decides to join him.  We see that she would rather die with him than live without him.  Moffat’s writing, buoyed by Darvill and Gillan’s acting, movingly demonstrates Rory’s very human bravery and Amy’s strong, passionate love & commitment to him.

Rory and Amy’s goodbye kiss

If there was a weakness in the story, it would be that I find it difficult to wrap my head around the idea of the Doctor and River Song being married.  River more than once refers to the Doctor as her husband, and it feels odd.  The best scene between the two was their final one, where it is the Doctor and River in the TARDIS by themselves.  I realized then that when Moffat really needs to do is write at least one episode with just the Doctor and River traveling together, to really give Matt Smith and Alex Kingston an opportunity to explore the rapport that is supposed to exist between their two characters.  There is a lot of potential there, especially the fact that the Doctor knows how River is eventually going to die, knowledge he cannot share with her, and with that an awareness that any time he has with her is limited.  “The Angels Take Manhattan” makes the point that the Doctor hates endings, hates to say goodbye.  So how must he feel about River, having already seen her demise?  There is a lot to explore here, but I feel Moffat really needs to do it in a story without any other companions taking up the spotlight.

As an American fan of Doctor Who, I do appreciate the fact that the new series now had the budget and technology to either make the occasional trip abroad to film a story here in the States, or at least make it appear to be set somewhere here.  It was definitely cool to watch the characters walking about Central Park and the streets of Manhattan, actual places that I see in my daily life.  It definitely makes a pleasant change from having all the Earth-bound episodes set in Great Britain.

Actually, this reminds me a bit of Doctor Who in the 1960s, when often the production teams’ reach may have exceeded their grasp, and they strove to recreate all manner of geographical & historical settings in a tiny studio with a shoestring budget.  The creators of those early episodes may have been overambitious, but they were not afraid to try and achieve the impossible.  There’s a lot of that same quality to the present-day series.