Giving an episode a title like “The Doctor’s Wife” is enough in itself to encourage feverish speculation all across the internet. Add to that the fact that it was written by Neil Gaiman—one of the highest-profile writers ever to contribute to the series—and the expectation level leading up to the broadcast was sky-high. It’s wonderful to be able to report that those expectations were not disappointed: Despite not advancing the season arc plot any more than last week’s pirate shenanigans did, this is a far superior episode—beautifully paced and plotted, with gorgeous dialogue, vividly drawn characters, some memorably creepy moments, and a thought-provoking examination of one of the show’s central relationships in a way never seen before.
This episode was originally intended to be part of last season, in the spot that was eventually occupied by “The Lodger”. (According to Gaiman, the moment at the end of “The Lodger” where Amy finds her engagement ring would have come in this episode while she was searching through the Doctor’s jacket for his sonic screwdriver.) As it turned out, budget constraints meant that by the end of last year’s filming, it could no longer be afforded, and so got bumped to this season. This year, the production team took the precaution of making this episode in the very first block of filming, before the money could start running out.
The mystery about the meaning of the title is not stretched out at all, but resolved in the pre-credits sequence. (The similarly speculation-provoking “The Doctor’s Daughter” in 2008 did the same thing.) The TARDIS is floating in deep space, the Doctor (Matt Smith) recounting tales of past exploits to his companions Amy (Karen Gillan) and Rory (Arthur Darvill), when suddenly there’s the sound of something knocking on the door. Opening it reveals, to the Doctor’s delight (“I’ve got mail!”), a small glowing cube floating in space—a telepathic device containing a distress signal from another Time Lord. As we all know, there are no other Time Lords remaining in this universe—but the signal is coming from somewhere outside the universe, and the Doctor prepares to track it down. Gaiman’s in-depth fannish knowledge is visible in use of the call-boxes—a reference to “The War Games”, the final Patrick Troughton story in 1969 in which the Time Lords were first introduced—and in the concept of deleting rooms from the TARDIS infrastructure to give it the energy needed to get outside the universe, which was used (albeit not quite in the same way) in “Castrovalva” in 1982.
Rory: “How can we be outside the universe? The universe is everything.”
The Doctor: “Imagine a great big soap bubble, with one of those tiny little bubbles on the outside.”
The Doctor: “But it’s nothing like that.”
The source of the signal is a strange asteroid floating in a starless void. It seems to be an enormous junkyard (thanks to some impressive design work and CGI), occupied only by a weird old couple and a younger woman named Idris (Suranne Jones). And there’s also a random Ood—a member of the telepathic alien race that appeared in several David Tennant stories. As the story opens, Idris is being subjected to a sinister process whereby her mind and soul are being “drained” by the Ood, leaving her body empty. When the TARDIS arrives on the asteroid, its “matrix” (effectively, its soul or life-force) is somehow removed and placed within Idris. And it’s now clear what the episode title refers to—the Doctor’s “wife” is not some long-lost figure from the distant past, but his most constant companion, temporarily given a humanoid form. The idea that the TARDIS is a living being rather than simply an immensely complex machine was first expressed back in the Jon Pertwee era in the early 1970s, and has been more or less accepted by the show’s writers ever since.
The first part of the episode, while the Doctor doesn’t yet understand what’s going on, is filled with wonderfully bizarre images and dialogue. “Uncle” (Adrian Schiller) and “Auntie” (Elizabeth Berrington) are a beautifully performed pair of grotesques, with an unsettling lack of empathy with anyone else. Idris starts babbling random gibberish and isolated lines whose significance only becomes apparent later, as the soul of the TARDIS becomes acclimatized to an existence within linear time. When she encounters the Doctor (“My thief!”) she grabs and kisses him, then moves on to biting him (“Biting’s excellent—it’s like kissing, only there’s a winner”)—prompting Uncle and Auntie to lock her away. Then it’s revealed that the asteroid is actually a sentient being known as “House,” which demonstrates the ability to take over Uncle and Auntie at will, reducing them to puppets.
The Doctor realizes he can sense traces of other Time Lords present, and tricks Amy and Rory into returning to the TARDIS. To his horror, he discovers the traces are coming from a cupboard full of call-boxes like the one that he found earlier. Worse, Uncle and Auntie are “patchwork people”—House has repaired them over the years using body parts from the Time Lords lured here (another in-reference for classic series fans, this time to the Tom Baker story “The Brain of Morbius”). Matt Smith is brilliant throughout this episode, and he is excellent at portraying the Doctor’s anger at this turn of events.
After realizing that Idris knows what is going on (earlier she had told him “the little boxes will make you angry”), the Doctor goes to speak with her. He is initially understandably reluctant to believe she is effectively his TARDIS (“No you’re not, you’re a bitey mad lady!”), but he is soon convinced, and releases her from her cage.
Idris: “I was already a museum piece when you were young. And the first time you touched my console you said…”
The Doctor: “I said you were the most beautiful thing I’d ever known.”
Idris: “Then you stole me. And I stole you.”
The Doctor: “I borrowed you.”
Idris: “Borrowing implies the eventual intention to return the thing that was taken. What makes you think I would ever give you back?”
Gaiman has obviously put a great deal of thought into what the TARDIS would have to say for itself if it was ever given a voice, and gives Suranne Jones a tremendous variety of material to work with. Both she and Matt Smith are on top form in all of the Doctor/Idris scenes. Her initial out-of-sync conversation is funny, and also gets the exposition over efficiently: the Doctor realizes that House is actually a disembodied entity which is after the TARDIS. Unable to destroy the matrix of the TARDIS directly, it has instead deposited it into a human body, where it will soon die, leaving the TARDIS ready to be taken over. With Amy and Rory on board, House seizes the TARDIS and takes off, attempting to return to our universe where it thinks it will find more TARDISes to eat.
The Doctor realizes that in order to pursue House, he and Idris will have to construct a usable TARDIS out of the remnants of all the others that House has trapped over the eons. They end up building a sort of junkyard parody of the TARDIS console, with a couple of wall flats behind it—the whole thing being amusingly (and, I’m sure, intentionally) reminiscent of behind-the-scenes photos of the TARDIS set from stories of the classic series. Rather wonderfully, the design of this console itself was actually done by a twelve-year-old girl, the winner of a competition held by the children’s programme Blue Peter. With this lashed-together time machine, the Doctor and Idris set out in pursuit of the TARDIS.
However, even as they work together, they are busy justifying the title of this episode, as they bicker like an old married couple. Particularly funny was Idris bringing up the Doctor’s habit of always pushing the police box doors inwards to open them, ignoring the “PULL TO OPEN” instruction on the outside. It’s just the sort of niggling detail that one can imagine the TARDIS getting irritated about over hundreds of years, and finally seizing its chance to voice a complaint. But there are also some brilliant insights into the Doctor/TARDIS relationship, culminating in an exchange which Gaiman noted in the accompanying Confidential episode was central to his conception of the story:
The Doctor: “You know, since we’re talking, with mouths—not really an opportunity that comes along very often—I just want to say… you have never been very reliable.”
Idris: “And you have?”
The Doctor: “You didn’t always take me where I wanted to go.”
Idris: “No, but I always took you where you needed to go.”
It’s not only funny and touching in itself, it’s also a cute metafictional explanation (which, admittedly, has been suggested by others, but never before made explicit in the show) for why the Doctor is always ending up in times and places where there’s something going wrong. And I also loved the account of the Doctor’s initial escape from his home planet from the point of view of his TARDIS:
Idris: “Did you ever wonder why I chose you, all those years ago?”
The Doctor: “I chose you. You were unlocked.”
Idris: “Of course I was. I wanted to see the universe, so I stole a Time Lord and I ran away. And you were the only one mad enough.”
Meanwhile, Amy and Rory are in the TARDIS, at the mercy of the sadistic House. It orders them to entertain it by trying to escape. (“Tell me why I shouldn’t just kill you both now.” “You need fun, don’t you? That’s what Auntie and Uncle were for—someone to make suffer. I had a PE teacher just like you!”). They run into a warren of corridors beyond the control room—the first time we’ve seen other parts of the TARDIS in the revived series (well, except for a brief glimpse of the wardrobe room back when the Tenth Doctor was picking out his costume).
As I mentioned above, this episode was originally scripted for last season, at a point in the story where Rory did not exist, having been erased from history at the end of “Cold Blood”. (As an aside, it’s poignant to think how the reveal of Vincent’s painting of the exploding TARDIS at the start of “The Pandorica Opens” would have been even more effective if this episode had immediately preceded it.) Although he was of course reinstated into the final version of the episode, the old structure—where Amy would have been alone in the TARDIS at this point—is still visible in the way this whole section is told from her point of view. Rory becomes a mere plot device, a means for House to torment her. There is possibly one repetition too many of the same basic sequence where Amy and Rory suddenly become separated, whereupon Amy experiences the illusion of something horrible happening to Rory before finding the real Rory again; by the end I wanted to yell at both of them to keep holding hands and stay together. Nevertheless, these horror moments are both efficiently set up and very effective, particularly the one where Amy finds what appears to be Rory’s ancient corpse in a corridor covered with “HATE AMY” and “DIE AMY” graffiti. The whole sequence, but that moment especially, was reminiscent of the famous (and utterly terrifying) Harlan Ellison short story, “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream.”
Idris manages to get a message through to Rory, directing them to one of the old control rooms so that they can lower the shields and allow Idris and the Doctor entry. I loved the idea that the TARDIS keeps an archive of the Doctor’s various control rooms—even the ones he hasn’t created yet. Amy and Rory work well together as she realizes that the passphrase sent by Idris to unlock the room—“Crimson, eleven, delight, petrichor”—has to be thought rather than spoken. Neatly, thanks to one of Idris’s disconnected lines earlier, Amy knows that “petrichor” means the smell of dust after rain, and is able to think the four concepts. It’s a lovely touch that “delight” for Amy is represented by a flashback to her wedding day in “The Big Bang”.
It’s a very strange sight—but a treat for long-term fans—to see our current regular cast in the control room used for the Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant eras. Soon, the jury rigged TARDIS bearing Idris and the Doctor comes crashing in, neatly obliterating “Nephew” in the process. In the subsequent reunion, when the Doctor explains about Idris to Amy and Rory, Karen Gillan delivers possibly the funniest line of the episode:
The Doctor: “She’s a woman, and she’s the TARDIS.”
Amy: “Did you wish really hard?”
The method by which the Doctor finally defeats House is both neat and fitting. He gives the entity the secret of deleting TARDIS rooms in order to generate sufficient energy to return to our universe. House naturally decides to delete the room they are in, whereupon a convenient (but logical) “failsafe” deposits them all in the main control room. The Doctor then simply delays until Idris’s human body dies. The soul of the TARDIS is released and returns to its home, driving out the interloper. Actually, House makes for a refreshingly uncomplicated villain—no grey areas, no redeeming features whatever—and the Doctor’s “Finish him off, girl” was very satisfying.
All that’s left is an emotional parting between the Doctor and a projection of Idris, and there’s a wealth of meaning in their final exchange:
Idris: “I’ll always be here. But this is when we talked—and now even that has come to an end.” (beat) “There’s something I didn’t get to say to you.”
The Doctor: “Goodbye…”
Idris: “No. I just wanted to say… hello. Hello, Doctor. It’s so very nice to meet you.”
Matt Smith is brilliant here, choosing to show the Doctor for once completely open and vulnerable, in actual tears as Idris disappears forever—and then, in the next moment, summoning the strength to pull himself together and carry on. He gets to work building a “protective firewall” around the TARDIS matrix, as Rory passes on a last message that Idris told him before she died:
Rory: “’The only water in the forest is the river.’ She said we’d need to know that some day.”
What seems to be a reference to that other woman who might, just possibly, in some sense, be the Doctor’s wife, leads our attention back to the larger issues of this season, and into the final sweetly comedic scene with the Doctor re-creating Amy and Rory’s bedroom for them (House having deleted all the bedrooms), and not understanding why they would want a room without bunk beds. (“No, bunk beds are cool—a bed with a ladder, you can’t beat that!”) Rory asks, “Doctor, do you have a room?”—a question answered by a wide shot of the control room as Murray Gold’s score rises to a climax with the music first heard at the end of “The Eleventh Hour” as the Doctor first saw the new TARDIS interior. How appropriate that the final image of this wonderful episode is of the Doctor happily racing around the console, in his element, with his faithful friend/partner/wife taking him wherever he next needs to be.
Next Week: A tale of cloning begins, with “The Rebel Flesh.”
Classic Who DVD Recommendation of the Week: “Castrovalva,” the first story for Peter Davison’s Doctor, one of the few stories which focuses (at least for its first half) on the TARDIS.
Steven Cooper is a software developer and long-time Doctor Who fan, living in Melbourne, Australia.