Thanks to its immediately intriguing title, “Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS” was one of the most highly anticipated episodes of this season. But while it delivers a neatly worked out plot and some memorable moments, it’s surprisingly inconsequential—almost as much of a “filler” episode as writer Steve Thompson’s earlier “The Curse of the Black Spot” in 2011.
The basic plot is very straightforward. Spinning through space with its shields temporarily down, the TARDIS is noticed by a trio of space scavengers operating a huge salvage ship. The time machine is ensnared by a “magna-grab” and hauled aboard the ship, badly disrupting all of its systems. The Doctor (Matt Smith) is somehow thrown outside of the TARDIS, while Clara (Jenna-Louise Coleman) is lost in its labyrinthine interior. He enlists the help of the scavengers to find her by promising them the richest salvage haul of their lives, and then traps them inside the TARDIS with a self-destruct timer ticking down.
Ultimately, Thompson opts to resolve the story by creating a circular plot structure, with the Doctor finding a way to undo the events that led to the initial capture of the TARDIS. The way this ending comes about is actually a clever piece of plotting (as could be expected from one of the creators of the intricate narratives of Sherlock), but it requires very close attention to catch all the details. Crucial links like the Doctor obtaining the magna-grab remote (the literal “big friendly button” that will switch off the plot) by picking the pocket of one of the scavengers, or burning a message into it with his sonic screwdriver, pass by in a flash. Compared to Steven Moffat’s “Blink,” one of the best examples of this kind of puzzle-box plot, keeping up with this episode was hard work.
Like last week’s “Hide,” it’s another story with a very small cast list; apart from the Doctor and Clara, there’s only the three scavengers, the Van Baalen brothers. Unfortunately, unlike “Hide,” which boasted two superbly watchable performances, this episode shows an uncharacteristic lapse in the quality of Doctor Who’s guest casting. Ashley Walters (as Gregor, the leader of the Van Baalens) does a reasonable job, but Jahvel Hall (as younger brother Tricky) is wooden and clearly inexperienced. Mark Oliver is even worse as Bram; the character is obviously supposed to be of limited intelligence, but it mostly comes across as if the actor is reading his lines off cue cards.
The Van Baalens are not particularly interesting characters, except for the revelation late in the episode when the Doctor shames Gregor into admitting that he’s played a rather sadistic practical joke on Tricky (causing him to believe he’s actually an android). Their main function, once the story is under way, is to provide victims for the mysterious zombies lurking within the TARDIS—who, in a rather easy to spot twist, turn out to be possible future versions of the characters themselves.
The real star of the episode is the TARDIS itself. It’s surprisingly rare for the series to devote screen time to the Doctor’s vessel; it’s normally just a literal vehicle to get the Doctor and his friends into and out of each story. In the classic series’s 26 years, there are perhaps a dozen episodes where the TARDIS’s interior rooms and passageways (beyond the main control room) are important to the plot; apart from a few corridors and the old Eccleston/Tennant control room in “The Doctor’s Wife,” this is the first time the new series has given us an extensive look at the TARDIS interior. The design manages to create the appropriate sense of wonder, suggesting a surreal, endless maze of imposing spaces like the architectural configuration chamber, or the Eye of Harmony. I particularly liked the glimpse of the often-mentioned swimming pool, and the huge library with its lovely unexplained touch of the bottles labeled Encyclopedia Gallifreya which apparently store knowledge in liquid form. Another potentially fan-pleasing moment is when the TARDIS console is breached and memories come floating out—in the form of lines of dialogue from previous stories that were spoken in the TARDIS console room. They’re kept deliberately soft and indistinct, but a couple of them date back to the very first TARDIS scene in 1963.
Director Mat King, a newcomer to Doctor Who, seizes the opportunity for some showy camera work. The many different TARDIS corridors the characters travel through are kept distinct thanks to simple but effective lighting tricks, while a constantly moving camera, skewing from side to side, ensures they remain an unsettling environment. The zombies are shot with a blurring filter to maintain their shadowy threat. We even get a new perspective on a familiar set with a striking initial shot continuously backing away from the Doctor and Clara as they briskly circle the console, bantering. The title of the episode pays off as the Doctor and Clara reach the TARDIS engine room; the image of them walking through a cloud of shattered components, frozen in a white void, is one of the highlights of the episode.
Smith does very well with the Doctor’s intimidation of the Van Baalens and forcing them to help him find Clara. His later admission that the “TARDIS self-destruct” was a complete bluff is delightful. His best moment, though, comes when the Doctor finally confronts Clara about his experiences with the different versions of her; Smith convincingly conveys the Doctor’s frustration at having worried over this conundrum for ages now. He still doesn’t get any answers, but the relief at getting it out into the open is palpable.
The Doctor/Clara scenes are also the best parts of the episode for Coleman, who’s otherwise mostly relegated to the “damsel in distress” role. There’s what looks like a significant portent of things to come when Clara apparently comes across the Doctor’s real name written in a book in the library. Given the “reset button” ending to the episode, it remains to be seen how much of this Clara actually remembers, but one way or another, it seems answers are on the way.
Next Week: Mark Gatiss returns to the scripting duties, and we’re back in Victorian times with the Doctor’s friends Vastra, Jenny, and Strax, in “The Crimson Horror.”
Classic Who DVD Recommendation: “The Invasion of Time,” from 1978 and starring Tom Baker and Louise Jameson, also devotes part of its time to a chase through the corridors and rooms of the TARDIS. Unfortunately, it was a story whose production was seriously marred by both budget troubles and strike action, which meant that its portrayal of the TARDIS interior is a far cry from the labyrinth of wonders shown in this episode.
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