It’s been a long haul since the seventh season premiere almost nine months ago, but showrunner Steven Moffat has finally delivered a tremendous resolution to the mystery of Clara Oswald (Jenna-Louise Coleman), the “impossible girl” who the Doctor (Matt Smith) has encountered multiple times, living apparently unconnected lives in different times and places. “The Name of the Doctor” is a superb finale, providing a satisfying payoff for the season plot arc while still ending with a huge twist to lead into Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary special in November.
Indeed, in many ways, this episode feels like an early celebration of that milestone. A frisson of excitement is generated in the opening scene as we get to see the very beginning of the Doctor’s long journey, with the first Doctor (William Hartnell)—in color, no less—stealing the TARDIS and fleeing his home world. Thanks to a combination of manipulated archive footage and costumed stand-ins, the episode is able to show Clara encountering all of the previous Doctors (the number of times a Doctor rushes past Clara without showing his face gets a little amusing).
Also returning are the Victorian-era trio of Vastra (Neve McIntosh), Jenny (Catrin Stewart), and Strax (Dan Starkey), who receive some good character development in this episode. Vastra and Jenny’s relationship, previously used mostly as a punchline, is deepened and treated seriously; Vastra’s panic and grief when she thinks she has lost Jenny are well played. Strax’s jokes are becoming somewhat repetitive, but he gets a good moment when he briefly turns back into an unreconstructed Sontaran warrior after the Doctor’s timeline is disrupted. It’s only a brief scene, but Starkey manages to generate a surprising amount of menace.
When he’s in top form, Moffat’s plotting is endlessly inventive, each little twist or clever turn of phrase adding to the richness of the story as the viewer is carried along. “The Doctor has a secret he will take to the grave—and it is discovered” is ominous enough, but then comes the surprise: the Doctor points out that “it is discovered” refers to his grave, not to the secret. The developments in the Doctor Who mythos that Moffat has introduced here have never been hinted at before (at least, on television; some of them have their roots in the various novel series produced in the 1990s while the series was off the air), but somehow feel utterly fitting. The Doctor’s grave is the one point in time and space that he must never visit. His tomb and monument is the dead TARDIS (“What else would they bury me in?”), which has grown to enormous size after its interior dimensions “leaked” to the outside when it expired. The remains in the tomb are not a body, but a twisting, impossibly convoluted light-sculpture symbolizing all the scars in the universe created by his many journeys through time. Particularly neat is the idea that the reason the Doctor’s grave must remain unknown is that otherwise an enemy could get into the “open wound” and corrupt the Doctor’s entire history.
It’s something of a stretch on Moffat’s part to have the Great Intelligence so enraged by its previous defeats at the hands of the Doctor that it’s willing to destroy itself in order to poison the Doctor’s timeline, but Richard E. Grant really sells the idea, portraying the creature as the very personification of malevolence. His minions, the Whispermen, are another case (like the titular monsters of “The Snowmen”) of Moffat inventing a striking monster more for the sake of an episode’s trailers than the episode itself. With their blank faces and whispered, nursery-rhyme style of speech, they are nicely creepy, but once they’ve served their purpose of drawing the Doctor to Trenzalore and getting him to open the tomb by threatening his friends, the story quietly dispenses with them.
Due to her being at the center of the season’s mystery, Clara has often been kept at a distance from the audience, as much a plot device as a real individual. With the mystery over, she’ll hopefully be free to develop as a more normal companion character to the Doctor in future stories; Coleman has certainly shown that she works very well opposite Smith. Here, her best scene is probably the climax, which provides the inspired resolution of the season-long contradiction between Clara being a perfectly ordinary girl and yet also intimately woven into the Doctor’s life.
The emotional heart of the episode is provided by Smith, as he shows the Doctor uncharacteristically rattled when he realizes what’s going on, and later when he’s dealing with a literal echo from his past: River Song (Alex Kingston), coming back from her own afterlife seen in 2008’s “Forest of the Dead.” It’s written and played as if this could be the final time we see her, and Smith gives a lovely performance as the Doctor acts as if he can’t see or hear River, only to later reveal he knew she was there all along. The two actors have always shown great chemistry in this improbable pairing, but their final conversation here may be their best moment yet—particularly when the moment is lightened by an unexpected shaft of humor as they kiss (“Since nobody else in this room can see you, God knows how that looked”).
One of the first decisions made when Doctor Who was devised 50 years ago was to not give the title character a name. Perhaps Moffat’s greatest achievement in an episode called “The Name of the Doctor” is to avoid revealing his actual name (which could never live up to the mystique generated by half a century of anonymity), without it seeming in any way a cop-out. The important thing is our hero’s choice to take the name “the Doctor”—and as he finds and rescues Clara, wandering in a metaphorical landscape representing his own timeline, the Doctor’s true secret is finally revealed. The credits may say “Introducing John Hurt as the Doctor,” but this is not the Doctor we know—this manifestation has done things so terrible that he has been hidden away and denied the name. It’s a powerful ending, perfectly designed to keep anticipation for the next episode at fever pitch. It’s going to be a long six months to wait.
Classic Who DVD Recommendation: For another story dealing with tangled timelines and weird, surreal landscapes, see the striking “Warriors’ Gate” from 1981, starring Tom Baker, Lalla Ward, and Matthew Waterhouse.
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