Review by Mark Bousquet
“THE DOCTOR’S WIFE” – Series 6, Episode 4, Story 216 – Written by Neil Gaiman; Directed by Richard Clark – The Eleventh Doctor, Rory, and Amy head outside the universe to answer a distress call sent by another Time Lord. They fall into this other universe, find Romana, her and the Doctor kiss, and everyone lives happily eve- no wait, that’s not it. They fall into a pocket outside of the universe and run into Riv-. No, I mean they run into his first wife back on Gallifrey and- Crap, listen, we don’t meet the Doctor’s wife. Any of them that were or will be or might have been. We meet creepy Frankenstein people living on asteroid who have Michael Sheen’s Voice living in their head. Michael Sheen’s Voice steals the TARDIS Matrix and sticks it in a less-Frankensteinish body so he can eat the TARDIS energy, but then he decides … JOYRIDE TO ANOTHER UNIVERVESE!!! Which sounds like fun, except for the killing Rory and Amy bit. Michael Sheen’s Voice leaves the Doctor with Idris, who’s now the TARDIS. And they have some nice chats that give us a different perspective. Because Idris The TARDIS Tells The Doctor She Was The One Who Stole Him, And Not The Other Way Around.
It would be hard for a Neil Gaiman DOCTOR WHO episode to not come off as a bit disappointing given the anticipation for this episode, but I was happy to find that THE DOCTOR’S WIFE is a completely enjoyable, “moves things forward while having a bit of nostalgia” kind of story, and after a dip in quality last week, it’s nice to have another episode with lots and lots to chew on again. (Trust me, I just wrote almost 2,500 words talking about this episode and didn’t mention that there’s an Ood once.)
The highlight of the episode is the conversations between the Doctor and this strange new woman Idris, who has the TARDIS Matrix downloaded into her body so House (voiced by Michael Sheen and played by the asteroid) can eat the TARDIS’ energy. House has been luring Time Lords into his little bubble universe for ages by sending them distress cubes of other Time Lords asking for help.
Gaiman, of course, is an immensely talented writer and we see some of his trademark stylings on display here. Hehas a really insightful ability to view his plots from the perspective of each of his characters and have them react accordingly. It sounds like an easy thing, but it isn’t. Especially with a long-running program like DOCTOR WHO, where we all know how the stories work and how the characters have traditionally acted, it’s easy enough to write these episodes “Screen-In.” What I mean by that is that I think some writers simply write based on how it’s going to play to the external audience (the screen) and don’t think of how the story is working for the internal characters living the story (the in). Lots of writers do this and it’s not always a bad thing. Sometimes moments like this come up in small (if annoying) ways, like if a character (Amy) seems to know more than they should.
“Screen-In” moments are generally happening when characters do dumb things for no reason other than the plot needs them to do dumb things. Writers like Gaiman, who can write “In-Screen,” can give us really nice moments and sometimes thinking “In-Screen” can lead to really inventive “why didn’t they do that before” story ideas.
There’s a few moments like that here, but the big one is giving the TARDIS a voice. I wouldn’t want to hear the TARDIS every week because I don’t think ships need voices to have personalities, but as a one-time thing, especially given how Russell T Davies picked up and ran with the “heart of the TARDIS” idea, it’s a logical extension of what’s come before.
There’s other “In-Screen” moments that dot the episode, such as when Idris/TARDIS asks the Doctor why he’s never read the sign on the front door that says he should “pull” when the Doctor’s always “pushed” open the doors. Or when Rory asks if the Doctor has a bedroom. Or when Idris/TARDIS is sitting in her cage on the House asteroid and she’s wondering, “Where’s my thief?” because this is how the TARDIS would view the man who stole her away from Gallifrey 700 years earlier. Instead of being a negative, it’s a term of endearment because as she later tells the Doctor, it was she who let the Doctor steal her and not, as the Doctor always figured, him who stole the “magic box.” They’re both right, of course – the TARDIS who left her door unlocked and the Doctor who was willing to steal her, both of them wanting to get away and see the universe.
When it’s Idris and the Doctor on screen, THE DOCTOR’S WIFE crackles. During the scene where the Doctor realizes Idris has had the TARDIS put inside of her, she turns the table on him (and the history of the show) by telling him that she stole him. When the Doctor insists, “I borrowed you,” she counters with, “Borrowing implies the eventual intention to return the thing that was taken. Why makes you think I ever giveyou back?” Brilliant. The line hangs on the edge of implication – is this a threat, a warning, or just a knowing wink from the TARDIS to the Doctor that she knows he never intends to bring her back? Clearly, the way Suranne Jones (who is simply amazing throughout WIFE) delivers the line and the way the episode plays out it’s the latter meaning, but it’s such a delicious bit that you are left wondering, if only for a moment, what would happen if the Doctor did decide to bring the TARDIS back and park her back in the museum. (You know, when Gallifrey returns some day.) Idris has already told the Doctor she was a museum piece when he stole her, so she clearly doesn’t want to go back, but that will be for some other writer to pick up on some day.
Perhaps my favorite line in the whole episode is when, after all that, Idris tells the Doctor, “We have now reached the part of the conversation where you open the lock,” and the steps back knowingly from the cell door. What makes the line so wonderful is that it’s working on multiple levels. Played figuratively, the line reinforces the trend of the Eleventh Doctor being surrounded by pleasantly controlling women (Amy, River, now Idris), but structurally the line is spoken because Idris can see the past, present, and future and so, played literally, she actually means this is the point in the conversation where the Doctor opens her cage to let her out because she’s already seen it happen.
When she’s let out, Murray Gold delivers some delightful fairy tale-esque music (like something out of The Swan Princess or The Nutcracker Suite) and Idris steps out of her cage in her crummy old dress that used to be nice to have a look at the Doctor and be looked at in turn. It’s one of the best Tim Burton scenes that Tim Burton never worked on. (Man, remember when Tim Burton made movies that were more than just weird visuals? Why does it feel like Big Fish came out 20 years ago?)
“Are all people like this?” Idris asks.
“So much bigger on the inside?”
I mean, come on, if that doesn’t make you smile, you’ve probably already realized you hate this review.
The chemistry between Smith and Jones (where have we heard that before …) sparkles. Jones is Smith’s equal in being to switch emotional states with the bat of an eye. I can’t imagine it was an easy role to cast (unless they went, “Ah, you know who would be great in this role? Suranne Jones!”) but they found the right actor. When she gives the explanation of what House is doing in one of those Doctor-esque quick rambles, she says, “Ooh! You were going to just say that. I guess now you don’t have to,” you can see the look of confusion/adoration all over Smith’s face.
“Do you have a name?” he asks her.
“700 years and he finally asks,” she spits back.
“What do I call you?”
“I think you call me … Sexy.”
The Doctor looks sheepish and whispers, “Only when we’re alone.”
“We are alone,” she counters, proving again that she’s being written in the vein of Amy and River (and thus doing nothing to end the speculation that River is the TARDIS) by being able to see the big picture when the Doctor is concentrating on the details.
The best moment in this “In-Screen” style takes place after House has stolen away the police box and left the Doctor and Idris behind to die. There’s a junkyard of broken TARDISes, and the Doctor gets the idea to build a new TARDIS control out of the scraps of other consoles. She’s giving him grief about never reading the directions and he’s giving her grief about how “you don’t always take me where I want to go.” Her response: “No, but I take you where you need to go.”
Oh, Idris, you had me at “I take you where you need to go.”
That’s something my pals and I have chatted about before and something you and yours have chatted about it, too. The Doctor wants to go to Barcelona but ends up in Wales just as a Silurian sect is about to awaken. Why? Well, because the story needs him to be there, of course, but now we know it’s because the TARDIS wants him to be there because something or someone needs him in that time and place.
I totally felt all emotional when Idris was in her final moments. “There’s just one thing I want to say to you,” she tells the Doctor. “Good-bye,” he says, himself rather weepy. “Hello,” she answers back and then dissipates. It’s such a wonderful moment that I completely felt the weight of those years the two of them have spent together, needing and relying on one another, speaking to each other without words, but now finally able to communicate directly. When the Idris body dies the TARDIS Matrix energy goes back into the console and kicks House out.
There’s all kinds of little easter eggs (a reappearance of the Ninth and Tenth Doctor’s control room, the Time Lord message cube, the console traveling without the shell, jettisoning TARDIS rooms to give a power boost, the ability of Time Lords to alter their sex when regenerating, etc.) which add to your enjoyment if you know what they are, but won’t hurt it if you don’t.
Amy and Rory get some horror moments and we finally get to see deeper into the TARDIS, but it’s totally one of those old sci-fi tricks where they’re running down a bunch of corridors that pretty much look exactly the same. There’s a great bit between then when Amy tells Rory to stay and watch after the Doctor when she goes back to the TARDIS and the Doctor tells Rory to go watch after Amy. Rory follows Amy because Rory is a lovesick puppy dog and Amy is miffed at this and tells him she wanted Rory to stay with the Doctor.
“He’ll be fine,” Rory insists. “He’s a Time Lord.”
“It’s just what they’re called,” Amy counters from the door of the TARDIS. “It doesn’t mean he actually knows what he’s doing.”
Amy also subtly asserts her dominance over Rory in another way, too. When the Doctor insists that he has to stay and help find the other Time Lords, Amy tells him that he’s doing it because he wants forgiveness for killing all of them to the end the Time War. “Don’t we all?” the Doctor asks back. “Right,” Amy replies. “What do you need from me?” she asks. Not “what do you need from us?” but “me,” even though Rory is standing right next to her.
If there’s a complaint to be made with THE DOCTOR’S WIFE (which, according to pal Ian Watson on a mailing list we’re on, is an in-joke dating back to the John Nathan-Turner days) is that it’s once-again a pretty dark episode. I don’t mean the tone necessarily, though we are treated to yet another “Oh my god! You killed Rory!” moment and another appearance of Weepy Amy (which is decidedly less appealing than Pirate Amy), but rather the overall appearance of the episode. Whether we’re inside or outside the House asteroid is a dark place, and the TARDIS spends the bulk of the episode with just emergency lights running. Taken as is, it’s just a dark episode, but this is the third episode in a row that takes place largely in the dark, and the previews make it look like another one is coming, and we could use a bit more light.
I’m not opposed to dark episodes, either; in fact, if we were getting too much sunshine I’d be arguing for some darkness. It’s just a good idea to keep altering the lighting so we don’t get stuck in a viewing rut. The tone here is playful in places, which helps to alleviate some of that darkness, but unless they’re pinching pennies (or whatever the Brit equivalent of pennies would be), it wouldn’t kill them to put on a few lights.
If there’s another complaint to be made with WIFE, how could they not go to the original control room? It would cost, what, about 48 cents (or whatever the Brit equivalent of a cent is) to rebuild that room? I guess if they’ve got the most recent control room sitting in storage you might as well use it, but how awesome would it have been to see Amy and Rory run into the old white room? That’s probably the only thing the show could bring back to match the awesomeness of seeing Sarah Jane again in SCHOOL REUNION.
THE DOCTOR’S WIFE is a bit of a stand-alone episode as there’s not too much in the story directly connected to the season’s overarching story of the Doctor’s death and Amy’s mysterious door lady. Idris does tell Rory to tell the Doctor that “the only water in the forest is the river,” and they all pretend this has nothing to do with, you know, River, but the clock is ticking and the episode needs to end. It does make me wonder if it’s connected to a scene earlier in WIFE when Idris is laying on the floor, dying, and she asks for a glass of water. Maybe River will need to sacrifice herself one day to save the TARDIS?
Speculation for another time. THE DOCTOR’S WIFE is a fantastic episode, and like so many great episodes I imagine it will get better with subsequent viewings. I know I’ll be watching it a few more times this week.
Originally Published May 15, 2011