Unseen Who: The Name of The Doctor

I wrote a bunch of recaps/reviews/something-in-between of this past season of Doctor Who for Wired that ended up not running, so I decided to run them here, instead. Here’s the one for S7 E13, “The Name of The Doctor”:

With “The Name of The Doctor,” this latest season of Doctor Who came to an end with something that was neither a bang nor a whimper — in large part because the final few moments of the episode turned it from a revelatory finale into confusing, frustrating glimpse of things to come.

Ignoring for a second the final scene of the episode, “The Name of The Doctor” oddly crystalized a lot of the problems this seventh season has suffered through. Like so many episodes this run, Saturday’s final episode was good enough as opposed to particularly strong, and found itself relying on familiar characters, ideas and audience goodwill to distract from writing that was surprisingly messy given the series’ recent history, and filled with plot holes and unexplored ideas that could upset the story’s movement with just a minute’s exploration.

And what distractions the episode provided! We saw Clara with each of the previous Doctors in scenes that demonstrated seeming lack of convincing green screen technology (The second and fifth Doctors, in particular, appeared in scenes with a Clara obviously shot elsewhere and elsewhen. By comparison, the scenes with the first and third Doctors seemed to give her a graininess that matched the original shots), as well as henchmen that were reminiscent of both the popular Silence from the show’s sixth season and also Buffy The Vampire Slayer‘s Gentlemen, from way back when, and a third appearance this year from the increasingly popular Madame Vastra, Jenny and Strax, the alien detectives from the Victorian era. Underneath all of this, however, was a script that ultimately failed to convince.

The basic plot of “The Name of The Doctor” was, at heart, very straightforward. Our heroes were lured into a trap by a former enemy out for revenge, which they only survived due to self-sacrifice on both of their parts. It was the meat on those bones where things got somewhat convoluted: The Doctor and Clara found themselves on Trenzalore, the site of the Doctor’s grave at some unspecified time in the character’s future in order to save Vastra, Strax and Jenny from the Great Intelligence — the villain from a storyline from the series’ original run, as well as the most recent Christmas Special and the first episode from this most recent run. After death, all that remained of the Doctor in the tomb wasn’t a body, but his personal timestream, which was less an abstract concept than a quasi-physical lightshow that could be “entered” by first the Great Intelligence seeking to undo all of the Doctor’s good works, and then Clara — attempting to stop the Great Intelligence — and the Doctor himself.

That Clara was successful was hardly a surprise; the show could hardly let the Doctor die with episodes left on the clock (and anyway, we dealt with the faux threat of the Doctor dying last year). Instead, the interest in Clara’s attempt came from the fact that, by entering the Doctor’s timestream, she became scattered across his life as multiple people with no recollection of who she had been — the multiple Clara’s we’d encountered up to this point, and the “impossible girl” who had captured the Doctor’s attention in the first place, leading to his meeting the “main” Clara for the first time. Well, that and the other character Clara and the Doctor met inside the Doctor’s timestream, but we’ll get to him soon enough.

For every smart idea in the episode — The explanation for what made Clara the “impossible girl” after all, her remembering events that had been wiped from history because the Tardis was leaking time, the post-Doctor’s death slow revision of the universe’s history, and how that altered character relationships — there were moments that just seemed unfinished or needlessly rushed. The Doctor warned about crossing over with his own timeline and later collapses from having done so, but just two season finales ago, “The Big Bang” relied entirely on his doing just that without any ill-effects, for example; similarly, the surprisingly speedy and easy discovery of Clara within the Doctor’s timestream felt unearned, and undercutting the drama of her having seemingly sacrificed herself doing so just minutes earlier.

But see, we’re already at the final sequence I mentioned earlier. Up until that point, “The Name of The Doctor,” for all its flaws, felt like an ending (albeit a disappointing one). Then, in the midst of the Doctor’s personal timestream, Clara and the Doctor met a shadowy figure with his back to the camera; he was someone the Doctor was seemingly afraid of — or afraid of Clara discovering, perhaps — describing the figure as, essentially, the incarnation he’d like to forget, the Doctor who doesn’t save the day.

That this new Doctor — A future incarnation that “our” Doctor knows about because he, too, has entered his timestream? A past one? — is played by John Hurt is important only for the BBC, who’ll doubtlessly like to boast of an actor of such popularity and credibility taking on the role (How else to explain the hilarious “Introducing JOHN HURT as THE DOCTOR” credit once he turned around?); for fans of the show’s larger mythology, what is more important is that this brings the number of incarnations of the Doctor to twelve, leaving the character with just one more regeneration to go before his death, according to rules set up in the original run of the show. In recent years, it’s been teased that the rule no longer applies, but never definitively stated within the series itself.

With just one scene at the end of the episode, “The Name of The Doctor” went from disappointing closure to a shameless tease for November’s 50th anniversary episode: What has this new Doctor done that is so terrible (Being responsible for the death of every other Time Lord, an established part of the character’s backstory since the show’s 2005 revival, would be the most obvious guess)? Does the thirteen incarnation rule still exist, and if so, is the Doctor close to his final life or is there another incarnation that we don’t know about? And, more subtly, but arguable more importantly, will the Doctor be able to reconcile his actions in that incarnation with his self-image, and stop repressing an entire period of his life?

The scale of the final scene of the episode ultimately overwhelmed what had come before; it left the audience feeling energized and excited, but it was a cheap thrill in many ways. Despite the title of the episode, the name of the Doctor wasn’t revealed on Saturday, and the slight of hand that managed to make that disappointment (or relief, perhaps) disappear from fans’ minds was a sign that — perhaps, if we’re lucky — the Who that lies ahead will be as bold and fun as the one they fell in love with. It may have been a sign of better things ahead, but that doesn’t change the fact that what came before was underwhelming at best, and a sign that, when it comes to this series, familiarity may be breeding contempt after all. In more ways than originally intended, perhaps, a lot depends on the 50th anniversary episode coming up in November.

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