DOCTOR WHO – Series 6 Episode 4
“The Doctor’s Wife”
A review by Timothy Harvey
Spoiler Free. Ish.
Neil Gaiman writes an episode of Doctor Who. Ohhhhh I’ve been waiting for this…
I’m a huge fan of Gaiman’s, ever since he broke onto the American comic book scene with his award winning SANDMAN series in 1988, and have enjoyed his writing ever since. So combining his storytelling with DOCTOR WHO sounds fantastic, and a little scary. So easy to get excited, but also so easy to set expectations too high… how disappointing if this turns out to be just an average episode? The grander story arc of the season and it’s mysteries, the fantastic opening episodes… these have set a pretty high bar.
As the TARDIS travels through deep space there’s a knock on the door… Finding this to be a highly unlikely thing to happen, the Doctor naturally opens it, finding a Time Lord message cube waiting for him. Since the Doctor is keenly aware that he is the Last Time Lord, a message from one, especially his old friend the Corsair, spurs the TARDIS crew into tracing the cube back to it’s source. Which happens to be thru a rift in the universe, into something like a pocket dimension, one that contains a single world, covered in the wreckage of many ships. Unfortunately in the process the trip drains the TARDIS’ energy and the Matrix, the “soul” of the TARDIS, seems to have vanished…
Searching for where the Matrix went, waiting for the TARDIS to recharge, and finding the Corsair will introduce the Doctor and his Companions to the inhabitants of the world: Uncle, Auntie, Nephew and the apparently insane Idris. Who they are, their relationship with the sentient world they call House, and what that means to the Doctor will drive him into places he’s never been before and cast a new light on a one of the most important elements of the series. Anything else I could tell you about the story would be spoilers, and I’m really tempted to not give any at all this review…
But was it worth the wait?
I have to say this. This may be my favorite episode of the series since it came back on the air. Period.
Neil Gaiman does something really special here, clearly showing his own love of the show and his complete understanding of the Doctor and his world, and the importance of the relationship between the Doctor and the TARDIS. He’s scripted something that fans of the show will know to deeply true, and ultimately the core of the series since day one. Quite simply an amazing episode.
Of course, we’ve all seen really good scripts let down by poor execution, but that isn’t an issue here, not at all. From the sheer scale of the surface of House, to the endless TARDIS corridors, to the timeship graveyard, the production value of this episode is stellar. This script was originally planned for the previous season but was deemed too expensive, and I’m glad they waited to do it right. And they picked the right director in Richard Clark, who balanced the humor and fear and action of the script and guided his cast wonderfully.
Oh the cast.
I’ve said it before: Matt Smith is one of my favorite actors to ever play the Doctor and here is his finest performance of the character. The alien who looks like us but is not like us, the old man in a young man’s body, the last of his kind and the mad adventurer, Smith has made the Doctor his from the beginning, but here, here, he takes us back to the real core of the character. Again he juggles the humor of the Doctor with the darkness he carries, and while we’ve seen him show the anger of the Time Lord as a formidable thing, here it’s personal in a way it hasn’t been before.
Amy and Rory get a solid adventure of their own here as well, when separated from the Doctor they find themselves forced to run and run and run… The relationship between the two is the best it’s been this season, with none of the somewhat contrived conflicts and situations of the first three episodes. And some of the scarier moments of the episode revolve around their story and Amy’s fears. Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill shine here, especially Darvill, who gets to show a much darker side of Rory.
Our guest stars are wonderful too, with Adrian Schiller’s Uncle and Elizabeth Berrington’s Auntie playing characters who have clearly been through so much that they’ve crossed through insanity into a kind a resigned fatalism. Their behavior is almost understandable, and that’s what makes it awful. While I’m not as familiar with Schiller, I’ve seen Berrington in NAKED, QUILLS, IN BRUGES, and almost didn’t recognize her here.
House is voiced by Michael Sheen of FROST/NIXON, TRON, TWILIGHT, THE QUEEN, and UNDERWORLD, and while his voice is heavily filtered and nigh unrecognizable, his performance is perfect. Politeness can be terribly chilling.
Last but not least is Suranne Jones as Idris. Telling much about who Idris is would be terrible in the non-spoiler part of this review, but I can say this: If Jones hadn’t been brilliant here the story simply wouldn’t have worked. She is, and it does. Her performance is critical to the episode and she is magnificent.
I’ve been playing the episode over and over as I write this, and yes, it is my pick for the best episode of the new series. It casts a new light on the entire series, and it’s a bright warm and loving one. Thank you Mr. Gaiman.
Spoilers. Big Ones.
“Welcome strangers, lovely, sorry about the madperson.”
Venturing out onto the world they find in the rift, the Doctor finds himself attacked by the seemingly mad Idris, calling him her thief and kissing and biting him. Apologizing for her are the odd Auntie and Uncle and an Ood called Nephew, who tell the Doctor to ignore her as she makes predictions of things to come to Amy and Rory. The Doctor fixes the Ood’s translator which suddenly begins broadcasting distress messages from a multitude of Time Lords.
When the Doctor demands to know where they are, Auntie and Uncle say there isn’t anyone else aside from House, the sentient world that sustains them. While Nephew takes Idris away to lock her up, the Doctor, Amy and Rory are introduced to the planet, who uses the bodies of Auntie and Uncle to communicate. House welcomes them and tells the Doctor that he has known many Time Lords and had many TARDISes visit, and learning that the Doctor and his TARDIS are the last of each, tells the Doctor that his people were very kind. He also reveals that he has kept Aunty and Uncle alive, repairing them as need be.
Meanwhile the caged Idris rambles to herself, and realizes that she needs her thief…
Exploring, the Doctor reveals that he won’t leave before he finds the Time Lords, and confronted by Amy, he admits that he wants to be forgiven for destroying his people.
Sending Amy and Rory back to the TARDIS to get his Sonic Screwdriver, the Doctor locks the two of them inside as he follows the telepathic call of his people, only to find a cabinet full of message cubes, all calling out is distress and fear, the last messages of murdered Time Lords. When Auntie and Uncle come up behind him he confronts them:
“Was just admiring your Time Lord distress signal collection. Nice Job. Brilliant Job. I really thought I had some friends here. But this is what the Ood translator picked up. Cries for help from the long dead… how many Time Lords have you lured here the way you lured me?”
The Doctor exposes the patchwork nature of Auntie and Uncle, their bodies revealed as made up of the pieces of those who have fallen through the rift, including the Doctor’s friend Corsair. Horrified and furious, the Doctor’s rage barely in check, he tells them:
“You gave me hope and then you took it away. That’s enough to make anyone dangerous, God knows what it’ll to do to me. Basically… RUN!”
Amy calls and complains that the Doctor locked them in as he runs to confront Idris, her predictions starting to come true, while a eerie green light envelopes the TARDIS.
Idris tells the Doctor that she is the TARDIS, her matrix transplanted into Idris’ vacant mind and soul, and while at first he cannot believe it, she reveals that she knows him truly and recounts the day he first stepped inside her. She makes it clear that she stole him as much as he stole her, and that while he may insist he was just borrowing her, she had no intention of giving him back.
He frees her before realizing that House is after the TARDIS and caused the Matrix to go into Idris as a way of consuming it safely.The Doctor rushes back to the TARDIS only to find it dematerializing, Amy and Rory still trapped within. Inside, the lights go out, as House reveals that he has transferred himself from the world to the ship, taking over the TARDIS entirely, and asking a simple question… “Why shouldn’t I just kill you now?”
Running back to Idris, the Doctor finds Auntie and Uncle dying without the presence of House to sustain them, but before they die they reveal that House will take the TARDIS back to the universe to feed since no more TARDIS’ will come. The Doctor discovers Idris is dying, the Matrix burning her up from inside, and when the thought of losing the soul of his ship causes the Doctor to freeze, she reminds him who he is and makes him see that there is a solution… they are surrounded by the wreckage of the dead Time Lord’s TARDISes. As they begin to leave, the Doctor asks what the TARDIS’ real name…
“700 years. Finally he asks.”
“But what do I call you?”
“Don’t you call me… Sexy.”
“Only when we’re alone!”
“We are alone.”
“Huh. C’mon then Sexy.”
Rory manages to convince House that killing them wouldn’t be as fun as tormenting them, and House agrees, telling them to run.
Looking out over the wreckage of dozens if not hundreds of TARDISes, Sexy/Idris is horrified, her “sisters” corpses as far as the eye can see. The Doctor reveals he plans to build a working TARDIS from them. Assembling the needed pieces, the two bicker, with Sexy/Idris complaining the Doctor is like a child, and the Doctor complaining that the TARDIS doesn’t always take him where he wants to go. Sexy/Idris tells him that she always takes him where he NEEDS to go and for a moment they revel in being able to really talk for the first time. She reveals that her body is breaking down fast, and while their plan is dangerous, they really don’t have a choice but to try. Assembling their makeshift TARDIS, Sexy/Idris tells the Doctor she chose him, wanting to see the universe.
In the TARDIS, Amy and Rory run down endless corridors, and find themselves separated and manipulated by House as he shuts and opens doors and seemingly manipulates time. Turning down a corridor, Amy finds a aged and demented Rory who has been trapped alone for years, blaming her for leaving him. He attacks her and she flees through an open door. Turning down another corridor she finds Rory’s corpse surrounded by his scrawled accusations of hate and she breaks down, only to have Rory reveal himself behind her, fine and sane, and they realize that House’s real torments have begun.
Chasing after the TARDIS, the Doctor has Sexy/Idris send a telepathic message to Rory, sending him to one of the old control rooms. When the Doctor says the old control rooms don’t exist anymore, Sexy/Idris tells him she’s archived them all, even the ones that haven’t existed yet.
As they reach the entrance to the old control room, House causes Amy to go blind, and she is almost caught by Nephew before Rory saves her. At the door, the entrance codes are sent to Rory as a telepathic message that Amy figures out how to use, and they find themselves inside the 10th Doctor’s console room. As House taunts them, the Doctor and Sexy/Idris materialize their makeshift TARDIS inside, killing Nephew in the process. The Doctor introduces Sexy/Idris to Amy and Rory as House attacks them with the TARDIS’ own systems. The Doctor points out that without his help, House can’t pilot the TARDIS through the rift, as Sexy/Idris collapses. When the Doctor explains that the way to get more thrust is to delete 30% of the TARDIS’ rooms, House tells him that he will delete the old control room and everyone inside it.
As the TARDIS breaks free from the rift, House deletes the room, but the TARDIS failsafes teleports everyone to the main control room. When House says he still has ways to kill them:
“Fear me, I’ve killed hundreds of Time Lords.”
“Fear me, I’ve killed all of them.”
The Doctor delays House as Sexy/Idris stops breathing, and the Doctor reveals that Sexy/Matrix is right where she needs to be: the very space she was ripped from. With Idris’ body dead, the Matrix is released and she attacks House within the heart of the TARDIS, destroying him. Animating Idris’ body one last time, the TARDIS calls for the Doctor:
“There’s something i didn’t get to say to you.”
“No i just wanted to say… hello. Hello Doctor, it’s so very very nice to meet you.”
“Please. I don’t want you to…”
“I love you…”
Later the Doctor installs a new firewall around the Matrix and Rory tells him that Sexy/Idris whispered something to him: “The only water in the forest is the river.” The Doctor doesn’t know what it means either, but suspects they will at some point in the future. Amy sums up the relationship of the Doctor and the TARDIS as “a boy and his box, off to see the universe”, and the Doctor tells her that’s the best thing there is, before sending them off to find a new bedroom, House having deleted their old one.
Alone, the Doctor asks if the TARDIS can hear him. Dismissing himself as just being a silly old man, he says “the eye of Orion or wherever we need to go”, when the controls of the console begin to move on their own and he erupts into joyous laughter…
Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. This is storytelling at it’s finest, and any doubts that Neil Gaiman would deliver an episode that would be a instant classic were dispelled in the first few moments. He’s done something really special here, and if this is your first exposure to his writing and you enjoyed this, then you have the treat of discovering his other stories.
The effects and production design of this episode are better than a lot of features, from the makeshift TARDIS, nicely echoing the console from the original run of the series, to the TARDIS graveyard, filled with giant skeletal shapes. A really interesting image that, raising the question of what happens when a TARDIS dies to all those rooms held inside its multidimensional walls.
We’ve heard the Doctor call the TARDIS “her” and “she” for years, and over and over he’s talked about “it” as being alive, but aside from some interesting stories from the novels around when the show was cancelled, we’ve never had an episode that explores the relationship between the two. So many ways exist for this to not have worked but it did, and did so not only because of the writing, but because of the astounding performance of Suranne Jones. Jones plays the TARDIS as much as an explorer and adventurer as the Doctor, and she makes it clear that she’s been responsible for guiding him throughout their travels together. Old when the Doctor was young, abandoned for newer models, she yearned for new adventures, and along came a Time Lord who just wanted to run away… so she “stole him” and the rest was, well… DOCTOR WHO.
Not only does this answer the question of why the TARDIS so often takes the Doctor somewhere other than where he plans, but why when he needs it to, it takes him EXACTLY where he plans. Existing in 11 dimensions and multiple times, the TARDIS knows where the Doctor needs to be, when he needs to be there. That this neatly explains nearly 50 years of stories is one of the fantastic aspects of the script, but it’s Jones who makes it come to life. Her performance of a living machine, existing in a unique relationship to time and space, finding itself/herself living inside a human form is what ultimately would make this episode work or fail. Her “madness” is trying to be linear for the first time in her existence, and her exploring of the human world is as much a chance for her to adventure in a new way as it is a side effect of House’s plan. The sad thing here is that at the end we lose Sexy/Idris, because it does work, and Jones is delightful. Of course, if she stayed, the show would probably change too much, and we wouldn’t have the beautiful scene at the end, where we hear what we’ve always known: The TARDIS loves the Doctor.
Matt Smith is given much to work with here, and Gaiman’s script doesn’t shy away from some of the Doctor’s past that the last season and a half hasn’t touched on much. We haven’t had a lot of the tormented Doctor, but it makes perfect sense that while he doesn’t talk about it, he does still carry around the guilt of destroying his people. The chance to find survivors, to explain himself, to be forgiven for what he had to do, is something that he leaps at, and when it’s taken from him, we see the darker side of the character which we know he keeps chained up inside. Smith, like Tom Baker and David Tennant, is a master of turning from light to dark in an instant, and his reaction when he finds that all hope of finding his friend alive is lost is nothing short of perfect. We see it again at the end when he tells the TARDIS to finish off House. No remorse there at all, no hesitation and no negotiation, and you can understand why. House tried to kill his TARDIS and did kill his friend and hundreds of his people. It’s a rare moment where the villain has struck the Doctor in such a personal manner, and one where the Doctor showing no mercy is understandable. He also again gives us the signs of all the years the Doctor carries, mostly in little moments, like recalling the first time he touched the TARDIS’ console, and at the end, when he feels like an old fool for hoping the TARDIS can hear him, and they can communicate directly again.
We’ve seen the flirty side of Smith’s Doctor with River Song, but here we see the one love affair that the Doctor isn’t afraid of. That he enjoys the company of his one true companion all these centuries manifested as a beautiful woman is clear, even when they are bickering like, well, an old married couple. That he loses her as a woman even as he gets her back as his ship is both sad and true to the nature of both characters, and his joy at the end in finding her still in contact is the joy of love.
Arthur Darvill really gets to do something different as Rory this time around, although his old and crazy Rory isn’t really him, but a construct of House. Still, as an actor, Darvill has been given great stuff to work with this season, and his screaming at Amy for abandoning him is chilling. Here he also gets to ask a question that seemingly has no answer when he asks the Doctor if he has a room. Amy also gets to both finally say she’s sorry for leaving Rory alone for 2000 years, in a way, and also finds the words to sum up the relationship between the Doctor and the TARDIS. With the primary story being that relationship, Karen Gillan doesn’t get to do as much as in previous episodes, true, but she continues to be one of my favorite companions and a wonderful actress.
Michael Sheen has a challenging role here, as a monster we really never see, but whose presence is felt throughout. His voice, though heavily modulated, is chilling and the rather matter of fact delivery only makes it worse. I have seen a few rumors online that the voice we heard in the preview was that of Omega returned, and in a way I’m sorry Sheen did the vocal work here, because if they ever do bring back Omega, Sheen would be wonderful in the role.
So! Again, brilliant. Gaiman has given us the story we never knew, yet clearly know to be true: that no matter what he has lost, or will lose, he is loved by the one being who knows him best, the Doctor’s first and best Companion, the TARDIS. Thank you Neil.
And here’s a preview of episode 5: “The Rebel Flesh”