Sunday, May 15, 2011

"The Doctor's Wife"

Moffat's big gun this series besides his own script-writing weight was the fact that this episode was penned by none other than Neil Gaiman, who in a big first for the New Series is actually a science fiction and fantasy author rather than just a sitcom or soap writer with delusions of grandeur or a BBC hack. That being said, it doesn't mean this episode is a masterpiece or anything, and a lot of its kookiness is fairly predictable. I think some part of me really wants a good talkie episode and you'd think they'd use Gaiman for that but a lot of this involves manic rushing about and breathless scares so that's so much for that, then. Am I being unnecessarily harsh? I don't know. I just feel like Moffat's team has let me down somehow this series. Of course The Smith hasn't, and Karen Gillan hasn't, and I can't imagine a world in which Arthur Darvill could ever disappoint anyone, but I almost feel like Moffat pulled out all the stops to carry people over from the previous era last series and now he's kind of content to let the show wallow in self-indulgence and banality. None of this is to say that "The Doctor's Wife" is bad; it's certainly better than last week's offering. It just feels a little dull and kind of like it's insisting on itself a bit, as if personifying the TARDIS, having a couple of weird, creepy people speaking in funny accents, getting the Doctor to make some cheeky jokes and having a red herring 'recovery of the Time Lords' plot hook somehow will just instantly make everyone fall in love with the episode. The design comes from the Tim Burton school of grit, Idris aka The TARDIS looks like a friendly version of Bellatrix Lestrange, and Rory has yet another fake/imaginary death for the bajillionth time. Can't it happen to Amy for once? I guess they really want to hit us over the head with the whole 'Amy cares about Rory' thing so they keep having to pile on the hastily-aborted grief. If something happened to Amy, like it did in "Day of the Moon", we'd expect Rory to be pretty cheesed, but apparently Moffat and co believe that we're not certain of Amy's fidelity yet or something.
It's nice to see the corridors of the TARDIS even if they are extremely bland and kind of claustrophobic; it would have been even better if they'd shown us some of the other rooms but I guess the budget only extends so far. It's also nice to witness the deletion of the uninspired Eccly/Tennant console room for the sake of a relatively minor plot point. It seems odd that House wouldn't be aware of the hard-wired emergency programme of the TARDIS, though, or that he didn't shut it off when he turned off the other safety precautions, but there's a fair whack of hand-wavey in this story. In fact in many ways it feels like a Classic Series story of a good four episodes or so crammed uncomfortably into a straining forty-five minutes. There are a lot of ideas here about how House fixes people, about Aunt and Uncle and Nephew, who Idris is, why House eats TARDISes, who House is and what his motivations are and so on, but they're all kind of swept under the carpet as the story rushes to its climax and it feels like this episode had more potential than just the Doctor getting to have a flirt with his time machine. I'd even go so far as to argue that giving the TARDIS a face and a human identity was the least important or even the least meaningful of the avenues of thought in this story but obviously as I've already attested they want to play the character drama angle up pretty hard in this series. Indeed I almost thought of this story at one point as sort of the Eleventh Doctor's "The Girl in the Fireplace" only, y'know, with an infinitely superior Doctor and companions and believable character dynamics.
What about this Time Lord thing, though? The term 'Time Lord' gets thrown around in this episode like it's going out of fashion and the Doctor's convinced he's found 'the Corsair' and a bunch of other chappies whose names presumably start with 'the' and end with increasingly esoteric titles. Surely 'the Corsair' would be some kind of Time Lord pirate? Perhaps one who used his TARDIS to board other people's ships and so on? That could have been cool. But no, rather it's all just a trick and we're supposed to be excited that we've seen the return of the message box technique the Second Doctor used in "The War Games". I guess that's kind of cool, but really why bother? They could have saved time exploring something interesting without having this whole 'maybe some Time Lords are still alive' malarkey, and it just seems like a cop-out to play it up so much only to then simply ditch the entire thing and rapidly forget about it. The bit where the Doctor builds a TARDIS console room was kind of cool and seemed reminiscent of what the Third Doctor was up to in "Inferno" but a lot of these little continuity nods don't really seem to serve much purpose. All the episode really cares about in the end is how much the Doctor loves the TARDIS and how at last the TARDIS gets to say the same thing and while it's all deeply touching and so on it doesn't half leave me feeling a little bit unsatisfied. As I keep saying, there was more to be done here but it was just abandoned for two of Moffat's loves - one we've seen since the beginning of the New Series, which is to say cheap horror gimmicks, and one which seems to have developed recently, which is to say this kind of awkward sentimentality he's started playing up. Matt Smith plays it well so it doesn't come across with the same kind of wet melodrama in which a Tennant sob story would wallow but it still seems kind of limited and safe compared to the challenging issues we could be exploring in these stories.
I suppose some mention must be given to the House, who is a reasonable villain and whose voice acting is pretty good but as I've said we are given virtually no indication as to his motivation as an antagonist or why he does anything and he starts to feel pretty arbitrary by the end. They do a good job of characterising this faceless villain in a way which seems interesting but we really needed more; again, this was probably something which could have been explored if the whole Time Lord diversion had been removed. Again the phrase 'murder your darlings' comes into my head and it seems like a lot of the ideas which Moffat and Gaiman probably thought were dashedly clever and special were really prioritising hype and suspense over telling a complete story. Oh, and whose idea was it to have yet another Ood villain? I notice they didn't even bother explaining how Ood are easily mind-controlled in this one; can't anyone see what a wasted opportunity it is by consistently having the Ood as enemies of the Doctor rather than his allies? His appearance also feels, in many ways, like a pointless nod to stories gone by and the Doctor's completely nonchalant remark about "Another Ood I've failed to save" only serves to reinforce how little we care by this point. You may as well have had a mildly placid Dalek as the servant for all we're meant to care about Nephew's destruction. How does House mind-control people anyway? It just keeps coming back to the limited explanation present in this episode; in many ways the story and the mystery becomes completely derailed for the sake of the Doctor-TARDIS interaction scenes.
As I keep saying this series Amy and Rory don't have nearly enough to do, spending most of their time running around or having mental games played on them and their relegation to the level of plot contrivance to get the Doctor into action is fairly disappointing. At least they're kept together in this one. Also, why does the Doctor not even care about who Idris was before she was shunted out of her body and replaced with the TARDIS' 'Matrix' or whatever? House says "Goodbye, Idris," in a particularly scathing tone of voice at the end and it feels like there was meant to be something there which we didn't find out about. I'm led to believe that this episode was heavily rewritten due to budgetary constraints and it kind of shows. Idris/The TARDIS also said something about "The only water in the forest is the river," at the end, presumably some kind of reference to River Song and perhaps the last name 'Pond' as another water source. So, resorting to dropping RTD-style cryptic phrases are we Moffat? The deliberate speculation fuel is tiresome in the extreme, much like the heavy-handed pieces of dialogue between Amy and Rory which keep being inserted about the future Doctor's death in "The Impossible Astronaut". Speaking of which, I wish the Doctor would stop using the term 'impossible'. With everything he's seen you'd think he would have abandoned the concept by now. What's more, Tennant didn't require much more than the sight of someone patting their head and rubbing their stomach or doing a reverse park to start shouting "Impossible" like he had some kind of Bewilderment Tourette's, and I'd prefer not to be reminded of his mannerisms. Back in the day the Doctor used to rock up and suggest improvements to some machinery and all the gormless humans/humanoid aliens would say it was impossible or call him a genius. Are we really supposed to believe any of the hand-wavey fairy-story silliness which goes on in the New Series is impossible, or feel any kind of suspense in these situations, when it seems like wishful thinking is everything the technology of the future needs to function? What this distracted me from, though, is this dropping-little-clues thing Moffat has fallen for, and you can tell he's just waiting for people to start arguing on the forums and stuff. It's populist and moron-pandering and honestly I expect better of him. The revelations at the end of this series will have to be mind-expandingly amazing to reconcile me to any of this.
I've probably been more negative than I honestly feel. I enjoyed this episode, and while a lot of it left me feeling disappointed and unsatisfied there were times when it made me laugh, and Matt Smith, Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill are as watchable as ever. I just feel like the spark which invigorated the previous series got lost somewhere and Moffat's fumbling around in the dark trying to relight the candle. He got Neil Gaiman in to help him look but their combined efforts really didn't achieve much more than a kind of low flicker. It's worth watching, and fans will probably appreciate some of the references, but there's just so much more which could be done here and it's the wasted potential more than anything which grates on this episode and the series as a whole thus far.

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