Sunday, May 15, 2011

Doctor Who - Season 6, Episode 4: "The Doctor's Wife"

"Borrowing implies the eventual return of the thing that was taken. What makes you think I would ever give you back?" - Idris

Human beings have a natural proclivity for essentialism, ensouling or anthropomorphizing possessions with some special inner life. From an early age, children attribute personalities, characteristics, even elaborate back-stories to stuffed animals, dolls, and action figures. As adults, we talk to our computers, tools, musical instruments, and vehicles, and imagine that they "talk" back to us. But what if one of our possessions actually took on human form? How would we interact with it then? Tonight's Doctor Who proposes just that.

In "The Doctor's Wife," a malevolent, bubble universe–dwelling, asteroid-sized consciousness called "the House" steals the TARDIS's matrix—the ship's living "soul"—and places it into the body of Idris, a humanoid woman. Apparently, this is House's M.O.: He uses the Time Lord Emergency Messaging System to lure in roaming Gallifrey natives, then, once he's removed the ship's matrix, he safely feasts on their TARDISes' residual energy. Thus, when the Doctor brings Rory and Amy to this bubble universe in the hopes of rescuing the Corsair, one of the "good" Time Lords, he ends up meeting his own ship personified instead.

I think the gimmick mostly works, but only after Suranne Jones stops playing Idris/the TARDIS as an off-brand Helena Bonham Carter and starts playing her more like the female counterpart she's meant to be for the Doctor. It makes sense that a time-traveling machine suddenly made flesh would be a bit scatterbrained, especially in the early goings, but if TARDIS-Idris—or, to use her proper name, "Sexy"—hadn't developed a more conversational tone, the episode would have fallen flat. It took a while, but I eventually grew to like her quite a bit, which is a testament to Neil Gaiman's densely-packed script. The Doctor and "Sexy" get into some great banter from the middle of the episode on, and this does the heavy lifting in selling both the concept and their relationship. It really does feel as though the Doctor's interactions with "Sexy" and his usual behavior in the TARDIS's control room are of a piece. Their dynamic is a familiar one, only the TARDIS is now shaped like a human.

Gaiman's touch is noticeable, if only slightly self-referential. The Auntie and Uncle characters—essentially living dolls animated by the House and composed of bits of dead Time Lords—look, dress, and talk like they'd fit in perfectly in Neverwhere, and much of the dialogue has a more Gaimanesque feel than your typical Doctor Who episode. But the strongest impression I get from the writing, tonight, is that Gaiman is a huge fan with some really interesting ideas, who gets real joy out of playing with the Doctor and friends and adding to the show's canon. His enthusiasm comes through in so many moments, most of which you could imagine being preceded by the phrase, "Wouldn't it be cool if..." Essentially, this feels like the world's greatest piece of Doctor Who fanfic, and I mean that in the best way possible.

The episode's only real flaws appear when it repeats elements that we've seen before. I get that it's important to remind viewers that the season opened with the Doctor's apparent death, but surely Amy and Rory can find something new to say about it rather than repeatedly admonishing each other that they "can't tell him?" Also, the way House plays with Amy's mind after he takes over the TARDIS reminded me of the Dream Lord from last season's "Amy's Choice" (though for once, at least, it's Amy's guilt over Rory's abandonment issues, rather than those issues themselves, that takes center stage). Even so, it's cool to see different parts of the TARDIS, though it appears to be at least 75% corridor.

As a villain, House is reminiscent of other mind-altering, powerful, possession-capable baddies like The Beast from "The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit," or the living star from "42." In spite of the similarities with past foes, the House is a villain who adequately frustrates and infuriates the audience. Much of this comes from Michael Sheen's solid voice work, which carries an appropriate air of cold, haughty menace. Still, the "Amy & Rory Running Through the TARDIS"-bits are the episode's weakest moments.

At center stage throughout "The Doctor's Wife" is the relationship between the Doctor and his ship. "Sexy" believes that, just the Doctor stole her all those years ago, she too "stole" him, for her own reasons: "I wanted to see the universe. I stole a Time Lord and I ran away, and you were the only one mad enough." The TARDIS has always had a "mind" of its own, owing to its ability to see through all of space and time as well as its psychic connection with its occupants. It was nice to see this dramatized and played out with actors, especially the bit where the Doctor says "You didn't always take me where I wanted to go," and she replies, "No, but I took you where you needed to go."

At its heart, this is what Doctor Who is all about. A man, visiting cool places and seeing interesting things, but driven by a need to make things right. His ship understands this, and that's what makes them such a great pair. She always takes him where he needs to be, not just for others' sake, but for his own. That's why, when Amy says, “Look at you pair. It's always you and her, isn't it? Long after the rest of us have gone, a boy and his box, off to see the universe...” the Doctor is correct to reply, You say that as if it's a bad thing, but honestly it's the best thing there is.”

Notes and Quotes

  • I like how Amy intuits that the Doctor wants to save the distressed Time Lords because he wants "to be forgiven." His response, brilliantly read by Matt Smith? "Well, don't we all?"
  • It's also fun to see the old Ecclestone/Tennant TARDIS design one last time when "Sexy" leads them to an archived copy of the Control Room. While I like the old "engine" a little better than the Matt Smith-era, glass jar–shaped one, the overall design of the new version feels so much more spacious.
  • The Doctor, on the Corsair's ouroboros symbol: "He had that snake as a tattoo in every regeneration. Didn't feel like himself unless he had the tattoo. Or herself, a couple of times. Oooh-hoo, she was a bad, bad girl!" That line reads almost like it too comes from the Tennant era.
  • A more Smith-ly line: "You gave me hope and then you took it away. That's enough to make anyone dangerous. God knows what it will do to me. Basically... RUN!"
  • Smith was on fine form throughout the episode, which called for a huge range. I'm not sure I've given him enough credit so far this season, but with the right writing/stories—and if he keeps his occasionally cartoony mannerisms in check—he could well be one of the best Doctors ever.
  • As I've said before, I do enjoy having both Amy and Rory as companions. I especially liked when, after everything in the TARDIS goes dark, Amy quietly says, "Rory... hold my hand." But all of that said, I wish their dynamic were less anxiety/guilt/low self-worth filled, even as I understand that their incredible circumstances (and the Doctor's huge presence) might heighten those emotions. 
  • On a similar note, after Amy and Rory leave, I'd like to see another dual companion scenario, perhaps one where the two complement each other's skills but are rivals or otherwise don't get along. That could be fun to watch!
Anyway, we'll see you all back next week, I hope, for another very dark-looking episode. Seriously, does the sun no longer exist in Season 6? Perhaps we'll find out then...

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