Published on July 17th, 2013 | by Philip Bates
Review: The Name of the Doctor
Surely every review of The Name of the Doctor starts at the end with that cliffhanger. And this one isn’t any different. The reveal of John Hurt’s Not-Quite-Doctor has the danger of overshadowing the other 40-odd minutes. It’s understandable: he could change all we know about Doctor Who since its return in 2005. Alternatively, he may have no lasting effect come Christmas. Showrunner, Steven Moffat, has to be careful. Doctor Who is precious to so many; to tamper with the lead character is dangerous.
That’s why the episode’s name caused so much controversy. That’s why he did it. He knows what he’s doing.
And what’s important to remember is that Steven Moffat is as much a fan as you or I; perhaps – and this may hurt – even more so.
Those suggesting that ‘The Grave of the Doctor’ or similar would’ve made as much an impact as the episode’s actual title are, I think, missing the point. The Doctor’s real name isn’t what’s important here: instead, it’s what is done in the name of the Doctor. I’m sure in my assertion that Hurt’s inclusion will not make Eccleston the Tenth Doctor, Tennant the Eleventh and Smith the Twelfth. Clara even says, “You’re the Eleventh Doctor” to that bow-tie-wearing alien with the silly hair.
But enough pondering over John Hurt for now. This episode boasts so much to explore and enjoy.
We should, instead, focus on those goosebumps you got when you saw the Citadel on Gallifrey. Then the First Doctor and Susan scrambling into that faulty TARDIS. And then Clara and all those Doctors…!
Because you did, didn’t you? The hairs on your arms stood up, your eyes widened and a chill ran up your spine. The whole episode was worth it for those few moments of pure fan pleasure. The Doctor’s first foray into 2013 might’ve been the brilliant Bells of Saint John, but this is where the 50th anniversary really starts.
This is brave and innovative. This is what no other show ever can do. This is a celebration.
The Name of the Doctor showcases a lot of what’s maintained Doctor Who’s longevity: astonishing ideas, sinister monsters, shocking revelations and deaths, clever red herrings, a helping of continuity references, brilliant visuals, lovable companions, and one hero with many faces. In fact, one of the only things missing was an equal helping of humour to balance out the darkness – something unusual for a Moffat script.
That’s not to say that comedy has been completely abandoned. I love the Doctor’s reaction to being out-smarted by Angie and Artie (“the little… Daleks”) and Strax’s trip to Glasgow, but they’re somewhat undermined by the seriousness of Trenzalore. It’s a bit of a theme that the show gets a little darker when nearing a regeneration, but The Name of the Doctor was screened in the glorious days before we knew that – and here I stifle a tear – Matt Smith is leaving.
The feel-good factor is present, naturally, but only blatantly in the scenes with Clara in the Doctor’s time stream; fittingly, the tone of the episode is one of a funeral. I don’t like to think of the Doctor’s final resting place being on a battlefield. Trenzalore looks like a gloomy, horrible place to Rest In Peace. It makes Tranquil Repose look heavenly. I don’t like to think of the TARDIS being, essentially, ripped apart either, its dimensions pulling and stretching, its window tragically forever cracked and the cloister bell constantly screaming in pain. This isn’t just the Doctor’s grave: it’s also his TARDIS’.
Nonetheless, these are brilliant ideas, perhaps not fully explored. But maybe that’s for the best. Once an idea is fully explored, it becomes stale. It’s better that they’re scrutinised by eager fans: that’s why we’ve never seen all the TARDIS interior.
This is also why I’m sure the Whisper Men will return. They are undoubtedly clever but underused. Frankly, they’re a writer’s dream: sinister, intangible, unlimited in potential – and a great receptacle for clever wordplay. They speak in rhymes! That’s so simple but so ingenious!
They’re the fairytale villains, capable of cropping up in the most desolate and dark places. This is probably my favourite of their lines, though all four verses are lovingly crafted:
The man who lies will lie no more/ When this man lies at Trenzalore.
And I really love Clarence DeMarco’s (Michael Jenn) explanation of them: “in the babble of the world, there are whispers – if you know how to listen.”
I can’t help but think, or hope, that Trenzalore isn’t the Doctor’s End. Moffat always finds a way of cheating death – rather wonderfully, in my opinion – and River Song (Alex Kingston) is a great representative of this. It’s a brave move to revisit her death in the Library (all the way back in 2008!), but is there life left in her yet? I really hope so. Many do not like River. An equal amount, perhaps more, love her. She’s appeared in fewer adventures than an ordinary companion and I think there’s still much to explore. She should’ve faded by now, the Doctor argues, but time is a funny old thing. And as Clara learnt earlier this series, not everything dies. Not love – not always.
(This also applies to Richard E. Grant’s the Great Intelligence. Sure, he’s dead for now – but after re-watching The Bells of Saint John, you can figure out a way of bringing him back, easy-peasy.)
River saying the Doctor’s real name is a neat notion, sidestepping all that messy business of the show’s core mystery. Did we really think Moffat would reveal all? The thing about these little red herrings is that no matter how certain you are of something, there’s always a niggle at the back of your head, daring to consider another possibility. And this acted as great cover for Steven’s guerrilla storytelling, openly stating that the Doctor’s greatest secret would be revealed. Many said that this wouldn’t be his real name, but there’s that niggle again, somehow clouding what’s really going on.
If John Hurt hadn’t confessed in an interview in the week prior to transmission, that cliffhanger would’ve been perfect.
But it wasn’t spoilt. This is still top-notch writing.
The episode’s direction was surprisingly understated too. Whereas Nick Hurran’s direction (in episodes like The Girl Who Waited and The God Complex) is glaring in its beauty, Saul Metzstein is confident in the narrative – enough not to pack in as many nuances as he can, whilst still maintaining great visuals. It’s testament to the show’s inventiveness and the production team’s open-mindedness that both work perfectly. Comparing the darkness in The Name of the Doctor to the clean, Sherlock-inspired Bells of Saint John or the innovation of The Crimson Horror (also directed by Metzstein), you can really see why Doctor Who never gets old.
The Paternoster Gang (Neve McIntosh’s Vastra, Catrin Stewart’s Jenny and Dan Starkey’s Strax) are back after their fun-filled jaunt ‘Up Norf,’ and continue to develop well. Jenny’s death was so affecting thanks solely to The Crimson Horror, and whilst many consider her coming back to life a mistake, I’m very glad the Gang hasn’t been split up. Strax shrugging off the ingenuity of the human heart before Vastra corrects him is a lovely touch.
What’s less effective is Jenny’s disappearance when the Great Intelligence rewrites the Doctor’s history. It would’ve been better to see Vastra’s heartache reflected in Jenny if the Silurian vanished instead.
Starkey’s Strax is as loveable as ever, but the brief instance where he falls back into his Sontaran conditioning is brilliant. Surely there’s potential to see the nurse-turned-butler’s reaction to a Sontaran invasion of Earth next series?
And we cannot forget the newest member of the Doctor’s gang: Clara Oswald (Jenna-Louise Coleman). She’s rather brilliant, don’t you think? She’s far more subtle than any other ‘nuWho’ companion, and that’s to her credit. She’s scared, but she’ll do what needs to be done for her Time Lord friend. She’s got sass, but she’s restrained and bright. Yes, her mystery could’ve been strung out much longer, but this is Moffat proving that he can wrap up arcs whenever he likes; he knows what he’s doing, especially with the longer ones, like the TARDIS blowing up in Series 5 or the Silence’s makeshift time ship. This has come into great criticism lately, but I think it’s largely unfair. Trust him. He does nothing without good reason.
Clara will always be The Impossible Girl, even if we now know why and how. This has been wrapped up so we can focus on the one person that really matters come the 50th anniversary: the Doctor.
What’s left to say about the Eleventh Doctor? Every positive word in the English Dictionary has been used about him since The Eleventh Hour – and then some. He just always amazes me.
The Name of the Doctor is clever and shocking, the narrative surprisingly straight-forward and the emotions raw and beautiful. Granted, it’s full of under-explored ideas, but surely that’s the promise of adventures to come. Doctor who? We still don’t know. We’ll never know. But there is one thing I’m certain of: I’m really going to miss my Doctor, Matt Smith.