For those who may have been slightly disappointed with last week’s swash-buckling pirate-themed “The Curse of the Black Spot” episode, than the beautifully written and acted The Doctor’s Wife is your comeuppance. It may be more than that – a lot more – as not only does the long-awaited debut of acclaimed writer and longtime Who fan Neil Gaiman’s take on the classic mythology in a largely self-contained episode that (blissfully) exists outside of the season’s overreaching arc, one that is equal parts Douglas Adams, Jim Henson (shades of Labyrinth throughout), and 100% pure Gaiman.
Here we learn one of the Doctor’s most well-kept and cherished secrets, one that has helped not only shape his entire existence, but one with deep and fascinating consequences that will forever change the way we look at our beloved Time Lord. The very premise is fascinating, given his penchant for exploring the very limits of time and space with his human companions; what if, after all these years, we were to discover that the original companion wasn’t a human, but was in fact the Doctor himself…?
When a mysterious knock on the TARDIS’ door reveals a hypercube that may hold the distress call of a surviving Time Lord, our time travelers Amy Pond (Karen Gillan), Rory (Arthur Darville), and the Doctor (Matt Smith) soon find themselves journeying to a place they’ve never ever been – outside the universe itself.
After landing on what appears to be a planet of junk, the Doctor realizes that the matrix of the TARDIS has been taken, leaving them stranded on this strange world. They soon bump into the stranger duo of Uncle (Adrian Schiller) and Auntie (Elizabeth Berrington) who, alongside a solidary Ood named Nephew, informs them that the entire ‘planet’ is actually a sentient asteroid that goes by the name House (voiced to perfection by Michael Sheen), and can interface with the discarded technology around them. When a strange and bewildered woman named Idris (Suranne Jones) arouses their suspicions that things may not be as they seem, the Doctor sets out to find the missing Time Lords – and his missing TARDIS matrix. Unfortunately, he discovers that Uncle and Auntie are actually constructs themselves, assembled by the miscellaneous parts of past beings and life-forms, kept alive by House, who now has taken control of the TARDIS and plans to return to Amy, Rory, and the Doctor’s original universe with it.
The concept of patchwork is a theme that runs deep throughout “The Doctor’s Wife”, and while some of you may have flashbacks to Gaiman’s own Coraline at the thought, the truth is more sobering. For nearly fifty years now Doctor Who has been one of the longest-running and most popular shows in television history, as well as one of the few British exports to retain much of its quintessential British-ness, despite its popularity around the world. But it hasn’t always been the straightest of lines, thanks to its myriad of different actors, writers, directors, and – most critical of all – its millions of fans who’ve managed to put up with the vast inconsistencies, breach of series canon, and even the conceit of simply making it up as they go along. When the series was resurrected in 2005, mostly thanks to longtime fan Russell T Davies, it was clear that we were in for a completely new and revamped Doctor Who, one that took advantage of emerging technologies and the power of international syndication.
Neil Gaimon, a self-professed Who fan, must have realized that one of the reasons for the series long and continued success was its ability to stitch together inspirations from practically any source, be they horror, western, comedy, drama, or even science-fiction. Steven Moffat’s lead as show-runner has only continued its evolution, making current Doctor Matt Smith’s reign more dream-like and surreal than ever before; a natural fit for Gaimon’s own equally dream-like and surreal imagination. Thus, we have an entire episode that not only respects the massive contributions that Doctor Who (the show) have made to the history of television, but one that also delights in exploring Doctor Who (the character) at its most basic and primal state. My manifesting his beloved TARDIS in female human form we’re able to see how his longest and most personal relationship of all reacts to its new state. It’s hardly a surprise that with each of his new regenerations (which give the role over to a new actor), the design of the TARDIS itself has experienced its own regeneration; the show, like its inhabitants, is able to survive the very ravages of time by changing with the times, stitching along new ideas and concepts along the way.
My notes tell me that “The Doctor’s Wife” was originally supposed to air towards the end of last season, but budget constraints and scheduling shuffles (it was replaced with the comedy-laced “The Lodger”) led it to finally appearing now. I can see why, as it features some of the most creative set-design and high-concept work I’ve ever seen in any television series, much of it looking pretty expensive. The vastness of the alien planet is impressive, and I was happy to see the brief moments of on-screen action (i.e. those with flashy-lights and in space) never looked as hokey as they could have been. The interior moments of Amy and Rory’s alternative TARDIS, which features multiple sets and time-skipping scenes, was stunning in its ingenuity, and it’s amazing how effective a simple paintjob and old-age makeup can be in the right hands.
The regular cast is fine, particularly Matt Smith’s continually exceptional work as the Eleventh Doctor, as he’s given some of his best dialogue of his run yet. His verbal sparring (most likely the inspiration for the episode’s title) with Suranne Jones’ Idris/ TARDIS is wonderfully manic, and one can’t help but get a bit misty eyed at some of the dialogue. In bluster he yells at her, “You never took me where I wanted to go”, to which she replies “Yes, but I always took you where you needed to go.” Pulling double-duty, she paraphrases the Doctor’s very origins, helping turn his very galactic genesis on its head by mystically implying she was the reason for all his adventures in the first place: “I wanted to see the universe, so I stole a Time Lord and ran away. You were the only one mad enough,” adding “What makes you think I would ever give you back?”
Michael Sheen as the voice of the omnipresent House is almost deliciously good, and it’s about time the actor finally enter the magical world of Doctor Who; he’s certainly managed to sneak his way into just about every other big-budget fantasy/mythological series you can think of. His character is given some of the very best lines and set-ups in some time, including the classic “Fear me, I’ve killed hundreds of Time Lords,” to which the Doctor replies “Fear me. I’ve killed all of them.” You can bet the Who fans will be quoting that one for a good bit.
As with last year’s spectacular “Vincent and the Doctor”, it seems the outside influence of Neil Gaiman has been very, very good for the long-running show, and it’s this helps make The Doctor’s Wife not only the best episode this season (so far), but one of the very best episodes in all of Doctor Who’s nearly half-century. From the brilliant concept of a self-manifested TARDIS to the scads of quotable lines, longtime and observant Who fans are in for a treat here. Next week’s penultimate scary-looking “The Rebel Flesh” appears to be more business-as-usual, what with its glimpses of cloning and plastic flesh creatures. Spacey-wacey, indeed.