The Doctor’s Wife

TARDISThe bit below where I write: “Well, until she and the Doctor have a tiff.” That bit. After this, the copy originally ran: “The ‘pull to open’ gag clinches it. That one’s been staring us in the face forever. From that point onwards, I bought the whole relationship, and the odd kind of intimacy that exists between the two.” But then Tom Spilsbury at DWM pointed out that said gag was actually misconceived. “Pull to open” isn’t what’s written on the TARDIS door, but what’s written on the telephone panel. The joke doesn’t work. Good point.

And so I deleted that passage, and we carried on.  

This is from DWM #435.

DWM #435In 1983, the producer of Doctor Who, John Nathan-Turner, wrote up on the office notice board a bogus title as the proposed final adventure for the show’s 21st season. A moniker so preposterous and controversial, it was delicious bait designed to ensnare whoever had been leaking production secrets to the outside world. Crafty old JNT. What a brilliant and fanciful idea for a story it was: The Doctor’s Wife. But, in truth, no one was ever going to buy it.

Two decades on, lauded comic-book writer and novelist Neil Gaiman wrote the introduction to a Doctor Who novella, Eye of the Tyger. In that essay he said this: “Some things are bigger on the inside than they are on the outside. And, perhaps, some people are bigger on the inside than they are on the outside, as well.” Of all the things he had bundled up to put into his first ever Doctor Who TV story, this, I think, was the most important.

Let’s get some stuff out of the way first. Unlike its near namesake from 2008 (The Doctor’s Daughter), The Doctor’s Wife never delivers on the title’s promise – except in the loosest, most metaphorical sense – and doesn’t suffer one tiny jot because of it. That’s because this is an adventure that feels like the writer’s been screaming to let it out ever since the Zarbi. It’s threaded with decades of Doctor Who watching and thinking, and aches like it really, really wants to be a part of the whole silly legend.

Gaiman’s script is laden with love for our show. There’s a call back to the little white psychic message boxes from The War Games (of all things) and talk of the TARDIS “matrix”, “Artron energy”… even “The Eye of Orion”. Plus we have third parties referencing our hero as “Time Lord”, which nowadays feels like an arcane and rather thrilling conceit. Likewise, the whipping up of a new Gallifreyan compadre for the Doctor in those stories of the Corsair. This kind of thing may have been acceptable in the Eighties, but we haven’t seen its like for a long time. It’s all rather lovely.

But alongside the exuberance there’s also arrogance on Gaiman’s part, the chutzpah to get in there and tinker with Doctor Who’s very fundamentals. Of all the hands who have worked on the programme since 1963, he’s the one who’s going to tell us everything that the TARDIS is.

He mostly gets away with it, partly because you can tolerate the impudence of The Doctor’s Wife by dint of its brilliance. But also it’s because of the sheer gravitational pull of Doctor Who. In this aspect, the adventure absolutely corresponds with The Doctor’s Daughter, because every revelation it makes is absorbed back into the format before the whoosh of the ‘NEXT WEEK’ caption has faded. That’s just how it is. Sure, the Time Lord became a dad in 2008, but it’s by-the-by. So is this tale of how the thief wooed the time-ship. Mark my words, next week the Doctor will be banging on the console and chivvying the old girl along without a thought for the raggedy Ann she once was. To truly resonate post-1975, you have to do something as loud as blowing up Gallifrey.

Playing Idris, Suranne Jones is dressed as a drag queen who’s kind of going for a Miss Haversham look… but mostly hoping to turn heads. It’s an arresting visual, the kind of vaudevillian take on the gothic that characterises Gaiman’s work elsewhere. Ultimately, Idris succeeds, but she’s a daunting prospect for any actress, with her non-linear thought patterns and penchant for non sequiturs. Suranne’s performance could best be termed ‘brave’, and I mean that in both its euphemistic and literal sense. Initially her posturing and prancing feels a little actor’s workshop, but that’s quite clever. She’s finding the character, just as Idris/the TARDIS is/are doing the same thing. Her first line of dialogue in her wheezing and groaning guise prefigures what will be her last: “Not ‘goodbye’, what’s the other one?” It’s a clever, if slightly self-conscious conceit, but that kind of controlled quirkiness makes it a difficult to truly love her. Well, until she and the Doctor have a tiff.

As for Matt Smith, he’s been a shouty Doctor of late, and there’s a spot of that here with the exuberant cry of “Goodbye scullery!” and his flannel about bubble universes. But it’s when he’s quiet he’s at his most powerful. His realisation House has killed all the Time Lords is a stand-out scene. A lovely line – “I really thought I had some friends here” – delivered gently. Not rage, but sadness. It’s this Doctor’s most affecting moment, and one that mitigates the indulgences of having him weep at the story’s end. Because the Doctor really shouldn’t cry.

In fact, everyone’s great. With the TARDIS converted into a scary, off-kilter killer funhouse, we get to see a wrung-out Amy and Rory. And for the second review in a row, I’m singling out Arthur Darvill for a special merit badge. Specifically, it’s for that scene where Amy comes across an aged and raddled version of her husband. Arthur loads the dialogue with such spite, it’s shocking. “Two thousand years I waited for you!” he rails. “You did it to me again!” And then, positively screaming: “How could you do that… to ME?!”

Conversely, as the shambling Auntie and Uncle, Elizabeth Berrington and Adrian Schiller are unexpectedly naturalistic – mumbling, underwhelmed and occasionally chipping in to finish the other’s sentences. In a low-powered sort of a way, they give us two of the best performances the show has seen in recent years.

And of course, there’s Michael Sheen. He’ll be gutted his character’s conceptual nature denies him action-figure immortality, but much like Toby Jones’ Dream Lord in last year’s Amy’s Choice, his mocking, silky tones imbue the story with its own insane commentator. There’s a pleasing authority to his voice, which helps establish House as a top-rank baddy – although at times his polished timbre evokes less a sentient planet and more that bloke who does The Apprentice (“Meanwhile, project manager House is gambling that relocating to the Doctor’s universe will increase their chance of Time Lord footfall…”).

This story; it’s oddly insular. Perhaps more than any other Doctor Who writer, Gaiman’s work speaks of fan love. Like all us, now he’s got his hands on the show, all he really wants to do is journey inward and explore the TARDIS, both as a literal expedition through time-bending corridors and a metaphorical journey through layers of meaning. Some of these aren’t hidden all that deeply. The notion of strolling back onto the Tenth Doctor’s console room, for example. It’s a why-the-hell-not kind of a thing. Pointless, but weirdly nostalgic and forbidden, because our knowledge of TV grammar precluded any hope of ever seeing that set again – it’s a product of an era we’re travelling away from. Yet, what better way to exemplify the TARDIS as a magic door, than by having it open on to something that seemed gone for good?

The idea of the Doctor cobbling together an ersatz secondary console from junk also chimes in with this notion. A TARDIS, it seems, can be created with hope and bravery and good intentions and… and all the stuff that makes us bigger on the inside. It’s that indefinable magic, as they so often say about Doctor Who. No wonder the police box has become the show’s totem, enjoying a richly deserved spot wodged into the logo.

The Doctor’s Wife is a true one-off, and better for it. The rules of the programme dictate episodes are best spent getting through those blue doors as quickly as possible, only to return when the fun is done. But Gaiman’s good at introspection, mainly because he knows exactly the right time to cut to a wide-shot. “What do you think, dear?” wonders the Doctor to his wonderful ship. “Where shall we take the kids?” And so the adventure continues.

That story about John Nathan-Turner’s efforts to root out a wrong ‘un is one of zillions orbiting Doctor Who. It’s just a funny, silly, little anecdote. Neil Gaiman’s story is a much bigger deal. It’s a scary, beautiful and offbeat thing, but even it can’t really cast a shadow over this programme and how we understand it. Instead, it remains another bit of Doctor Who, which is a fine fate indeed.

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