My final effort from DWM #460.
You’ve got to admire the cheek of Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS. Even before the opening credits roll, Stephen Thompson’s story presents us with a Big Friendly Button, for the pressing of. When you see a thing like that, you just know its function is to reset the entire plot and cheat the Doctor and Clara out of danger. Everything from here on in becomes superfluous – an exercise in delaying that action.
And yet, with absolutely nothing at stake, this story still manages to entertain. Or perhaps the correct word is titillate. From the title down, Journey is all about the thrills. We coo at the expansive multi-floored library Clara discovers below deck. We gasp to hear snatches of Susan, Ian, the Third, Fourth and – on my God, who’s that? – Ninth Doctor in the console room. We crane to see what’s written in the tartily named The History of the Time War. We blink in the heated majesty of the Eye of Harmony. And we boggle at the return of the crack in time. Altogether now: “CRACK-A-BACK!” Hah! Who’d been lobbying for that?
Put together like a disaster movie, this is slam, bam, thank you ma’am stuff. There’s nothing here about nuance or subtlety. Very little about cleverness. The Van Baalens are a particular blank spot when it comes to that. Not only do the trio represent the show’s most poorly acted siblings since the Sylvest twins – although, to be fair, it must be hard to get going with lines such as, “Hey, I don’t take orders from my kid brother!” – but the revelation that Tricky (Jahvel Hall) isn’t really an android is up there alongside Guy Crayford’s extant eye when it comes to all-time stupid Doctor Who plot points. The dopey attempt at foreshadowing is bad enough, with Gregor (Ashley Walters) making the unconvincing complaint his fake-automaton brother is “always on the side of the machines!” (in that case he’d take to my wife, who’s shouting at iTunes as I write these words). The post-rationalisation is even worse – “It was a joke!” Is that all you’ve got? But start to think of the logistics of such a ruse… Actually, let’s not. We’ve already expounded more worry on this than Thompson ever did.
Other parts of the script also sound dud notes. The Doctor forcing the Van Baalens to assist him under threat of death is just such a thing. Of course, they’re Bad Men, but the notion of the hero holding a gun to their heads – even if this metaphorical firearm is subsequently proven to be a blank – just doesn’t feel at all Doctor-y. Maybe it’s there to add a further layer of peril to the story, a Terry Nation-esque countdown to disaster. And yet that aspect is barely referenced. It would have been less of stretch if our man had just played out his “salvage of a lifetime” gambit and left it at that. Mind you, I did love his teacherly, “It’s your own time you’re wasting” as his hard-thinking houseguests dithered over the ultimatum. Less so his habit for describing himself as a “mad man”, with all its office joker connotations.
I’m pummelling Journey on the basis of it being rather dim. But, in fact, the brutish aspects also work in its favour. It’s surprising how upsetting it is to see the scrap merchants thudding through the TARDIS, hacking away at its goodies. We’ve seen the Doctor under physical duress a zillion times, but never his ship in quite this fashion. It’s harrowing – like witnessing a home invasion. The Invasion of Time if you will! I only throw that in because Steven Moffat has been referencing that story in publicity for this episode, vowing that 35 years on he shall put right its unsatisfactory representation of the TARDIS’ innards. There’s no doubt production designer Michael Pickwoad is able to deliver on his boss’ promise, popping in throwaway rooms such as an observatory and (at last) a swimming pool we can believe in. But, I have to confess I still felt a slight disconnect between the inner and outer environs. The motif of the coffin-shaped corridors runs throughout, but that’s about all. For me, it’s not enough to bind it all together. What I’m trying to say is, I miss the roundels.
Never mind, because Murray Gold’s unusual and superlative soundtrack holds it together, from the Blake’s 7 bombast of the opening scenes to the discomfiting whispering melodies echoing through the corridors. First-time Doctor Who director Mat King is also giving it some; his treatment of the zombie Clara plus the conjoined Van Baleens (their moment of fusing is the most gruesome scene in the show for years) is fantastic, keeping them blurred and unfocussed, daring you to look closer. There’s also a great showy-offy moment when the camera twists and turns through the TARDIS, hunting out the Doctor and co, until meeting them head on and then dollying along backwards.
A couple of series ago, The Doctor’s Wife threatened to kiss and tell about the near-mythical time-ship. Its disclosure of an intelligence lurking within, one that chose the Doctor way back when, felt like big news… in the moment. But then we all moved on and never spoke of it again. Journey brings its own demystifying exposes, specifically the architectural reconfiguration system and the aforementioned Eye of Harmony. Once seen, they can never be unseen. Except that in our heart of hearts we know it’s unlikely the series will trespass upon them again. And when it’s next time to tease us with another journey to the centre of the TARDIS, we’ll discover that a Big Friendly Button was pushed somewhere between then and now, and it’s all up for grabs again.
This story has been big, loud, dumb fun, and in the infinite confines of Doctor Who, there’s the time and space to stumble into that room on the odd occasion.