Like the rest of the world (except America), I didn’t get to see this story’s final scenes until they were aired on BBC1 on Saturday night. I wrote the majority of the piece a week or so before, based on the press preview copy, which omitted the final five minutes. Then I had to wait to patch the final article together.
And, as is the way of things, it turned out I had tickets for a gig on the night of broadcast, so – although I had a strong inkling of John Hurt’s role – I first got confirmation thanks to texts I received after the finale aired.
On Sunday, I patched together the finished review, and sent it to Tom at DWM, who’d come into the office specifically to get the words onto the page. I may be wrong in saying so, but I think the decision to hold back finalizing DWM #461 until my piece was delivered resulted in it going out to the shops late.
Before transmission, and despite the best efforts of the Doctor Who brand wagon, The Name of the Doctor felt like it was going to be the only series finale in the show’s history which wasn’t a means to an end in itself. Everything hadn’t been leading up to this. The bigger dénouement would be arriving in November.
And then one unexpected onscreen caption: “Introducing John Hurt as the Doctor”. What? Hold on… Just… What?! It’s all up for grabs now. Where does this leave our mantra of naming all the Time Lord’s incarnations in order? Does Matt Smith remain as Mr Eleven? And what about all the birthday merchandise adorned with the floaty heads of William Hartnell and his 10 compadres? Has all that been rendered obsolete?
Never before has the show come out fighting quite like this, socking us so hard in the jaw that, in defiance of the Great Intelligence’s meddling, stars are coming out in front of our eyes. Sure, the big five-oh is around the corner and the excitement of David Tennant crossing time-steams with Matt Smith, but this – this – will surely be the prime cut for those end-of-year clip shows.
Up until then, the most audacious turn in the series’ vast history had taken place just 45 minutes earlier. We’re on Gallifrey, a long time ago, and here’s the incredibly pivotal moment only ever whispered in legend, or only considered safe within the unconsecrated world of novels and comic-strips. It’s the bit when the Doctor pinches his TARDIS and leaves Gallifrey. We’re actually seeing it happen. It’s something also revisited later in the episode, with Clara counselling the First Doctor, “Steal this one. The navigation system’s knackered, but you’ll have much more fun.” To be honest, I can’t see that incarnation going a bundle on fun (or even the word ‘knackered’) but nonetheless, that, and the subsequent shot of the pre-police-boxed Type 40 tumbling through the time tunnel with 50 years of adventure ahead of it, made my skin prickle agreeably.
However, before we go any further, I-Spy books open, everyone, as we spot and jot the origin of the clips used in that glorious pre-credits sequence. Through multiple CSI-type stop-and-zooms on the DWM supercomputer, we’ve been able to ascertain that the Hartnell footage comes from The Aztecs while his dialogue is lifted from The Web Planet. The Troughton and Pertwee sequences hail from The Five Doctors while, in the idiom of that 20th birthday bash, Baker (T) finds himself pinched once more from old footage, namely The Invasion of Time. Davison’s spot of hanging around comes courtesy of Arc of Infinity, Baker (C) is – of course – a body double (making it two Doctor Who stories, now, featuring Sixie, but no Colin) and McCoy is an unfinessed clip from the cliffhanger to Dragonfire Part One. Clara at this point, wondering why she bothered saving the old duffer when he’s prepared to do something so patently stupid.
As an opener, this is Doctor Who at a strut, confident enough to show its hand before any money’s laid down. Weirdly though – the final reveal aside – most of what follows can’t quite live up to that.
For a run that has mainly unburdened itself of all narrative arcs, barring the obvious question mark hanging over the companion, The Name of the Doctor still ends up with a lot of plot paperwork to do. As a result, it’s a satisfying story, but not really a full-blooded adventure. There are no daring escapes and few real moments of jeopardy. Instead, it’s all about the revelations. One of which isn’t the Doctor’s name. Yet another feint by Steven Moffat, it feels a slightly redundant tease when the more honest The Grave of the Doctor would surely be a fanciable enough title. Besides, anyone other than me feel no real pull from the mystery of what his Earthling mum (hah!) and Time Lord dad picked out for their little lad? That’s not to say I haven’t enjoyed the resurgence of the “Doctor who?” gag, I’m always a sucker for that. But a given name offers no insight.
That cul-de-sac aside, we are being delivered solid resolution on the Trenzalore prophecy. What sells the place’s mythic stature isn’t so much its doom-laden realisation on screen – although to my eyes, despite it being a terrific idea, the apparently epic scale of the dimensionally not-so-transcendental TARDIS didn’t really come across. No, we’re sold by something else entirely. Back on Earth, in the front room of a suburban London home on April 10, 2013 [FLASHING CAPTION: These events take place on the Wednesday between the broadcast of The Rings of Akhaten and Cold War] we witness the Doctor’s reaction to Clara naming Trenzalore. It’s a brave decision for Matt Smith to play the emotion so umabiguously, and a very effective one. We’ve seen the Doctor tearful in sorrow before – although, even that’s rare – but never, I think, in fear. It’s almost as if when it comes to this locale, the rules go out the window. This is also implied when the Great Intelligence (Richard E Grant on excellent, chilly form) reports, matter-of-factly and in the past tense, on what will one day be the Doctor’s death: “In the end it was too much for the old man.” Stop! This is the stuff we must never know!
The story of the Impossible Girl also comes to its conclusion, and it’s been a fine old ride. The very fact it resulted in that augmented crazy clips package justifies the whole exercise, before we even get going on the explanation. The concept of Clara splintered in time (I’ve seen City of Death, I know the lingo), and interacting with every incarnation of the Doctor is grand. To have something that tinkers with the everythingness of Doctor Who is exactly what we need in this year of years. And because of that, it works as a first pass. But look at it for a moment longer, and it falls to bits.
Why, if Clara’s been bobbing around the Doctor’s time stream, didn’t he recognise her when they met sans Dalek casing in The Snowmen? Readers, I’ve given this a bit of thought. I guess the line “But he almost never hears me” covers that. But it’s a flip-floppy piece of writing. The Time Lord’s never aware of Clara, except for those moments when he is? I’m also at a loss to work out what the Great Intelligence is actually up to when he inserts himself into the montage. Are we to read this as him continually killing the Doctor? Or just standing around all day looking tough (which must be very wearing on the nerves)? Also, how is Clara thwarting his efforts? Does her presence somehow boot him out of the time stream? Do they wrestle? Plus, where exactly are she and the Doctor at the end of the episode? And, hang on, this has just occurred to me – how come Clara’s suspicious of River’s grave? She states she knows the prof isn’t dead, but neither is the Doctor and no one’s querying his resting place.
Normally I’m not sure how much these details matter. Particularly in a story that’s about to skewer our understanding of Doctor Who history. But when so much screen time is also devoted to plot mechanics, it begs you to make a closer inspection.
However, let’s zoom back to the broader picture. Here are the Whisper Men! Can’t quite get a handle on their modus operandi – other than phasing their hands through their victims’ ribcages, and reading aloud from satanic Rupert Bear pages – but what a visual. As is often the case in Doctor Who, a simple subversion of the human form makes for a truly scary baddy. Having just that one aperture in their heads makes you focus on the horrific maw of a mouth. As we come to realise, they also work as nasty reflections of the Great Intelligence’s current form and complete his deathly aspect, acting as ever-present pallbearers. Granted, they don’t feel sufficiently well realised to merit a return bout, but in the service of this tale, they acquit themselves very well.
Series finales in the past have often left me giddy, with friends, foes and cameos assailing us from all sides. The Name of the Doctor is – for a tale so audacious – actually very disciplined (except for name-checking the Valeyard, that was a wonderful indulgence). Even River’s wings have been clipped, what with her not being physically present. By the way, is this the character’s goodbye? It’s notable how the Doctor refers to her as his ex, and presumably the former Mrs Who getting custody of Tom Baker’s space hair was part of their divorce settlement. Meanwhile, Vastra, Jenny and Strax now fall-in very neatly. Everyone, it seems, is duly respectful – this is no romp – and it fits the funereal atmosphere. The late Doctor attended by his closest friends before he gives himself to his “own personal time tunnel”. Ashes to ashes.
More funk to funky. And we’re back to that crazy, leftfield ending again. The best sign ever that in its middling years, Doctor Who is going to be anything but. I can’t imagine how the 50th anniversary special will play out in November, but I can’t wait. For a series about time travel, this final quirk makes it clear that what is to follow will very much be about present, and not past, tense. Come on then, Doctor. Come on Moffat. Unleash a world of Hurt on us.