• 19th May 2011 • Review by Seb Patrick •
It was almost exactly a year ago, when reviewing “Flesh and Stone”, that I said:
“The Pandorica?” he says, bringing this year’s plot keyword front and centre. “That’s just a fairy tale.” To which the only answer, of course – as Murray Gold’s lovely recurring bit of Harry Potter-esque score strikes up – is “Aren’t we all?” We know this is how Moffat sees Who (hasn’t he just hired the world’s foremost writer of fairy tales for series six?)…
Even when saying that, though, I’m not sure entirely what I expected of a Gaiman-written Doctor Who. Yes, his unique sensibilities seemed to fit perfectly with the sort of thing Moffat was doing on occasion last year – but even so, he’d be reined in a bit, surely? That Babylon 5 episode aside, he’s never really done “sci-fi” before, instead trading largely in (mythical and urban) fantasy. Sure, parts of Neverwhere – the parts with the Marquis de Carabas in – felt like a Who story that never was, but that was still very firmly a world away in voice and setting. Working on a time-travel adventure series rooted heavily in science and logic would surely require a shift in approach and tone – just to avoid the feeling that you’ve been shoehorned in just because of who you are, rather than because of your expected ability to write good Doctor Who – wouldn’t it?
Well, not if you’re Neil Gaiman. If you’re Neil Gaiman, instead of doing that, you turn out – wonderfully, gloriously, at least for people like this correspondent, who had their worldview irrevocably shaped by the discovery of Sandman in their mid-teens – the most Neil Gaimanish thing you’ve done in a decade. Good Doctor Who – great, almost peerless modern age Doctor Who – but also a great big fairy tale at the same time. “The Boy Whose Favourite Toy Spoke To Him.”
Why it works, of course, is that although it’s filled with more of Gaiman’s famed tropes than you could shake a wild-haired female personification of an abstract concept in a tatty evening dress at, it largely uses them as dressing for a story that’s sculpted from a deep and abiding love for Doctor Who‘s own mythology. You don’t necessarily get the sense that Gaiman has a great love for the show’s established story types – or, if he does, he shies away from using one – since at its heart, this is a mood and character piece rather than an “adventure”; instead, the fanboy inside the writer indulges itself by digging into a side of the series’ history that the twenty-first century showrunners have generally been a little reticent about touching: Gallifrey.
We’ve had precisely two stories in the last five years that have dealt with the Doctor’s home planet and people to any sort of extent, and from them you could be forgiven for thinking that the Master and the High Council were the be-all and end-all. All of a sudden, though, we’re being thrown the names of former friends, a cupboard full of Time Lord (and Lady) voices, and – most excitingly – one of the most vivid recreations ever, even though only in anecdotal form, of the events that led to our hero leaving his planet in the first place. Without even resorting to an actual flashback, “The Doctor’s Wife” transports us back to the early life of a wanderlusting Doctor in a way that feels more honest and tangible than any of the attempts to tell his origin in aborted 1990s US productions could have hoped to. It’s as if Gaiman never got RTD’s memo that all that backstory would confuse and irritate the wider audience; instead, he acts as if the wider audience have been in on it all along.
Crucial to this is the conviction with which Idris/the TARDIS is played, both in writing and performance, as the potentially offputting or baffling recounting of past mythology instead feels all the more natural. The more surprising element is the latter – Suranne Jones isn’t just good, she’s terrific, and it’s a surprise to anyone who only knew her as “that one off Coronation Street” that she’s instantly made herself one of the most memorable supporting turns of the modern era. But it’s no surprise whatsoever that Gaiman, creator of some of the most memorable characters I can recall ever reading about (from Hob Gadling to Mr Wednesday to de Carabas), makes her such an instantly winning and engaging figure – after just a few minutes, it’s as if we’ve known her for years (although of course, in a way, we have). And, in a way that makes for some fantastic entertainment, her relationship with the Doctor is all over the place – by turns she’s admonishing him like an idiot schoolboy one moment, and asking him things with inquisitive naivety the next.
And all of this is especially lovely because of how much it makes the episode about the Doctor himself. It was a characteristic of the Davies era that the series was more about the companions who travelled with this brilliant mysterious man than the brilliant mysterious man himself. An understandable one, mind, as they served as a valuable entry point for the newer viewer; but nevertheless, it wasn’t until his final stories that he felt confident enough in how we the audience saw the lead character that he could put more focus on him. But prior to that, and even running into Moffat’s era too (arguably even more so, given what’s been done with River), we’ve had a succession of stories about companions who are apparently The Most Important Person In The Universe, or a potential One True Love, and it’s all quite heavily rooted in the notion of “Right Now” being important, rather than having much in the way of reverence for all the things the Doctor has done and will do in the future. It’s quite welcome, then, that “The Doctor’s Wife” is so much about the title character himself, and his history (and yes, Rory and Amy are in it, and have a quite interesting adventure running around dark scary corridors, but if I’m honest, those aren’t the scenes from this episode that will stick with me for years). Gaiman is even one of the rare writers to have the confidence to give the Doctor whole onscreen minutes on his own – something that’s an especially smart move when you’ve got an actor like Smith to take advantage of.
That sort of thing isn’t going to be for everyone, of course. There are those would prefer the show to be less about the Doctor – positing that he should be the slightly distanced, mysterious figure – and more about the people around him. Those same people probably wouldn’t engage with all the TARDIS-as-mythological-object material that the episode deals in, either; but for people like me, for whom that blue box with its infinite interior has always been one of the most compelling icons of the series… that cobbled-together yet distinctly-based-on-how-the-classic-version-looked console (and note the wall panels, each with a differently-styled set of roundels, too – lovely detail) was one thing – and I’ll definitely be buying the playset – but all the shots of the TARDIS whizzing through space (more in one episode than I think we’ve had in an entire series before) are like porn.
Even aside from all the icon-worship, though, “The Doctor’s Wife” is brilliant because it exudes the level of effortless wit, creativity and precision of… well, of a Moffat episode, basically. It’s a stark contrast to the previous week’s “Curse of the Black Spot” – an episode that didn’t exactly do anything badly, but simply didn’t have that spark of a heightened creative power working at the top of their game. It’s a combination of things, from Gaiman’s distinctive use of language – sometimes an acquired taste, but here perfectly suited to Idris/TARDIS’ speech patterns in particular – to inventive lateral-thinking technology (a password system that involves imagining concepts is something that could only happen when you throw Gaiman and sci-fi together), to the notion that the final moment of the all-too-brief relationship involves snatching at the chance to say “Hello” for the first and only time. There are people who simply work on a level higher than any of us can even aspire to – and this is one of the occasions that Doctor Who has managed to snag one of them.
We couldn’t have this sort of episode every week, of course – just as we couldn’t have “Blink”, or “Human Nature”, or “Amy’s Choice” every week. Doctor Who needs, in the main, to be about discovery and adventure – and if there’s a criticism of this series so far, it’s that it’s been missing a good old-fashioned, solid, “show up in the middle of a problem and sort it out” story. But it would be unfair to use what “The Doctor’s Wife” isn’t as any sort of judgement against it – because every so often, we’re allowed just to enjoy something like this. A nostalgia-driven summary of everything we love about this character and his world; and at the same time a charming fairy tale that reminds us, as we watch the young-again-old-man dancing around with his favourite toy, that when we were a child, our favourite toy was our best friend as well.