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Review: The Name of the Doctor

On the fields of Trenzalore … unfinished business

The Name of the Doctor

The Name of the Doctor // Reviewed by James Chapman

BBC1. 7.00 pm. 18.05.2013.

Written by Steven Moffat

Directed by Saul Metzstein

It used to be that the cliffhanger ending in Doctor Who represented a moment of dire peril for the Doctor or his companions. The Dalek limb advancing menacingly towards Barbara (‘The Dead Planet’), the giant spider materialising on Sarah Jane’s back (‘Planet of the Spiders’), or the Doctor’s head held under water by Chancellor Gurth (‘The Deadly Assassin’). Sometimes the mere fact of a Sontaran removing his helmet was enough to have viewers cowering behind the sofa, as in ‘The Time Warrior’ and ‘The Sontaran Experiment’, while occasionally an unexpected surprise such as the unheralded appearance of the Cybermen at the end of Episode 1 of ‘Earthshock’ would leave fans in a state of happy anticipation. And every now and again there would be a regeneration scene and the first words of the new Doctor (or a sardonic ‘Here we go again’ from the Brigadier).

The episodic rather than serial nature of new Doctor Who has meant fewer old-style cliffhangers – in this respect ‘The Empty Child’ and ‘The Doctor Dances’ have arguably yet to be surpassed – but more of the surprise-style endings leading into the next series (or the ‘Children in Need’ special, which Russell T. Davies, demonstrating a tongue-in-cheek knowledge of the series’ external history, once called ‘Pudsey cutaway’ – ‘Dalek cutaway’ having been the working title of ‘Mission to the Unknown’ in 1965, the one-episode trailer for ‘The Daleks’ Master Plan’). The first big ‘surprise’ of new Doctor Who, the regeneration at the end of ‘The Parting of the Ways’, was spoiled when news of Christopher Eccleston leaving the series became public. The reappearance of the Daleks at the end of ‘Army of Ghosts’ was a better kept secret, as was Catherine Tate’s sudden materialisation in the TARDIS at the end of ‘Doomsday’. Perhaps the best surprise moment of new Doctor Who was the mid-series revelation of Series 6 which revealed that River Song was Amy and Rory’s daughter. While plenty of Who fans claimed to have worked this out in hindsight, I don’t remember many suggesting it beforehand.

This episode’s tantalising closing caption ‘introducing John Hurt as The Doctor’ falls into this category of unexpected twist ending, clearly intended as a hook for the fiftieth anniversary special that has recently finished filming and is scheduled for 23 November 2013. That means six months of speculation over the identity of the haggard, unshaven character of whom the Doctor says: ‘I said he was me – I never said he was The Doctor … The name I chose was The Doctor. The name you choose is like a promise you make. He’s the one who broke the promise.’

I’ll stick my neck out and say that I don’t think Hurt is the Doctor, or at least not our Doctor. We’ve had this kind of misdirection before, with David Morrissey in ‘The Next Doctor’ who turned out not to be the Doctor but someone who has accidentally acquired the Doctor’s memories. (I was convinced that Jackson Lake would turn out to be the First Doctor as a young man in Victorian London, which would have made sense age-wise, but how wrong I was on that occasion.) As I write this the Internet is already buzzing with speculation that he will turn out to be the Doctor’s brother, and some are suggesting that he is a reincarnation of The Master. Somehow I doubt it. More likely that he will be something more akin to the Valeyard or the Dream Master, a sort of alternative dark alter ego of the Doctor. Or possibly he’s the Doctor before he became The Doctor? As to what dark deed he did ‘in the name of peace and sanity’, but ‘not in the name of The Doctor’, this might refer to the events of the Time War (again unlikely in my view) or to whatever the great battle was on the Fields of Trenzalore (which, like much else in this episode, remains unexplained).

We’ve been heading here ever since Dorium’s prophetic warning at the end of Series 6: ‘On the Fields of Trenzalore, at the Fall of the Eleventh, where no living creature can speak falsely or fail to answer, a question will be asked… The oldest question in the universe, the question that hides in plain sight. Doctor – Who?’ That was some twenty months ago, though, and I wonder what new viewers who have come to the series in the meantime will have made of all this. In the event it perhaps did not matter a great deal, as, characteristically for a Steven Moffat script, the question of ‘Doctor – Who?’ was not really answered. Even the episode’s title was a piece of misdirection: ‘The Name of the Doctor’ referred not to the Doctor’s name (surely this can never be revealed!) but rather to the line ‘not in the name of the Doctor’.

One mystery that was solved, at least, was that of Clara the Impossible Girl. How can she have died twice before, once in the future and once in the past? The answer is that Clara has entered the Doctor’s time line through a rift in time, and has been there throughout his lives. This was a cue for some clever (if not always very well realised) ‘morphing’ scenes that saw Jenna-Louise Coleman interacting with previous incarnations of the Time Lord. So it turns out that Clara was there when the First Doctor stole a TARDIS and left Gallifrey ‘a very long time ago’. These were the fullest references yet in the new series to the internal history of Doctor Who and exemplify a tendency that has become increasingly prominent in the current series.

When Doctor Who came back to television in 2005, there was a conscious decision under Russell T. Davies not to over-emphasise the series’ history and legacy: Doctor Who was to be seen as a new series with a backstory rather than as a direct continuation from ‘Survival’ or even the 1996 television movie. The producers of the new series looked back to the 1980s, when the increasing self-referentiality was believed to have deterred casual viewers. Gradually, however, the continuity references have crept into new Doctor Who, with the return of old monsters, and, under Steven Moffat, more clips and soundbites of the ghosts of Doctors past. I have mixed feelings about this strategy. It’s entirely appropriate, of course, for an anniversary special, whether the twentieth anniversary in 1983 (‘The Five Doctors’) or the forthcoming fiftieth anniversary in November. We expect these specials to be celebrations of the series and its history. But I’m not sure that it’s so desirable in the regular episodes, especially when Moffat has introduced whole new levels of enigma and mystery. Over the course of this series I’ve feared that Doctor Who is again being written more for the hard-core fans than the general audience. This is one of the reasons why Doctor Who lost the plot in the 1980s: it shored up its existing fan base but alienated new viewers. And if Doctor Who is to thrive beyond its fiftieth anniversary, it needs constantly to be winning over new generations of fans.

Overall this has been a mixed series. Arguably it’s not even been a proper series at all, with the first five episodes last autumn being valedictory adventures for outgoing companions Amy and Rory and a new regular companion introduced in the mid-series Christmas special ‘The Snowmen’. I’ve been critical of the structuring of this series before, and I won’t labour the point again here. But it means that we’ve had only eight episodes to build up the mystery of ‘who’ Clara is, unlike the full series of thirteen that developed the mystery of Amy Pond in Series 5. The structuring has also meant that, while the first part of the series had more stand-alone episodes, the second half has had a greater element of seriality. While the overall story arc has been less convoluted than Series 6, it’s still been confusing enough.

There have been some excellent episodes. ‘The Rings of Akhaten’ stood out for the sheer beauty of its visual and intellectual imagination, while ‘Cold War’ was a superb taut thriller that prompted favourable comparisons with 2005’s ‘Dalek’. Others, including ‘Journey to the Centre of the Tardis’ and ‘Nightmare in Silver’, I found disappointing. In a sense ‘The Name of the Doctor’ was a fitting conclusion to the mixed series. We had the return of Richard E. Grant as Dr Simeon/The Great Intelligence, this time with an army of Whispermen (well, an army of four), first cousins of the Snowmen from the last Christmas special, it would seem, and another addition to Moffat’s gallery of genuinely frightening new monsters. (One of the things I like about Moffat’s Doctor Who is that he has used his best monsters, the Weeping Angels, sparingly so that they maintain a genuine sense of menace. This has meant finding new threats, such as the Silence/Silents and now the Whispermen: I hope we haven’t seen the last of these.) It was a shame that we didn’t get much more sense of what the Great Intelligence really is, or was, though, with some of the hooks laid down in the Christmas special (such as the strategic significance of the London Underground in 1967 – a reference to ‘The Web of Fear’) seemingly forgotten. In the event his/its attempt to reverse past defeats by crossing the Doctor’s time lines did not amount to much, and was quite easily reversed by Clara.

There was a lot to like in the episode. I always welcome the appearance of Alex Kingston as River Song, especially when, as in this series, the character has been used more sparingly than in Series 6. Quite how an apparently post-‘Silence in the Library’/’Forest of the Dead’ River managed to appear on Trenzalore wasn’t clear to me, though in the event it turned out she wasn’t really there in the flesh but was some sort of telepathic projection. Madame Vastra, Jenny and Strax were also back for more, a mere fortnight after their previous outing in ‘The Crimson Horror’, though as much as I like the characters, I felt that having the trio, plus River, meant the episode was crowded with too many companions. A consequence of this was that the Doctor himself seemed a more marginal presence than usual – like ‘A Good Man Goes to War’ he did not appear until a lot of preliminary plot business had been established – whereas I would have thought that in an episode entitled ‘The Name of the Doctor’ he should have been centre stage throughout.

The weakness of the episode in my view, however, was that it left too many plot threads in the air. River has said several times of the Doctor that ‘He doesn’t like endings’. Nor, it seems, does Steven Moffat. Looking back throughout his time as showrunner, only Series 5 had a proper sense of closure – and even then there had been coded forewarnings of the Silence. Series 6 ended with a riddle, while Series 7 has ended with yet more questions. What is at stake in the great battle on the fields of Trenzalore? How has the Doctor come to be entombed there? And will Moffat ever give us a series finale that does not leave us hanging?

In the meantime, like all Doctor Who fans, I will look forward to the fiftieth anniversary special on 23 November, when some of these hanging plot points will hopefully be answered. I hope that the special will be a genuine celebration of Doctor Who and its legacy. And I hope that, for once, Moffat has scripted a decent ending. After that, I hope to see a full series of 13 episodes, not short batches of five or six, even if it means Doctor Who taking another year’s hiatus until 2015. ■

More reviews:
The Bells of St John // The Rings of Akhaten // Cold War // Hide // Journey to the Centre of the Tardis // The Crimson Horror // Nightmare in Silver

Inside the TardisJames Chapman is Professor of Film Studies at the University of Leicester and author of Inside the Tardis: The Worlds of ‘Doctor Who’ – A Cultural History, a second edition of which will be published by I. B. Tauris in September 2013.

3 comments on “Review: The Name of the Doctor

  1. nickcull
    May 21, 2013

    Nice review James. Hard to celebrate the 50th without acknowledging the show’s internal culture and sustained mythology. The arrival of John Hurt was a genuine sit forward moment and deserves appreciation. Fun to have something to speculate over until November. If Hurt is a ‘lost’ regeneration that bumps Smith to regeneration 12 and means that ‘the fall of the 11th’ could refer to the demise of the parallel universe Tennant.

  2. James Chapman
    May 29, 2013

    Thanks, Nick. The speculation is fun – and keeps the series alive for six months until the anniversay Special. My guess, for what it’s worth, is that Hurt is William Hartnell as a younger man, before he assumed the name of the Doctor, and that he did something that forced him to flee Gallifrey. But my track record in picking these mysteries is not good!

  3. James Chapman
    July 30, 2013

    The latest word I had was that Hurt is supposed to be a ‘lost’ regeneration – possibly the one who committed genocide to end the Time War before regenerating into Ecclestone – though it would not surprise me in the least if this turned out to be some more Moffat misdirection.

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