The Name of the Doctor – review

Or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love Doctor Who Again

Wow.

A month and a half ago, in my review for The Bells of St John, I mentioned that Steven Moffat had a difficult task ahead of him. Now, seven episodes later, it looked impossible. The Name of the Doctor not only had resolve the mystery of Clara’s existence, it also had to answer its own, fifty year-old question. A question to which there is absolutely no satisfying answer. In short, there was no way whatsoever that this episode was going to be anything other than an over-budgeted, effects-driven flop.

So let’s get the minor quibbles out of the way first – Richard E Grant was completely the wrong choice to play the Great Intelligence. As an actor, Grant has repeatedly demonstrated that he has no instinct for subtext or subtlety in his performance (which is part of what made Withnail such an entertaining character) and so here it reduces the Great Intelligence to little more than a moustache-twirling pantomime villain.

(Speaking of bad acting, Angie and Artie are back. Mercifully, they only got about two lines apiece before being very wisely shunted offscreen.)

And (rather surprisingly) that brings us to the end of my gripes. Since the last month and a half has read like a litany of disappointment, of someone repeatedly raising their hopes only to have them dashed against a wall of lazy writing and incompetent direction, it was genuinely exciting to finally watch an episode of Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who that I absolutely loved, that I genuinely enjoyed from the first shot to the last.

The Name of the Doctor was a huge, comic book event of an episode. The dazzling insanity of Clara’s pre-credits monologue and montage led in to a delightfully slow burning opening fed by beautiful nonsense fantasy science (and a particularly great gag about Glasgow). From then on, we were shovelled a high-speed and sugary diet of pure story and ideas (even if about eighty-nine percent of them were nicked from Lawrence Miles). It may not have been a particularly inspired or original episode, but to see concepts like the Doctor’s biodata corpse, a dead TARDIS or the inside of the Doctor’s mind ACTUALLY ON THE TELEVISION was as audacious as it was visually stunning.

And of course, of course, we were never going to hear the Doctor’s real name. Even Steven Moffat, who has been responsible for some catastrophic errors of judgment in the past, is too smart to destroy that basic tenet of the programme for the sake of a season finale. Instead, the Doctor’s name becomes a fundamental aspect of his identity and choices, of which more later…

Matt Smith’s underplayed response to Clara’s information was a welcome antidote to the wackier excesses of the Eleventh Doctor’s character, and he remained on top form throughout the episode. The Paternoster Gang were reliably solid, as per usual, and even River Song was bearable; I can honestly say I never thought I’d find myself typing those words.

In amongst all the sound and fury, you’d expect any sort of emotion or humanity to be brushed over or ignored in favour of another explosion (as happened in The Wedding of River Song two years ago). But for the first time in a long time, the show managed to make us feel for the characters; even though we’ve only really known Clara for little over a month, her sacrifice actually seemed to mean something. This is partially down to Moffat’s writing, but mainly due to Jenna-Louise Coleman, whose utterly charming performance has transformed Clara from a potentially one note timey-wimey mystery girl to someone you’d love to be best friends with. Now that we’re free of the (frankly tedious) Impossible Girl subplot, I look forward to seeing Clara grow and develop as a character. It’s a big call, but I’m going to make it, and damn the consequences: Clara Oswald is the new Sarah Jane Smith.

This was, in nearly every respect, a fantastic episode of Doctor Who, and a decent piece of event television in its own right. And then…

And then… John Hurt. Caligula. Kane. The Storyteller. One of the greatest actors of the last fifty years, in the greatest television series of all time, playing the Doctor himself. This is more than stunt casting, this is a genuinely exciting prospect: is he a Valeyard? Is he the Eighth-And-A-Half Doctor? At last, Moffat has given us a mystery worth waiting for.

November cannot come quickly enough.

FINAL RATING: 4.5/5

ODDS & ENDS:

  • Yes, the dropping of Clara into past adventures looked a little bit dodgy. Of course it did; how else were they going to show her interacting with Billy Hartnell or Pat Troughton? But to complain about the quality of the special effects in Doctor Who is churlish and superficial at best; it’s like complaining that a Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc doesn’t taste enough like a Vodka Cruiser.
  • We got to see the TARDIS naked! That’s got to be a fetish for someone, somewhere.
  • Go and find a copy of Alien Bodies. Really. And then go and read all the rest of Lawrence Miles’ work.

Next week: a roundtable discussion of the latest series, with special guests Ben Jenkins, Alex Neill, David Cunningham, Kyle Solomon and Doctor Who writer John Dorney. It’s going to be absolutely brilliant; I do hope you can join us.

When not reviewing Doctor Who, Patrick Magee is a side scrolling action video game by Taito for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. More of his ramblings can be found here, and you can buy his novel As Baile: A Story here.

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