Cast: Matt Smith, Karen Gillen, Arthur Darvill, Suranne Jones, Elisabeth Berrington, Michael Sheen ~ Writer: Neil Gaiman ~ Director: Richard Clark ~ Year: 2011
The Low-Down: It’s ‘The One Written By That Bloke Who Wrote The Sandman’. It’s the episode with one of the most fan-baiting titles of recent years. And it’s also about the most inventive, fun and consistently excellent single episode of Doctor Who since S5’s The Eleventh Hour.
What’s it About?: An impossible message sends the Doctor to a junkyard asteroid outside the universe, where he encounters eccentric patchwork people and the parasitic House. But there’s also someone else – a woman named Idiris, who’s actually someone the Doctor knows extremely well…
The Story: (WARNING: As with most of my Doctor Who reviews, the following contains a hefty load of spoilers…)
I’ll be honest – I was a little worried about The Doctor’s Wife. Neil Gaiman writing Doctor Who did sound like a match made in heaven, but I’ve learned never to trust sure things where Doctor Who was concerned. Plus, there was that title – a fan-baiting proposition if there ever was one, especially in the wake of S4’s The Doctor’s Daughter (and its anti-climactic resolution in the story in question) along with the general speculation about exactly who River Song was going to turn out to be. Also, there was Suranne Jones – an actress whose first Who-related appearence was as a brassy, gun-slinging Northern version of the Mona Lisa in a not-exactly-astounding edition of The Sarah Jane Adventures. On top of this, the opening of S6 had been… well, not exactly shaky, but a little too arc-heavy, a long way from the confident energy of last year’s The Eleventh Hour, and backed up with an episode (The Curse of the Black Spot) that can only safely be described as ‘lacklustre’.
I needn’t have worried. Not only does The Doctor’s Wife bring a serious level of inventive fun and energy back to the show, but it’s also a stone-cold classic that features a tremendous amount of continuity that’ll enchant long-term fans without talking over the head of new viewers. One of the advantages of Doctor Who having such a long history is that certain writers can play off this history in imaginative ways, and Gaiman does this in such a wonderful manner, giving a new slant on a relationship that’s been there since the show’s beginning and yet has never quite been expressed like this.
The identity of Idris – that she’s the Doctor’s TARDIS in human form – is a brilliant twist (one that I didn’t predict in the slightest), and not only does it set up a pulpy, ferociously enjoyable episode, but it also gives us a wonderfully oddball relationship of the kind you could only ever pull off in Doctor Who – someone the Doctor has known for 700 years, and yet never properly met. The interplay between the Doctor and Idris is energetic, fast-paced and brilliantly done (from her initial outbursts of “My Thief!” to his complaints about the TARDIS’s reliability, to the final, heartbreaking “Hello” line), and what could have been over-kooky or twee is pitched at exactly the right level, aided by simply brilliant performances from Matt Smith and Suranne Jones (whom I’d never have recognised from her Sarah Jane Adventures appearence).
It’s an episode that’s utterly Gaimanesque, with plenty of gothic flourishes (especially with Idris herself, who heavily echoes Delirium from Gaiman’s The Sandman), but which also is steeped in Who mythology, utilising the background of the show in a number of imaginative ways and even giving us a long-awaited look at the TARDIS interior beyond the control room (with the dim, slightly creepy hexagonal corridors giving the dingy, atmospheric feel that the story needed).
What’s most surprising about the story, however, is that while there’s a brilliant pace and a cerebral edge to it, it also doesn’t feel like it would have been completely out of place in the Russell T Davies era – there’s an expansive big-heartedness to much of the episode that’s tremendous fun, and it also doesn’t fall into the trap of overdone sentiment that Vincent and the Doctor arguably did at its climax. Overall, this is Gaiman getting the chance to play with as many elements from the Doctor Who toybox as he can get his hands on – and while there are areas where budget has obviously come into play (the TARDIS-set sequences are never able to cut loose with the kind of mayhem that House would have been technically able to unleash), this is still a tremendously inventive and creative episode, giving us a style that feels modern while still capturing the pulp weirdness of Doctor Who at its best.
Slickly directed and well-played by everyone involved, it’s the kind of story where the tiny flaws only really stand out because there are so few of them. The TARDIS-pursuit sections never quite feel as if they fully live up to their potential, and it is unfortunate we ended up with yet another ‘fake death’ for Rory (although the proximity with ‘Curse of the Black Spot’ wasn’t planned, as that was originally to be episode 9 of this season, and the sequence in question was genuinely unsettling, with the disturbing graffiti giving it a seriously dark edge for Who). Yes, there are certain moments when the pace is a tad too fast, or we’re getting important information shouted at us over some slightly deafening sound design, but they’re over so quickly that they barely seem to matter.
What’s more important is the sheer quality of the writing, and how much of a difference it makes after last week’s somewhat unimpressive effort – while Moffat’s era of Who is still somewhat uneven, at least the highs are still turning out to be magnificent ones. As always, Who lives or dies on the quality of its writing, and Gaiman has set a new benchmark, giving us another episode that leaves you thinking “My God, why can’t it be that good every week?” He’s also given us the most genuinely satisfying episode of S6 so far, and yet more proof that despite its inconsistency, Who is still capable of being one of the finest SF shows on TV when it really hits the mark.
The Verdict: An engaging, funny and magical episode, The Doctor’s Wife will make it impossible to look at the Doctor/TARDIS relationship in quite the same way again. A seriously classy act, it’s not going to be an easy one to follow – and now’s not the time to mention that next week’s episode (the first of a two-parter) is from Matthew Graham, the same writer who gave us the abysmal S2 episode Fear Her, is it?