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Doctor Who - The Name of the Doctor
Written by Steven Moffat
Directed by Saul Metzstein
Broadcast on BBC One - 18 May 2013
This review contains plot spoilers from the outset and is based on the UK broadcast of the episode. 

“It’s the closest Who’s ever come to poetry, And we haven’t yet reached the anniversary…”

This has to be Steven Moffat’s greatest reversal. Having set up the expectation that we’ll finally learn the Doctor’s true name, instead we get a figure (presumably an unknown incarnation) who has failed to act in “the name of the Doctor". It’s slightly muddled in the execution though: a cheesy “introducing John Hurt as the Doctor” crashing over the story’s events feels like the polar opposite of Sherlock’s on-screen text, being faintly ludicrous rather than classy. And haven’t we just been told in closing dialogue that this Hurt version has failed to carry the Doctor’s name? But no, he's captioned as “the Doctor”. Of course, it’s a moment designed for maximum impact, so perhaps it's irrelevant if it doesn't gel with what we’ve heard.

The same problem – impact over logic – occurs elsewhere in this finale-that’s-actually-an-anniversary-prequel. The Whispermen are its greatest exemplar: they speak in rhyming couplets and look immensely creepy, but we never get much in the way of explanation or rationale for any of this. They may as well be known as Gimmickmen, amounting to precious more than sensation-seeking for its own sake. From the special effects sequence where Dr. Simeon peels away his face and is regenerated afresh we can surmise that these Whispermen are shells upon which the Great Intelligence can imprint information – but given that G. Intelligence Esquire is supposedly pure information without a body, the precise materiality of the Whispermen remains murky. Never mind; they look distinctive and they sound distinctive – perhaps they’re the first entirely self-referential Doctor Who monster, hollow except for the formulaic need to make an instant audio-visual impression.

Sections of the audience may be tempted to describe much of this episode as ‘fanwank’. And there’s certainly no denying the thrill that accompanies seeing the first Doctor and Susan about to escape from Gallifrey. Even here, though, Moffat doesn’t simply deliver fan service. Instead he executes yet another inversion, leading his fellow fans to assume that Clara is about to disastrously undo series’ history – creating a Doctor who’ll never have any adventures – when in actual fact she’s getting the show back on track. Regardless of patchy picture quality and a far from seamless integration of new and old footage, I’m not completely sure that fanwank is quite the right term for this. It’s the ultimate retcon, for sure, rewriting the Doctor’s entire timeline so that the current companion becomes the longest-serving “travelling assistant” in the show’s history (pub quizzes are going to have a field day with all this). Perhaps ‘fan-swank’ would be a better description for such an audacious, showy reworking of every previous production team’s work, and every previous era of the programme, in the image of the current producer-fan showrunner and his creations. In an instant, Doctor Who’s history becomes permeated by the here-and-now; all discontinuities and developments since 1963 are bound together and unified by “the impossible girl”.

But if the Whispermen and the “old man” who may or may not be “the Beast” both apparently represent a demand for attention rather than water-tight storytelling, there are other elements that deliver more immediate substance. The giant Police Box is a wonderful idea, though I wish effects shots had clearly incorporated human figures, so that the scale of this TARDIS tomb could be better established and appreciated. Its brilliance is intensified by the fact that Moffat’s Asylum of the Daleks opened series seven with a giant Dalek statue; the show’s icons have therefore neatly book-ended this (split) run of episodes, transformed into vast story-world monuments to themselves. Of course, this wasn’t the only callback to Asylum, as “soufflé girl” makes a re-appearance, lending the notion a newfound thematic and emotional resonance. Whether or not he plans all these grace notes and motifs, it has to be said that Moffat’s writing creates an impressive sense of unity and wholeness on occasion, even if casting the Doctor and Clara back into the Time Lord’s own time-stream pushes this gutsy desire for a grand unified theory of Who perhaps a little too far.

Moffat also weaves River Song coherently into proceedings, crafting moments of real heart and emotion among the story mechanics. Likewise, the Paternoster Gang are generally well-served, although Jenny’s demise is far too easily taken back, and this twisty-wisty stuff reminded me of problems I had with The Angels Take Manhattan where characters were dead, then saved, then lost again, and all so rapidly that any emotional through-line was sorely attenuated. We also know that Moffat enjoys abruptly collecting characters together across time and space, and the “conference call” allied to dream logic was another great idea which enabled an epic sense of scale to be achieved round one ornately decorated table. However, the ‘stars going out’ sequence was just too much of a riff on a previous Moffat cliffhanger for me, and the impact of this scene was weakened as I began to reminisce about The Pandorica Opens and The Big Bang. It’s one thing to play on fan nostalgia via blurred or re-graded clips of old Who, but I’m guessing that this “universe without the Doctor” business wasn’t intended to activate memories of Moffat’s own previous scripts. Self-referential Who starts to become jumbled up with showrunner self-repetition here, not always to the episode’s benefit.

“Bodies are boring”, we’re pointedly told inside the Doctor’s tomb, as if Moffat is also anticipating fan commentary to the effect that some of these plot points have sort of happened before in Doctor Who, albeit not on television. Lawrence Miles’s novel Alien Bodies revolved around the apparent discovery of the Doctor’s future coffin, and revitalised Who storytelling on its initial 1997 publication. The Name of the Doctor works hard to justify its place as an equally revitalising game-changer, but it left me feeling slightly ambivalent: I partly hope that all this retconning and will-to-unity is tidied away by the end of the anniversary special so that Doctor Who’s history can return to its gloriously ramshackle and uneven pastness rather than being assimilated into latter-day coherence. Clara's blunt assertion that "my story is done" also raises the question of where the character can be taken next.

The real strength of The Name of the Doctor, and one reason why it will live on long after anniversary kerfuffle has died away, and long after excitement over the digital blending of classic and new Who has abated, is that it combines a lot of very funny lines with some beautifully poeticised writing (and I don’t mean the Whispermen’s rhymes). Clara’s heightened, stylized talk of “I blew into this world on a leaf” comes elegantly close to encapsulating life as art. The Doctor’s account of his own time-line is similarly poetic, and even Dr. Simeon is compelled to admonish the Time Lord with a curt request for “less poetry”. Closing dialogue likewise rings out as precisely composed. Moffat’s sheer love for words, and their scrupulous manipulation, shines out in these and many other moments, for example in the need for precise interpretation of "the Doctor has a secret he will take to the grave. It is discovered." Rhythm and metre have rarely felt as central to a Doctor Who script as they do here. It’s just a shame that Moffat’s desire for anniversary unification – seeking to bring together all of Who’s history at the same time as articulating his own prior scripts and creations – reduces new elements such as the Whispermen and the Big Secret Ending to somewhat incoherent attention-grabbing. But viewed as a set-up for November 23rd 2013, it’s hard to fault this blend of showmanship and sheer wordplay.
LinkCredit: Television, Series 7/33 
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