* Warning: Spoilers Ahead *
One of the areas in which Steven Moffat’s vision for Doctor Who has excelled, has been the way in which the plots have resembled those from cartoon strips, graphic novels or even, dare I say it, the old World Distributors annuals that appeared every Christmas throughout most of the classic series run. In that many of the episodes have taken a simple but kooky, often rather left-field, idea as the basis of the plot, and then spun it out until it at least appeared to be happening to “real” people. Witness the Dalek who thought she was a little girl, the medical facility in which time runs at different speeds according to what room you’re in, or the giant space chicken that haunts the mind of the troubled artistic genius. Last year, there was an episode in which an intergalactic black marketeer commandeers a spaceship only to discover there are dinosaurs on board. And here we have an ostensibly similar example: the TARDIS is space-nabbed by an interstellar salvage team, necessitating a journey to its core to repair the engines. It’s the kind of idea that could be as hokey as hell, and one that certainly sounds like something out of the realms of b-movie sci-fi; in the hands of the writer who two years ago provided us with The Curse of the Black Spot, otherwise high expectations for such a TARDIS-centric tale have been tempered with uncertainty about how well such an episode might be written. Steve Thompson’s latter Sherlock episode, The Reichenbach Fall, might have been a standout among the three episodes of Series Two, but his first series episode, The Blind Banker, wasn’t received with anything like the same acclaim; would Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS pass muster?
Hell yes. With bells on.
Before we go on, I’d like to mention that I think The Curse of the Black Spot is a generally misunderstood little gem of an episode. It’s no Blink or The Doctor’s Wife, for sure, but then I think its audience largely approached it with unreasonable expectations (it was never going to be Pirates of the Caribbean on that budget), and to my mind it achieves its aims in a perfectly capable, enjoyable and often surprising manner. It’s not the most densely plotted example of Doctor Who, but then few stories are. And that’s what distinguishes Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS; subsequent to The Reichenbach Fall, Steve Thompson has obviously honed the craft of putting together a story in which even the seemingly most innocuous of points dovetail towards an unexpected resolution in the final few minutes, and his latest Doctor Who is a fantastic example of a writer taking the brief and working through every detail rationally and with a firm grasp of his endgame in mind. There’s barely a bum note in the entire 46 minutes (and let’s be honest, even the best episodes will tend to have one or two of those); meanwhile, the number of moments that will have you gasping at the revelation or spectacle on offer mounts up minute upon minute until come the end, you can’t quite believe you’ve seen everything you have. It’s a breathless experience, quite unlike any episode of Doctor Who we’ve seen before, nor are likely to see again.
But it’s not the expected pleasures that are so satisfying; we all knew going in that the swimming pool and the library would be rolled out to the applause of the fanboy inside all of us, and so they are. There’s a quick green-screen shot of the swimming pool that will bury those memories of The Invasion of Time once and for all, and even a nod back to it at the end of the episode (the fanboy will be just as pleased with the sight of Jenna-Louise Coleman post-soaking once again), and the library is just as big and as incongruous as we might have anticipated. It’s when we get to the library, and Clara finds that book (you’ve all seen the pictures) and starts reading it, that the chills go down the spine. It’s rare that such an arc-device can be found in one of the “lesser” writers’ episodes (we knew the Teselecta would be the device by which the Doctor escaped his death at the conclusion of Series Six, not because it was featured in the recap at the start of The Wedding of River Song, but because it had been introduced in Steven Moffat’s Let’s Kill Hitler rather than Matthew Graham’s The Rebel Flesh), and when the subject of that book is returned to later on, the sheer surprise of seeing something so pertinent to the characters’ development in an episode ostensibly penned by a second-story author almost outdoes the shock of the dialogue the Doctor and Clara are having. And there’s more, much more.
The creatures that stalk the TARDIS corridors are possibly the most frightening thing I’ve seen in the series since its return, and not only because of the freakiness of their appearance (the conjoined variety is truly, truly grotesque), nor simply because they’re shot in such a frightening (and yet entirely logical) way, but because of the disclosure of who and what they are. That they tie-in so absolutely with the way the plot resolves itself is another unexpected but pleasing twist.
Going into the story, my one prediction of something that would ultimately be bound to disappoint was the sight that would greet us once we reached the heart of the TARDIS; all the talk in the past of engines powered by a captured and dying star would almost certainly prove to be beyond the capabilities and imagination of the current production team, wouldn’t they? Moffat and company haven’t disappointed us with any failings of the imagination yet, and not only does the visual impact of the sequence not disappoint, but then Thompson and Moffat take us two steps farther and into a scene that might have been right out of The Mind Robber, realised with the budget of a Star Wars and the visual elegance of The Girl Who Waited. Truly gobsmacking.
The one caveat for all of this, is that the episode only truly “works” the first time you see it. For sure, it’s commandingly well directed, brilliantly acted – there’s very little of the arch in Matt Smith’s performance this week (although he does have one superbly funny moment when he divulges the truth behind his countdown, only for it to be punctured abruptly and unceremoniously a beat or two later), and Jenna-Louise Coleman has never been more watchable – and never anything less than entirely absorbing, but the second and the third viewing just aren’t going to resonate quite as deeply and dazzle the eyes quite as brilliantly once the original journey has been undertaken. Which is not to say that the episode is diminished in any way, other than that the initial impact is an experience that you just won’t get with a subsequent viewing.
As for the TARDIS, she’s everything we might have hoped she would be (and “infinite”, according to the Doctor...), but unlike in The Doctor’s Wife, she’s also back to being ambiguous in nature. Aware, no doubt, but alive? It’s a point that’s left uncertain. And I for one am extremely grateful about that.
The great expectations for this episode are repaid in full, then, and any doubts as to Steve Thompson’s ability to assume such an undertaking entirely and gratifyingly misplaced. It would be a shame if Doctor Who were to return to “normal” next week, but with Mark Gatiss’ homage to Hammer, Neil Gaiman’s Cyberman story and a finale from the pen of Steven Moffat yet to come, I don’t think we need worry about that.
Series 7B just warmed up. Considerably.