After what has been in all honesty a rather patchy half-series of Doctor Who (and a half-series that wasn’t a patch on the half-series that preceeded it, in truth), it’s a little strange that Steven Moffat has chosen this moment, the last episode before the fiftieth anniversary itself, to do something “different”. The Name of the Doctor has such an unexpected tone, it will probably have left many casual viewers completely slack-jawed with confusion. And yet in spite of the sombre mood, the lack of japes and jocularity, and the very grey atmosphere on display (I don’t know why they bothered colouring Hartnell in, they may as well have de-saturated the colour out of everything else), there was some fine storytelling, and this felt like a natural counterpart to the similarly fairytale-esque resolution to Series Five.
The pre-titles sequence is so filled with fan service, it serves mostly to appease the fans who’ve been decrying the lack of classic series Doctors in the fiftieth anniversary special. This is your celebration of the past, right here. Even the rather ropey-looking nature of a few of the effects is forgivable in such a circumstance. But what Moffat also succeeds in doing, is smuggling in the very first Doctor’s very first flight in his stolen TARDIS – both consolidating and repudiating the allusion that was made in The Doctor’s Wife two years ago – and by and large getting away with something that many fans would consider sacrilegious. It might feel like the height of arrogance, but when you consider that this is the fiftieth anniversary of the show, then there couldn’t be a more appropriate time to address such issues. The return to this scene at the end of the episode, when Moffat ties his own timey-wimey interpretation of the show back into its legacy in a completely circular fashion, is less an indication of his ego rampaging than something that’s entirely fitting in this year of the big birthday. Those who claimed that Series 7 Part 2 was held over from 2012 because of a lack of episodes with which to mark the anniversary couldn’t have been more wrong. This was, of course, and if you hadn’t guessed already from the multiple homages and references in the previous seven episodes, planned to be here from the start.
There are some odd choices among the clips picked to portray the past, with Dragonfire for example having to be blown up from VT to HD when a film clip from elsewhere might have been chosen instead, but that’s as much an example of Moffat’s sense of humour as the cold open with the workshop engineers, and the colourised sequence of Hartnell stealing his TARDIS in the first place. You almost feel like the writer is laughing at us, but in truth, he’s probably just chuckling to himself and hoping we get it enough to chuckle along as well. It’s also nice to see The Five Doctors so well-represented, a very fitting choice. I wonder if a lack of Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor might not have been deliberate, though – particularly given the provenance of John Hurt’s character in the cliffhanger ending?
It’s not all about the fan service. There’s a story to be told, too, and despite the funereal atmosphere it’s a typically Steven Moffat whimsy, with the explanation for the “impossible” nature of the companion tied into something wibbly-wobbly and that involves personal sacrifices on both Clara and the Doctor’s behalf. In Nightmare in Silver, there’s a line about reconstructing the Doctor from the gaps he would leave behind were he to disappear from time altogether, and here we have the ultimate extension of that: the Doctor’s grave (the not-so-surprising last place he’d ever want to go) contains not the Doctor’s body, but a kind of electronic DNA frieze of all the things he’s ever done. It’s a mind-blowingly logical conceit, of the kind that only Steven Moffat could conjure up; magic and science combining in pure fairytale fashion. There really isn’t much plot in The Name of the Doctor, the whole story essentially just assembling the characters here for this, but that doesn’t really matter. It’s a big enough concept for 45 minutes of television. And it makes complete sense of the Clara Oswin storyline in a predictable but entirely un-guessable way. We always knew it must be something like this, something that allowed for Clara to really be just an ordinary girl, who just so happens to have copies of herself scattered throughout time, but watching Moffat slot the pieces together is both surprising and satisfying.
If there’s anything about it that doesn’t work, then that’s only because we haven’t quite been feeling the connection between Clara and the Doctor these past few weeks. Jenna-Louise Coleman is a fantastic young actress, and I really hope the post-reveal storylines will serve her character better, because although it’s been nice watching stories that haven’t shown the companion (or is that assistant?) doing impossible things (something that dogged Amy Pond’s first few episodes, with her multiple and rather random leaps of faith and logic), the fact that we’ve been insistently told how “impossible” Clara is hasn’t allowed for the humanity and natural charisma of her character to flow out and connect with either the Doctor or the audience. A more relaxed approach might allow for a more loveable character after this; I hope so. The one thing about Clara that has been a delight has been the more believably human side to her, the surprise, the fear and the excitement that her TARDIS travelling has brought out, and that will hopefully allow us to appreciate her more in the episodes to come.
As for River Song, this episode seems to signal her final appearance in the programme, for even in Steven Moffat’s wibbly-wobbly universe, there has to be an end sometimes – and the sight of River Song’s grave, not to mention the fact that this is the post-Library version of the character, would definitely suggest she won’t be back. It’s ironic, then, that her kiss with the Doctor felt the most authentic of the ones we’ve seen, although it did allow for one of the few laugh-out-loud moments of the episode when we saw the reactions of the Paternoster Gang.
It was very pleasing to see the “Menagerie A Trois” once again, and properly disturbing in the moments when they turned on one another. Happily, this won’t be the last time we see them, as Steven Moffat continues to utilise his death-and-instant-resurrection trope; perhaps the only real “death” in this episode therefore is River Song’s.
The Great Intelligence are rather short-changed, though. Their Whispermen henchmen are a little underdeveloped, but I guess that’s understandable (and the complaints that they look a little too Trickster are probably justified, but the production are probably just as justified in saving their money for elsewhere in the episode), and it was nice to see a Yeti in the flashbacks if nowhere else (the obligatory Dalek was in there too); if this is to be the Great Intelligence’s final end then it’s a shame we didn’t get to see some of the other unresolved storylines from the last three years addressed – but then, if the Great Intelligence has now been scattered throughout both the Doctor’s past and his future, there’s every chance we haven’t seen the last of Richard E. Grant after all.
The Name of the Doctor is a deliberately deceiving title, and one which references an issue that is barely broached in the episode itself. The raising of the Doctor’s name is wholly appropriate for the scene in which it is used, and something that isn’t alluded to either prior to that or from that point onwards, and its appropriation for the episode’s title is a deliberate red herring of hype-making that is, ultimately, understandable; we didn’t really want to find out what he was called, did we? Having said that, if ever there was a time to reveal the actual word, then when could be more apt than here in the fiftieth? And it’s only a name, after all, far more innocuous than the revelation of the Doctor’s home itself, way back in The War Games in 1969. Had the internet existed back then, the depiction of the (as-yet unnamed) planet would have melted it down without question, and the arrival of the word “Gallifrey” in our lexicon has hardly served to undermine the series. We’ll have to wait another fifty years before someone dares to christen him “Dean”, then (I’m telling you, that’s what it will turn out to be...).
The mordant atmosphere that pervades almost the entire episode is Steven Moffat out of his comfort zone, and that’s a relief. There has been a feeling that Moffat is something of a one-trick pony, with his quip-filled rollercoastering timey-wimey stories, and The Name of the Doctor possibly suggests otherwise – although you can almost guarantee the anniversary episode will be more quip-filled timey-wimey rollercoastering – but it was no The Caves of Androzani either. The one thing it lacked was a sense of drive, of unstoppable forward motion. It was there in the script, I would imagine, but somehow that’s the one thing that hasn’t translated onto the screen. There’s a looseness in the execution that worked well in The Big Bang and The Wedding of River Song but that didn’t quite suit The Name of the Doctor. There was also a predictability about how events would progress that set in the moment the reality of what was inside the Doctor’s tomb was revealed (fantastic giant TARDIS standing over it, by the way, and yet another example of Moffat weaving the mythical and the logical together in an extremely satisfying way).
Beyond all this, the biggest relief is that in spite of the show’s currently extremely insular nature, it’s still so enjoyable. “Jumping the shark” is an expression that suggests that once a series starts looking inwardly for its inspiration, instead of reflecting the world around it, it has passed its sell-by date. It’s part of what brought Doctor Who down in the 1980s. But the Doctor Who of 2013 is managing to focus almost entirely on what it means to itself, with almost no detriment to the level of entertainment it provides. Currently there’s the excuse of the anniversary, of course, but it’s a potential problem with Steven Moffat’s approach altogether, and fortunately he provides enough thrill and amusement that only a very few seem to mind. I’ve said before that this is an approach that would become a problem if it continued beyond Moffat’s tenure as showrunner, but as a temporary state of affairs, there’s something rather thrilling about it.
And then we have John Hurt. The lyrical nature of that final scene sets up the anniversary special rather beautifully, a sense of the mythical about the landscape in which it takes place. I’m not so sure about the caption, but I can’t help thinking that’s another example of Steven Moffat amusing himself. As to who (or rather, Who) Hurt will turn out to be, we can guess at a post-Time War Doctor whose incarnation was somehow never “ratified”, but in truth even when Moffat provides us with the obvious, it is still so wrapped up in the inexplicable you can never tell entirely where it’s going to go until you get there. It’s more inward-looking Doctor Who, but for once I don’t think anyone will be able to argue with that.
In the meantime, we have this oddly-toned, and by turns subdued and spectacular episode to take us into the break. I’m not so sure it’s going to come to be regarded as a classic once it’s had time to settle in, but in spite of its shortcomings it was an episode you couldn’t tear your eyes away from, and it was quite possibly the most unusual and unlikely thing that’s been transmitted as early Saturday evening entertainment in quite some time. Fifty years I dare say. But then, that’s Doctor Who.