I approached The Doctor’s Wife with caution. Billed in advance as an enigmatic love story which would tap into the roots of Doctor Who while remaining faithful to the spirit of the new series, I wondered if Neil Gaiman bit off more than he could chew; and the episode title so reminiscent of the fourth season’s atrocious The Doctor’s Daughter didn’t inspire confidence. On the other hand, Gaiman is an outstanding innovator of dark fantasy, and I suspected that if anyone could pull off a story like this, it would be he. As things turn out, The Doctor’s Wife is a splendid achievement, and one of the best stories of the new series, certainly the best so far this season.
A note first, about the plot: the premise that drives The Doctor’s Wife isn’t terribly solid. It takes place on a junkyard wasteland outside the universe, where the preserved cries of dead Time Lords have been calling out to any of their own kind who will come for rescue. As noted by Doug Chaplin, the Gallifreyans at the height of their power would hardly have failed to be aware of this and take action against kidnappers of their own race. But a plot hole like this is fairly invisible in the context of a Doctor Who fairy tale. The Girl in the Fireplace had even more ludicrous plot holes and lapses in logic, but you never hear anyone complain about them, because the kind of story it is allows for more leniency. (Oppositely, the whacking inconsistencies in a story like Bad Wolf/Parting of the Ways stand out so embarrassingly to bring it down a notch.) Fans are notoriously fickle about these things, of course, but in my view, the problem spotted by Chaplin doesn’t intrude on the integrity of the story. One could easily chalk it up to some kind of barrier field erected by House that rendered his scrap dominion impervious to Gallifreyan penetration, long since discarded after the Time War.
The Doctor’s Wife is so many things condensed into a 45-minute drama that it’s a wonder it doesn’t feel rushed. The “wife” is the essence of the TARDIS poured into a human being, giving it voice, and its (her) scenes with the Doctor are critical to the story’s success. Idris is a great character, constantly speaking out of tense as she lives moments of the Doctor’s life in non-linear fashion, and insisting on an equal playing field by telling the Doctor that it was she in fact who stole him, not the other way around. In a perfectly geeky way, the TARDIS gives him what no other “woman” can (not even River Song, I’ll wager), constant adventure, which he gives her back in turn. The ending is rather predictable, but only in the way stories like Father’s Day and The Girl in the Fireplace are predictable, with that sense of tragic inevitability that plays so authentically: the Doctor needs his real TARDIS back; Idris has to die. This is the first time Matt Smith has reached an emotional pitch that brought me to tears: when he says good-bye, and Idris corrects him by saying “No, I wanted to say hello“, and they both start breaking down, I was doing the same.
Special mention must be made of House, the asteroid voiced by Michael Sheen. There is only one voice in the history of the program oozing more frightening malevolence, that of Gabriel Woolf, whose Sutekh in Pyramids of Mars gave me nightmares as a kid and whose Satan in The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit made me relive them as an adult. The right voice for this omnipresent villain is as crucial as Idris’ character, and Sheen’s pays dividends; when he suddenly possesses Auntie and Uncle and speaks through them simultaneously, it feels like a throw-back to The Impossible Planet in more ways than one, since an Ood is present in this story too, and who again works the diabolical will as a pawn.
As if all this weren’t enough, I still haven’t mentioned the best scenes, which involve Amy and Rory trapped inside the darkened TARDIS infested by House, who torments them with his voice out of hell. Here we’re treated to old-fashioned running down corridors, and a tasty look at other parts of the TARDIS, including the “old control room” from the Davies period, which in turn is a throw back to the famous secondary control room with ornate wood panels introduced in The Masque of Mandragora. So chilling is it when House asks Amy and Rory, “Why shouldn’t I kill you?”, and then proceeds to brutally fuck with their minds, shutting them off from each other, then rejoining them in horrific ways. I particularly enjoyed it when Amy turned a corner and stopped dead in her tracks at the sight of hate phrases covering the walls, “KILL AMY – DIE AMY – HATE AMY,” scrawled by Rory who has withered to a skeletal corpse, which topped even the earlier confrontation with his two-thousand year old self bellowing furiously at her for leaving him.
In sum, The Doctor’s Wife does what classic Who used to do perfectly, papering over plot holes with so much style they don’t matter, and serving up serious dread, making kids and all of us happy to be terrified. It also does what the new series has been doing so well when on top of its game, in portraying the triumph of the soul. Neil Gaiman is the new Paul Cornell, and I can only hope he returns to pen more scripts in the future.
Rating: 5 stars out of 5.