In Slate’s Doctor Who TV Club, Mac Rogers discusses the Doctor’s travels via IM every week with the show’s bloggers and fans. This week he’s chatting about the season finale “The Name of the Doctor” with Phil Sandifer, who writes TARDIS Eruditorum.
Mac Rogers: In “The Name of the Doctor,” the Doctor’s old enemy the Great Intelligence captures his friends to lure him to the one place he must never go … his own grave. Now, we’ll come to the big twist a little later, but before we go any further, I need to eat a bit of crow from my prediction, earlier this week, that we’d see a surprise regeneration and Jenna-Louise Coleman ring crowned the 12th Doctor.
Phil Sandifer: As I expected, the answer to the Clara mystery is that it hinges on something introduced in this episode.
Mac: The “time-wound” left behind by the Doctor provides the solution to the half-season-long Clara mystery. Clara has to enter this temporal scar to save the Doctor’s life from being rewritten by the Great Intelligence, in the process scattering herself across his timeline (thereby explaining Past Clara and Future Clara). Thoughts on the Clara resolution?
Phil: I quite liked it, and particularly the reintroduction of the leaf. After a season in which Clara as a character got eaten by her own mystery, it was, I thought, quite touching to see a reminder that she’s actually exactly what we were told she was in “Hide”: an ordinary human being with a life.
Mac: In the history of Doctor Who, has there ever been fan-service quite like that cold open?
Phil: “Dimensions in Time”?
Mac: And I guess “The Five Doctors.”
Phil: But what’s interesting is that neither of those are … particularly good. I mean, “The Five Doctors” is terribly fun, but I don’t think anyone has ever argued that it’s compelling on its own merits. But I absolutely loved “The Name of the Doctor.”
Mac: Was there a moment when you realized it was one of the good ones?
Phil: I had an inkling after that opening, which I thought was top-notch. Even though it’s massive fan-service, it still only relies on you being able to identify the first seven Doctors, who you were just shown last week in “Nightmare in Silver.” But for me the moment where I was sold was a bit of acting from Matt Smith—when he just starts crying at the mention of Trenzalore. I thought that was just a phenomenal story beat.
Mac: Have we ever seen the Doctor just straight-up weep in fear of his own mortality before?
Phil: To an extent “The Big Bang,” at Amelia’s bedside. There it’s expected: The Doctor has been emotional in season finales every season so far, and it’s just Smith’s version of Emo Tennant in the Rain. But in “Name,” this was built to in a very different way. We haven’t seen the Doctor as a POV character much this season. He’s been played very much as a cipher, so seeing that mask crack is unnerving in a very different way.
Mac: I loved the idea of the “conference call” between Vastra, Jenny, Strax, Clara, and surprise guest River Song. The line “Time travel has always been possible in dreams” just slew me.
Phil: Moffat is so good at exposition sequences. It’s a strange thing to be good at, but I really think he is the best writer in the world at them right now. Because that’s all the conference call is—an excuse to infodump the Trenzalore material again at a nice, slow speed.
Mac: Two moments here touched on the ongoing issue of Moffat’s perceived sexism. Clara’s “He never mentioned you were a woman” to River, and then Strax’s funny-until-you-think-about-it line “Surrender your women and intellectuals!” rubbed me the wrong way. Is he not aware of how these moments come off? Or are they in there to tweak his critics?
Phil: One thing that comes across in Moffat’s interviews is a strong sense of someone who is aware that he’s prone to using his own cleverness and wit as a defense mechanism, and to doing so in a way that is at times problematic. And I think his Doctor Who work is very much about someone with many of the worst traits of geeky fans learning to be a better person. So yes, there’s lines like “surrender your women and intellectuals,” but I think that’s him pricking himself more than anything. And let’s not forget that this is the writer who introduced sexual freedom as a theme in Doctor Who. It wasn’t Davies, it was Moffat, in “The Empty Child,” who introduced the first really gay content in Doctor Who.
Mac: And then there’s the lovely exchange, after Strax revives Jenny and says, “The heart is a relatively simple thing,” and Vastra replies, “I have not found it to be so.” That’s such a beautiful line in all it suggests about Vastra, who after all not only loves a woman but a woman from another species—the enemy of her own. Vastra knows all there is about the complexity of the heart, and she’s Moffat’s creation.
Phil: I think a lot of fans have built a kind of weird distortion of Moffat that leaves out a lot of what he’s doing and has done with female characters and sex on the show.
Mac: When they reach the Doctor’s body it’s actually a vortex of light in the ruined TARDIS control room. The way the Doctor describes it—“Time travel is damage … that is the scar-tissue of my journey through the universe”—is fascinating.
Phil: It gets at what is, for me, one of the basic themes of Doctor Who. The Doctor is weird and chaotic, and his very existence opposes the boring, normal order of things—it’s literally a wound on the idea of normality. Which is just perfect, really.
Mac: As she prepares to scatter herself across time, Clara recalls her mother’s advice: “The soufflé is not the soufflé, the soufflé is the recipe.” Is the “recipe” here Clara’s essential decency and cleverness, that every “echo” of her will have these qualities and deploy them to save the Doctor?
Phil: This ties back to what we were saying back in “Hide” about Clara being a sort of archetypal “generic companion.” She’s defined by the recipe for a companion—the character who saves the Doctor through decency and cleverness and good old-fashioned pluck. And that’s irreducible from her. It’s another phrasing, I think, of “We’re all stories in the end.”
Mac: Where are we in the River Song timeline? Am I understanding correctly to think this whole story we’re seeing post-Library River? And that she’s haunting the Doctor in a sense?
Phil: I think you are. And there’s that wonderfully strange business at the end of the Doctor being able to see and touch her that suggests that there’s at least one more massive question about her. I wasn’t sure River could still surprise us, but that last “spoilers” was just everything I love about the character again.
Mac: So now we come to the Big Enchilada: The Doctor rescues Clara from his memory-purgatory, but not before she sees a strange man whom she doesn’t recognize as one of the Doctor’s previous incarnations. Matt Smith’s Doctor explains, “The name I chose is the Doctor. The name you choose, it’s like a promise you make. He’s the one who broke the promise. He is my secret.” The man turns to reveal the face of John Hurt, and in an incredibly fourth-wall-breaking moment, we get the text “Introducing John Hurt as the Doctor.” And there’s our cliffhanger leading into the 50th Anniversary Special in November. I guess my question to you is a brief one: WTF?
Phil: The Internet speculation right now seems to favor Hurt being the Valeyard, “an amalgamation of the darker side of the Doctor’s nature,” I think since the episode mentioned him earlier. But I think the earlier rumors about Matt Smith turning out to be the Doctor’s 12th regeneration are closer to the mark. That dialogue with Clara saying “You’re the 11th Doctor” seemed meant to flag that we have a regeneration who’s been disowned, presumably the one who fought in the Time War. But that doesn’t seem like a secret; the Doctor’s pretty open about the double genocide there.
Mac: Hurt’s “Doctor” says, “What I did I did without choice. In the name of peace and sanity,” and the regular Smith Doctor replies “But not in the name of the Doctor.” Which you’re right, doesn’t reflect how the Doctor’s talked about the Time War up to now. He’s never been happy about what he did, but he owns it: “Fear me: I’ve killed all of them.” So maybe we’re talking about a worse thing the Doctor did than the Time War?
Phil: The Doctor said back in “The Beast Below” that if he killed the Star Whale he wouldn’t be the Doctor anymore. It’s not the genocide of the Time Lords and Daleks that bothers him. It’s some piece of collateral damage—some perfectly innocent person or people who died with them.
Mac: I thought a surprise regeneration was coming because: If John Hurt was a hidden previous Doctor, and Smith’s Doctor was really No. 12, Moffat could potentially set up a future in which (“Deadly Assassin” continuity, where the Doctor gets only 13 lives, assumed) the new Doctor would be in mortal peril all the time. I wonder if there’s still going to be some resolution to the 50th Anniversary special along those lines, only with Smith somehow getting bumped to 13th.
Phil: I can see Moffat relishing the idea of leaving his successor to handle the “Deadly Assassin” mess. Both so he doesn’t have to and so that his successor has a ready-made corker to deal with. But let’s try an experiment: Let’s imagine that Moffat up and quits after this cliffhanger, and you’re drafted to figure out a resolution to this mess in a weekend. What’s Mac Rogers’s 50th Anniversary Special going to look like?
Mac: I’d reveal that Hurt’s Doctor wasn’t a past generation, but a future one, a Doctor who’d gone sour, and was going to take the universe with him. Doctors 10 and 11 have to join forces to fight their own future, and defeating him means killing much of their remaining life. The battle takes place in Scotland against the backdrop of a galactic peace organization working with the Zygons and Kate Stewart to safely extract the Skarasen from Loch Ness. (If it’s the Zygons, you gotta have the Loch Ness Monster.) So we have twin stories about perilous attempts to “disarm” dangerous ancient creatures that come together in epic fashion at the conclusion. What’s yours?
Phil: I’ll take the opposite route and have John Hurt be a lost regeneration. So for me, it’s a story about Doctor Who’s present (in the form of Tennant and Smith) realizing that they have to accept the help of the series’ past. So let’s go with: The damage from the Doctor crossing his own time stream unleashes the Silence, who begin fixing time so that the Doctor is led inevitably to Trenzalore for his death, and the Doctors have to call on their forsaken regeneration in order to rescue their future.
Mac: So a tweedy old Classic Series guy saves the zippy, hunky Doctors of the future. Well, only six more months to see which one of us got closer to the mark!