This review contains spoilers. Lots and lots of spoilers. Our spoiler-free thoughts are here.
The Name Of The Doctor
“Run you clever boy”
When the episode title, The Name Of The Doctor, was first announced, it can’t just have been us that seemed to pick up on a fairly sizeable ‘so what’ emanating from the show’s fanbase. For in truth, the Doctor’s actual name is a poser that few Doctor Who followers have ever seemed inclined to seriously wrestle with. After all, Star Trek fans know to their cost that asking a question of someone’s moniker is likely to be far more interesting than getting the actual answer. Tiberius indeed.
That said, we’ve mentioned once or twice that we felt Steven Moffat was unlikely to play things straight when it came to this episode proper, and so it proved. In fact, as we’ll come to talk about, it might be no understatement to say that he’s lobbed a grenade into the past, present and future of Doctor Who. It’s not just the Doctor’s name now that’s the question. It’s pretty much his identity as we know it.
Even before we got to the ending, and we’ll come to it soon, the episode was intriguing. Because here we got to see the Doctor’s final resting place, which is what everything was seemingly leading to. That on the planet of Trenzalore lay the Doctor’s tomb. And here, we got to pay it a visit.
Rather impressive it was too. As it turned out, the Doctor’s tomb was a familiar beast, as much a grave for the TARDIS as for the Doctor. The leaking TARDIS suddenly looked a lot bigger, and in the middle of it? A tear in the fabric of time. The scar tissue of the Doctor’s journeys through time and space. And a visual effect that was about to prove really rather useful.
But let’s rewind a little. Because from the start, you could have been forgiven for thinking you’d got the 50th anniversary special instead here, as if someone had pressed the wrong button on some no-doubt highly powered evolution of the BBC’s computer system (a BBC Micro, we like to think). Whether it’s a fleeting picture or something more substantive, we never tire of seeing the old Doctors that we already know appear in modern Doctor Who. Here, they had as wonderful a role as we’ve seen in some time (at least until they appeared again later in the episode), and they helped – with some prescience – bring the entire history of the title character into play. If this is what was in store for the episode before the birthday one, heaven knows what we’re getting when it’s time to really light the candles. It’s going to take something to beat the superb opening we got here (one of the best ever to a Who episode, perhaps).
The Name Of The Doctor thus went right back to the origins of Doctor Who, with it being revealed early on that Clara helped William Hartnell’s first iteration of the character choose the right TARDIS (try and wrap your head around the time travel permutations of that. We’ll lend you Doc Brown’s board and chalk if you want). Furthermore, she’s been a constant in his life, as we learn through some welcome inserting of Jenna-Louise Coleman into footage of earlier generations of pre-2005 Who (no visuals of Paul McGann, though). All really well done, we thought, right down to the matching of Coleman to the different types of film stock. Credit, as always, to the production team.
What’s more, the big question of Clara was pretty much answered up front, even if we had to wait until near the end for the reasoning: she was born to save the Doctor, and there was a good reason for the many, many versions of her (which explains too, in effect, how she could rewrite history in Asylum Of The Daleks, simply by sheer numbers presumably). Those fearing we wouldn’t get answers here needn’t have worried: we now know the mystery of the character, and it all made sense (in a Doctor Who way). In fact, and credit to Moffat here, pretty much everything made sense. You might not have agreed with the way it was all done, but unlike The Wedding Of River Song, this was an easier, yet no less intriguing, episode to follow. Even if you didn’t have a GSCE in Doctor Who.
Those revelations of Clara took early precedence, and not for the first time in this run of episodes, it was a good ten minutes or so before the Doctor himself turned up. And not for the first time either, it was Strax (having a fight in a Glasgow bar, in search of uncharacteristic trouble, and as much fun as always), Vastra and Jenny – the spin-off series in waiting – that proved a more than able support act.
They were joined by River Song too here, a character whose own story felt as if it had reached its natural end come The Angels Take Manhattan. However, her return here was both understated and nicely played (with a haunting, tender exchange between her and the Doctor the highlight, as he told her she was an echo who should have faded). And it might just be her final “Hello Sweetie” we got, as she finally faded down near the end. We weren’t sure whether River really needed to reappear, but contrary to our expectation, we’re glad she did.
Right near the start though, she was part of the early conference call (was it just us waiting for Harriet Jones to pop up, appreciating that the character is, er, dead?). And what started as a useful device to get some exposition and setup across took a stark turn, as we soon met the apparent foes of the episode, The Whispermen.
If there was a disappointment of The Name Of The Doctor, it was those foes, though, along with The Great Intelligence. The Whispermen first. A sort of anti-Silence in their approach (although similar in tone), they were very creepy, but surprising underused (an odd complaint, perhaps). They also talked in a Zygon-esque whisper that made them barely audible, at various stages reciting rhyming clues as to what’s to come, as if on a Doctor Who game show. Visually they worked a treat, and the design of them was excellent. It did feel as though an interesting new monster had been introduced here, and yet popped in the back pocket for later Who.
The one exception: the really well worked moment when Jenny’s place at the conference call table was suddenly, tragically ended. Just how good is Catrin Stewart? When she uttered the line “I think I’ve been murdered”, it sent a real chill along our bones. She was unmurdered soon after, of course, so the spin-off plan is hopefully still in place.
Perhaps more eyebrow-raising was the underplaying of The Great Intelligence though. He came and went, in the form of Richard E Grant’s Dr Simoen, with surprisingly little drama. This was a particular surprise, given that after his introduction in The Snowmen and subsequent appearance in The Bells Of Saint John, we thought he’d have a far greater role to play in this series (not least given how deeply steeped in Who history The Great Intelligence is). Yet while the focus has been on the mystery of Clara in this run, the element of underlying antagonist was put on the back burner. Thus, while The Great Intelligence had obvious narrative impact, when the brilliant Richard E Grant disappeared into the time rip, we were left with a bit of a “was that it?” moment.
That moment didn’t last though, as then we went into several minutes that clearly have major ramifications for Doctor Who. We’d enjoyed the vast bulk of the episode up until the final scene, but this was the kind of jaw dropping finale that Doctor Who hasn’t given us for a while (one that be rewound and watched again as soon as the credits rolled). We’ve keenly felt the absence of cliffhangers this series, but for a tease and a half into the 50th anniversary special, the revelation of John Hurt (albeit sadly spoiled by at least one national tabloid) was a massive one if you never saw it coming. Like us. It was a stunning, internet-breaking piece of narrative rug-pulling.
So let’s try and wrap our heads around it, because, bluntly, there’s a new Doctor. And already he’s hurting our head. Is he the real Doctor, and the one we’ve been following has been the wrong one? Is he a regeneration of the existing Doctor we didn’t know about? At one stage, Clara all but asks the Doctor if he’s the eleventh Doctor, and gets the cryptic response “I said he was me, I never said he was the Doctor”. Let’s just go with the theory he’s the real deal for the minute (which is the likely one): if this does make Smith the twelfth Doctor, let’s not forget that we’ve already met the Valeyard in Trial Of A Time Lord. Is that the regeneration count used up then? Unless Hurt is The Valeyard…
Even more intriguingly, Hurt’s Doctor is the one who “broke the promise”. What promise? Is this where the Time War comes in? What does Clara know, being as she read about its history in Journey To The Centre Of The TARDIS? And, also, how on earth was the reveal of John Hurt kept under wraps? It’s a huge ending (like Utopia, but even better), a scream at the telly ending, and a massively impactful moment in the history of Doctor Who (not least something that threatens to make decades of merchandise inaccurate). Oh, and he also said “what I did, I did without choice”. What did he do? Again, if you link this to the Time War, are we going to learn just what the Doctor had to do to end it? Considering The Name Of The Doctor answers lots of questions, it didn’t half leave us with a whole lot more.
While you’re toying with that, one other small thing to consider. Clarence, at the start of the episode (in 1893, the year of The Crimson Horror), knew the location of the Doctor’s grave. How did he know that? Not that we expect anyone to ask that right now. There’s something much, much bigger to consider. And we’re not getting the answer until November. That’s just cruel.
The Name Of The Doctor was then, for our money, the most satisfying, brilliant finale in Steven Moffat’s run on Doctor Who, the kind of episode you rewatch for fun, as much as to solve mysteries (and we’ll be hunting for clues). Much better than The Wedding Of River Song and a real rival to The Big Bang, this was, for large parts, really gripping stuff, surrounded by an air of mystery, and a real sense that something big was going to be revealed. Fortunately, on this occasion, that was very much the case. And while series seven, in both parts, has been a bumpy ride (with Jenna-Louise Coleman’s Clara our highlight), Steven Moffat and his team pulled quite a rabbit out at the end. Just brilliant.
Roll on November, then, when the actual 50th anniversary episode picks up the mantle. It feels like a long, long time away. And John Hurt has a lot of questions to dodge in interviews between now and then…
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