For Doctor Who fans, it’s an indulgent treat to have a story set almost entirely inside the Tardis. But once you’ve decided on this course, you need to find a way to include all the right doses of action and peril and spectacle and monsters – and, to a large extent, writer Steve Thompson achieves this.
But which aspects of the Tardis do you show? The 1960s and 80s episodes often revealed bedrooms; we once saw Leela (Louise Jameson) using the “bathroom” (a pool) and fourth Doctor Tom Baker was at his most monkish pacing about the Cloister Room. Fifth Doctor Peter Davison got off to a flying start by levitating in a pink, vaulted Zero Room. But since the 2005 reboot, we’ve seen very little of the Tardis’s inner recesses (bar a tunnel runaround in The Doctor’s Wife in 2011).
This latest episode shows us a storeroom with the Doctor’s crib; a cathedral-like library (actually Cardiff Castle’s library, augmented by CGI); and glimpses of an observatory and another swimming pool. There’s an architectural reconfiguration system, explained in the story as “a machine that makes machines”, and which designer Michael Pickwoad describes as “like a banyan tree growing ‘eggs’ with Gallifreyan symbols on them”.
Eventually, the action reaches the heart of the Tardis, the power source that is the Eye of Harmony, “an exploding star in the act of becoming a black hole”. In The Deadly Assassin (1977), the Eye was identified as the source of power for all Gallifrey, but by the time of the 1996 TV Movie with Paul McGann, it had – inexplicably – become intrinsic to the Doctor’s Tardis. I’m not sure of the wisdom of maintaining any continuity with that 1996 misfire.
Generally, Michael Pickwoad’s design is superb, following through the palette and motifs of the control room, which debuted at Christmas. His Tardis looks a bit Jules Verne, and he told me he wanted to convey the feeling that it operates on “a mixture of steam, electronics and atomic power”.
In a way, though, I do miss the white/beige corridors and circular indentations favoured in 20th-century Who. They gave the Tardis a motif and peculiarity all its own. In 1963, original designer Peter Brachacki opted for hexagonal elements (notably the console), but endless, labyrinthine, hexagonal tunnels don’t suggest Tardis to me – they scream Liberator. That was the ultra-modern ship piloted in Blake’s 7, and much of this latest episode, with a marauding salvage team dashing about, reminds me of that undernourished BBC1 sci-fi series (1978–81).
The van Baalen brothers (Gregor, Bram and Tricky) are a singularly inept bunch of clods, who have managed to convince one of their number that he is an android, as “a stupid joke to relieve the boredom”. OK, Tricky has amnesia and bionic eyes and voicebox, but surely he still has bodily functions? “I won’t be needing you in my quiz team,” the Doctor informs Gregor, the dimbo played by Ashley Walters.
The lava-like monsters, formed by prolonged contact with the Eye of Harmony, are really nasty and especially disturbing when it’s revealed that they were formerly the van Baalen brothers and Clara (“That’s me. I burn in here”). I’m not quite sure how Clara knows to call them “zombie creatures” long before she’s found out what they really are, but we won’t dwell on that.
This is a superb episode for Jenna-Louise Coleman, looking fetching in her skimpy frock, hair tied up, a companion in peril for the first time in ages. She gets to deliver some wonderful “companion screams”. In the pages of The History of the Time War, she even discovers the Doctor’s real name (an honour previously bestowed upon River Song alone). “You call yourself ‘Doctor’,” says Clara. “Why do you do that? You have a name. I’ve seen it.”
Happily for him, perhaps, it’s a discovery that is wiped from her memory when time reverts and the Tardis is saved from the edge of destruction. But we know it’ll be picked up again in the season finale: The Name of the Doctor.
Journey to the Centre of the Tardis is a reasonably entertaining, playfully timey-wimey adventure, with lots of nice touches – such as voices from the past when the console is dismantled. I detected granddaughter/companion Susan and the fourth Doctor, among others.
But now I’m sorely tempted to reach for the DVD of The Invasion of Time, the 1978 serial that so disappointed a young Steven Moffat (and me!) and for which Journey to the Centre of the Tardis is meant to atone. That featured Tom Baker, Louise Jameson, K•9, duplicitous Time Lords and cockney Sontarans fannying about in a brick-walled, disused hospital in Redhill, which, thanks to a BBC technicians’ strike, had to stand in for the Tardis interior. Now doesn’t that sound fun..?