Doctor Who: The Name of the Doctor review

An astonishing finale as Steven Moffat rewrites Doctor Who history, gives us John Hurt as a new Doctor and makes us drool for the 50th anniversary...

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Doctor Who: The Name of the Doctor review
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“I’m the Impossible Girl. I was born to save the Doctor”

Usually, when previewing a new episode, I feel safe in describing the action in the first few minutes before the title sequence, but few devotees would have thanked me for disclosing the start of this season finale – a boggling montage in which Clara realises her destiny, tumbles through time and crosses paths with many earlier Doctors. For die-hard fans, it’s like the anniversary special has arrived six months early!

It cleverly combines newly filmed shots and, erm, doctored archive footage. Experts will easily identify which old stories the clips are lifted from but, for me, the most riveting part is Clara’s encounter with the first Doctor.

“What kind of idiot would steal a faulty Tardis?”

The general viewer won’t realise, but this is the very first time the programme has depicted the Doctor’s departure from Gallifrey “a very long time ago” with his granddaughter Susan. In story terms, when the series began in London 1963, they had fled their home world long before. In a wonderful 50th birthday pay-off, Steven Moffat fulfils his own fan dream, and that of many others, by showing this key moment.

It is fleeting, yes – and I never visualised the Doctor starting his travels dressed as an Edwardian gentleman – but it’s deftly crafted, showing the Tardis in its natural state as a Type 40 capsule, and blending in gently colourised footage of William Hartnell himself. (The actor died in 1975.)

So where do those clips of the first Doctor come from? Skip this paragraph if you’d like to work it out for yourselves. The view of Hartnell pausing in a Tardis doorway is from episode two of The Aztecs (1964) and reworks a shot of him cautiously entering a temple. The close-up of the Doctor pondering Clara’s words is lifted from episode four (with his Aztec amour Cameca carefully removed from the background).

What’s noteworthy here is that when Clara calls out, “Doctor, sorry, but you’re about to make a big mistake,” he immediately stops and responds, “Yes, what is it? What do you want?” (A line taken from, I think, episode five of The Web Planet.) So is she the first person ever to call him “Doctor”? Or is that already his assumed name?

Note, too, that when the scene is repeated and extended towards the end, Clara is doing the Doctor one of the biggest favours of his life: “Steal this one,” she urges. “The navigation system’s knackered but you’ll have much more fun.” This conflicts with The Doctor’s Wife, when the spirit of the Tardis (Suranne Jones) claimed to have chosen the Doctor. Time has been rewritten.

Sorry to get bogged down in all this detail but I admire Moffat’s confidence in blithely thrusting the history of Doctor Who under our gaze while at the same time rewriting it. And this, of course, isn’t the only instance in this episode.

“Time travel has always been possible in dreams”

I adore that line: it’s one of the best Steven Moffat has written. Maybe it is just a daft idea to facilitate the narrative but it is uttered with such earnestness by Vastra that we accept it. And in a way we know it to be true. Who doesn’t have vivid dreams of forgotten times and places where long-dead friends and family live again? It’s the closest we get to time travel and it’s beautiful.

Here a dream state allows for a “conference call” across time and space between Vastra and Jenny (in London 1893), Strax (knocked out by a shovel in Glasgow), Clara (floored by a soporific letter in 2013) and River Song (in the far future). This is the postmortem River, after she was “saved” as a data ghost by David Tennant’s Doctor in Forest of the Dead (2008).

Only Moffat can sell such nonsense and, within this sequence alone, with such brilliance. It delivers information as well as mystery and a range of emotions: laughs, chills and tears. We have Strax complaining hilariously about River, “Oh no, not the one with the gigantic head”; River’s dismay that Clara doesn’t know much about her – “Sorry, I never realised you were a woman.”

Levity turns to terror as the Great Intelligence and his Whisper Men intrude upon the meeting of minds and we cut to Jenny: “So sorry, ma’am. I think I’ve been murdered.” A touching performance from Catrin Stewart, and a gorgeous profile close-up of a tear falling – just one example of Saul Metzstein’s skill in this finale.

“And it was definitely Trenzalore?”

Metzstein is one of the series’ most gifted directors – every note rings true. You laugh, tense, gulp, gape and blub exactly when you’re supposed to. Or at least I did. There’s real emotional wallop, in moments that are too fleeting to become mawkish: Vastra’s grief for Jenny (twice), the Doctor succumbing to tears at the mention of Trenzalore (Matt Smith’s performance floored me here).

In a moment of pressure, he doesn’t hesitate to identify River as “an ex” and, later, she and we realise the depth of his feelings for her, the pain he suffers. “You’re always here to me,” he tells River. “And I always listen and I can always see you.” He opens his heart and for once seizes the chance to kiss her, even though she is now only “an echo”.

Alex Kingston and Matt Smith play these scenes with convincing tenderness. In fact, the whole cast are astonishing, responding to jewels of dialogue from Moffat.

“I am information”

Another killer line, which sums up the Great Intelligence. Who’d have imagined that this malign force from 1960s Who could be revived so classily in the form of Richard E Grant? He’s walking-dead chilly – adding to the funereal air with his undertaker henchman, eager to extinguish himself in the “tear in the fabric of reality” in the Doctor’s tomb, while undoing all the Time Lord’s good deeds.

He tells the Doctor it will provide “for me, peace at last – for you, pain everlasting”. I do hope this isn’t the last we’ve seen of the Intelligence and that he’ll get a rematch with the Yeti. (I’m sure you all spotted a Yeti in one of the clip montages.)

“I’ve always been there, right from the very beginning”

Clara suddenly transforms herself from the Impossible Girl into the most important companion ever. Her mystery is neatly explained: 21st-century Clara is the original Clara from which all the others have splintered, after she plunges into the Doctor’s fractured timeline to save him. She works it all out for herself and takes her destiny into her own hands. I’ve always been a sucker for self-sacrificing companions – it harks back to Jo Grant (Katy Manning) who was sacrificing herself almost every other week in the 70s.

Clara displays the qualities of all the best companions – intuition, pluck, empathy, selflessness, unthreatening good looks – and Jenna-Louise Coleman is a natural. I’m glad she’s signed up for another term.  

“The Doctor has a secret…”

The Doctor’s name was obviously going to be a red herring. Did anyone really imagine that it would be revealed? Me neither. It is key to the story, however, as well as a key River uses to unlock the Tardis-tomb. So – phew! – the Doctor can safely remain Doctor Who into his golden anniversary. But his darkest secret tumbles out…

An unknown Doctor. An incarnation he’d like to forget.

Maybe Christopher Eccleston has done the show a huge favour by turning down the anniversary gig. Frankly, I’d have been more surprised if he had agreed to return. Moffat’s solution, in lieu of the “ninth” Doctor, is to present a Doctor we’ve never seen before, one who’s never been included in the umpteen clips packages. And he’s played –staggeringly – by John Hurt. I admire Eccles, but c’mon! John Hurt. He’s a legend – the most talented actor ever cast as a Doctor. Roll on, November!