It’s been a long time since we’ve been permitted a proper look at the inner workings of The Doctor’s magical machine. “The Doctor’s Wife” might have taken us into the network of corridors that lie behind the console room, but it’s been nearly seventeen years since we’ve seen the Eye of Harmony – the collapsing star that powers the ship – and it’s not since 1981’s “Logopolis” that the show has truly explored the TARDIS’ physics-defying dimensions. It’s easy to forget from week to week that without the TARDIS there is no Doctor Who. The Doctor might be the hero, but it’s the ship that enables him to lead the bohemian life he leads. In this latest episode, written by “Curse of the Black Spot” scribe Steve Thompson, the TARDIS is hammered by an unwitting salvage crew who are then press-ganged into service by The Doctor to rescue Clara from the depths of the possibly dying ship. It’s a journey into hostile territory, which just so happens to be The Doctor’s home.
While The Doctor and the Van Baalen Brothers – Gregor (Ashley Walters), Bram (Mark Oliver) and android Tricky (Jahvel Hall) – are in search of her, Clara acquaints herself, in passing, with the TARDIS observatory and swimming pool. However, it’s in the legendary, previously unseen library that she comes across a weighty tome – The History of the Time War – that reveals to her a great secret, one that we’ve all been waiting to discover for a long time (though we’ll have to wait to the season finale, at least, to discover it for ourselves). Paradoxically, showing us the TARDIS’ interior does little to demythologize the ship, due mainly to Thompson’s strategic reveals, such as a living metal tree hanging with glowing orbs inscribed with Gallifreyan runes. The Doctor promised the salvagers the haul of a lifetime and it seems he did not lie.
The miracles that lie within the TARDIS suggests aspects to The Doctor’s character that we have never seen. Indeed, his activation of the self-destruct sequence in order to force the Van Baalen’s assistance seems like an amazing development, though his ultimately revealed to be a damp squib (remembering The Doctor does, in fact, lie). There are some great visuals – an exploding engine held suspended in white space – and some almost obligatory monsters, but it’s the little things that go some way towards making “Journey to the Center of the TARDIS” special. The glimpse of Melody’s crib, young Amy’s handmade TARDIS toy, moments like The Doctor’s commenting on the Time Lord’s lack of dress sense (a compelling explanation for his own sartorial quirks) are weighed against the episode’s shortcomings, such as its failure to make more than basic use of the TARDIS’ recursive architecture or the literal Russell T. Davies-style “reset button” ending.
“Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS“, like numerous other episodes this season, runs out of energy towards the end, and, given the Escher-inspired antics shown on the poster, I would argue doesn’t fully utilize the opportunity. One of my issues with this series is that the arc of Clara’s recurrence throughout history has been largely ignored: though The Doctor confronts her about it here in a fit of sudden desperation, by the end of the episode she once again has no idea she’s anything out of the ordinary. There’s no reason to believe that next week’s installment, “The Crimson Horror”, which seems set to be a Doctor-lite episode based around Silurian Sherlock Madame Vastra and Co., will be any different, nor the one after that, “Nightmare in Silver”, written by Neil Gaiman and featuring the return of the original Cybermen. It doesn’t seem that Steven Moffat is laying enough groundwork for the eventual reveal, which, one supposes, will take place during the season finale, “The Name of The Doctor, which seems likely to be busy enough continuity-wise at is it.
Still, it’ll be intriguing to see how and if “The Crimson Horror” connects to the Fifth Doctor’s exploits – in connection with the theory I discussed here -, though it’s Penny Dreadful-ness seems more “Talons of Weng-Chiang” than anything from the Peter Davison era. With all the publicity surrounding Doctor Who‘s 50th anniversary, however, I’d love to see more than just shout-outs: with The Great Intelligence back in the world, the Ice Warriors, too, and soon the Cybermen, it could be really rewarding if the show was able to reincorporate some more elements of serialization. Why not, for instance, go back to twenty-five minute episodes, longer stories, where it was possible to truly develop the supporting cast, fully explore any scenario. I know it’ll never happen – the format, the world’s, moved on -, but I think that’s a shame.
In the meantime, here’s the promo for “The Crimson Horror”: