This is the one we’ve all been waiting for, the season finale, the episode that Steven Moffat has promised will answer many if not all of our questions, including the answer to a question alluded to all the way back in Matt Smith‘s first episode and finally revealed in “The Wedding of River Song”: Doctor Who?
It’s easy to forget in the fifty years since he first appeared on our TV screen just how little we know about The Doctor, less perhaps than any other TV protagonist. We know he comes from Gallifrey, that he’s a Time Lord, that he stole a TARDIS, that he’s close to 1,000 years ago, and currently in his eleventh incarnation. Rather than risk demystifying the character, all “The Name of The Doctor” served to do is put one of those facts in doubt.
Which isn’t to say it wasn’t still a mostly satisfying piece of television. The state of being behind Clara “Impossible Girl” Oswald was explained and in a way far more compelling than, for instance, the resolution of Season One’s Bad Wolf arc. The episode opens with Clara falling through the time vortex. She claims that was born to save The Doctor.
We watch as she encounters him repeatedly throughout his journeys, from the day he first stole the TARDIS to near death experiences across time and space and throughout his incarnations. While Jenna-Louise Coleman‘s integration into footage from stories such as “Dragonfire” and “Arc of Infinity” is far from seamless, it provides an illicit thrill to see her immersed so thoroughly in the mythology of the show. This is arguably the most continuity-heavy episode Doctor Who has ever had and, though the casual viewer could easily find themselves lost, it’s certainly a reward for the fans.
So, too, is that long-awaited journey to Trenzalore, which, as it transpires, is none other than the place of The Doctor’s eventual death. He notes, looking down on the scorched planet from orbit, that he’d hoped he might one day retire, maybe take up beekeeping, but it seems that he is doomed to fall on the field of battle.
What lures him there against his will, to the one place he must never go, is none other than the Great Intelligence, an old enemy already featured in two stories this year – “The Snowman” and “The Bells of St. John” – and still embodied by the redoubtable Richard E. Grant. While the Whispermen that accompany him are sufficiently creepy with their singsong rhyming and Victorian gentlemen attire, the Great Intelligence seems to be something of a cut-and-paste villain in this story, one with enough history to make their enmity plausible but never truly a force in his own right.
Meanwhile, Madam Vastra and Co. make their return, communing with Clara in a psychic dream space. Also present at the meeting is none other than River Song whom, it is suggested, somehow survived her death back in Season Four. When Jenny is apparently killed and Vastra and Strax are whisked away by the Whispermen, The Doctor is given an ultimatum: his friends will be lost forevermore unless he goes to Trenzalore.
Matt Smith is tremendous at the point where The Doctor learns where he must go. Seated on a couch in Clara’s living room, we see him reduced to helpless tears by the prospect of confronting his own mortality. While not quite The Fall of The Eleventh we were promised, it would seem to be the beginning of the end for Smith’s Doctor.*
The fields of Trenzalore, we discover, are a battlefield graveyard, a dangerous, haunted place, at the center of which stands the TARDIS, grown to enormous size due to its inner dimensions leaking out. This is the tomb of The Doctor, to which only his true name will grant entry. His name is indeed spoken, though Moffat, as many have suspected, finds a way around us hearing it. While some may view this as a cop out, I’m sympathetic: as soon as we hear The Doctor’s true name, he will cease to be The Doctor to us. The Doctor is the name he has chosen and it defines who he is.
However, it’s also easy to forget the terrible things for which he’s responsible, too. The Great Intelligence calls him the slaughterer of the ten billion, a blood-soaked tyrant, reminding us that “he will have other names before the end”, such as The Valeyard, a distillation of The Doctor’s darker self who appeared in the Season Twenty-Three serial “Trial of a Time Lord”. This reveal chimes strongly with “The Name of The Doctor”‘s final revelation.
At the center of the TARDIS console room, now overgrown with ivy, in place of the console, stands a shifting pillar of light. This is apparently what happens to the bodies of lifelong time travelers: in the end all that is left is the open wound they have left upon reality, a time-stream open to manipulation. The Great Intelligence intends to enter it, changing all The Doctor’s victories to defeats, destroying him repeatedly over the course of his life. The Doctor, weakened by the paradox of being so close to his past, present and future combined, cannot stop him. And so it falls to Clara.
Despite The Doctor’s pleas not to, Clara enters the timestream and, dying, is scattered across time and space to live many lives, including that of marooned entertainment manager Oswin Oswald (“Asylum of the Daleks”) and governess Clara (“The Snowman”)**. Ultimately, having saved The Doctor from The Great Intelligence’s scheme – and pointed his first incarnation towards his rickety Type 40 TARDIS back on Gallifrey all those years ago -, she ends up in a sort of purgatory.
How this gibes with the aftermath of The Doctor’s death we witnessed in the alternate universe of “Turn Left” – does this happen to all Time Lords, for instance? – and the exact mechanics are left unclear. Also, it’s a shame that the previous Doctors are, for the most part, reduced to body doubles running around in costume in the mist. Even so, Clara’s story finally receives some closure, an ordinary girl made special by extraordinary sacrifice, though it’s refreshing that she doesn’t have to die for it to happen. After all that, The Doctor goes in after her, but not before bidding farewell to “Ghost” River.
This possible final farewell between the ambiguously dead River and the possibly soon-to-die Doctor is pitched perfectly. Both Smith and Alex Kingston truly sell their character’s unique connection, as well as The Doctor’s unwillingness to say goodbye (though on this occasion he makes a heartbreaking exception before she “disappears”).
“The Name of The Doctor” ends in as strange a place as any episode ever has, on the spectral plain of The Doctor’s timestream populated by his former selves. Amongst them, however, is a figure neither Clara or we recognize, a Doctor who renounced the name in committing atrocities, atrocities the figure claims were necessary “in the name of peace and sanity”. The Eleventh turns away – “but not in the name of The Doctor” – and the figure is revealed to be none other than John Hurt, who a name card reveals utterly explicitly is The Doctor.
It’s here that the finale leaves us with The Doctor and Clara still (possibly trapped) in his timestream and it’s here presumably that the 50th anniversary special will pick up in November. Having witnessed all the previous incarnations so glimpsingly, it’s appropriate that we should be able to reacquaint ourselves with the most recent, David Tennant‘s presumed Tenth Doctor, as well as his definitive companion, Rose, played by Billie Piper.
While it’s perhaps a shame that not more Doctors will be making an appearance, one of the biggest issues with previous multi-Doctor episodes – “The Three Doctors” and “The Five Doctors” especially – were their crowdedness. The Doctors are all larger than life personalities, and, in this instance, less could be more, especially with John Hurt’s Xth Doctor present.
Given the correlation between previous episodes and successive Doctors – “The Crimson Horror” had a shout-out to the Fifth, “Nightmare in Silver” made oblique reference to the Sixth -, I’d expected that “The Name of The Doctor” might be the Seventh’s story, but instead we got a new Doctor who, according to various theories, could either be a future incarnation that the Eleventh is somehow aware of or a past one, perhaps from the depths of the Time War.
It makes sense that John Hurt’s Doctor might be from that murky period, given the Eleventh’s essential disownment of him. Behind-the-scenes photos taken on the set of the special seem to show a costume that incorporates Ninth Doctor Christopher Eccleston‘s leather jacket, perhaps indicating that Hurt is his predecessor, either Paul McGann‘s Eighth Doctor old and broken or a previously unseen Ninth**. In the latter case, it would mean that Smith is, in fact, the Twelfth Doctor, making this regeneration and his next incarnation, according to canon, the last.
Given his threat just the episode before to force a regeneration and burn out the Cyberman tech in his head, it’s thrilling to imagine a Doctor without that possibility, who has reached the end of his life, who cannot regenerate. While Smith has supposedly been confirmed for Season Eight, it seems that Moffat is gearing up for an endgame of sorts.
In any case, after a mixed, occasionally disappointing season, it seems the ship of Who has righted itself in time for its 50th anniversary. Once that major event has passed, it’s nice to think it’ll be back to adventuring as usual. Even so, these are portentous times for the show. While “The Name of The Doctor” might not have quite “changed everything” as Moffat said it would, suffice to say, there’s never been a series quite like this.
* Though how and if The Silence play into this remain to be seen.
** “Run, you clever boy, and remember” – wow.
*** No one does world-weary like John Hurt.