Saturday 14 May 2011

DOCTOR WHO 6.04 - The Doctor's Wife

Scanners indicate an absence of spoilers

Well, it seems to becoming something of a running motif this season, for here we have yet another episode that is going to very tricksy to review without giving away the surprising central conceits. And hence this initial section might be somewhat brief!

But while as annoying as this is for your humble reviewer, on the flipside the fact that episodes warrant a rigid non-spoiler policy is a testament to their quality - for I have always believed that a good story should inspire one to kept its secrets so that other may share the delight of their unfolding.

Now I must confess to going into this episode with somewhat mixed feelings. On one hand, it was to be written by the legendary Neil Gaiman, a man who surely needs no introduction... But if you do, Mr Gaiman was one of the scribes who along with luminaries such as Alan Moore, Frank Miller and Grant Morrison, spearheaded the comics renaissance in the late ‘80s, the era where the humble cartoon strip grew up. Making a splash with the graphic novel Violent Cases and then went on to pen the ground-breaking Sandman series - essentially a novel told in 75 comic book chapters. Aside from further comic work, he went on to produce a string of novels and short story collections, cementing his status as one of the premier fantasists of this generation.

And recently he’s became to conquer the big screen - two of his books have been translated to the big screen, Stardust and Coraline, and he also penned the script for Robert Zemeckis’ retelling of Beowulf and the criminally under-seen Mirrormask which was directed by his long time collaborator, and legend in his own right, artist Dave McKean.

But far earlier in his career, back in the early ‘90s, he had first ventured into the script business with a little BBC series called Neverwhere. This six part serial took viewers to a secret London where this is an Angel in Islington, a nobleman in Earls Court and populated by bizarre characters such as Old Bailey. All great fun and possessing an atmosphere and tone not dissimilar to vintage Doctor Who. Unfortunately though, being produced a lean period of genre TV , it has also have the same low budget troubles and resultant shoestring production values that bedevilled late period Who.

So then on the other hand, despite The Doctor’s Wife being shunted from Series 5 to Series 6 for budgetary reasons, I was still concerned that the BBC coffers might not be able to do justice to his imaginings. And as much as I admire the the man’s works, I was also worried whether he could actually produce something that felt like ‘proper’ Doctor Who. After all, many name authors have written pieces for universes other than their own and, sad to say, have come a cropper (names withheld to protect the guilty).

Additionally the very title of the episode caused me some concern. In the beginning it was to be called The House of Nothing which sounded spot on; not just intriguing but passing my personal title Who test - namely would it look good with the addition of ‘Doctor Who And..’ for an imaginary old school Target Book with a Chris Achilleos cover.

However ‘The House of Nothing’ was torn down and became The Doctor’s Wife - a very different proposition. As from echoing the not terribly well regarded Series 4 episode The Doctor’s Daughter, it also started ringing all kinds of continuity Cloister Bells. To start with, in the range of novels produced first by Virgin and then later BBC Books during the years when Who was off the air we’d already met a sort of previous wife of the Doctor, Patience. But personally the possible canonical contradictions wasn't the real issue, as I’m not really a card carrying Continuity Cop. Rather it’s just that I get a bit nervous around the possibility we’re going to learn a little too much about the Doctor’s personal history. And with Neil stating in interviews that he was going to be adding to the mythology of the show, I was praying that there would be nothing that shrank or damaged the essential mystery of that makes our Time Lord hero so fascinating.

Now then, having seen the episode, all the above fretting was all for nothing. And with hindsight, I really shouldn't’ have worried - for if I’d thought a bit harder on the matter his comics work has seen him tackle many well established and well loved characters and done ‘em proud too! Yes, a huge *face palm* all round!

For this a delightful little tale, and very much a love letter to to all those years we’ve enjoyed tagging along with the TARDIS’ travels. Now, don’t panic because I mentioned the ‘L’ word - I’m sure that many of you were very concerned that the episode’s title would see yet more romance in the control room. But hey, so was I a little and while we do see a strong emotional and affectionate relationship forged, it really isn't what you’re thinking. And while I can’t elaborate without giving the game away, I’ll just say that is precisely the right kind of romance for the show, delivering warmth and heart but without the dreaded cheap tricks of giving the Doctor a sudden love interest.

Yes, there is love here, but it is a many splendoured, and indeed in terms of the story line, many layered thing here rather than the soapy antics of series past. But there’s a cracking plot, brimming with equally with humour and spooky horror. Essentially, The Doctor’s Wife hits all the marks last week’s Curse of the Black Spot was aiming for but just missed.

Guest star Suranne Jones puts in a stellar performance as the mysterious Idris, one that should win her an award or two, and I certainly I hope we haven’t seen the last of her. Matt Smith really shines in this episode too, quite a feat considering how week in week out he’s never short of excellent. And of course this episode’s other guest star, Michael Sheen is also on top form although in a voice only role.

But it’s more than just a fun filled run around, it is a genuinely touching episode for it reflects in many different ways the magic of Doctor Who. There are several lovely nods to the show’s past and indeed there are new additions to the mythology. And they are pitched perfectly - whereas in the past certain aspects of the Doctor’s past have perhaps been illuminated too clearly, as a writer Neil has always demonstrated a keen understanding of how stories and legends operate, in fact it is something of a recurring theme in his works, and hence the additions here aren't big continuity rewriting reveals but little hints that don’t diminish the mystery but actually artfully embroiders it, deepening old enigmas by raising new tantalising questions.

All in all, this was a magical little adventure and while it may not be muscling in on the territory of all time classics such as Blink or Genesis of the Daleks it’s certain to join the top ranks of the most well loved tales like City of Death. And I certainly hope this is not last script we’ll have from Mr Gaiman.

PS - Be sure to catch this week’s Doctor Who Confidential - as it’s jam packed with Neil visiting the set and musing on all things Who - it’s a real delight to see his love for the show and hear the man himself reading his original script aloud. And on the off chance anyone important is reading this - could we have a printed edition of his script ? The passages we heard sounded wonderful and it would make a great little chapbook to release as a charity fundraiser!

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