|I’ll be honest, I don’t have anything funny to say about this image.|
I was just scrolling through the Google Image Search for this episode
and thought “you know, that is pretty…”
If you missed it, we had a post on The Game yesterday.
It’s April 27th, 2013. Rudimental is at number one with “Waiting All Night,” with will.i.am, Daft Punk, Nelly, Pink, and Psy also charting, the latter not with “Gangnam Style.” In news, the US stock market loses 1% of its value momentarily due to the AP Twitter feed getting hacked and releasing false news of a terrorist attack injuring President Obama, and, erm, that’s about it.
On television, it’s Journey to the Center of the TARDIS. As with much of Season Seven, it’s strange how a year has changed this. At the time, it seemed an oddly disjointed story that was in need of another draft. Now… well, it still seems like that, admittedly. The “they convinced their brother he was a robot” twist is infamously absurd, although I admit, I’ve always felt like it’s a marvelous return to the completely bonkers legacy of a program that was unafraid to be ridiculous. I admit that I’ve never quite gotten over the moment, about half an hour in, when I was completely convinced the time zombies were going to turn out to be an origin story of the Silence (of course they’re forged in an exploding TARDIS!), only to have a wildly less interesting reveal. And the fact that the story can be summarized as “the TARDIS is hijacked by a bunch of black men because the Doctor let a woman drive” is, to say the least, unfortunate.
And, of course, it is the story in which the complaint that Moffat is fond of reset buttons really does acquire legs. This is one of those cases where the one time something really doesn’t work ends up making all the times it did weirdly conspicuous and slightly suspect. It is true that there are a solid few times that Moffat does the “and at the end of the story we undo everything that happened” trick, but generally he avoids the extent to which this is a frustrating twist that’s too similar to “it was all a dream” by making it so that our main characters remember it both ways, allowing the significant consequences of the adventure to still count. Yes, The Big Bang and The Wedding of River Song both get undone at the end, but notably, they don’t get undone for any of the major characters within them.
That’s not, unfortunately, how this one works. Journey to the Center of the TARDIS completely undoes the adventure for Clara. Which is immensely frustrating, because it actually has some very good character development for her. On one level, this is just a crass delaying tactic. It’s a way for the season to have its cake and eat it too, paying lip service to developing the Impossible Girl arc further and, in effect, spending a whole episode rehearsing the finale. But it’s also notable that the story brings Clara as close to her post-Name of the Doctor characterization as she gets in Season 7B, only to then drag her back.
As with much of Season 7B, this last point is important. More than any story this season save perhaps The Rings of Akhaten, however, this is improved once the Impossible Girl arc is resolved. Clara’s stinging condemnations of the Doctor and her declaration that he’s the scariest thing on the TARDIS resonate. Many of the oddities, most particularly the way in which the story holds the Doctor at a slight remove, jump out impressively when you realize that this is the point of the exercise.
There is also, fittingly for the 50th Anniversary, a measure of historical repair work done here. It’s notable that it took until The Doctor’s Wife for the new series to really hint at the idea that the TARDIS contained considerable depth beyond the console room, a point that, while not exactly a mainstay of the classic series, is nevertheless a classic part of Doctor Who lore. And while The Doctor’s Wife added immeasurably to the weight of TARDIS lore and, in many ways, did more for the sense of the TARDIS’s scale than this or any other story, it still mostly just added corridors to run through. Journey to the Center of the TARDIS, being a Doctor Who story, does indeed have loads of corridors, but also finally makes the TARDIS feel like the infinitely large maze of possibility that it’s always been suggested as.
So while it is, admittedly, a bit weird to try to correct the faults of The Invasion of Time in 2013, it’s worth acknowledging that this story does, in fact, do a lot. Indeed, it manages to consolidate and make explicit large swaths of TARDIS lore in a way that satisfyingly acknowledges the past. Sure, it’s only a couple of die-hard anoraks who actually care that we’ve now finally sorted out the whole “wait is the Eye of Harmony on Gallifrey or on TARDISes” thing, but equally, the idea that every single TARDIS is individually built out of an exploding star on the brink of collapsing into a black hole really does give them a sense of majesty that they deserve. Similarly, the explicit acknowledgment of the “conceptual geometry circuits” is not necessary in any meaningful sense, but it’s also nice to finally have that as an explicit statement, as it’s always been one of the more enticing things hinted at by the existing lore.
But in hindsight, where this really distinguishes itself is in terms of Clara. The Impossible Girl arc, as has been noted many a time, does not actually do Clara any favors this season. This is no fault of Jenna Coleman, who spends 2013 laying foundation for a performance she’d expand on dramatically the next season. But this, it turns out, is a keystone performance. The idea of Clara as a companion who actively interrogates the Doctor is ultimately going to become essential to who she is. The idea of the companion as a humanizing force for the Doctor has always been there, and has been a huge focus of the new series ever since Davies’s “Lonely God” approach, but Clara takes a different approach.
Specifically, Clara is very much defined by a genre awareness that means that she doesn’t just critique the Doctor, she critiques the story. This is, in fact, explicit in this episode, where her reaction to the time zombies is framed in terms of “basic storytelling.” Given Moffat’s inclination towards building the suspense of a story around the question of what sort of story it is, this is a hugely useful type of character for him. Indeed, it’s essential to the Impossible Girl arc that Clara be a character who can offer a moral critique of the story she’s in.
Except it’s not even quite that. There clearly is a moral dimension to the Impossible Girl arc – it’s a direct rejoinder to the critique that all of Moffat’s female characters are puzzles to be solved. But this isn’t the critique Clara actually offers of it. Amy was the character who offered straightforward moral critiques of the Doctor – something that was a part of her character from her second story on. But Clara’s critiques of the Doctor are critiques of genre and storytelling. Or, put another way, they’re aesthetic critiques.
One consequence is that they’re much more personal, which is fitting for the Impossible Girl arc. The problem becomes the Doctor’s erasure of Clara – his refusal to see her for who she is. It’s not about the mystery, but rather about the way in which the mystery is a flawed lens through which to view her. But this is fundamentally a selfish desire – a point that, of course, eventually gets reaffirmed with Clara’s self-identification as a “bossy control freak.” Nevertheless, it’s a significant shift. Amy, ultimately, wanted her story to be the “right” story. Clara, on the other hand, wants ownership of her story. Goodness has nothing to do with it, as it were.
And this, crucially, is reinforced by Coleman’s performance. One of the unheralded aspects of this story is the skill with which Coleman handles lengthy solo scenes in the TARDIS. She gets a fair amount of talking to herself to make it easier, but so much of that section of the story is really anchored by the physicality of Coleman’s performance. It’s worth rewatching to see the way she uses the frame – her working out of the claw marks on the TARDIS wall is particularly elegant. She’s lithe and precise, but she’s also always making quite large movements that take up quite a bit of space. It’s something that never really gets a chance to be thoroughly developed, but there’s a beautiful contrast between Coleman and Smith in the fact that both give immensely physical performances, and more to the point, both give physically big performances, in the sense of taking up a lot of space with their performance. And yet nevertheless, their performances are fundamental opposites. Smith is full of broad, self-consciously awkward movements. He flails, famously. Coleman, on the other hand, is precise and mannered. The amount of characterization implicit in that is immense.
It is perhaps notable that we’ve made it this far without saying much of anything about the supporting cast in this story, save for a wry joke about the “they tricked him into thinking he was a robot” revelation. Part of this is simply that they are rather a weak link in the story. Part of this is simply the writing. With Bram dying before he has much characterization, Tricky being ludicrous, and Gregor being both one-note and deliberately unlikeable, there’s not a heck of a lot to do with them. It’s hard not to wish that the all non-white supporting cast hadn’t been saved for almost any other episode of the season so that we didn’t get the uncomfortable moment of the all-black cast being a bunch of looters.
But there’s still a point worth picking at a bit, which is Tricky. As I noted, the ludicrousness of his plot doesn’t actually stand out particularly when compared to large swaths of the classic series, and a fair bit of the new one. All the same, much as I’m charmed by its sheer pluck, I can’t really argue with a straight face that it works particularly well. It’s tempting to say that this is because that sort of ludicrousness doesn’t actually work anymore, but equally, it’s not like most of the obvious examples from the classic series really spark as high points in the sense of “things you can show other people without embarrassment.” This sort of completely bonkers plot twist has always been something to love as an idiosyncrasy of Doctor Who, as opposed to as a sensible thing to do.
No, the real problem is that this is just a kind of poor choice of stories to put the twist in. As flawed as its engagement with the arc may be, this is the one story other than Name of the Doctor that actually engages substantively with the Impossible Girl arc. An arc, you’ll recall, that is about subverting the idea of treating characters as mysteries to be solved. It is, in other words, a storyline with which a bunch of mysteries that are solved by surprise reveals like “he’s not actually a robot” and “the Time Zombie is Clara” actively clashes. The structure of Journey to the Center of the TARDIS is at war with its message. That’s on one level the entire point of the Impossible Girl arc, but there’s not actually any engagement with the conflict. It’s not a source of tension, it’s just a tonal mismatch. As with Thompson’s other scripts, there’s not so much a sense of what the story wants to be as there is a sense of the job the story wants to do. The job gets done, but at the end of it, we come back to the one question that can’t really be answered about this story: why on Earth did anyone think addressing just one of the many flaws of The Invasion of Time was worth doing thirty-five years after the fact?