|Cleavage is magic|
It’s May 14th, 2011. LMFAO remain at number one with “Party Rock Anthem,” with Jennifer Lopez, Snoop Dogg, Katy Perry, and Bruno Mars also charting. In news, Queen Elizabeth II becomes the second-longest reigning British monarch, Manchester United beat Liverpool’s record of eighteen top flight victories, Dominique Strauss-Kahn is charged with rape, and for only the second time ever the Morganza Spillway is opened.
While on television, The Doctor’s Wife. To steal a phrase from Lawrence Miles’s review of City of Death in About Time, it is, of course, one of the best things ever. It’s also something I’m going to get to come back to, admittedly in a few years, since it’s by Neil Gaiman, one of the protagonists of The Last War in Albion. So the interesting question of how this fits into Gaiman’s larger career mostly belongs to that project. Still, a preview of the argument: after American Gods, Gaiman’s career kind of loses momentum, consisting mainly of things that feel safe and like what one would expect from Gaiman. It’s not that Gaiman is writing bad stuff in any meaningful sense, but it felt in many ways like he had become a predictable writer who was going to turn out subtle variations of the same basic thing. Eventually, for a variety of reasons, this changed and he entered a new and largely more interesting phase of his career, and while The Doctor’s Wife can’t reasonably be said to be singlehandedly responsible for that, it is nevertheless a significant transitional moment.
Much of this, one suspects, comes down to the fact that Neil Gaiman found himself with something he’d not really had to deal with since American Gods: someone who could edit him with real authority. This doesn’t happen to major writers late in their careers very often, but in this case Gaiman is working under someone who is every bit as good a writer as he is. There’s a palpable sense of Gaiman having to up his game here and push himself, and it pays off with an episode that’s not just one of the absolute best Doctor Who stories of all time, but a high point of Gaiman’s career.
It’s worth talking a bit about Moffat and writers. Moffat has generally avoided being terribly open about how he works with the writers he commissions, rejecting Davies’s approach of actively and openly rewriting people. This is, broadly speaking, a good thing, at least in terms of being fair to creators. But equally, it doesn’t mean that there’s no editorial oversight. Gaiman has talked about The Doctor’s Wife going through loads of drafts, including some very specific comments from Moffat. That doesn’t mean that Moffat wrote all or most of The Doctor’s Wife, but it does mean that he shaped it heavily. Many of these edits were matters of budget – Gaiman had a not entirely realistic sense of what could be accomplished on Doctor Who’s budget, and had to be revised downwards several times. (This is actually understandable for Gaiman – he’d previously done the on-a-shoestring film Mirrormask with Dave McKean directing, and in that film it was the human actors that added all the expense, whereas McKean was perfectly happy to computer-animate any number of bizarre concepts. So the fact that the CGI shots of the TARDISes flying around were going to nearly break the bank for the episode is legitimately something Gaiman didn’t realize, since that was exactly what he was encouraged to do the last time he wrote something cheap for the screen.)
Specifically, we know that the script as first submitted was squarely in the “Gaiman spinning his wheels” category, focusing mainly on House, who is the single most Gaimany aspect of the script, and that Moffat pushed Gaiman to move the “Idris becomes the TARDIS” moment earlier in the script and to focus on it more. In hindsight, this seems self-evidently the right decision, and it’s difficult to imagine the story weighted the way Gaiman originally intended. Certainly that story would have had little chance of being the insta-classic that this was.
It’s not that House is a bad villain. Actually, he’s quite good. The casting of Michael Sheen for his voice helps a lot, giving him a wonderfully silky menace. But the scenes of him chasing Amy and Rory through the newly built TARDIS corridor set are largely there for pacing – because the story needs some chasey action sequences to break up the very talky bits of the Doctor and Idris building a TARDIS. The bits of the story that aren’t the Doctor and Idris interacting all work. But they’re a frame in which the real key sequences sit, and those sequences are absolute gold. And this, in turn, does have to be credited to Gaiman. It is, after all, still his basic idea to have the TARDIS gain the ability to speak for a story. And even if it was Moffat who pushed him towards clarifying the idea until the episode became a vehicle for expressing its own best idea, it is still Gaiman’s idea and execution of that idea that sings.
And yet this might fairly be called surprising. One can reasonably ask when in the series’ past a conscious attempt to tinker with the mythos has worked. The War Games, perhaps, but that worked because there was no mythos to tinker with. Past that? The Deadly Assassin… but the list dries up pretty quickly at that point. Self-conscious, overt efforts to do “mythos” rarely work in Doctor Who. It is, then, worth spending at least a bit of time establishing why this is a good idea in the first place.
First and foremost, it is a good idea because it hits that marvelous sweet spot of feeling like something that Doctor Who would be incomplete if it never got around to doing and feeling like something you can only actually do once. The TARDIS is as integral to the premise of Doctor Who as any character – indeed, given that the Doctor and the Companion(s) can be heavily reworked at will, it is in many ways the most integral part of it. Even when the TARDIS was nominally removed from the series, it kept coming back in a vestigial form until the series gave in and returned to using adventures in space and time as a regular element. And yet the TARDIS is generally a prop, not a character. However much lip service might be paid to the idea that the TARDIS is sentient, the series still defaults to treating the TARDIS as an object. It doesn’t have any agency beyond its ability to malfunction and take the Doctor to the wrong place. And so giving the TARDIS the ability, after nearly fifty years, to speak for itself and comment on proceedings is terribly significant and appealing.
But equally, it really only works once. The TARDIS-as-character model ultimately consumes everything around it. The story’s title is accurate – the TARDIS is the Doctor’s true love, and when they can interact there stops needing to be anyone else in the room. This is why the story has to shove Amy and Rory into a chase sequence, and why the Idris drops out of the story once the Doctor gets back to the TARDIS. If the Doctor has the TARDIS to relate to, his connection to humanity necessarily becomes strained. You can get around this by making the TARDIS more human, but what’s interesting about the TARDIS is precisely that she’s still effectively a force of nature. So it’s a toy that needs to be put back in the box at the end of the story, which is to the story’s benefit because it gets to have all the cleverness of the idea to itself.
It also happens to be a very good idea for 2011. It has to be said, a story called The Doctor’s Wife that falls squarely in the midst of an arc that will culminate in a story called The Wedding of River Song carries a certain amount of thematic weight. In one sense it’s a little bit jarring to have another wife in the mix, but in another it’s oddly clarifying. The Doctor’s wife is shown to be a tremendous figure in her own right – one who is not merely a female mirror of the Doctor. It’s self-evident that the Doctor’s wife must be his equal, but it’s not quite as evident that she can’t be a distaff clone. And yet that is what we get here – the Doctor’s wife considered not as the female Doctor, but as a proper opposite number. There’s a significant reflection back on River here – a necessary sketching out of the territory she occupies in terms other than her own.
(Not to tip my hand on what I’ll say about A Good Man Goes to War too much, but it is also worth noting that the later-season plot in which Amy and River are both, in their own way, raped is repeated here – the TARDIS is invaded and violated by a male figure. And just as Moffat ultimately responds to this by having the Doctor enable an act of healing that is driven and defined by the female characters, ultimately restitution comes entirely from the TARDIS, with the Doctor’s role being to shepherd her back into herself.)
There are also good ideas in the specific execution. The idea that the TARDIS experiences time non-chronologically and thus gets quotes out of order is charming, and comes straight out of the structure in which Moffat has been working, setting up phrases and paying them off later in a very puzzle boxy way. Using it to build to “hello Doctor” as a climactic line is marvelous. And the TARDIS calling the Doctor “thief” is a breathtakingly beautiful little detail.
But the real heart of the episode comes when Gaiman casually rewrites the series’ lore. Some bits of it are obvious – the idea that the TARDIS’s unreliability has always in fact been taking the Doctor where he “needed to go” has been around for decades at this point. But others aren’t – the reminiscing over what the Doctor first said when he saw the TARDIS, for instance, is a beautiful bit of detail for the Doctor’s initial flight from Gallifrey that dispels none of the mystery. For my money, however, the story’s best line is when Idris proclaims that she chose the Doctor, as opposed to the other way around, because “I wanted to see the universe, so I stole a Time Lord and I ran away.”
It is, to be perfectly frank, the sort of line you hire Neil Gaiman for. Gaiman, of course, belongs to the Alan Moore school of writers where step one in taking any writing job on an established property is to completely dismantle and reassemble the underlying mythology to reveal some terribly clever trick about it. The difference is that where Moore plays this trick to do what is popularly and largely inaccurately described as deconstructing characters, Gaiman usually does it to whittle them to a sort of purest expression of the original concept. Which is what we have here. Gaiman, with a single line, suggests that this has been the TARDIS’s show all along – that it was her decision that got everything started, and she’s the original wanderer through space and time, with the Doctor’s role being to push buttons.
It’s important to recognize this in terms of gender balance. Since 1971, the “standard” model for Doctor Who has been a male Doctor and a female companion, and while this episode does explicitly note that it is possible to regenerate into a different gender, at this point in the show the Doctor remains a firmly male character, with female characters delegated to the “secondary” role. But The Doctor’s Wife consciously alters this, declaring that the series’ implicit hierarchy is in fact topped by a woman, and making female spaces a vital concept in the show’s mythology, in an entertainingly literal manner. And, because it’s worth saying, the fact that this is what the script emphasizes and not “spooky alien planet with a personality” can be credited to Moffat.
All of this is then wrapped in a pleasantly efficient production. The script’s frequent revision has smoothed away all the rough edges, leading to an episode you can just sit someone down and say “here, this is really good.” It effectively ended all discussion of the 2012 Hugo Awards before the 2011 ones had even been given out – everybody knew this would win, partially because the combination of Gaiman and Doctor Who seemed unstoppable, but mostly because it was just a really phenomenal forty-five minutes of television. There are cases where one suspects that Doctor Who won Hugos out of momentum, and where the fact that it routinely occupied 60% of the nominations looked like the product of slightly overzealous fans. Then there’s The Doctor’s Wife – a perfect little adjustment to a half-century of mythology that was, upon transmission, visibly something that would have been one of the absolute best pieces of science fiction television in any year.