Now that my ladder’s gone,
I must lie down where all ladders start
In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.
(WB Yeats, The Circus Animals’ Desertion) – see link for a brilliant analysis of the poem.
My initial response to TDW – very enjoyable. Written by a hardcore fan with a really deep respect for the spirit of the characters and the show, and there were some lovely nods to history there. I loved the decayed Victoriana (would love to see the design team tackle Lyra’s universe in His Dark Materials). And there were some astonishing performances, even in minor roles. Suranne Jones, especially, shone in a very challenging part.
I had no problems at all buying the central premise – I’ve been personifying the TARDIS in fanfic and in my imagination for years now. It seems like the obvious solution to the Doctor’s loneliness – in a way it’s just, literally, putting flesh on a relationship that was already there. I never thought for a moment that the Timelords would turn out to be anything more than a cruel lure to get hold of Arton entergy or something like that, so the story wasn’t the central issue for me. What I did find interesting was the way the episode handled emotion, and a comparison with The Doctor’s Daughter is instructive here.
The Doctor’s Daughter is a story that really does divide fans, sometimes against themselves. We want to like it but it seems to frustrate and annoy many of us, though nobody could fault the acting and the writing’s not bad either (though it’s hardly up to Gaiman standards). I think the problem with it is that it tells us, at every stage, precisely how we ought to feel. It jumps from cliche to cliche – Jenny is just too perfect, too perky, too close to a certain type of character. And the whole storyline seems to be set up for Tennant to emote as much as possible in what are, by that stage, fairly predictable ways. There’s only one way you can walk through the story – he’s stunned, he’s indignant, he pushes her away, he mourns what he has lost, she wins his heart, she takes a bullet, she dies in his arms. And the appropriate symbols are supplied at every stage.
It’s Tennant’s vehicle. The whole thing is set up to give him new emotions to play. It doesn’t credit the viewer with all that much intelligence – there’s very little to work out, and the way Martha is made redundant and sidelined gives some viewers a nasty taste in the mouth. Without wishing to bitch, since I adore him, characters serve plot and plot serves Ten.
TDW is much more subtle and open-ended. Like the TARDIS, there are numerous corridors leading out of the central set-up and they open up into some fascinating vistas to explore. Gaiman has said he thinks it’s important to retain the mystery surrounding the Doctor. In fact, the last line is an unanswered question – does the Doctor have a room of his own? Our last sight of him isn’t of him explaining what happened and then announcing, unconvincingly, that life is always worth living. No, he isn’t even looking at Amy and Rory. He’s got goggles on, and anything could be going on behind them in those hidden eyes. And the very way he reacts to the humans’ request for suitable sleeping quarters shows how alien he is. He could be sorting out the logistics of a cage for two talking hamsters. He’s affectionate, but totally apart.
I don’t know whether NG went out of his way to take some of the tropes of the RTD era – most obviously the old control room, but also the glowy regeneration, the parting words of prophecy, opening the TARDIS doors onto deep space and even a slightly battered wedding gown, but it certainly looked as if they were being interrogated and taken in another direction. The corridors became a game of Portal – a disembodied voice you couldn’t trust, confusion between up and down, back and forward, being lost in a labyrinth until Amy’s very human ability to tie words to remembered images provided the key. (There was even a cake!) I found the scrawled corridors and the suddenly murderous Rory the most frightening moment I’ve ever seen in New Who – the idea that a loved one could turn against you so completely, and the twisting of the Bad Wolf graffiti trope. It completely unnerved me.
As well as physical and strategic mysteries, the script opened up a very different picture of the Doctor/Amy relationship. I’m amazed nobody else has mentioned this in the comments I’ve read so far – he’s obviously told Amy, and probably Rory as well, about the Time War. And it’s just there, something that happened, but a few moments later Amy (sounding quite unlike the way SM writes her) is warning him about the dangers of getting emotionally involved and making errors of judgement – and events prove her absolutely right. It’s a very maternal, protective line, that quite subtly inverts the usual status quo. Here, the Doctor is the vulnerable one.
With Rory, too, we’re reminded of his essential humanity. Never mind that Idris is an implantied consciousness in a decaying body, and intellectually that’s fascinating – what matters to him is she died right in front of him and there was nothing he could do. Again, not a lot of emoting, but the words say it for you, and we see Rory just a little more clearly from that point.
The Doctor himself gets a couple of very emotional beats to play – his anger when he finds the collection of message cubes and his suspicions are confirmed, and his farewell to Idris. Both are filmed as very private moments. We, the viewers, see his face full on, but nobody else does. They’re left to figure out how he’s coping, and he’s very good at being blank. Again, compare and contrast. Tennant is the Shakespearian actor who can convey every nuance of his emotional state to people on the back row in the gallery. (Not that he can’t also play to camera, but the point is, when he’s upset he may act as if he’s not letting anybody else in the room know it, but nobody is fooled).
I’ve felt for a while that there’s something rather 1940s about Matt Smith’s acting style. He has a way of hiding his pain from everybody except himself. It’s there in the little choke of the voice, but it’s very private. The camera shows us something that nobody else in the story gets to see. He’s very good at that. He mourns, then he puts it away, not by denying he’s hurting, but by completely compartmentalising it. It sleeps in his memory unless he chooses to open a door.
And I feel that the junkyard of old bits and pieces built on the top of a sentient consciousness that has the capability of turning malevolent at any moment is an excellent metaphor for the Doctor’s own head. It was fitting that our last view of him was in the tangle of unpredictable wires under the console, suspended in an empty space, his eyes hidden and his face a mask.