The Doctor’s Junkyard Blues (Spoilers for The Doctor’s Wife)


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.

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14 thoughts on “The Doctor’s Junkyard Blues (Spoilers for The Doctor’s Wife)

  1. there’s something rather 1940s about Matt Smith’s acting style
    Very interesting. In a conversation I had recently about Matt Smith’s acting style, a friend pointed out how much it owes not just to Troughton, but how it’s almost as if Smith is doing the performance that Doctor Who would have required in the 1960s. That’s what makes his Doctor seem so old-fashioned and oddly out-of-time with the rest of the show. (Troughton of course learned to act in the 40s.)

  2. A great review, particularly your comments on Matt Smith’s acting and where the programme is taking the Doctor now in relation to his companions. I’d not thought of David Tennant’s Doctor as theatrical even though I’ve seen him on stage and noticed how his Doctor used a lot of Tennant’s technique turned up to at least eleven.

  3. I enjoyed this one, too – lovely bit of meta-as-episode, I thought. “Look, it’s Doctor Who – it’s all about being about corridors, and bigger on the inside…”
    It really showed up for me, too, some of the differences between RTD’s concept of who the Doctor was, and the seemingly much more traditional Doctor that Moffat and, presumably, Gaiman subscribes to. Nine and, particularly, Ten were in some ways very human, and never was this more apparent than in their sexuality – Ten, in particular, flirted, charmed and emoted and got pounced on by everyone from Madame de Pompadour to Cassandra as a result. Eleven, by contrast, feels almost asexual; Amy’s jumping him in Series 5 felt completely implausible, and his flirty conversations with River don’t quite work for me either. Whereas in this episode, Gaiman made it seem entirely believable that what/who really turns Eleven on… is the TARDIS.
    That last scene, with the Doctor peering through the huge goggles (where Ten might just have peeked over the top of his glasses), made me think: “Got it. Ten was a geek; Eleven’s a nerd.”
    Also with you on the writing of Amy and Rory; I thought Rory’s line about “I’m a nurse” was spot-on; but then Rory has always made sense to me, whereas I’ve struggled to get a handle on Amy at all. Am watching with interest this series to see whether she’ll become consistently a more rounded character or whether she’ll veer wildly backwards and forwards depending on who’s writing her.
    Very surreal, and very Gaiman.

  4. Ooh, that’s a fascinating observation. It’s all about pace, isn’t it? Getting right away from the bang, bang, bang, climax every few minutes, of the Tennant era.
    I think I first spotted the 1940s link when I saw him on the cover of RT as Isherwood. That man was born to wear a fedora. And I remembered him saying, rather endearingly, in a Confidential that when he first heard he’d got the part, he went home posing as Sinatra and watching himself reflected in shop windows.

  5. The goggles were very steampunk. I thought of Dasterdly and Muttley’s flying machines, and all those 1960s movies of that type.
    You could argue that the Ten to Eleven change totally vindicates the decision to send Rose off with 10.5. To live with that change in a person you love would be heartbreaking. I’ve only ever seen it done once in fic, in a late chapter of rabid1st ‘s epic D/R romance, “Dishevelled.” She’s one of those rare writers who looks fearlessly at all the implications of the Doctor staying with one partner.
    As for the jumping on him, couldn’t agree with you more. My own theory, which I journalled right after TIA, is that it’s a hangover from an earlier series plan SM had when he thought he’d have Tennant involved.

  6. Pace, and economy and precision of movement. Television happened on a much smaller screen in the 1960s: more close-ups and two-shots, no widescreen, no ambitions to being film-like. A small space: the intimate screen.

  7. My own theory, which I journalled right after TIA, is that it’s a hangover from an earlier series plan SM had when he thought he’d have Tennant involved.
    I remember your theory, and I found it very convincing. Shame that either there wasn’t time to rewrite it, if that’s true, or that no-one noticed quite how badly it didn’t work with Eleven.
    And yes, cannot begin to imagine Rose with (in any sense) Eleven [boggles…]

  8. I was delighted with the episode, but am mildly exasperated with the return to “Can’t go an episode without someone trying to stick their tongue down The Doctor’s throat.”
    I’ve really been enjoying Matt Smith’s physical style. To me it felt loose and disjointed. I mean, Tennant (whispers “I really could not find myself greatly attached to Ten, in fact I was glad to see him go.”) He was always very clenched in. Yes, Matt is wonderfully free in his movements and delightfully projecting “Guess what, I am not a human. Shhh!” In retrospect, the Doctor I know best is Four. I imprinted on him, after all. The Doctor I liked least was Six. I miss Five’s entourage, and I sure miss Seven! Never got to know Eight, the movie wasn’t enough. I was awfully sad that we lost Nine so soon, though.

  9. I would really have liked to have had more of Nine – I liked the darkness and toughness that CE brought to the part very much and had he stayed for another series he might easily have been impossible to dislodge from my Favourite Doctor spot. As it is, I fell utterly in love with Ten, with the verbosity and the running and the sheer non-stop energy; but I totally accept these things are all according to taste!
    I think MS is doing quite a nifty turn as a much more traditional type of Doctor; and perhaps as a result my watching of the show has reverted to a much more traditional register (curled up on the settee with my seven-year-old watching a bit of Saturday teatime entertainment) than my rather intense emotional engagement with Nine and Ten in a show that felt at least as much for grown-ups as it did for the kids.

  10. Agreed. It’s difficult to adjust from that pitch of emotional identification with the Doctor but it’s probably atypical of the show as a whole.
    CE made an excellent war veteran Doctor. I’m just sad that he seems to regard his time on the show as something of an embarrassment now. I think Billie Piper worked well with him, too.

  11. Agreed. It’s difficult to adjust from that pitch of emotional identification with the Doctor but it’s probably atypical of the show as a whole.

    CE made an excellent war veteran Doctor. I’m just sad that he seems to regard his time on the show as something of an embarrassment now. I think Billie Piper worked well with him, too.

  12. It’s difficult to adjust from that pitch of emotional identification with the Doctor but it’s probably atypical of the show as a whole.
    I think it is, and Moffat seems to be very clear that the very human Doctors RTD wrote, and the layers of character development and humanity that appealed so much to a lot of adults when the show was first brought back (and seemed to have grown up just as its old audience had grown up) are not what he thinks DW is about. Fair enough. My seven-year-old likes the show well enough as it is, and it was about time he had a turn with a Doctor of his own.

  13. It’s difficult to adjust from that pitch of emotional identification with the Doctor but it’s probably atypical of the show as a whole.

    I think it is, and Moffat seems to be very clear that the very human Doctors RTD wrote, and the layers of character development and humanity that appealed so much to a lot of adults when the show was first brought back (and seemed to have grown up just as its old audience had grown up) are not what he thinks DW is about. Fair enough. My seven-year-old likes the show well enough as it is, and it was about time he had a turn with a Doctor of his own.

  14. It’s difficult to adjust from that pitch of emotional identification with the Doctor but it’s probably atypical of the show as a whole.

    I think it is, and Moffat seems to be very clear that the very human Doctors RTD wrote, and the layers of character development and humanity that appealed so much to a lot of adults when the show was first brought back (and seemed to have grown up just as its old audience had grown up) are not what he thinks DW is about. Fair enough. My seven-year-old likes the show well enough as it is, and it was about time he had a turn with a Doctor of his own.

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