Since it’s bound to come up, let me say at the outset that I’m a fan of much of Neil Gaiman’s work, and ‘The Sandman’ in particular, but I don’t love his stuff unreservedly. ‘Coraline’ and ‘American Gods’ are both great but his most recent short story collection Fragile Things was patchy, as was ‘The Graveyard Book’, and in terms of TV work his Babylon 5 episode ‘Day of the Dead’ is mediocre at best. Given that the latter is the closest analogue to guest-writing an episode of Doctor Who I was pretty cautious about how this episode would turn out.
I needn’t have worried. Although the episode has its share of flat spots it’s broadly an inventive, invigorating take on the series, at once irredeemably fannish and accessible to a mainstream audience. I actually think that ‘The Impossible Astronaut’/’Day of the Moon’ feel like filmed fan fiction (or extended universe fiction), but whereas those episodes revel in darkness and narrative tangles, ‘The Doctor’s Wife’ is a much more nostalgic tribute to the show’s long history. That it pulls this off without merely rehashing old ideas (as last week‘s lukewarm effort did) is a very pleasant surprise. In its own way it’s as atypical as the season opener, even though it does manage to feature both a quarry doubling as an alien planet and some extremely 1970s-80s corridor scenes.
The story is built around the single conceit that the Tardis is made human. This high concept approach is a weakness in some ways, since the ‘villain’ (an unrecognisable vocal performance from Michael Sheen) and plotting are pretty perfunctory, but lends itself to strong characterisation that unusually puts the psychological focus on the Doctor. It doesn’t hurt that having the Doctor converse with his spaceship resonates with, and enhances, some of Doctor Who‘s most iconic aspects.
Idris is a typical Gaiman creation, blending an air of faded gothic with the eccentricity of Delerium from the ‘Sandman’ comics. Indeed, she’s very nearly too familiar on those terms alone (I think Uncle and Auntie do cross the line into cliches but modern Who does tend to paint its supporting cast with a broad brush). She’s also a bit of a wish-fulfilment character, of the ‘wouldn’t it be nice if my ship loved me back’ variety. She could have been horribly twee, therefore, but for me at least her execution is spot on. Suranne Jones gives a nuanced performance that, like the Doctor himself, blends OTT eccentricity with just the right amount of depth and sadness. And every time the episode threatens to descend into sentimental cliche, the script veers off at the last minute. So the word that hurts is not “love” but “alive”, and the last thing Idris wants to tell the Doctor is not “goodbye” but “Hello. Hello Doctor, it’s so very very nice to meet you.” Just the right decision in every case.
In response Matt Smith delivers his best performance in some time: goofy when he needs to be, but also delicate, mournful, angry, excited and sad. The Doctor always works best when he’s not one note, and although Smith’s talent for dramatic acting still doesn’t rival Tennant’s, he definitely rises to the material.
The weaker aspects of the episode mainly relate to Rory and Amy who are pretty much by definition extraneous to the story and are reduced to running around corridors. The actors are as good as they’ve ever been, Arthur Darvill in particular, and these scenes do at least provide a cheeky nod to Classic Who, but they’re hardly riveting. I assume budget cuts are the reason why the corridors themselves are so cheap and so very unlike the dazzling design of the console room. What I did like was the telepathic pass-code based on concepts not words, and the use of the old console room is brilliant. For a few heart-stopping moments I actually thought we might get a Classic Who console room, but even the previous one is a lovely touch. Seeing the current cast in the old set is an interesting juxtaposition.
Despite a few flaws this is a fine piece of Doctor Who and although Abigail may be right when she laments that the combined Gaiman-Who fanbase means next year’s Hugo is all sewn up, at least it’ll be a winner I can get behind.
In a word, lovely.