Clara is stranded in a badly damaged TARDIS after it becomes ensnared by a salvage vessel. Co-opting the crew into helping him search for her by setting the self-destruct, the Doctor must race against time to protect his ship, his missing companion and his innermost secrets.
The big reset
Don’t get into a spaceship with a madman. Didn’t anyone ever teach you that?
Sherlock‘s Steve Thompson contributes his second Who story (after the lamentable The Curse of the Black Pearl), and I rather suspect this was a real love-it-or-hate-it episode. For long-time fans, this was an extension of Neil Gaiman’s The Doctor’s Wife, revealing more of the TARDIS beyond the console room than a handful of corridors (although nowhere near as much as the Fourth Doctor story The Invasion of Time). Again, we get a lot of corridors for budgetary reasons, but also glimpses of the swimming pool, what appears to be an observatory and a magnificent vaulted library – not to mention the Eye of Harmony and an eerie version of the TARDIS’ engine room.
This week’s supporting characters, the three van Baalen brothers, are nicely drawn. Gregor’s (So Solid Crew and Hustle‘s Ashley Walters) petty ruse about convincing his younger brother Tricky that he is an android seems a bit farcical in truth, but it does allow his initially selfish and unscrupulous character to come full circle at the end. In the altered timeline he retains the Doctor’s words about having “a tiny little scrap of decency” to right his own wrong and suggest that the Doctor’s airy assertion to Clara that she would forget everything that happened may not be entirely correct.
Indeed, left hanging in the air is the question of what memories Clara might have retained in her subconscious. While in the library, she leafs through The History of the Time War and stumbles upon a reference to the Doctor’s real name. Repairing the rift in time should have erased that knowledge from her memories. Or has it? And if she has somehow retained that vital sliver of information, what future peril might that place her or the Doctor in, particular given his assertion that:
Secrets protect us. Secrets keep us safe.
As it did last week, the Doctor and Clara’s relationship takes some more twists and turns without necessarily shedding too much light on the mystery of her repeated existence. There’s a strong implication here that she really is genuinely ignorant of her multiple existences, which is consistent with everything we have seen in her portrayal so far, and the Doctor finally seems to accept that she is not the trick or trap he openly accuses her of being here. The Doctor has spent quite a bit of time in recent episodes encouraging Clara and the TARDIS to trust each other – maybe now he can start trusting Clara himself too?
There are some big positives in this episode. The realisation of the exploded engine room frozen in time in a blank white space – like an installation piece at the Tate Modern – is gorgeous, as is the Eye of Harmony. (Although why the latter has to be housed in a room with a door at each end linked only by a narrow walkway – Indiana Jones-style – smacked suspiciously of narrative requirement to inject a degree of threat into the Time Zombies, rather than any kind of logic.)
I do also wonder whether the fact that the Doctor paused to explain the Eye of Harmony to
his comrades the viewer in some detail is indicative of the Eye playing some role in the season finale. And if we go back a couple of seasons, wasn’t the whole Amy Pond storyline born out of a rift in time and a mystery surrounding the exploding TARDIS? We have now – in the timeline before it was altered, at least – seen an event in which the TARDIS explodes. The rift in time in the TARDIS wall even visibly resembles the one in young Amy’s bedroom wall. Are these all related or just coincidences?
On the downside, there were also some big negatives. The Time Zombies were rather unimaginative and felt a bit tacked on, just to ensure we had some Monsters of the Week. They seemed unnecessary, as some good directorial choices with jarring filming angles and blurred shots had already created a suitably unsettling and scary environment quite successfully.
There also seems little justification for the Doctor’s sudden resolution of the problem. For instance, why is it necessary not to hold hands to stop time from reasserting itself? And why, if the chamber with the Eye of Harmony is so dangerous that it will liquefy them after a couple of minutes, does he stop and take the time to give us an expositional lecture about it?
In the end, though, what is likely to really divide users is the fact that the episode employs the most blatant deus ex machina solution by providing us – literally – with a reset button in the form of a ‘big friendly button’, with virtual no explanation as to how said device came into being in the first place. [As has subsequently been pointed out to me, it is of course the remote control for the magno-grab, which means there’s a perfectly valid explanation for its existence – it just creates a time paradox instead.] It’s either a fantastic tongue-in-cheek piece of nose-thumbery, or it’s frankly ridiculous and no more than laziness dressed up in technobabble. I tend to veer towards the latter.
Overall, this episode promised much for long-term fans and only delivered a few little moments, while offering us a cool premise and then repeatedly pulling our leg with half-formed plot ideas and too many knowing winks. Fun, but utterly lightweight.
- The episode title is inspired by the Jules Verne book Journey to the Centre of the Earth (although that didn’t contain any Time Zombies).
- The key we see in the TARDIS console is, of course, branded ‘Smiths’.
- The junk room Clara stumbles into contains, among other things, the Doctor’s crib (from A Good Man Goes to War), young Amy Pond’s hand-built model TARDIS and (I think) one of Sylvester McCoy’s Seventh Doctor’s early umbrellas (before he got the one with the red question mark handle).
- As part of the recent TARDIS reconfiguration, we see that the swimming pool has been restored, having been burned up during The Doctor’s Wife.
- Who wrote The History of the Time War? Surely only the Doctor himself could have done that?
- When Bram lifts one of the central console panels, we hear a whisper of familiar voices from Who‘s past: certainly Susan and Ian (two of the First Doctor’s original companions), but also Christopher Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor and others. In the 50th anniversary year, it’s another nice little nod to the past.
- The self-destruct timer was, as I rather suspected, just “the old wiggly button trick”.