Doctor Who clearly isn’t meant to be watched with commercial breaks.
Last night was “The Doctor’s Wife,” the highly-anticipated episode of Doctor Who by Neil Gaiman. I knew of people at work who, despite never having watched Doctor Who, intended to watch last night’s episode solely because of the Neil Gaiman factor. I wasn’t that anticipatory about the episode, but I expected good things — Gaiman has been a fan of Doctor Who for a very long time. At nine o’clock, I poured myself a Fuller’s London Porter, sat down in front of the television, put on BBC America, and settled in.
And I found the episode merely average.
Gaiman, the writer behind DC Comics’ The Sandman, the eschatalogical comedy Good Omens, and the Hugo Award-winning novel American Gods, really needs no introduction from me. My reading of Gaiman’s work hasn’t been as wide as it should be — I’ve read only the first volume of The Sandman, for instance — and I’ve not always liked what I’ve read of Gaiman’s work — 1602 for Marvel Comics didn’t really work for me — but there’s no denying that Gaiman is a fearsome talent and I’ve been quite taken with his short work, like “One Life, Furnished in Early Moorcock” (which was, I admit, an influence on my own “Make-Believe”) and “The Problem of Susan,” which may be my second-favorite Narnia story. (On the other hand, I thought his Sherlock Holmes/Cthulhu mythos story “A Study in Emerald” was merely okay, and I can only assume it was an astonishingly weak Hugo field that year.)
So, “The Doctor’s Wife.”
In deep space, something knocks on the doors of the TARDIS. The Doctor opens the doors to discover the distress beacon of another TARDIS, this one piloted by “one of the good ones,” the Corsair. To find the Corsair, the Doctor must pilot the TARDIS outside of the universe, and there the Doctor, Amy, and Rory find a junkyard on an asteroid and the junkyard’s four residents — Uncle and Auntie (humanoids), Nephew (an Ood with a broken voicebox), and Idris (an insane woman who bites the Doctor’s ear). But there’s more to these residents — and the asteroid — than is obvious at first glance. The asteroid itself is alive, Uncle and Auntie are harboring a secret about the Time Lords, and Idris herself is just a vessel, now inhabited by the essence of the TARDIS itself. And soon Amy and Rory are trapped aboard a possessed TARDIS, while the Doctor and Idris are stranded on a dying asteroid, surroudned by the wrecks of a hundred TARDISes.
Watching this last night, I was taken very much by the episode’s look. The junkyard outside of the universe felt grungy and worn. The characters of Auntie and Uncle — and what they actually were — was realized very well. The performances, too, were sharp, especially Matt Smith who could turn from unabashed glee to profound anger in a moment and Suranne Jones’ Idris who developed from mad to sane as the hour progressed.
I wasn’t engaged by the story, however.
Partly, it was the pacing. Neil Gaiman’s best stories, in my opinion, work because of their mood. And the commercial breaks broke the mood, separating the emotional beats in an awkward way. This seems to be a real problem with BBC America’s commercial cuts. We lost no content, as far as I could tell, but inserting the commercial breaks separated the plot points from the episode’s emotional resolutions, and this resulted in a flattened emotional effect from the episode.
But mainly, it was the ideas in the episode. They weren’t original to me. The idea that the TARDIS is female, that the TARDIS chose the Doctor as much as the Doctor chose her, the idea that the TARDIS is alive and loves the Doctor — these are common ideas in the literature, especially in the work of Lawrence Miles (“Toy Story”) or Tony Lee (The Forgotten), and thus “The Doctor’s Wife” struck me as trodding on familiar ground.
And so I left “The Doctor’s Wife” feeling distinctly meh about the episode. There were some lovely scenes — I loved the Doctor and Idris building a functioning TARDIS console from stone knives and bearskins, and the Doctor talking to the TARDIS as he worked in the wiring at the end was beautiful — but I was left unmoved by the whole thing.
It was the commercials. The commercials ruined the pacing and they sabotaged the mood. And as I said, Gaiman’s best work relies on pacing and mood.
I rewatched “The Doctor’s Wife” this morning. Uncut, without commercials and without BBC America’s bugs on the screen, the episode had a much better flow. More importantly, the emotional beats of the episode built upon one another in ways that they weren’t on BBC America with the artificially imposed commercial breaks. As Idris died I choked up, as her spirit fled back into the TARDIS I cried, and as the Doctor had his last conversation with her I positively wept.
Doctor Who doesn’t work with commercials, clearly.
I wished the episode were longer. I almost wish there weren’t as much running-in-corridors for Amy and Rory, because those scenes took away from the Doctor and the TARDIS finally talking to one another. And even though Idris kissed her “thief” at the beginning of the episode, when the Doctor had no idea who she was, I wished for a scene where the Doctor kisses her, because he knows exactly who she is. I hoped for a scene where Idris archived the console room that she and the Doctor built, in case that someday, in a fit of nostalgia, the Doctor wanted to remember the adventure he had with his TARDIS. The final scene, with the Doctor alone with his console room, is both sad (for what the Doctor has lost) and happy (for the promise of adventures still to come between the TARDIS and her pilot). And, in a tighter context, the things that felt derivative didn’t feel it quite so much; instead, it felt like Gaiman were taking all the familiar places (like as in, say, “The Problem of Susan”) and taking them to their logical conclusions.
I don’t think “The Doctor’s Wife” is as revelatory as some online have called it; it’s fanwanky in ways that the new series simply hasn’t been the last six years. Nor would I would put “The Doctor’s Wife” among Gaiman’s best work, as it lacked the meta spin on a familiar tale that so typifies the best of Gaiman’s storytelling. (However, the script for the episode, apparently, was replete with meta references to Doctor Who‘s history, and I now hope that the script might be published in some fashion.) It is, however, when viewed properly, as it was meant to be viewed, a moving exploration of the love between a boy and his favorite toy, in this case an impossibly old boy and a sentient time-traveling toy. And in that, the story ultimately succeeds.
You’ll want to skip the commercial breaks, though. They totally ruin the flow. :h2g2: