On “The Doctor’s Wife” and Commercial Breaks

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.

(Lee, by the way, thought the episode was genius and better than The Forgotten. Miles, perhaps unsurprisingly, thought it was pants.)

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:

Published by Allyn

A writer, editor, journalist, sometimes coder, occasional historian, and all-around scholar, Allyn Gibson is the writer for Diamond Comic Distributors' monthly PREVIEWS catalog, used by comic book shops and throughout the comics industry, and the editor for its monthly order forms. In his over ten years in the industry, Allyn has interviewed comics creators and pop culture celebrities, covered conventions, analyzed industry revenue trends, and written copy for comics, toys, and other pop culture merchandise. Allyn is also known for his short fiction (including the Star Trek story "Make-Believe,"the Doctor Who short story "The Spindle of Necessity," and the ReDeus story "The Ginger Kid"). Allyn has been blogging regularly with WordPress since 2004.

5 thoughts on “On “The Doctor’s Wife” and Commercial Breaks

  1. The Amy and Roy and House stuff was a lot less interesting than the rest of the episode, and, yes, the ideas weren’t particularly new. Nor am I a member of the Gaiman cult, though I read the whole run of Sandman as it was published and I’ve read a handful of other things by him. I was not impressed by his B5 episode. But I liked this a lot, and Suranne Jones gets a lot of the credit. I watched her on Coronation Street and in a couple of UK TV miniseries, and she’s almost always good, but she was really something last night. Like David McIntee said, it certainly makes up for her SJA part — and makes me wonder if that was down to the director or something.

  2. I wasn’t sure what to make of Suranne Jones before the episode started. I didn’t see her Sarah Jane story, I’m not sure that I’ve seen anything else with her, and one of the promo pics I kept seeing had the Doctor and Idris running toward the camera and she had such massive eyebrows and a snarly expression that all I could think of was Helena Bonham Carter from one of the later Tim Burton movies.

    I didn’t quite catch all of her dialogue on the BBC America showing last night; I’m not sure if the sound mix was bad or if the fault was with me, though I know now that some of her dialogue was intentionally gibberish. I liked her rapport with Matt Smith, and I wish they’d had more time on screen together.

    One thing that bothered me on the first viewing that didn’t bother me on the second was the TARDIS-bound stuff with House. On the first viewing, I was expecting more from House. I was expecting it to be more of an antagonist. House was clearly malevolent, but House didn’t feel like the villain of the piece. (This has been a problem with the season thus far; we haven’t really had antagonists.) On the second viewing, it was more obvious that House existed 1) to get the TARDIS’ spirit out of the TARDIS and 2) to keep Amy and Rory occupied while the Doctor and Idris bonded. Like the Siren last week, House was merely a Plot MacGuffin.

    I don’t know how kind fandom will be to “The Doctor’s Wife” as time wears on. I think fandom bought high on the episode, and I wonder how fans would have reacted to it had it been written by, say, Chris Chibnall. It’s likable enough and enjoyable enough, it pushes the fannish buttons enough, but I don’t think it’s brilliant. The best of the season so far, but it doesn’t have much competition thus far. 🙂

  3. You are definitely right that interruptions from adverts would ruin not only this but any recent Doctor Who episode. They are more like little movies than conventional TV episodes, and they absolutely rely on flow and pacing. My advice would be not to bother with the broadcasts at all, but to torrent the episodes when they become available a couple of hours after they’re shown in the UK.

  4. Since I’ve never actually read a Miles story all the way through, and can’t get the IDW comics due to licencing issues, I thought of the idea that the TARDIS chose the Doctor as completely original, and the idea of the TARDIS as female as one that was certainly established (“old girl”) but which hadn’t actually been reified before.

    (The TARDIS personifications I’m most familiar with are a silver cat from the New Adventures and the Brigadier in Zagreus)

    As I understand it, part of the purpose of the episode was to give Rory and Amy a reason to be running though the TARDIS, and it

  5. Since I’ve never actually read a Miles story all the way through, and can’t get the IDW comics due to licencing issues, I thought of the idea that the TARDIS chose the Doctor as completely original, and the idea of the TARDIS as female as one that was certainly established (“old girl”) but which hadn’t actually been reified before.

    (The TARDIS personifications I’m most familiar with are a silver cat from the New Adventures and the Brigadier in Zagreus)

    As I understand it, part of the purpose of the episode was to give Rory and Amy a reason to be running though the TARDIS, and it’s a shame all the actual rooms Gaiman wanted to use got cut.

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