Spoilers within. Don’t read until you’ve seen the episode…not that it would make much sense if you hadn’t.
I could tell this was going to be a good one, because I got through about thirty seconds and then had to rewind to the beginning and watch those thirty seconds again. And then I rewound it again, and watched those thirty seconds a third time. And then I got as far as the title sequence before I rewound it and watched that span again.
I never thought of myself as the kind of fan who’d get butterflies in my stomach seeing the subtitle “Gallifrey: a very long time ago” on the screen, or watching an actor rather unconvincingly deliver the line “What kind of idiot. Would want to steal a faulty TARDIS?”, but when you follow that up with a man and a girl who look reasonably like William Hartnell and Carole Ann Ford sneaking up to the TARDIS in question, a pure, unformed cylinder with a door just waiting to find out it’s going to spend its life (all of it, with very occasional exceptions) looking like a police box, guys, you’ve got me. Apparently there are some people who never wanted to see that moment. Those people are nuts.
There are bigger things afoot. This episode ripples back through the entire history of Doctor Who. The rumor was that this season finale would forever change the way we saw the show, and, whether you like it or not, it does. The impact is, if you follow it to its logical conclusion, at least as powerful and far-reaching as that of “The Doctor’s Wife.”
There’s some really excellent stuff along the way. Some of it concerns the so-called Paternoster Gang. Each of them gets at least one top-flight moment: Strax in his Victorian Fight Club. Jenny’s heartbreaking fear and shame as she’s murdered by Whispermen while in a trance. (It’s my position that she did lock the door, but they got in anyway.) Madame Vastra and her tea service, her derringer disintegrator pistol, but especially that magnificent rejoinder to Strax’s comment about the heart being relatively simple: “I have not found it to be so.” Beautiful. River and just about everything she does, including the word “disgracefully.” Can you imagine if she’d been a full-time companion? She would have wiped the floor with every enemy they encountered, so it would never have worked dramatically, but somewhere in Lucien’s library are shelves and shelves of Doctor/River stories I’d love to read.
And then there’s Richard E. Grant, finally given something to do with his Dr. Simeon character, as the conveniently suicidal-but-taking-you-down-with-me Great Intelligence. He’s quite convincing and quite chilling, and though there seemed something awfully elaborate and out of proportion about this plan, I didn’t feel obligated to poke it for plot holes. That can be left to others who have the knack and the taste for it.
And if Matt Smith shines any more brightly he’s going to go supernova. Here’s the thing: I loved him last week, hamming it up as the Cyberplanner, but in this he was probably relieved to be able to tone it down and play it real. You’ll hear from everyone about the “yes, an ex” scene where you can’t tell just how hard it’s hitting him to hear about River (and I think it’s her, not the secret or the danger, that’s making him cry) until Clara brings the tea over. The one where he kisses River’s apparition is equally terrific. Even a simple “oops” is just perfectly pitched. Magnificent.
Ultimately, of course, we make our way through all these moments in a fairly straightforward plot, a journey to the dark tower of the TARDIS (whose proportions are due to a “size leak,” which is fantastic technobabble because that’s exactly what a technician would call it), and a confrontation with what the Doctor apparently has instead of a corpse: a scintillating dendritic lattice representing and providing access to all the times and places he’s touched, the “scar tissue” from all the surgeries he’s performed on the body of our universe. It’s a remarkable idea, not entirely original (I couldn’t help being reminded of Lawrence Miles’s classic Eighth Doctor novel Alien Bodies, and if Miles’s cheeky Saturday blog post is any indication, neither could he), but with a different spin. If you’ve read this far, you should know what happens: the Great Intelligence enters this wound of splintered time, and cracks into shards where he can attack the Doctor throughout his life, and Clara follows, giving up her own life to save all of the Doctor’s lives and mend everything the Great Intelligence tries to break.
Here is where I must admit Doctor Who has put me on the verge of tears two weeks in a row, and both times it was the second viewing that got me. It’s true we’ve never gotten to know Clara quite as well as I would have liked, but Jenna-Louise Coleman didn’t have to change a thing about her performance to jab me right in the heart at that moment. And I can’t believe I’m saying this, but credit to Murray Gold as well, because I think Clara’s theme might be the best thing he’s ever done.
Earlier this week I raised the topic of mysteries being well- or poorly solved. Clara’s mystery was well-solved, I thought. I don’t feel badly that I got at best three and a half predictions correct about the finale; some of them were clearly going out on a limb, and there’s really no way I could have predicted the origin of the other Claras without the elements introduced here. And I frankly find it more satisfying than my answer (though I don’t discount the possibility that the “spoilers” River mentioned will include learning that the little girl who became CAL was one of the multiple Claras, rather than their origin point). I mentioned “The Doctor’s Wife,” in which we were led to assume that the TARDIS had been taking care of the Doctor as much as he’d been taking care of her; now we learn he’s had a second guardian angel in Clara for all of his lives, someone part of the background who didn’t even know she was doing it, but who was helping him in small ways he sometimes didn’t even notice.
So then there’s the name.
“My name, my real name,” says the Doctor, “that is not the point.” He’s right, of course. What we learn, even though we always knew it, is that the name that counts is the one he chose, “the Doctor.” The title of this episode doesn’t refer to the name of the Doctor. It refers to the name of “The Doctor.” And what we learn is far stranger: that there’s someone with John Hurt’s face with the same birth name as the Doctor, someone just as much the same person as the one with Matt Smith’s face and the one with William Hartnell’s face and one of the people with Colin Baker’s face, and it’s someone the Eleventh Doctor knows about but hasn’t mentioned to anyone. It’s not a lost incarnation, but a disowned one, or perhaps someone who was a renegade from the Doctor just as the Doctor was a renegade from Gallifrey. The setup seemed appalling to me when I heard rumors of it, but in proper context here it’s bold, and fascinating, and utterly maddening because we’re not going to find out exactly what it means until November.
So I’m satisfied, and yet unsatisfied, because now the 50th anniversary episode cannot come soon enough.
A successful finale, then. Dream conference call champagne all round.