Oh, “Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS,” you are a solid episode of Who, with everything that I’d want in a story about the mysterious and oft-hinted at infinite bowels of everybody’s favorite blue box. You even resolved an issue that I’ve been begging the show to resolve all season… but then you retconned it. We could have had it all, “Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS.” We could have had it all.
We begin with the Van Baalen brothers (a big one, a medium-sized one, and a small passes-for-human-but-actually-android helper), space scrap hunters extraordinaire, who don’t really know what the TARDIS is but are hauling it in on principle. They are able to do this because the Doctor, in an effort to heal the gap between Clara and the TARDIS has just shut down her controls* to “basic” in order to let Clara take the wheel for a bit, so her shields are down. As things go haywire on the TARDIS due to the Van Baalen’s Magno-grab, an odd sort of technological egg rolls to Clara’s feet. She picks it up, but it’s hot to the touch and she drops it. And since I’m mentioning it in this recap, you should know that it’s important.
When we come back from the credits, the Van Baalen brothers try to break into the TARDIS with sledgehammers and laser saws before noticing that the Doctor has somehow gotten out of it in the crash, and is buried in a pile of miscellaneous cables. He promises them all the scrap they can salvage out of the TARDIS, and the machine itself, if they come in with him to help find Clara, because the TARDIS is leaking fuel and she’s still somewhere inside. The brothers and the Doctor suit up with gas masks to get the job done, and one of them equips himself with something that looks just like that techy egg that Clara snatched up. It’s the remote to the Magno-grab. As soon as they all enter the console the Brothers disregard the deal they made and start planning for salvage, but the Doctor is prepared for this. He locks the doors and starts the TARDIS’ self destruct. They now have a half-hour to search for Clara or they’ll all die. The salvage of a lifetime he promised them is literally that, and this concept sounds a lot like a Doctor Who episode with the roles reversed, which I found myself intrigued by.
Meanwhile Clara has woken up somewhere under a pile of rubble in the bowels of the TARDIS and has been wandering around the ship, blowing gently on her singed hand and discovering its many wonders**. A stone room full of stuff from previous episodes, like the Doctor’s cradle, Amy’s model TARDIS, etc.; the pool; the library. Something is chasing her, something roughly humanoid and shambling, with red eyes and crisply burned skin. Space zombie!
Back at the search party, the younger brother, who acts like he’s in charge, much to the chagrin of the oldest, suggests that they split up. Functionally all that this appears to mean is that the largest brother, unbeknownst to the Doctor, is ordered to make his way back to the console and start stripping it for scrap. The rest of the search party finds a room with a technological tree in it (not what you think, StarCraft players) heavy with glowing fruit. The Doctor explains that it’s living metal, that each fruitlight can grow any machine that you want (now we know where the motorbike came from), and that the TARDIS will be very unhappy if somebody takes her “basic genetic material” from her. So these are… TARDIS eggs? Adorable. Naturally, younger brother snatches one right away, and that’s when the search party’s troubles really begin. It’s also the point at which I wonder why the Doctor thought the search process would be made more efficient by inviting some hardened criminals along. But I digress: non-euclidean geometry for everybody!
And I do mean everybody. After Clara wanders/is chased through the library (where she finds a copy of The History of the Time War, opens a page, skims and says “So that’s Who,” raising the eyebrows and dropping the jaws of thousands of jealous Who fans) in one of the cooler scenes in the episode (liquid encyclopedias!), she wanders non-euclidean-ly back to the console several times. Also in the console room, the TARDIS dumps the scrap-wrangling oldest brother into a hallway with a space zombie and he is devoured. Cold, TARDIS. Cold. The search party of the Doctor, younger brother, and the android also make it back to the console, but they’re not in the real console.
It’s an echo console, created by the TARDIS, who’s trying to keep everyone in the safest room she’s got. Their interactions with the room can be seen by Clara and vice versa, but they can’t actually see each other. Fortunately, just before she is devoured by a zombie that has suspiciously familiar proportions, the Doctor manages to sonic her into their version of the console. “Okay, turn off the self-destruct” is the consensus from the remaining brother and his android. “Haha, I was only fooling with the self-destruct,” answers the Doctor, “but seriously, now that I look at it, the engine is actually exploding.” Also there are ravenous space zombies and the Doctor refuses to elaborate on why he’s been keeping them on his ship.
Now the name of the game is to get to the
center centre of the TARDIS, to save her engine. Everybody troops off again but somehow Clara gets separated and she begins to see doubles of herself and the Doctor from previously in the episode. The Doctor finds her explains that with the TARDIS’ engine gone haywire, time is going a little wonky. Somewhere there is a crack that is leaking the past. (What about the future? I wondered, and mention now only so I can say I KNEW IT a few paragraphs from now). Then some rods start shooting through the walls and trying to kill people for… plot reasons. Because what the plot needed to do next was impale the andriod.
The andriod, whose name, I suppose I should say, is Tricky, tells younger brother to just cut his arm off. He’s an android, he can have it replaced. Younger brother is unwilling to do this, and the Doctor presses him into admitting that Tricky is not, in fact, an andriod. He’s actually the youngest Van Baalen brother with bionic eyes and a synthetic voicebox. They un-impale him by cutting the metal beam (by the way, he seems to be capable of a surprising range of movement and endurance after this injury), and the guy who I shall now refer to as the middle brother explains that he and the older started the “android” story as a joke after their younger, smarter brother was in an accident and lost his memory. They continued to tell him he was an android so that they could take over the family business that was left to him as the brightest of their father’s sons.
The Doctor’s way of resolving this is to tell Tricky that he should be glad that he revealed that his brother has one scrap of decency left in him (i.e., he was unwilling to kill him when asked, which seems a pretty small scrap considering what else he’d done), and to tell the middle brother that he should remember how terrible it was for Tricky to realize the truth of how he’d been betrayed by his own kin and be nicer to him. Which seems, well, kind of poor support for Tricky and far too little admonishment to his brother. He allowed his own brother to believe that he wasn’t human for a petty power play. That’s some heavy duty stuff right there. Even if this was an attempt by writing to show the urgency of their journey to the Centre by having the Doctor give a terse resolution to the revelation… well, I would have preferred a “there’s no time to get into this right now, you’ll just have to work together” or something similar rather than a “just be glad, for his sake, that your betrayer/abuser still can’t bring himself to outright kill you.”
After scouting out the room that contains the TARDIS’ power source (which, of course, is a perpetually decaying star caught in time by TARDIS powers, and in that “of course” genuinely lies all of my love for science fiction), the Doctor starts to lead everyone through it. If they don’t get through fast enough, their cells will liquify and their skin burn. Really, Doctor, on Star Trek we’d just call it a radiation leak. I digress: naturally, everybody is waylaid by zombies. This time, Clara won’t take no for an answer: she wants to know what these zombies are and why they’re on the TARDIS. Admitting what they are appears to be the Doctor’s worst fear. He replies “Secrets protect us. Secrets make us safe,” which very nicely describes my most frequently thought of problems so far this season in his interactions with Clara. The episode finally reveals that the monsters everyone has been running from all episode are their future selves, burnt by the energies of the TARDIS’ power source.
So the power source liquifies cells, burns skin, and inspires a hunger for living flesh. That’s good to know. Also: I KNEW IT.
The Doctor tells Clara “I brought you here,” meaning to the TARDIS to adventure with him, “to keep you safe.” Oh Doctor. Are you remembering any of your other companions? Perhaps you’re just remembering Martha, who walked away from you and your TARDIS and wound up having a very successful career and marriage, and literally no one else in New Who? He becomes fixated on the idea that if they interrupt the timeline, they won’t become zombies, but things proceed as you would expect. The remaining Van Baalen brothers get zombified and the Doctor and Clara dash to the next room.
Which is a dead drop cliff, erected by the TARDIS to keep anyone from reaching her heart. Despairing, the Doctor begins to interrogate Clara about stuff she doesn’t understand because he has never explained it to her, about who she is, about who the other Claras were, “What are you, eh? A trick? A trap?” he snaps, just after she says “You’re scaring me.” The Doctor finally accepts that she does not, actually, know anything about the secret he’s been hiding from her, she tells him that he is more frightening than everything else inside his TARDIS. And rightfully so. But I can’t even feel angry for how poorly the Doctor is behaving because I’m so elated that the show has finally allowed him to tell Clara why he’s decided to travel with her.
The Doctor decides that the cliff in front of them is merely an illusion and if they leap off of it, they will be in the engine room, and delivers my favorite line of the episode: “Trust me this one time,” he says, and then after a Look from Clara, continues, “Okay, okay. As well as all the other times.” Now that’s the Doctor acknowledging his own behavior. In the engine room, the engine has already exploded. They didn’t know because it’s been caught in time by the TARDIS herself, frozen, for as long as she can freeze it. There’s nothing the Doctor can do for her now… until Clara takes his hand… and he notices the writing now lightly scarred into it.
They dash back to the console where the Doctor retrieves the egg-shaped Magno-grab remote and uses the sonic screwdriver to etch a message onto it. He’s going to throw it through the crack in time opened by the TARDIS’ explosion as a message to his past self. If he can do it right, the TARDIS will be freed before she was injured, and the entire day will not have happened. Everything will go back to normal and no one will remember anything about what happened to them between the explosion and now. Yes. The retcon is happening. Clara asks him about all the things she’s seen today, and his answer is “Don’t worry. You’ll forget,” painting the loss of a vital revelation about her identity as a benefit. She responds with “I don’t want to forget,” which raises my spirits: perhaps she’ll convince the Doctor to tell his past self to tell her the truth or something? But no, she wants to remember the library, and his name, which she almost says out loud until he shushes her. She wants to remember one single secret, significant detail about a man she just found out has known her through three lifetimes. The Doctor says if he rewrites today, she won’t remember. “You’ll still have secrets,” she says. “Better that way,” he answers, and she smiles and I ugh. Keep your secrets about yourself, Doctor. But keeping secrets from Clara about herself still earns you my best side-eye.
Present Doctor sticks himself through the time crack and yells at the past Doctor to use the remote to reset time, then chucks it up to the console. Clara grabs it, burns her hand, and the the Doctor snatches it up, and hammers the button labeled “Big Friendly Button.” Time is reset. The Van Baalen brothers sail off without a quarry, with middle brother being slightly nice to little brother, who still believes he is an android. The TARDIS spins off on its own, and in a newly tidied up console room, the Doctor asks Clara if she feels safe with him. She assents, “of course,” perhaps in part because she doesn’t know that the Doctor has encountered two other women just like her and they’ve both died very soon after. The Doctor is reassured by this, Clara walks off, and the status quo is crowned king in a lavish, week-long ceremony.
Look, “Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS,” I really want to 100% like you. You’ve got a lot of what I love about Who: some quirky space characters, cute references, lots of wibbly wobbly TARDIS stuff. And if, on top of that, you’d actually gotten the Doctor to tell Clara about the other Claras, I’d be talking best episode of the season here, even given the weird resolution of the Van Baalen brothers plot line. But instead, you just retcon all of the character progress you made.
Amidst a lot of admittedly very enjoyable flash and bang and references to Who past, this was an episode where the happy ending involves having basic facts about your identity withheld from you by people you trust, because this makes you “safer.” In practice what withholding that knowledge actually did was make a young man think he could maim himself without consequence, and deny Clara the ability to properly judge both the motivations of the Doctor and whether she should be traveling with him.
I would respect “Journey” more if it were brave enough to end on a down note: Tricky and his brothers sailing off with him still laboring under a completely false notion of his identity; and Clara willfully and unnecessarily deceived by the Doctor. I know a lot of people will respond to this with some variation of “but it’s so boring when Doctor Who gets dark,” but there have been many times when Doctor Who was not afraid to present the Doctor as flawed, and by this I don’t mean “flawed in a way we should forgive him for” or “flawed in a way that makes him tragically heroic,” just flawed. Just somebody who made poor decisions because he was getting a little to high on his own power and his own secrets, poor decisions that he should have known not to make and that he should be shown to be retrospectively regretful for before he’s painted as infallibly heroic by the show again. Those were the times that I genuinely found the show to be most interesting, when it actually seemed that the Doctor was learning lessons from interacting with mortal human beings, and they weren’t just tagging along so that he could satisfy his curiosity, they actually fulfilled a vital function in his journey through time and space.
It seemed pretty clear in the Davies era that the reason the Doctor needs a companion is that without them he tends to go a bit bad, a bit dark and vengeful and frightening and suicidal, the Doctor that we can believe destroyed two races, including his own, by throwing them out of time. Two companions into the Moffat era, I’m not sure whether the same thing holds true, and I’m not entirely certain whether we’ve been given an alternate explanation. And, needless to say, I’m uneasy with this framing of the Doctor keeping information about her identity from Clara as something he’s doing to “keep her safe.”
Obligatory Clara info update: not much, really. It turns out she doesn’t have any idea that she may have time lost doubles. I don’t think anybody was suspecting this, so it’s not much of a revelation. Also, she didn’t implode upon being told about the Doctor’s experiences with her doubles. So that’s good? Maybe we’ll know more next week, but I’m not holding my breath.
*That is, the TARDIS’ controls, not Clara’s.
**That is, the TARDIS’ wonders, not her hand’s.