Doctor Who Recap: “The Name of the Doctor”

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I trust you watched “The Name of the Doctor,” or what might as well be known as “The Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Special, Part 1” this weekend? No? Then get out of this recap! It’s full of spoilers! I’m serious! Classic Doctors, Impossible Girls who are actually of legal adult age (perhaps this is why they are impossible), River Song!

Alright, everybody who did watch it, feel free to read on.

Our teasing opener takes place on Gallifrey, at the moment the First Doctor arrives to steal his TARDIS. He is stopped, just before he steps into one, by Clara. Then we get some shots of Clara, monologuing about how she’s flitting through all eras of time, coming into near-contact with all the incarnations of the Doctor through the magic of modern blue-screen technology (this was, for the most part, pretty seamless, so props to the BBC’s techs). She doesn’t know who she is in these eras, only that she has to save the Doctor, in fact, she was born for it.

Then the episode truly begins, with a raving prisoner on Victorian England’s death row, receiving a visit from Madame Vastra. He tells her that if she saves him from the gallows, he’ll tell her something very important about the Doctor. Specifically, that the Doctor’s biggest secret has been discovered, the secret that he will take to his grave. Vastra decides that this deserves a conference call with all the allies of the Doctor that she can contact. This means that Strax, Vastra, Jenny, and Clara (who is drugged in the present day by a 130 year old letter) fall asleep and all have a communal dream that breaches time so that they can work out a game plan. A very late stage River Song arrives, so late stage that she’s Professor Song, and she knows the Doctor’s name. I suppose we’re meant to assume that she’s from somewhere between the outing where the Doctor told her his name (which he knew was just before she would die) and when she died, a small margin. But you know what they say about assumptions.

Anyway, Clara tells River that she’s heard of her from the Doctor but “I never realized you were a woman,” and I want to frame the look on River’s face to show to my greatest enemies. I mean, come on Clara, don’t be so gender normative, or maybe Doctor, talk about your wife like she’s actually your wife… On the other hand, maybe Clara thought the Doctor was just into dudes. This would shed a different light on her belief that it’s very unlikely he’d be romantically interested in her. But I humorously digress: Vastra briefs everybody on the situation and just manages to share the space-time coordinates of “the Doctor’s greatest secret” before she, Jenny, and Strax are attacked by Whispermen. It’s a trap! It appeared as if Jenny died and I pursed my lips and thought “She better get brought back to life before the end of this episode or they’ll be able to hear me screaming about the Bury Your Gays trope from Los Angeles to Reykjavik.” Fortunately, she does.

The Whispermen even show up in the conference room, to tell River and Clara to “tell the Doctor his friends are lost forevermore, unless he goes to Trenzalore.” You know, I think I’ll just pretend that the Whispermen are demons of the Rhymer rank. Clara wakes up in her house, where the Doctor has arrived, and explains it all to him over a cup of tea. Frightened or sad, it’s unclear, the Doctor starts crying, and dashes off to the underbelly of the TARDIS console. The coordinates are for the fabled Trenzalore, which he now knows, thanks to poetry, is his gravesite, the one place a time traveler should never go, because it’s like the biggest way to cross your own timeline ever.

But he’s the Doctor and he has to go because he owes Vastra, Strax, and Jenny for carrying him through the hiatus by getting him hooked on Tumblr his dark period after Amy and Rory. “No point in telling you it’s too dangerous,” he says to Clara, and she answers “None at all.” I want to pull out this moment as one of the rare ones this season where I actually felt, on the strength of Matt Smith and Jenna-Louise Coleman‘s performance, that there was a genuine partnership here, and one that I very much liked. The TARDIS doesn’t like going to Trenzalore at all, presumably because she doesn’t want to encounter any of those horrible gargoyles from outside space-time like in “Father’s Day.” You know, the ones that never happened again?

Trenzalore, as one might expect, turns out to be a mighty gloomy place, a battlefield graveyard of the Doctor’s final bloody skirmish. The bigger the gravestone, the higher the rank, and naturally, one gravestone is a giant TARDIS. Actually, it is the TARDIS. When a TARDIS dies “all the bigger on the inside starts leaking.” That’s the Doctor’s tomb. River has tagged along by leaving the conference line open, but she’s only visible to Clara, and wants to give her advice without the Doctor knowing. Then the Doctor finds River’s grave, which is, of course, impossible, because River died in the Library. The Whispermen attack, and, with River’s advice, Clara leads them through the discovery that River’s impossible grave is actually a secret entrance to the Doctor’s Tomb.

During this, the Doctor lets slip that River is his wife. River explains to Clara that the Doctor “saved” her in the library: “Left me like a book on a shelf, didn’t even say goodbye.” Which is a darker re-envisioning of the end of “Forest of the Dead” that I wouldn’t have expected from the current Doctor Who showrunners. As they run through the dead TARDIS from the Whispermen, Clara becomes dizzy, and begins to recover memories from the erased timeline in “Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS,” specifically, she remembers the Doctor saying that he’s met other versions of her. The Doctor actually says “we can’t do this now,” which is what he has essentially been saying all season whenever the issue comes up during moments of action or stress, which is fine, it’s just that “later” has never been when they can do it either. So they run.

Vastra and Strax have been transported to Trenzalore, along with Jenny, who, yes, has died from shock. Fortunately for my blood pressure, she is brought back to life forthwith. The Whispermen and Doctor Simeon (from “The Snowmen”), who are actually all bodies inhabited by the Great Intelligence, are and welcome them to Trenzalore with an unflattering eulogy of the Doctor full of foreshadowing about how he someday becomes known as a warrior, general, and killer familiar from “A Good Man Goes to War.”

TGI wants into the Doctor’s tomb, which can only be opened by saying his name. Fortunate, then, that the Doctor and Clara have just arrived. The Doctor refuses to open it, naturally, and so TGI starts to kill, well, everyone. Still, the Doctor refuses, TGI actually yells “Doctor who?” and it is River, who I guess the tomb can see and hear, who says his name. But the audience didn’t hear her say it, so don’t worry, we still don’t know. Also I don’t see any Silence falling, unless you mean, like, how the Doctor and TGI stop yelling at each other so…  but lets just move on.

The interior of the tomb is the TARDIS control room, abandoned and overgrown with plants, which is honestly very sad and moving. At the center, instead of the console, there’s a mass of bright, spinning… frayed strings. The Doctor explains that these are his remains, the corpse of a time traveler, “the scar tissue of my journey through the universe.” He sonics it and we hear the voices of past doctors, and presumably future Doctors.

Simeon announces that “the Doctor’s life is an open wound, and an open wound can be entered.” This is his end game: he will spend his life in revenge on the Doctor, to enter his time stream and mess up all of his adventures so that they all fail, and then gain the peace of death. Then, done with explaining his grand villain plan, he leaps into the Doctor’s timestream. The Doctor writhes on the floor as stars that he now never saved wink out of the galaxy. Jenny disappears, Madame Vastra is forced to kill Strax after he forgets their friendship, and Clara resolves that she’s got to go into his timestream to undo The Great Intelligence’s work.

River advises against it. “The time winds will tear you apart.” A thousand Claras will live their lives to save him, but the real Clara will die: none of the other Claras will actually be her or have anything but the most basic of her memories. Clara delivers her now habitual last words (run, you clever boy, and remember), jumps, and begins a thousand lives of saving the Doctor. She even, hearkening back to the first scene of the episode, tells him which TARDIS to steal “The navigation system’s knackered but you’ll have much more fun.” And I suppose that I’ll just have to assume that, each time, she did it with minimal to no actual contact with the Doctor, so that he never put it together until now that she was there during, like, all of his adventures; and that he just forgot the woman who recommended his Sexy to him. And don’t say “well he doesn’t remember her because he remembers the timeline as it was before the Great Intelligence messed with him” because then he wouldn’t remember Dalek!Clara or Snowmen!Clara.

Meanwhile, in the Doctor’s Tomb, everything returns to normal with the Victorian characters, while the Doctor psyches himself up to enter his own timestream (needless to say, very, very dangerous) to rescue Clara. River pleads with him not to, and the Doctor reveals that he’s been able to see her all along. He explains that “I didn’t talk to you even though it hurt you, because I didn’t want to get hurt.” He tells her she’s just a copy on a computer, that she should have faded by now (not sure how he knows this, since this could be computer River from, say, the day after she died, for all we know, but Time Lord powers, I guess), and she says she didn’t because he left without saying goodbye. And then the Doctor and his wife say their actual final goodbyes.

And I really want to resurrect the good memories I have of “Silence in the Library” and “Forest of the Dead” and lose myself in enjoying this scene, but I feel like the episode is trying to have it both ways here. Either the Doctor saved River in FotD by downloading her (because her true self will live forever with her dearest friends in a virtual world of limitless possibilities), in which case it is especially cruel and selfish of him to prioritize his emotional pain above hers by ignoring her. Or, the Doctor only saved a copy of River, and that copy can’t be considered to have real feelings, so he’s in the clear vis a vi prioritizing his own, except for the fact that… well, now we have to confront a much darker interpretation of FotD where River was not truly saved, and where people did die. Which seems to be what was implied by “you should have faded by now,” and “you’re an echo.”

Of course, River’s final words are to point out that she was mentally linked to Clara, and if Clara’s dead, then she couldn’t be here, but the answer to that impossibility is, of course, “Spoilers!” I’m honestly not sure if this is River hinting at events yet to come or letting the Doctor know that there’s hope for him in leaping into his own time stream. I suppose we’ll find out in November?

Anyway, then the Doctor leaps into his own corpse. Things get very bright, and Clara’s voice tell us “I was born to save the Doctor, but the Doctor is safe now. And my story is done.” Clara appears in a misty place. And… breaks down crying because she doesn’t know who or where she is. The Doctor guides her to him with his voice, as his timestream nearly collapses because of his presence in it, sending her the leaf that brought her parents together so that she’ll have a bit of her own identity to hold on to. “How many times have you saved me, Clara? Just this once, just for the hell of it, let me save you,” and though I can think of a couple times he’s saved her over the course of this half season, I like to see the Doctor, himself, admitting how much he owes. In a lot of ways this twist reminds me of one of my favorite episodes of Who, “Turn Left,” where a version of Donna Noble gives her life to undo a timeline where she didn’t save the Doctor and he died before ever meeting Martha Jones. In that episode her mission was packaged primarily as one of saving a large chunk of humanity from death and other atrocities, by making sure that Donna herself would be there to save everyone. Saving the Doctor was the means to that end (well, actually, making sure her past self turned left was really the means of making sure she’d be around to keep the Doctor from accidentally committing suicide in a greif-stricken rage, but I’m quibbling). Donna had to revert the timeline so that she could become the most emportant woman, not to the Doctor, but to the Universe. In Steven Moffat‘s Who, the same twist is balanced differently, relatively heavier on the “saving the Doctor for his sake” end, or perhaps even from the “Clara knows she saves the Doctor so she has to save the Doctor” end.

But before we can leave the Doctor’s timestream, they see someone else there. Someone Clara doesn’t recognize, someone who isn’t one of the eleven faces of the Doctor, though he must be the Doctor, because everything in the Doctor’s timestream is the Doctor. The Doctor tells Clara “the name you choose is like a promise you make. He’s the one who broke the promise.” He is the Doctor’s secret. /announcer voice He is John Hurt.

Before I get to bigger thoughts, I’m just going to do a little possibly spoilery predicting in this paragraph about the 50th. Highlight to read. So, there’s been a rumor going around that John Hurt is playing a “secret” incarnation of the Doctor in the 50th special. That seems to have been born out by this episode. The other part of that rumor is that his Doctor was the Time War incarnation, making him the incarnation who threw two entire races, including his own, out of time and space. This would explain why Clara did not encounter him in the Doctor’s time stream, since the Time War was literally excised from time. My own personal speculation starts now: even if Hurt isn’t the Time War Doctor, it’s worth thinking about how this would renumber the Doctors: Eccleston would become the 10th, Smith would become the 12th, and Tennant, who we know is back for the 50th special, would actually be the 11th Doctor. Viewers already know the prophecy of the Silence: “On the fields of Trenzalore, at the fall of the eleventh, when no living creature can speak falsely or fail to answer, a Question will/must be asked,” and the answer to that Question is the true name of the Doctor. It really seemed like we were going to get resolution on that this episode: the question was asked, and answered, and yet there wasn’t really a payout. Is this because Matt Smith’s Doctor is not the 11th Doctor? I encourage you to, if you read the last sentence, punctuate the end of it with this link.

So I should talk about what this episode means for Clara. One of the most common criticisms that’s brought up when we talk about Steven Moffat, Doctor Who, and female characters, is that the eventual reveal of the origin of River Song took a character who’d been established as seemingly independent from the Doctor (a time-traveling professor of archeology with her own research team and motivations independent of his; no question there about why romantic sparks might have flown between the two), and revealed that she was, in fact, raised to be obsessed with him and eventually kill him. For better or worse, this obsession continued after she resisted her brainwashing: it was revealed that her interest in archeology was chosen out of a desire to find the Doctor, rather than something confirmed to be 100% genuine to her own inclinations. I don’t say this to mean that I dislike River or think she’s not badass, but the River that I think is most interesting is the River of “Silence in the Library” and “Forest of the Dead,” the one that was still presumably just a normal human with a normal childhood who nevertheless became so awesome that the Doctor fell in love with her. This is what a lot of folks were worried would happen to Clara, and I’m honestly not certain whether that’s occurred, and I’m open to discussion on it.

So, yes, Clara sacrifices her life to save the Doctor’s, but when she makes the decision to do that, she also knows that she’s already done it: the Doctor’s already met her before, which means she did it, which means that (you may spin out this paradox on your own). It’s not so much a choice as an observation based on known phenomena. Nevertheless, Clara knows she’s going to die when she jumps into his timestream and does it anyway, and the Doctor, so far as we get in the short portion of the episode that happens afterward, is demonstrably grateful. When the tagline for this episode was “I was born to save the Doctor,” I got a little worried that all the hints at what made Clara unique as a companion, that she obeys the Doctor more, trusts him more readily, asks questions less, etc., was going to be revealed as another female character whose personality and goals were manufactured by a third party explicitly because of him. Turns out, that description applies only to all the other Claras, not her. Her traits are just a coincidence.

So, to recap Clara over the course of this season: the writers introduce her. Half a season later they reintroduce her, and the central mystery of who and why she is. Then they spend another half a season tiptoeing around the same questions until they reveal it in a way that might just be pivotal, if not central to the 50th Anniversary. This is a choice that, as I said last week, makes the Doctor seem creepy and makes it difficult for the audience to invest in the companion/Doctor relationship that’s central to the show. I really wish they’d found a different way to do it, one that meant that Clara had, well, any agency at all over the revelation of her identity, maybe even some inner conflict with the idea that she’d one day die and live a thousand unknown lives to save the Doctor. That is an opportunity for interesting character growth that might have fleshed her out as a person to the audience, but it’s not one that could be squeezed into the twenty minutes between Clara finally finding out about her identity and being confronted with the choice to save the Doctor in this episode. At the risk of repeating myself, I think it would have solved a lot of the problems I’ve had with this season to get Clara more engaged with the question of who she is and why she exists.

Of course, though Clara doesn’t know it when she leaps into his timestream, the Doctor will save her. And if I may look ahead in my final paragraph, unless Clara’s dead faint at the end of the episode is a preparation on the part of the writers to handwave away the memories from those thousand lives (which she clearly has, because she knows the eleven faces of the Doctor), we now have a companion who knows everything about the Doctor. Or everything except John Hurt’s Doctor, at least. And if Clara has remembered all the events of the alternate timeline in “Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS” then she even knows the Doctor’s name. That’s something I can look forward to seeing play out over Series 8, and I really hope it’s something the writers decide to run with instead of wibbly wobbling it away.

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Susana Polo
Susana Polo thought she'd get her Creative Writing degree from Oberlin, work a crap job, and fake it until she made it into comics. Instead she stumbled into a great job: founding and running this very website (she's Editor at Large now, very fancy). She's spoken at events like Geek Girl Con, New York Comic Con, and Comic Book City Con, wants to get a Batwoman tattoo and write a graphic novel, and one of her canine teeth is in backwards.