Well, that was almost exactly everything that this series, and I include the Neil Gaiman episode last week, has failed to be. Not quite: there was one almighty wobble in the final couple of minutes, until it was retrieved by one mother of a cliffhanger: John Hurt. The Doctor.
I have history with Doctor Who. I watched the first episode, that long black-and-white time ago. I didn’t see the second episode, not until it was repeated eighteen years later. But I was a regular, throughout the Hartnell and Troughton years, except that I missed both regenerations: I’m old enough to remember that the first time round it wasn’t a regeneration at all, rather a rejuvenation, from about 900 years old back to 700 years.
I missed most of Pertwee and Baker (T), but I did catch my first regeneration with Baker to Davidson. I was a regular then, one of the few who liked Baker (C), but dropped off with McCoy. I watched the movie with McGann, but don’t remember it, and I sat down to Eccleston with anticipation that quickly evaporated. To be honest, the New Who wasn’t my sort of thing, and since I seemed to be one of the few people in the Universe who thought Billie Piper was uninteresting and couldn’t act (I mean, I don’t even find her attractive), it seemed saner to walk away.
I did see the last episode with Tennant, and managed to stay awake during that turgid, overlong, wholly overdone bit at the end where he toured the entire SpaceTime Continuum just to stare meaningfully at everybody who’d appeared over all four seasons so far. But, to be honest, whilst I suspected that Stephen Moffatt would be a far more fun showrunner, I really only tuned in to check out Karen Gillan.
And she was very worth checking out, but the revelation was that Matt Smith was fun, and fascinating as the Eleventh Doctor, and the stories were fast-paced and silly and deep in the right proportions, and Gillan was also bloody good as Amy Pond. And I thought Rory was great too, and it kept hitting emotional points on the button.
And the best of them all was the Ponds’ final appearance, a dull, drear, overhyped effort that was going very badly until that moment Rory stepped up onto the parapet, prepared to sacrifice himself to save the woman he loved and the show just punched a fist through my heart and twisted, until the final moment.
So I was looking forward to the second half of this series, until it happened. Great guest stars, playing great roles. Jenna-Louise Coleman looks great. But it wasn’t working. I enjoyed the first couple of shows, the ones that everybody else hated, and after that, once everybody started enjoying the fare, I just found myself getting less and less interested. Every week, Matt Smith would go totally OTT, gurning, shrieking, throwing himself around, and everyone would praise his performance more and more. And no matter how hard I tried to get interested in the mystery that was Clara Oswin, she remained nothing more than a cardboard cut-out, a dull echo of the far more authoritative Amy.
Because that was it, basically. I was missing the Ponds – which is the great danger with Russell Davies’s notion of focussing on the companions, because they come and go, they always come and go. They gave the series ballast, a solid base against which Smith could play, but Clara had no real substance to her. And without that, Smith was ungrounded.
Until tonight, because the threat was genuine, was real, more real than anything this increasingly feckless series had offered, because it meant the Doctor’s end. The one place in forever where he can’t go, because it’s where his grave stands. It anchors Smith’s performance, keeping him away from the scenery-chewing end of his range, because (apart from the bit where last week’s kids trick him into playing Blind Man’s Bluff, the story won’t accommodate the kind of forced whimsy and ditziness on the past few weeks.
The story is rich. Vastra, Jenny and Strax hold a Conference Call across time and space, conjuring up the ghost of River Song to join them: but not River herself, rather the long ago computer back-up made by Tennant and kept in the TARDIS forever since. Jenny is murdered, apologising for her carelessness, and the Great Intelligence forces The Doctor to Trenzalore, to a dead TARDIS, in which all the bigness is on the outside.
The Doctor is forced to open his tomb by the one word in the Universe he can’t give: his real name. But the title of the show is a McGuffin; Smith shouts something incomprehensible, the door opens, and the apparition of River Song confesses that she said his name. It’s a cheat, but an allowable cheat, since after fifty years no name under the sun could possibly satisfy.
And inside the dead TARDIS, there is a shining construction of light, a spindle of strands, curving and recurving, up and down, in a path incapable of being followed. It is the Doctor’s life, his personal time-line, everywhere and everywhen he’s been, and every body he’s worn, including that undisclosed future. It is an open wound, and, being open, it can be entered. Which is the Great Intelligence’s intention. It will enter the Doctor’s time-line and poison it from end to end, turning every victory into defeat, destroying every achievement since November 23 1963.
The grandiosity of the scheme, which has immediate effects as whole star systems wink out, and Jenny dies again, is matched by Clara’s response. In the beginning we see her popping up around a series of Doctors – old clips of old heroes, blurred outlines of costumes – as Clara debates her own mystery. Now she understands it, understands how she could have met the Doctor twice and died twice. Because she too can step into the open wound, destroying herself, create millions of Claras, millions of Impossible Girls. She will save the Doctor in every adversity. As she steps into the light, she says the words that link everything, beginning to end: “Run, you clever boy. And remember me.”
For a moment, the episode trembles on the brink of greatness. The series began, last year, with the unexpected, wonderfully-kept secret of Clara in episode 1. What matching glory that, with an equal gesture of secrecy and surprise, her story is to end here. And she goes into his life, repeating the cycle seen at the beginning, to which a moment of comic genius is added: as William Hartnell and his granddaughter, Susan, prepare to steal a TARDIS that the Gallifrey technicians have identified as defective (which we recognise with a sage nod), Clara appears to warn them against it: try this one instead, the navigation circuits are knackered but you’ll have fun.
Then it all starts to go wrong. The Doctor wakes up and, instead of getting away as everybody from Clara to the woman on school crossing patrol in Harpenden tells him to do, he’s going in after her. Fur hilven! She’s just made the most meaningful gesture of her life, and you’re going to render it totally pointless and ruin what this episode has built up, what the fuck?
The idiocy is postponed a few moments: it turns out the Doctor has been able to see and hear the River-ghost all along: he has always been able to. There is a short, but beautiful pitch to this conversation, which has the feel of a final, as in final for ever, meeting for this time-crossed pair.
Suddenly, the confident, cheerful, strong, clever Clara falls into a zone of darkness and swirling dust and starts crying for the Doctor. It’s a sudden, hideously misogynistic switch, like that Sherlock episode which reduced Irene Adler to someone who had to be rescued by a superior Sherlock Holmes. It’s truly shit and, needless to say, out of all the places in his long life Clara could be, the Doctor’s found her first go, and she only has to trust in him and jump down to him and she’ll be safe. I may barf in disgust.
And then, from the point of death, Moffatt pulls it out of the bag. The Doctor and Clara are not alone. Someone else is present, stood with his back to them. Clara panics, in fear of who he is, of the fact she’s not seen him, she’s seen all eleven faces but not him. That’s because he’s not the Doctor, the Doctor morosely states. He is the Doctor’s shadow, his darkness, his black sheep, but he did not call himself the Doctor, the name our anonymous hero chose.
The figure speaks, says that his was a choice forced on him by circumstance and necessity. The Doctor draws Clara away, still looking in fear and anger. The figure turns and it is John Hurt. A card appears: Introducing John Hurt. As The Doctor. Continued November 23 2013.
I’m not going to speculate. I haven’t got a clue where this is going and we’ve all of us got six months and five days to wait for an explanation, and to discover whether what Moffatt has up his sleeve for his bow out is enough to justify that truly ham-fisted and shitty little attempt to blow a nearly-glorious episode to smithereens.
For tonight, I saw plenty to delight and excite and surprise and sparkle – who do we know retired to take up bee-keeping? – only for it to be thrown into the balance due to a slice of idiot shit. I hope that whatever secrets Moffatt is keeping are kept secret for six months and five days. I hope that if he’s got any more of that misogynist shit, that someone has beaten him severely round the head until he dropped it.
Because I’d also like to be interested and intrigued in and by the Twelfth Doctor.