It has long been hinted and teased that the TARDIS houses some sort of consciousness, or even a kind of “heart” or “soul.” The revived series has added clues that TARDISes are grown from a kind of coral more than manufactured (The 10th Doctor states as much in “The Impossible Planet.”) And, of course, the exact circumstances of the Doctor’s…um, departure from Gallifrey have been a question ever since “An Unearthly Child.” Leave it to fantasy demigod Gaiman to blend all those elements into a magical, alchemical mix and come up with a ripping yarn that entertains while addressing questions and raising new (fun) mysteries.
Yes, I am an unrepentant Gaiman devotee, having first discovered him thanks to his brilliant Sandman comic book series for DC Comics. I know him to be an author of inexhaustible imagination who expresses himself wonderfully. When I heard that show-runner Steven Moffat regards DOCTOR WHO as a fairy tale, I knew Gaiman would be the perfect writer to pen a story for the 11th Doctor. And Gaiman did not let me down. Not one little bit.
The Doctor (Matt Smith) received a hypercube message from an old acquaintance called the Corsair, which led him to a junkyard asteroid outside the known universe. There he met Auntie (Elizabeth Berrington) Uncle (Adrian Schiller), an Ood dubbed Nephew (Paul Kasay) and the seemingly mad Idris (Suranne Jones). The asteroid, dubbed “House” (and voiced by Michael Sheen), was sentient, and informed the Doctor that it had been visited by many TARDISes in the past, but there were no longer any Time Lords present. Still, the Doctor was convinced that the Corsair and other “good” Time Lords needed saving, so he sent Amy (Karen Gillan) and Rory (Arthur Darvill) in the TARDIS so he could deal with Time Lord affairs. What he discovered was a cache of Time Lord distress-call boxes. Then he realized that Uncle and Auntie were patchwork people made of random body parts – including the Corsair’s arm – and that Idris housed the “soul” of the TARDIS! House feeds on rift energy, and TARDISes are full of it. But the only way to consume that tasty energy is to delete the TARDIS’ matrix. But removing a TARDIS consciousness would blow a hole in the universe, so House sticks the TARDIS matrix inside a living vessel to contain it while he feeds on the remaining Artron energy.
Amy and Rory were trapped in the TARDIS as House seized it. However, since the Doctor had revealed that his was the last TARDIS in existence, House wanted to return to the known universe. Left behind, the Doctor suddenly realized that he was in a TARDIS junkyard – and set about building a new TARDIS console, with Idris’ help. Meanwhile, inside the ship, House commanded Rory and Amy to “Entertain me: Run!” Rabbiting through the famously labyrinthine corridors, House manipulated time and space to torture Amy with the appearance of a dead and desiccated Rory. Doctor and Idris managed to get their makeshift TARDIS off the ground, and Idris sent Rory a telepathic message to go to the archived “old control room” and lower the TARDIS shields. This allowed the Doctor to materialize inside the TARDIS shell. Then the Doctor baited House into deleting the room. A failsafe transported all the living beings out of the dissolving room and into the main control room, where Doctor stalled until Idris’ human body could no longer hold her and the TARDIS consciousness re-merged with the control console and then destroyed House.
“The Doctor’s Wife” is full of wit and imagination and lively writing. And it takes a fresh look at the Doctor’s relationship to the amazing vessel in which he travels. Ships and vehicles of all types have long been anthropomorphized as female, and much as STAR TREK’s Capt. Kirk was “married” to the Enterprise, the Doctor is bound to the TARDIS. I liked the little spin that Gaiman put on their relationship by making it a two-way street. He invalidated nothing about the Doctor’s conviction that he stole the TARDIS by suggesting that the TARDIS also stole him! Idris acknowledged that she, a Type 40, was already a museum piece when the Doctor was young. He said he took her because she was unlocked; she insisted she wanted to see the universe, so she stole a Time Lord – and he was the only one mad enough to go on the journey. So they ran away together, which makes the departure from Gallifrey more like an elopement, lending credence to the “wife” metaphor. On a somewhat more crass level, the Doctor and Idris did bicker like an old married couple! He scolded her for not being very reliable and rarely taking him where he wanted to go. She countered that she always took him where he needed to go. This casts a new light on a great many “classic” stories that saw the Doctor conveniently arrive in a trouble spot just when he was needed most. And it also helps exonerate the Doctor’s ability to pilot the TARDIS; he was doing it right, but the TARDIS herself had other ideas! So, in the end, could the Doctor really have “stolen” the TARDIS when she wanted to steal him? They technically kidnapped each other!
Gaiman’s script was full of big ideas that made logical sense; everything was extrapolated from existing ideas. Even the seemingly convenient “failsafe” that saved the day made internal story sense; the TARDIS would want to preserve anyone accidentally trapped in a segment slated to be jettisoned. And, of course, the idea of sacrificing TARDIS rooms for additional thrust was used in “Logopolis” and “Castrovalva.” (That poor swimming pool seems destined to never last very long…) Gaiman’s dialogue was lively and funny in some spots, creepy in others, and touching in still other passages. Most of all it was clever, as in the way that Idris’ idiosyncratic dialogue provided a lot of exposition and foreshadowing in painless ways (in the guise of her being loopy adjusting to human form): Getting tenses mixed up allowed her to plant information that would be needed in the future, like the meaning of “petrichor.” Witness the clever manner in which Rory bargained for his and Amy’s lives by appealing to that old supervillain standby: “Killing us quickly wouldn’t be any fun.” And Amy was as playful as ever: Rory: “He’s a Time Lord.” Amy: “It’s just what they’re called; it doesn’t mean he actually knows what he’s doing.”
But I know what I liked most of all: The way the story gave Smith the material to really cut loose and bring the Doctor to uproarious life. I think I will always have the image etched in my mind of the gleeful Doctor and Idris whipping through space in their slapdash TARDIS. It was a positively mad gambit – and the Doctor wouldn’t have it any other way! At times, Smith looked as if the Doctor could barely contain himself: He was positively rapturous when he first retrieved the Corsair’s hypercube. Then, later, the Doctor was genuinely confused and excited and more than a little frightened at the prospect of there being “lots and lots” of Time Lords on the asteroid. (Amy absolutely nailed why the Doctor was so pumped: He needed to be forgiven by Time Lords for his genocide. Wow, Neil. Just, wow.) Equally effective was the time when the Doctor felt lost: “I really don’t know what to do,” the Doctor mused. “That’s a new feeling.” But then his manic self resurfaced: “I’m a madman with a box – without a box!”
I would still like some clarification on how TARDISes come to be. After this episode I’m looking at some kind of melding between the organic “coral” elements and the technology of the main console. Perhaps the TARDIS shell and matrix are grown, then the artificial console is built and melded into a control room, and then imbued with the spark of consciousness from the living TARDIS to make the whole thing “work.” (Sounds like a plan to me…)
Hey, let’s not forget the positively ground-breaking news that was casually tossed off by the Doctor: Time Lords definitely can change gender when they regenerate. Long a rumor, this is the first story to make the change canon. A Time Lord may become a Time Lady. In fact, the Doctor’s friend the Corsair (love that moniker!) apparently alternated being “a hell of a bloke” and a female several times. “Oooh, she was a bad girl!” the Doctor chortled.
And, finally, the story needed a dollop of myth-arc, and that came in the dying words of Idris, who told Rory, “The only water in the forest is the river.” Idris said they would need to know that. I hope Idris didn’t get her tenses confused again and was referring to “Forest of the Dead,” because we already know what happens to River in that story. I want more clues about the future of Series 6!
Am I an old sourpuss for being disappointed that the War Chief did not appear? We had been promised someone who hadn’t been seen since “The War Games,” but somewhere along the line that tease morphed into something we hadn’t seen since “The War Games” — and that turned out to be the hypercube.