“But not in the name of the Doctor!”
— The Doctor and… the Doctor?
At last, the Doctor’s greatest secret is revealed. Not his name, or the reason he left Gallifrey — but rather that he has been hiding an entire persona, apparently even from himself.
That never-before-seen face (John Hurt’s face, to be precise) was hidden way down deep at the bottom of the Doctor’s mind, and now Clara knows about it. The reveal of a previously unknown incarnation of the Doctor has shattering repercussions — only the very least being the potential renumbering of the faces we’ve already seen.
It’s clear that executive producer and lead writer Steven Moffat lived up to the promise of the season finale — in fact, he went above and beyond, giving viewers more than we could ever have hoped for. The revelation of the Doctor’s “greatest secret” was truly epic and something even the most diehard fans never saw coming. I stand in awe of Moffat’s imagination and willingness to really shake things up.
Now, I never expected that we would learn the Doctor’s “true” or “birth” name — and I have very little interest in ever finding out (it can only disappoint). But I did suspect that the Doctor’s “greatest secret” was something other than his name. And, by Rassilon, was it ever!
On Gallifrey, a very long time ago, two workmen realize someone is trying to steal a faulty TARDIS from a repair shop. It’s the First Doctor (William Hartnell). Clara (Jenna-Louise Coleman) suddenly appears and warns him he’s making a mistake. Next, Clara is tumbling through a vortex, interacting with various incarnations of the Doctor — each time in period-appropriate dress, like she belonged there. “I’m Clara Oswald. I’m the Impossible Girl. I was born to save the Doctor.”
In 1893 London, Madame Vastra (Neve McIntosh), warned by a madman babbling about the Whisper Men, believes the Doctor’s greatest secret have been uncovered and convenes a psychic “conference call” of his allies — Jenny (Caitlin Stewart), Strax (Dan Starkey), River Song (Alex Kingston) and Clara. The madman, Clarence, has given her space-time coordinates for Trenzalore. Meanwhile, Whisper Men murder Jenny’s body and the Great Intelligence (Richard E. Grant) appears before Clara and River, instructing them to send the Doctor to Trenzalor, or he will kill all the Time Lord’s friends. When Clara wakes up in the Maitland home, the Doctor (Matt Smith) is there. When she recounts the events of the conference call, the Doctor begins weeping before running to the TARDIS. Even though he knows that, as a time traveler, he must never, ever, visit his own grave; he will go to Trenzalore to save his friends. The entire planet seems to be a battlefield graveyard, and the Doctor and Clara find the Doctor’s actual burial site: his TARDIS, now grown to gigantic proportions because its “bigger on the inside” aspect has been leaking out for years. A psychic echo of River tells Clara she is still linked to her as a result of the conference call, but no one else can see or hear her. The Doctor spots a grave marker for River and realizes something is wrong because she isn’t buried on Trenzalor. Suddenly, the Whisper Men appear. River suggests her grave is a decoy, and prods Clara to suggest it’s a secret entrance to the Doctor’s crypt. The Time Lord agrees, since they’d never bury his wife out there. Clara is shocked to learn River was his wife. As they flee through the underground passage into the bowels of the TARDIS, Clara begins to remember she’s met the Doctor before and had died twice to save him.
Inside the upper levels of the TARDIS, Vastra and Strax awaken beside the dead Jenny. Strax revives her, just as the Great Intelligence arrives, flanked by several Whisper Men. He reveals the Whisper Men are, in effect, spare bodies he can occupy with his disembodied hive mind. He begins ranting about the Doctor being a scourge on space and time. Then, the Doctor and Clara arrive, having been driven to the spot by the Whisper Men. The GI insists the Doctor open his sealed tomb by speaking his name, but he refuses. GI orders the Whisper Men to kill the Doctor’s friends. “Doctor… who?” he hisses. Suddenly, the door opens — but the Doctor didn’t speak! River said his name. “The TARDIS can still hear me,” she notes. In the control room, in place of the console, stands a twisted beam of gnarled white energy instead of a corpse; it’s the scar tissue left on the universe by the Doctor, who has time-traveled more than anyone else, ever. It’s not his body, but rather the embodiment of his timeline — including days he hasn’t lived yet.
The GI announces his intention to enter the Doctor’s timeline and reverse all his victories and poison every friendship. Even though the Doctor warns that he’ll be shredded like confetti and scattered along the Doctor’s timeline, GI says it’s worth it to get his revenge. So he steps into the light and disappears (along with the Whisper Men), and the beam turns blood red. The Doctor lies on the floor, writhing in pain as his entire timestream is rewritten in inverted, perverted ways, and the Great Intelligence kills the Time Lord in every possible timeline. Vastra recognizes what’s happening, reading off a handheld scanner, and when she says, “He’s dying in the Dalek asylum,” it triggers Clara’s memory. As whole star systems blink out of existence as the Doctor’s good deeds are undone, Clara realizes what she has to do — or, rather, what she’s already done. “I’m the Impossible Girl, and this is why,” she says. She can save the Doctor and put right whatever the Great Intelligence has changed — millions of versions of her will live and die to save the Doctor. As she steps into the light, she says to the Doctor, “Run, you clever boy — and remember me.”
And we’re back at the beginning of the episode, when Clara advises the First Doctor to steal a different TARDIS, one with a navigation system that is much more “fun.” Then she is interacting with all the other incarnations of the Doctor, from chasing the Second Doctor to trying to flag down the Third Doctor (Jon Pertwee) behind the wheel of Bessie, to seeing the Seventh Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) hanging from the glacial cliff of Iceworld in “Dragonfire.” Finally, her fall is stopped when she hits “bottom” in the Doctor’s mind. With the timeline mended, the stars reappear and reality is restored. The 11th Doctor revives, but insists on saving Clara. River begs him not to do it — and when he stops her from slapping him, she realizes he can see and hear (and touch) her. Turns out he could hear her all along, but chose not to interact with her because it would be too painful. For him. He finally says goodbye to her — even though he doesn’t like endings — and even kisses her farewell. Then he steps into his own timestream, and finds Clara lost and alone. “I don’t know where I am,” she wails as different versions of the Doctor walk past her. She can hear 11, but can’t see him, so he sends her a version of the Most Important Leaf in Human History, and it guides her to him. They embrace.
But then they notice an ominous figure with his back turned. “He’s me,” says the Doctor. But Clara insists she’s seen all 11 of his faces, and that’s not one. “I said he was me. I never said he was the Doctor.” The Time Lord explains that his real name doesn’t matter. The name you choose — as when he chose the Doctor — is “like a promise you make. He’s the one who broke the promise.” This is the Doctor’s greatest secret. Clara collapses, and the man speaks: “What I did, I did without choice, in the name of peace and sanity.” Turning away with Clara, the 11th Doctor growls, “But not in the name of the Doctor!” As he leaves, the man turns around, revealing a soft, mournful, elderly face. Words appear onscreen: “Introducing John Hurt as the Doctor.”
That’s how you wrap up a season-long umbrella storyline and set the stage for an amazing anniversary special. This is how you get viewers to sit up and take notice. This is how you live up to the infinite potential of a TV series.
In addition to discovering the Doctor’s greatest secret, we also learned the secret behind Clara Oswald, the Impossible Girl. And, just for good measure, Moffat showed us that he had this all mapped out from the very beginning — by giving us an explanation for why Soufflé Girl was so cheeky as to stare into the camera at the end of “Asylum of the Daleks” and say, “Run, you clever boy, and remember me.” Moffat also bookended the season with surprise early appearances of characters we expected to see later: Clara in the season premiere, and John Hurt in the finale.
So Clara was “born to save the Doctor” — by splitting herself into millions of copies and policing the Doctor’s lives after the Great Intelligence tried to destroyed him. Never saw that one coming, that is for sure. Clara is truly a companion unlike any other. She is also literally impossible, in that she’s a sort of living time paradox: She saved the Doctor because she was traveling with him; but she wouldn’t been traveling with him if she hadn’t saved him on the asylum planet, thus piquing his curiosity about her. There’s no way Clara would have ended up inside a Dalek casing with her human personality intact unless she intended to be there. She saved him because she made the conscious decision to save him first.
Let’s refresh our memories about the prophecy of The Question — “the first question, the oldest question in the universe; hidden in plain sight” — originally mentioned by Dorium Maldovar:
“On the Fields of Trenzalore, at the Fall of the Eleventh, when no creature can speak falsely or fail to answer, a question will be asked — a question that must never ever be answered: ‘Doctor who?’”
Reflecting on this, we realize the events of this story do not quite jibe with the prophecy for a couple of reasons: Events are clearly set after the Fall of the Eleventh (by which I mean the Doctor is already dead); the Doctor refuses to answer when the Great Intelligence asks his name. This makes me wonder if the upcoming 2013 Christmas special depicts the actual “Fall of the Eleventh,” when he is compelled to regenerate.
Still, the Great Intelligence, in the form of the late Dr. Simeon, gave it his best shot when it came to bringing about the Fall of the Eleventh. Although this gambit raises the number of its defeats by the Doctor to five (most recently in “The Bells of Saint John”), this story also elevated the Great Intelligence to the highest ranks of the Doctor’s rogues gallery. In fact, I say he is now seated on the throne, wearing the crown as the Doctor’s Greatest Enemy. After all, he attacked all of the Doctors simultaneously along his entire timestream, undoing all of the Doctor’s victories. In other words, he defeated all the Doctors at every turn, reducing every accomplishment to dust. Nobody will be able to top that, ever. It’s not quantity but rather quality that cements the Great Intelligence at the biggest bad of all. Take that, Daleks and Cybermen! (Heck, he’s even cornered the market on quantity by negating all of the Doctor’s wins.)
Richard E. Grant’s performance the Great Intelligence was a sinister triumph for him and another master class in the art of sneering. I loved the way he leaned into Matt Smith face and quietly, calmly, demanded, “What is your name?” The Great Intelligence’s antipathy toward the Doctor seems to drip from every pore of Grant’s body; the late Dr. Simeon was a walking pile of well-dressed contempt for the Time Lord.
Not that the Doctor doesn’t have some contempt of his own for a certain Time Lord. Someone with a face we’ve never seen before. After her journey through his timestream, Clara explicitly calls the current Doctor “the 11th Doctor,” unambiguously establishing that this is the Time Lord’s 11th body. Back in “The Five Doctors,” when the incarnations gathered, the First Doctor said, “So there are five of me now, hmm?” And the Seventh Doctor referred to himself as the seventh incarnation. So just where does the John Hurt Doctor fit — if, indeed, he is the Doctor?
Usually, whenever a TV show or comic book series proclaims “This story will change ABC forever,” or “You’ll never look at DEF the same way again,” you can usually bet that’s hyperbole. That the status quo will be quickly restored and things will be like they always were. But in this case, no matter what the truth behind the JH Doctor turns out to be, we fans can never think of DOCTOR WHO the same way again. Aside from the cosmetic problem of renumbering the Doctors, the idea that he could even have an unknown incarnation is shocking. And that this persona did something so horrible that he was essentially locked away in the Doctor’s subconscious makes the mind boggle. Is the John Hurt Doctor the version who committed the double genocide that ended the Last Great Time War? Why did he do it? (And if he didn’t, then which version of the Doctor did?)
Is John Hurt the aged face of the Valeyard? The Great Intelligence said the Doctor would be known as the Valeyard at one point. When last we saw the Valeyard, he had become the Keeper of the Matrix back on Gallifrey. Who knows what sort of chaos he could have caused to the fabric of time from that “key” job
- As she traveled through the Doctor’s timestream, Clara did not prevent him from regenerating at the same times he previously did.
- This story featured 12 Doctors — the most ever.
- We saw entire star systems blink out of existence as a result of the Doctor’s actions being undone when the Ninth Doctor was prematurely killed in “Turn Left.”
- This is the first time the show has depicted a TARDIS in its cylindrical default form, without the chameleon circuit engaged. Late in the Second Doctor story “The War Games” we see what appear to be other TARDISes without camouflage — but they appear somewhat rectangular, so perhaps their chameleon circuits are disguising their “natural” cylindrical shape. Or perhaps the Type 40 is cylindrical, while other models have a rectangular shape.
- The Great Intelligence referred to “The Valeyard” as one of the Doctor’s aliases — at least to his enemies — which suggests the Valeyard went on to do more than we saw in “The Trial of a Time Lord.” The Master described him thusly: “The Valeyard, Doctor, is your penultimate reincarnation, an amalgamation of the darker side of your nature… somewhere between your twelfth and final regeneration.”
- This version of River was summoned from the Data Core at the Library after her death — an event she acknowledges to Clara.
- We never found out what was up with that guy in the prison rhyming about the Whisper Men…
- One of the voices of the Doctor heard emanating from the timestream belongs to the Sixth Doctor, ranting about the corruption of the Time Lords during the last story to feature the Valeyard: “In all my travelling throughout the universe I have battled against evil, against power mad conspirators. I should have stayed here. The oldest civilisation: decadent, degenerate and rotten to the core. Power mad conspirators, Daleks, Sontarans, Cybermen — they’re still in the nursery compared to us. Ten million years of absolute power. That’s what it takes to be really corrupt.”
- “When you are a time traveler, there is one place you must never go; one place in all of space and time you must never, ever find yourself. Trenzalore is where I’m buried.” — the Doctor
- “Welcome to the final resting place of the cruel tyrant; of the slaughterer of the 10 billion; and the vessel of the Final Darkness! Welcome to the tomb of the Doctor!” — The Great Intelligence
- “Time travel is damage, like a tear in the fabric of reality. That is the scar tissue of my journey through the universe…. from Gallifrey to Trenzalore.” — the Doctor
- “I’m born, I live, I die,” she says of her many lives. “And always there’s the Doctor, always I’m running to save the Doctor… and he hardly ever hears me, but I’ve always been there, right from the very beginning.” — Clara
- “I saw all of them: eleven faces; all of them you. You’re the eleventh Doctor.” — Clara
- “Spoilers.” — River Song