Doctor Who And The Doctor’s Wife

Suranne Jones and Matt Smith in Doctor Who - The Doctor's Wife (BBC1, 2011).

It seems to have been almost entirely forgotten about now, but Series Six of Doctor Who was split into two batches of episodes, and at the time troubling and credible rumours were circulating that this was due to the production schedule almost literally falling apart rather than any kind of year-spanning Twice The Fun!!! gambit. There has been curiously little discussion of or speculation on any of this since, which doesn’t exactly do much to dispel the dark whisperings, but Doctor Who fans do tend to exaggerate and over-dramatise the relevance and importance of this kind of situation anyway. I could probably sit here right now and write twenty thousand words on how even the most innocuous of programmes from Camberwick Green to Filthy, Rich And Catflap suffered from serious production headaches that almost saw them not make it to air at all, and The Prisoner which was essentially just one long production headache from start to finish (and beyond), and probably still only cover a fraction of the examples that I’m actually even aware of. Sometimes, it’s important to take a step back and remember that Doctor Who is really just another television programme. Incidentally, there’s a lot about that sort of thing – and indeed about Doctor Who stories with a troubled production history – in my book Not On Your Telly, which is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here. Hint hint.

All the same, this did have the possibly unhelpful effect of separating the run into two batches of mostly not exactly stratospherically good episodes, thereby providing twice as much disappointment – or half as much incentive to watch – if you weren’t really on board. Thankfully, I’d already demanded to review the episode written by Neil Gaiman, which turned out to be by far the highlight of that first set; the fact that I watched it at a friend’s house immediately prior to a Eurovision party (which does actually have some relevance to this review, as you will find out in due course), and on a television where the settings had gone wrong and it looked like a videotaped eighties episode to boot, did not exactly prove a barrier to my enjoyment. But did I actually have that much to say about it? Well, that’s a different issue. Incidentally this review was originally titled Fix Idris, in reference to a Welsh language b-side by arcane indie band Super Furry Animals. Yes sir, I know my audience profile.

It’s never a good feeling when you find yourself suddenly less interested in something you’ve previously been near-obsessive about. Not exactly actively disliking it, and certainly not turning against it, just feeling that it’s taken a direction that’s really not for you, and that while you still wish it well, you just can’t get excited about it any more. Like when Suede released Head Music, when Monster Munch discontinued the Sizzlin’ Bacon flavour, and when Vic Reeves did… well, anything after Big Night Out really.

Given its long and varied history, chances are that if you’re a Doctor Who fan, you’ll have felt this way at one time or another. There’ve been unpopular Doctors, unpopular production teams, even unpopular programme logos, and that’s not even getting started on the sheer number of tedious, incomprehensible or just plain mean-spirited stories that were almost enough to put people off watching ever again by themselves. Of course every fan will have their own experiences of this, and – in a revelation that will doubtless cause many to stop reading in indignance – this reviewer is having just such an experience right now. For whatever reason, the low-key approach and proliferation of ‘slow reveal’ story arcs just don’t seem to hold the same sort of personal appeal as the more grandstanding and in-your-face Russell T. Davies era did, to the extent that rewatching the four-decade-old black and white The War Games on DVD was actually a more exciting and enjoyable experience than first-watching the previous run of episodes. If anything, the first three episodes of this run have been even more convoluted and meandering still, which is why it was so satisfying to have The Doctor’s Wife as a timely reminder of exactly why it’s always worth persevering with Doctor Who.

With no small irony, it had already been revealed in a pre-transmission ‘teaser’ (not ‘spoiler’, goodness no) that the episode would open with ‘something we haven’t seen since episode ten of The War Games’. Sadly this wasn’t one of the ‘incredible bunch’ of faces that the Time Lords ask the Second Doctor to choose from, but the Maths-In-A-Box-esque psychic cube thingymajig that they use to send distress signals to each other; a fitting start for an episode that was both akin to an unexpected message of hope beaming out from nowhere, and indeed almost as enjoyable as The War Games. Said cube contains a distress signal supposedly sent by a fellow renegade Time Lord named ‘The Corsair’ (presumably after the sixteenth-century buccaneers rather than the doo-wop chart stars), though happily nobody saw fit to make a charity single about his predicament. This leads The Doctor and his two inconsistently-scripted chums to what appears to be the home planet of forgotten cheapo eighties animated robots CP & Qwikstitch, but is in fact a sentient asteroid situated just outside the universe, which lures unwary Time Lords onto its surface so it can subsume the energy from their Tardises, and goes by the name of ‘House’.

Arthur Darvill, Karen Gillan and Suranne Jones in Doctor Who - The Doctor's Wife (BBC1, 2011).

‘House’ may share its name with Hugh Laurie’s Vicodin-addicted maverick surgeon (whose sidekick Taub, incidentally, has recently expressed a preference for ‘Classic Doctor Who’), but not his mastery of diagnostic lateral thinking, meaning that it remains oblivious to the Doctor’s Tardis – which, lest we forget, the makers of the seventies Doctor Who Top Trumps cards thought had a ‘mental ability’ of ‘nil’ – having the presence of mind to implant itself mentally into one of the asteroid’s hapless inhabitants. It’s always been implied that everyone’s favourite bigger-on-the-inside time machine was possessed of some degree of intelligence and capacity for independent thought, and here we finally get some evidence of that as the Tardis takes on the bigger-on-the-outside form of Suranne Jones, who would be easy to dismiss as stunt-casting designed to get the more ‘feverish’ fans thinking “phwoar, wouldn’t mind giving her Ormulu Clock a good winding up” if she wasn’t so unexpectedly good in the role, playing with just the right combination of smugness, flirtiness and scatterbrained scientific genius. Yes, this – confounding months of increasingly ridiculous and unrealistic speculation – is the Doctor’s ‘wife’. It’s a simple yet effective idea that fits so well that it’s hard to believe nobody had ever thought of it until now.

Michael Sheen, unfortunately, was a little less impressive. Given a rare opportunity to do something other than play one of a series of recent-history figures who all apparently had the same face, he didn’t really manage to do as much with House’s voice as might have been expected, lapsing into the usual ‘booming malevolence’ default setting when something a touch more detached and sinister and indeed indicative of House’s non-Universal origins would have been more appropriate. In fact, it wasn’t even as frightening as that French bloke staring into the camera on The Eurovision Song Contest later that evening. Disagree if you must, but it’s impossible to avoid the conclusion that he’s only going to end up on the long list of out-of-vision Doctor Who actors who weren’t Gabriel Woolf and his ‘sibilant’ voice.

Amaury Vasilli representing France in The Eurovision Song Contest 2011.

Meanwhile – and this is supposed to be a positive review, believe it or not – Amy and Rory yet again proved to be the most forgettable aspect of the entire enterprise, with their spectacular lack of depth giving the already rather tedious chase around the Tardis corridors an unpersonal air that left the entire sequence feeling as though it would have been more comfortable in an episode of Space: 1999. The lack of ‘other’ Tardis rooms didn’t exactly help, and the inclusion of yet another false death for Rory must have left most viewers having to be physically restrained from throwing large and heavy objects at their television in lieu of actually being able to throw them at the production team. True, this is hardly Neil Gaiman’s fault, and it did work in the context of the episode, but this is one time too many on top of one time too many and it’s worth pointing out that Heroes, a series that was more or less run out of television town for featuring fake deaths, actually only ever featured one. Matt Smith, on the other hand, rises to the challenge of what is a rather offbeat storyline admirably, particularly in his alternately witty and tender exchanges with the ‘Tardis’, and his glee at cobbling together a new console room out of old wrecked bits of scrap. Though just imagine how much more effective that “fear me – I’ve killed all of them” line would have been if it hadn’t been featured in approximately thirteen million pre-transmission trailers.

More pertinently, though again less of a direct criticism of this episode, there’s the recurring problem of the post-Russell T. Davies era seemingly being unable to convey the sense that there’s an entire universe beyond the three leads and the handful of people they encounter each episode. Yes, technically this one was set ‘outside’ the universe and mostly given over to literally four characters and a voice, and as such this was an appropriate atmosphere, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that this was a happy accident rather than design. While it’s something of a relief not to have to endure any more shots of everyone running out of their houses to look at the sky and news reports by Trinity Wells, it is possible to go too far in the other direction and end up with, say, seemingly nobody else in the world being bothered that subterranean reptiles had infiltrated a high profile experimental drilling programme. Given that other prominent examples of this problem include such big-hitting ratings winners as Volume 3 of Heroes (yes, alright, the one with the fake death) and the big-screen remake of The Avengers, it’s fairly safe to say that this is a problem that needs addressing pretty sharpish.

By now you’re probably thinking that this is all rather nitpicky for a supposedly positive review, and, well, you’re absolutely right. That’s kind of the point. Everything is so streamlined now, especially in this post-RTD era, that it’s hard to get a spanner into really good episodes and say what made them really good without resorting to generalisms, clichés and good old fashioned repeating yourself, let alone finding something to say that hasn’t already been said by every other reviewer; negative points, however, are as easy to seize on and hold up to ridicule as ever. In all seriousness, you can get five times as many words as this out of saying you actually quite like The Underwater Menace, and yet struggle to bring this review up to a decent length. Which is probably why the original attempt at it was full of ill-fitting references to Craig Gannon’s guitar playing on the live version of Rusholme Ruffians – because, well, you have to say something. So, one single decent episode brings home the Sizzlin’ Bacon and suddenly I’m hooked again. But it’s so difficult to say exactly why.

Some things that may need explaining…

This statement about everything after Vic Reeves’ Big Night Out isn’t posturing, it’s true. I found Vic and Bob progressively less ‘for me’ after that, and was also put off by their disruptive appearances on chat shows, particularly on occasions when they just couldn’t bear to let the musical act perform uninterrupted. There are a couple of good songs on Head Music by the way, but I can’t find much to say in its defence, and yet I’ll happily defend Coming Up. You can find out much more about Sizzlin’ Bacon Monster Munch – and my ongoing resentment over its continued unavailability – in Looks Unfamiliar with Garreth Hirons here.

Maths-In-A-Box was a bizarre early eighties BBC Schools programme about some children teaching mathematics to a visiting alien. It was one of those shows that you’d hear legends about from children who’d been off school ill.

I’m not quite sure why I felt the need to reference Smoky Places hitmakers The Corsairs; I think I’d thought there was a sort of car called a Corsair and there wasn’t except there was after all?

CP & Qwikstitch were the near-motionless ‘stars’ of a shockingly cheap animation used as School Summer Holidays filler by the BBC in the mid-eighties. You can find an attempt to convey just how truly unspeakably dull their antics were here.

The cast of House M.D. discussed watching Doctor Who in Bombshells from Series Seven. This was broadcast March 7th 2011 and if anyone can work out what episode Taub was planning to watch, I’d love to know.

I’m not sure referring to Suranne Jones’ figure ahead of her acting ability is perhaps my finest hour, but I had my reasons for being a bit brash and vulgar at that point in time and It’s also a joke intentionally stolen from I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again’s Doctor Who spoof The Electric Time Trousers, so there. The Ormulu Clock – never, ever referred to as just a ‘clock’ – was a regular item of Tardis furniture in the sixties.

The French entrant in the Eurovision Song Contest was Amaury Vassili, who looked like Nick Drake cosplaying as one of the Trumpton Fire Brigade, and finished fifteenth with Sognu. His oddly menacing pre-performance stare at a zooming camera was the cause of much hilarity.

Obviously I meant the 1998 movie based on ITV’s sixties action serial The Avengers rather than Avengers Assemble, which was brilliant and which you can hear me saying much more about here.

As captured on The Smiths’ live album “Rank”, Craig Gannon was the short-stay second guitarist around the time of The Queen Is Dead, Panic and Ask, and while his efforts are often derided by purists and he was very definitely along for the ride rather than ‘meaning’ it like Morrissey and Marr, the contributions he made to the band’s dynamic both live and in the studio add up to a massive sound, and through an accident of timing there will always be five people in The Smiths to me; the Eurotube performance was their defining moment for this young fan. I’m not sure what context I would have been referencing him in here, though. Anyway, you can read more about my complicated relationship with The Smiths and their music – and Rusholme Ruffians in particular – here.

It’s quite difficult to find very much new to say after rewatching The Doctor’s Wife. I still agree with more or less everything said above, including the comments on Suede, Vic Reeves and Monster Munch. Something that really does stand out to me more in retrospect, however, is just how much fun it was to be in a room full of people willingly watching it at a party; it’s strange to look back on that now, partly because the sense of occasion was so dampened and the casual viewer so alienated by so many other episodes around that time that I’m not sure that will have happened again much afterwards, but partly because so many people reading will have an anecdote about being forced to miss an episode of the original run due to having to attend a party that they didn’t want to go to, and even their peers would have derided Doctor Who as ‘for babies’; in fact you can hear a story more or less along those lines in an edition of Looks Unfamiliar with playwright and Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy expert Mark Griffiths here. We had that for a while and anyone who derided it at the time and derides it in retrospect is on the wrong side of history. And taste. And entertainment full stop.

Karen Gillan, Arthur Darvill and Matt Smith in Doctor Who - The Doctor's Wife (BBC1, 2011).

Buy A Book!

Not On Your Telly is a collection of columns and features with a slant towards ‘forgotten’ television, including plenty related to Doctor WhoNot On Your Telly is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.

Alternately, if you’re just feeling generous, you can buy me a coffee here. Just make sure it’s one that’s bigger on the inside. However that works exactly.

Further Reading

I Get So ‘Emotional’ Baby, Every Time I Think Of Who is an attempt to explain why I wasn’t really enjoying Doctor Who as much in the Matt Smith era; you can find it here. You can also find my reviews of the Matt Smith-era stories Amy’s Choice here and Night Terrors here.

Further Listening

You can hear me talking to Emma Burnell and Steve Fielding about Doctor Who on The Zeitgeist Tapes – the show where politics and pop culture collide – here.

© Tim Worthington.
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