In 1978, there was a six-part Doctor Who story featuring the Fourth Doctor called “The Invasion of Time,” in which the final two episodes took place within the bowels of the TARDIS itself, which was really shot in a disused hospital. Since then, while portions of the ship’s massive interior have been seen or mentioned, the full impact of what’s actually inside the Doctor’s space and time machine had yet to be visualized, until this week, of course. Steve Thompson’s “Journey to the Center (or Centre) of the TARDIS” did exactly what it said on the tin, and even gave voice to some of Clara’s (and the audience’s) concerns or confusion about what might be going on. It was full of wonder, mystery, suspense, and awe. More than a few times I said “holy shit!” out loud to the nobody in my apartment with me. Is this the same guy who wrote “Curse of the Black Spot?”
This episode is absolutely wonderful. There’s so much going on for something that’s essentially limited to one location (albeit an infinite one). We learn a lot about what kinds of things are in the TARDIS, we learn a little about the Doctor before it gets bled from Clara’s memory, there are monsters that are explained incredibly well, there is a family drama (which is probably the weakest link in the episode), and we finally, again, get to see the swimming pool, which has been spoken about forever and was only seen once in the aforementioned “Invasion of Time.” This is an episode written by someone who clearly loves and respects the history of the show, but also knows how to weave drama specific to the current regime. I’d expected a lot of references, but I didn’t expect so much revelation.
While trying to get the TARDIS and Clara to get along, the Doctor puts the ship in basic mode, which leaves it wide open to a trio of scrap dealers to try to salvage. This does not do the TARDIS any favors and causes a pretty catastrophic engine leak. Clara gets lost somewhere in the ship and the Doctor tricks the three junkers into helping him find her. There are also very creepy ash-covered people with red eyes, you know, in case things weren’t tense enough.
As Clara makes her way from room to room, she passes an observatory and the pool before hiding in the massive library. In this library are volumes of the “Encyclopaedia Gallifreya” as well as a book about the Time War. Yeah. Just a book containing everything we’ve ever wanted to know about the most catastrophic event in the entire Doctor Who universe. Clara seems to have found something of interest (she says, “So that’s who,” which probably refers to the Doctor’s name which she later claims to have learned), but she gets distracted by impending death.
The Doctor and the scrappers also come across a room with the various circuitries that the TARDIS has at her disposal to make anything mechanical. This proves too enticing to pass up for the leader and most reprehensible of the scrapping brothers (who makes their little brother think he’s a machine for fun!?!? What a wanker!) and he takes a piece of it. The TARDIS responds by creating a labyrinth that not even the Doctor can get through.
There are so many great concepts in this story. One being that the Doctor and Clara are in the same space but slightly off in terms of time, like a light switch. Another is the way time overlaps itself the closer they get to the leak. They see echoes of what they’ve done and, we later find out, echoes of what hasn’t happened yet. We also get to see the Eye of Harmony itself, which gives the TARDIS its time travel power. It is pretty amazing. A quantum-locked sun nearly going supernova; it’s really a wonder they don’t burn up immediately.
Finally, the biggest and best surprise to me in this episode is that the Doctor finally confronts Clara with what he knows about her. It was bound to occur sooner or later, but honestly, I had expected later. She’s very confused but doesn’t get bent out of shape or too freaked out about it. In fact, when the Doctor says once everything is back to normal that she’ll probably forget everything, she expresses how much she’d rather that not happen. She’s such an interesting, well-rounded, and complex character. I feel like Clara is a real person, albeit a mysterious one, and not just a personality with plot attached like I sometimes felt Amy was. And, to be a broken record yet again, Jenna-Louise Coleman and Matt Smith are the best. The. Frigging. Best. I’m constantly impressed by how well they play off each other. I hope Clara sticks around for a good long while.
I really don’t know what to make of Steve Thompson as a writer. So far, between this show and Sherlock, he’s written four episodes that have aired. He wrote “The Blind Banker” in series one of Sherlock, which is fine, but is easily the weak link of those three episodes. Next, he wrote “The Curse of the Black Spot,” which was boring, poorly paced, and obvious. If Series 6 of Doctor Who represents Moffat’s weakest year so far (which I think it does), then that episode is the weakest of that. Then, Thompson turned it way around for “The Reichenbach Fall,” which ended the second series of Sherlock, and which was absolutely excellent. Now he writes this, about which I can’t say enough good things. You’re baffling, Mr. Thompson. I don’t really know what to make of you.
So very much to chew on in this episode, but overall, I loved it. The direction by Who newcomer Mat King was excellent and made the various hallway sets feel like they were part of a massive network of corridors in an infinite ship. The look of the exploding engine room was also very spooky and cool. Really, the only thing I didn’t think worked was the relationship story of the three brothers. It wasn’t awful, it just didn’t need to be there, especially when there was so much else going on in the episode. I’d have been perfectly happy if they didn’t have the brother-is-a-not-android storyline. Minor nitpick, though. Otherwise, great job, everyone! I could also talk about all of the many references to things, but the BBC has gone ahead and listed them all very nicely for you.
Next week, we go back to Victoriana with Mark Gatiss’ “The Crimson Horror,” featuring Strax, Jenny, and Vastra as well as guest stars Diana Rigg and her real-life daughter Rachael Stirling. Mr. Gatiss loves gothic horror, so what I hope we get from him is a story with limited plot contrivances. He has director Saul Metzstein, who’s done a lot of great episodes this series, at the helm, so it could definitely be a cracker.