One of the Doctor’s oldest companions finally comes to life in this poignant and tense instalment of Doctor Who.
Starring Matt Smith, Karen Gillan, Arthur Darvill and Suranne Jones
Written by Neil Gaiman
Directed by Richard Clark
In the history of Doctor Who – which is by no means a short one – it’s rare to find episodes which are particularly notable or groundbreaking. This is an episode that already has some brilliant ideas contained within it. The exploration of the Doctor searching for redemption and forgiveness after his deeds in the Time War, or indeed an alien menace who feeds upon Time Lords and destroys their TARDISes, would have been more than enough to satisfy fans. The sequences of Amy and Rory being at the creature’s mercy within the confines of the TARDIS are also brilliant, and an interesting idea – indeed, Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS toyed with the interior of the TARDIS even more than the budget allows here. Yet, in amongst these already stellar ideas is an examination so deep into the Doctor’s psyche that it is a relationship that is often overlooked within the fandom as merely a part of the furniture. A companion who has been with the Doctor right from when he left Gallifrey: the TARDIS.
At the heart of the show, the TARDIS has always been a character. A temperamental and grumpy machine that is criminally unreliable: or so we thought. So, the concept of transporting the TARDIS’s essence and consciousness into human form is such a perfect and nature idea it almost begs the question as to why it hadn’t been done before. We should all be grateful, therefore, that a writer of Neil Gaiman’s calibre was the one to do it. In anybody else’s hands, the episode likely would turn out to be a gimmick: merely an episode-worth of sarcastic, acerbic banter between the two, or the TARDIS glaring enviously at the Doctor’s human companions.
The outcome instead is altogether vastly different, and results in what is probably the closest a Doctor Who episode could come to a love story. After all, in the 48 years of the programme thus far, there had been one constant to the travels in time and space with the Doctor, and that was the TARDIS. The depiction of the TARDIS that Neil Gaiman provides is delightfully wacky, and the interpretation makes complete sense. Suranne Jones bouncing around, proclaiming “gosh, tenses are confusing aren’t they?” makes complete sense! Of course the TARDIS would find tenses difficult and tricky at first, and her garbled insanity when she is first thrust into the body of Idris is all delightful foreshadowing for all of the episode that spins out later, in what is undeniably an incredibly clever piece of writing.
The conversations between the Doctor and the TARDIS allow us an unprecedented level of intimacy into their connection. It’s almost as if we watch a married couple traverse highs and lows together. Through the conversation, the Doctor can finally get out his frustrations at the TARDIS for never taking him where he wants to go. “No,” she responds, with a voice shimmering with hidden depth of emotion, “but I always took you where you needed to go.” It’s undeniably true, and an entire reframing of the Doctor’s relationship from one of man and machine (very rude) to both of them on a more even footing. Even down to the story of how they met, with the TARDIS describing that she wanted to see the universe, so she stole a Time Lord and she ran away. She has always been in the driver’s seat (quite literally), her passion and drive to explore the universe and right its wrongs as strong as the Doctor’s.
That entire focal shift is entirely mind boggling in itself, and the performances in this episode are simple transcendent. Suranne Jones plays the erratic human form of the TARDIS with ease, surfing aboard the myriad changes in emotion as if she has been doing it all of her life. Once that initial turbulent period is over, however, she imbues the character with so much wisdom and warmth that you really do believe that there is an entire universe coursing through her head. This episode also brings out the best in Matt Smith too, who is perhaps the darkest that we have seen his Doctor to date: he goes from childish hopefulness and quiet introspection, to growling and hissing in anger, to breaking down in tears all within a 45-minute episode.
All of this hasn’t even taken into consideration the wonderful development it provides for Amy and Rory’s relationship, as we see the villainous House play mind tricks upon them as they run around the TARDIS to escape him. Even though it falls back upon the budgetary constraints of running down what appears to be the same stretch of TARDIS corridor, Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill carry it well.
The highlight of this episode has to be perhaps the most emotional moment of Who since Donna’s memory wipe – and even that scene wasn’t especially sustained. Whoever could have guessed that the word “hello” could be so beautiful, as when the Doctor and the TARDIS realise their time to converse has – like everything – come to pass. An absolutely beautifully written section, and superbly acted, both by Suranne Jones as the noble and compassionate TARDIS, and Matt Smith, uncharacteristically vulnerable and out of control. I will go to my grave singing the praises of this scene.
In the ever-expanding mythos of a show like Who it can often feel impossible to make a significant impact with just one episode: but this episode proves the impact just one instalment will have. Series 6, for all its faults, will always contain the episode in which the Doctor and the TARDIS talked. An absolutely beautiful exploration of what is the central relationship of the entire programme (not that we knew it). The title of the episode goes some way to contextualise this, though I would argue that the significance of the TARDIS to the Doctor goes beyond that of just a wife.