‘Journey to the centre of the TARDIS’, written by Stephen Thompson, allows the Doctor’s most faithful companion take centre stage. The title alone promises that we’ll go further into the TARDIS than ever before.
Unfortunately the episode fails to deliver with a rushed story, disappointing guest stars and the worst kind of plot resolution you can have in a time travel story.
Spoilers From Here On!
In this second half of this season there has been a reoccurring theme of small casts in restricted locations, with the except of ‘The Bells of Saint John’. ‘Cold War’ confined the action to a submarine and ‘Hide’ had only a handful of guest characters within a mansion and surrounding woods.
Here the Doctor and Clara are trapped within the TARDIS, along with a salvage crew the Doctor tricks into assisting him, as the ship itself turns against them. Despite being bigger on the inside the TARDIS nonetheless creates a nicely claustrophobic feel, thanks to its narrow corridors and nightmarishly shifting architecture.
While creating a nice sense of tension this does have the side effect of making the Doctor Who universe much smaller. After three episodes in a row about confinement I hope that we’ll see things open up later.
The episode begins promisingly, with some impressive special effects as the TARDIS is snatched up by a salvage ship run by brothers Gregor & Bram and their android Tricky. I could almost forgive the Doctor ridiculously switching the TARDIS to basic mode without first checking their surrounding area.
With Clara lost within the TARDIS and in danger from a venting engine the Doctor tricks the salvage team into a rescue attempt, threating to self destruct the ship within them inside.
Matt Smith is great here, once again showing a darker, more ruthless side of the Doctor. His quirky, eccentric behaviour is reserved for his companions. Others should beware stepping into a mad man’s box.
If the Doctor wasn’t the hero of the show it would be easy to view him as the villain here. It also makes the later actions of the salvage team more understandable, given that they are already facing death.
Meanwhile Clara is left wandering the TARDIS, pursued by grotesque zombie husks. Director Mat King employees a technique similar to ‘Hide’, keeping the monster just out of view or its image distorted. By retaining some element of the unknown the creature becomes more terrifying.
The presence of a monster within the TARDIS is also very intriguing. What are they? Does the Doctor know about them? Are they some form of infestation or part of the TARDIS’ defence system? All good questions to draw the viewer in.
As Clara flees we get glimpses of various sections of the TARDIS, including the swimming pool and library. It is in the library that we learn that there is a book about the Time War (written by the Doctor?) which contains the Doctor’s true identity.
The library also contains liquid books, one of several good science fiction ideas within this episode. I particularly liked the tree like Architectural Reconfiguration system, with its glowing orbs inscribed with gallifreyian sigils.
When the salvage team take one of the orbs the TARDIS turns on them, its materialisation sound becoming more like a snarl. These scenes were reminiscent of ‘The Doctor’s Wife’ as they are trapped in an ever changing labyrinth.
The scene in which the Doctor pulls Clara from the echo of the same console room is also exciting and an idea that plays into the strangeness of the TARDIS. Once reunited with Clara, however, things become more of a standard running down corridors episode.
After Tricky is pinned by a metal pole it is revealed that he isn’t a robot after all, but a younger Van Baalen brother. If we’d had more time to get to know him this might have had more weight but as it is this is just silly.
The idea that his brothers took advantage of his amnesia to convince him that due to his cybernetic eyes and a electronic voice box he was an android is ridiculous. We don’t have clear idea of how long this occurred but surely Tricky would have noticed that the rest of his body was organic and he still needed to sleep, eat and other bodily functions.
The revelation that the zombies were their future selves is, killed by the exploding Eye of Harmony, works much better. Again we witness how terrible predestination is, as the Van Baalen brothers become the conjoined zombies that they have just eliminated.
The exploded centre of the TARDIS, its pieces suspended in a white void, was a dream-like image. A nice contrast to the noise and harsh lighting of the previous scenes. In this moment of destruction there is a sense of serenity.
The resolution, with the Doctor giving his past self the remote to the salvage ships magnetic lock and thus erasing events, was cleverly set up but doesn’t disguise (indeed it blatantly points out) that this a Reset Button ending.
In a time travel story this is the equivalent of the ‘It Was All A Dream’. The comparison isn’t entirely fair, as the characters must still find a way to reset things within their particular loop (thus providing real stakes) but it is disappointing that much of what we saw never happened, even if there are hints that it has influenced those involved.
This is a solid episode, with a straightforward plot (despite folding time and space) but I was left disappointed. While it was nice to address the fact that the TARDIS is more than just the console room it didn’t hold up to previous glimpses of the interior.
While many deride the obvious location filming involved in ‘The Invasion of Time’ it at least gave us scope. Much better are the scenes in the 4th and 5th Doctor eras showing living quarters, cluttered costume room and ivy covered cloister room. All of which efficiently conveyed that you could live in the TARDIS.
The books and audios have also given us much more information about the interior of the TARDIS, all of which leaves this episode failing to deliver anything truly inspiring, aside from the previously mentioned TARDIS tree.
While I loved the burnt husk design of the zombies and the idea that they are future versions of the characters it doesn’t quite stand up to examination. If they die in front of the Eye of Harmony why would they become the undead? Why does one have claws?
The biggest disappointment are the Baalen brothers. The acting was underwhelming, with dramatic scenes rendered entirely flat. It doesn’t help that Tricky doesn’t act in any way like an android. While his emotional response to the death of Bram is a clue to his nature it only highlights how emotionless Gregor was behaving.
They added little to the overall plot, other than giving the TARDIS a reason to turn aggressive. The story would have been equally enjoyable if it had just been the Doctor and Clara, trying to survive in the ship as its engine overloaded.
This episode wasn’t bad, there are far to many good points for that. Instead it is disappointing because it could have been so much more. It was a missed opportunity, overshadowed by ‘The Doctor’s Wife’, a much better examination of the TARDIS.