Spoilers From Here On In!
There is a sense of finality to this episode, reminiscent to Season 6, with the Doctor being forced to face his own end. Not unlike ‘Alien Bodies’ by Lawrence Miles, it concerns the Doctor’s final resting place and I wonder how tempting it must have been to call this story ‘The Tomb Of The Doctor’.
Right from the start it was clear this was going to be something special, with Clara meeting a colourised 1st Doctor on Gallifrey, just as he is about to escape with Susan in the TARDIS.
In rapid sequence we are hurtled through time and space with Clara as she catches glimpses of the various incarnations of the Doctor. Some of the insertions weren’t always perfect but they captured the spirit of what many were hoping for in the 50th anniversary.
This wasn’t just a glimpse of an old photo of a previous Doctor. This was the current companion witnessing them alive, in the moment. Clara is there to save them, hurtling through a fiery void, breaking apart.
Immediately we know how Clara keeps appearing, first in the far future and then the Victorian era but we don’t yet know why. We’ve caught a glimpse of the episodes future and must travel back to the start, via the opening titles.
Once again we’re in the Victorian era, reunited with Lady Vastra, Jenny and Strax. A tip off from a serial killer reveals that the Doctors secret has been revealed, requiring a psychic conference call that includes Clara and River Song.
This was a magical sequence, with enough time to have some very funny lines from Strax, duplicity from Lady Vastra drugging the letter sent to Clara and delicious naughtiness from River Song.
This quirky scene turned to cold terror as the mysterious Whisper Men invaded the home of Lady Vastra and despatched Jenny, in a sequence not unlike issue 6 of ‘The Invisibles’ by Grant Morrison in which a serial killer similarly menaces those in a time travelling trance.
The Whisper Men were another fine creation. Wearing Victorian garb and top hats atop eyeless faces with sharp, pointy maws that whisper rhyming couplets of doom. They obviously share kinship with the Silence in their human figures made wrong.
With the Victorian trio dead or captured and River Song already dead in the library it is up to Clara to bring the warning to the Doctor, a warning only he understand the true significance of.
An ancient enemy has found the Doctor’s grave and if he wants to save his friends he must travel there, something he knows he absolutely must not do. The Doctor being the Doctor, he goes anyway because saving his friends is what he does.
At last the Doctor arrives at Trenzalore, the scene of his final battle. I loved the flickering light of dusk that blanketed the planet, like the flickering light of an old television set. A reminder that it wasn’t quite the end but it would be soon.
The giant, dead TARDIS that dominated the landscape of graves was incredibly iconic. No wonder the TARDIS had attempted not to land there. It wasn’t just the Doctor’s final resting place but her own.
With the Doctor and Clara menaced by the Whisper Men and using a secret entrance to access the tomb I was reminded of ‘The Five Doctors’, particularly as moments later they are creeping through the crypt with flaming torches (apparently made from Dalek eyestalks). We even have a phantom companion in the form of River Song.
Meanwhile Lady Vastra and Strax find themselves at the summit of the tomb and quickly revive Jenny. It is then revealed that the Whisper Men work for the Great Intelligence, still wearing the form of Dr Simeon.
Existing as pure information the Whisper Men act as empty husks he can inhabit, which he demonstrates to his prisoners. This reinforces the idea that he is implacable and virtually undefeatable. Destroy his physical form and he’ll just find enough from the horde of Whisper Men.
With the Doctor and Clara reaching the summit the Great Intelligence demands that the Doctor open his own tomb by speaking the only words that will unlock the door, his own name.
We’d been teased that we’d learn the Doctor’s name here but they neatly sidestep this by having River Song speak it for him, unheard by anyone else including ourselves. If nothing else this confirms that she does actually know it.
Within the ivy covered remnants of the control room we see the thing that the Doctor was so desperate to protect. It isn’t his body, but the scar tissue he left on the universe, his path through existence.
This is another great idea, that expands the mythology of the Doctor Who universe. I initially thought that the writhing pillar of light might by the Gallifreyan’s natural form but even if it isn’t it is interesting to ponder whether other Time Lords would leave similar time streams as monuments to their lives or only those who travel as frequently as the Doctor.
The Great Intelligence reveals his ultimate plan, stepping into the Doctor’s personal timeline to undo all of the Doctors victories, killing each of his incarnations and wipe him from existence.
Outside the stars go out, one by one. Jenny vanishes and Strax becomes war-like again, trying to kill Lady Vastra. This is the universe without the Doctor in it. It can be speculated that this is the calamity that the Silence were trying to prevent.
With all of existence at stake and understanding her nature as the Impossible Girl Clara follows the Great Intelligence into the Doctor’s time stream to put right all that he has put on. This expands on the sequence that began the episode, revealing that the it was an echo of Clara that suggested to the 1st Doctor which TARDIS to take.
Of course this is a Moffat script and no one can truly die. The Doctor prepares to risk everything by entering his own time stream to save Clara, but not before a heart felt final (?) farewell to his wife River Song, who he could see all along. It remains to be seen if this is truly the last we’ll see of her but this was a good send off.
With Clara lost in a hellish fogbound wasteland, surrounded by ghosts of the Doctor and without an identity of her own the Doctor guides her with the sound, leading her to salvation. She is saved by the same thing that she used to save the Doctor in ‘The Rings of Akhaten’, a leaf that represents unlimited potential.
Reunited with the Doctor there is a final surprise for Clara and the viewer. There is someone else in the Doctor’s time stream. An incarnation that we’ve not yet seen amongst the 11 we’ve encountered on screen.
We learn that the Doctor uses the name ‘The Doctor’ as a promise to himself. Echoing previous themes about how his name dictates his actions and vice versa this new incarnation did something so terrible that the 11th Doctor suggests he has forfeited the right to use the title.
The revelation that this incarnation is played by John Hurt is worthy enough of a cliff hanger ending, setting up the much anticipated 50th Anniversary.
I greatly enjoyed this episode, carrying its theme of finality and the legacy the Doctor leaves behind throughout. While we are no closer to knowing the Doctor’s real identity of his secrets (and ‘Lungbarrow’ answers those questions for me) we did at least get an explanation for Clara.
I’m glad that Clara is a real person and had guessed that she was ‘Clara Prime’ with the other two versions being echoes of the original but it was handled well here, as was the reason that this was necessary.
I think it may have worked better if we’d known Clara for longer, as we’ve had just over half a season for the relationship to build between the two. Her sacrifice might have been weightier had it been someone like Amy Pond who’d stepped into his time stream.
Freed of her Impossible Girl status we may see some growth from Clara. The acknowledgment that even she isn’t sure who she is may allow some depth to be added to her.
Matt Smith gave another great performance, carrying the weight of these momentous events. The Doctor is experiencing a momentous moment in his life, coming to face to face with his own mortality and Matt Smith really sells it, from his tears in Clara’s living room to his defiant confrontation with the Great Intelligence.
Despite my misgivings about Jenna-Louise Coleman last episode she was very good here, refusing to be overshadowed by some very familiar old faces. She captured the wonder and awe of travelling through the Doctor’s life, aided by some great era appropriate costumes.
Richard E Grant brilliantly played the Great Intelligence, full of inhuman menace. It is shame that this would seem to bring to an end to the Great Intelligence’s involvement in the Doctor’s life (although since the time stream contained the 11th Doctors future he may turn up again only to be thwarted by an echo of Clara).
Should we surmise that the 2nd Doctor’s encounter with the Great Intelligence were early signs of the villains encroachment into his time line given the dating problems of ‘The Abominable Snowmen’ and the GI’s creation in ‘The Snowmen’?
While I normally don’t like titles promising things they can’t (such as ‘The Doctor’s Daughter’ and ‘The Next Doctor’) I am fine with not knowing the name of the Doctor. His name wouldn’t have any significance unless it revealed he was someone else and if he was someone else he wouldn’t be the Doctor.
Looking back at this season I don’t think there have been as many great episodes but even the worst of the episodes (namely ‘Dinosaurs On A Spaceship’, ‘The Power of Three’ and ‘Journey To The Centre Of The TARDIS’) have had some good parts.
I have a lot of anticipation built up for the 50th anniversary and once that celebration is behind us I am looking forward to seeing what the future holds for Doctor Who.