“The Name of the Doctor” is not a good episode of television, but it is a fascinating episode of Doctor Who.
The season seven finale re-frames the Eleventh Doctor’s adventures from the last two seasons as a journey that has always been leading to this point, and although the plot is shakier than a game of bar Jenga “The Name of the Doctor” nevertheless pulls this off successfully. This is mostly due in part to show runner and episode writer Steven Moffat putting the Doctor and his companions in situations that challenge the truth of their characters, even when some of those characters are anything but.
Although their introduction was initially a hasty affair, Madame Vastra, her wife Jenny, and Strax the Sontaran are characters we’ve grown to adore with each subsequent episode. We’ve seen them neutralize threats to the Doctor (whenever possible) and we’ve seen them give him the space he needs to deal with his own problems. They take care of him, essentially, in a way that makes it comfortable for him to allow them to do so. In this episode, the trio bring in Clara and a post-Library River Song to assist with a new threat to the Doctor, and while this kind of team-up would usually come across as a bit self-serving or cynical, it makes sense for this story. River has done nothing but caretake the Doctor’s life, as has Clara, although she’s not yet aware of that.
The five of them meet in a sort of timeless dreamscape tea parlor—which apparently Silurians are experts at creating, not there’s anything wrong with that—and Vastra explains the situation. A literal ladykiller has tipped Vastra off to the fact that the Doctor has “a secret he will take to this grave. And it is discovered.” Vastra believes that this is the Doctor’s true name and reveals that the criminal who knew this also revealed the word “Trenzalore.” Clara is charged with informing the Doctor of this, but before any more explanation can be forthcoming, the nightmarish Whispermen walk into stately Vastra Manor and Jenny vanishes. “Sorry ma’am, so sorry… I think I’ve been murdered.” Vastra and Strax awaken to find they’re being kidnapped and the Great Intelligence’s face appears in the dream parlor to inform River and Clara that “his friends are lost forevermore, unless he comes to Trenzalore.”
Nothing in the above should make any sense. Why does some random criminal know so much about the Doctor? Who is the Great Intelligence? Who are these “whispermen” monsters? How is River communicating from inside the Library’s computer? Why does this Great Intelligence want the Doctor to come to Trenzalore? None of the details in this scenario hang together and the motivation driving the Great Intelligence is very murky. You could string together a sequence of events based on logic and information from previous episodes that explains all of this—the Great Intelligence is probably baiting everyone, perhaps—but why should you have to?
Of late, this kind of fragmented plotting has hamstrung a good number of Doctor Who episodes and was a hallmark of Russell T. Davies’ brash tenure on the show. The thing is, Doctor Who episodes don’t have to make sense, and I would argue that this is one of the show’s core strengths. Moffat knows this, and Davies knew this, but Davies on the whole was smarter about minimizing plot holes in his stories by providing strong character drama that the viewer could focus on instead. For example, what do you remember about “The Sound of Drums”? How the Master enacted his plans or that first intimate conversation between him and the Doctor?
Moffat has been slow to learn this, but he’s gaining traction. The entire reason that “The Name of the Doctor” is engaging at all, the entire reason that you don’t question the circumstances leading up to the dream parlor scene, is because you’re completely engaged in watching these characters interact with each other. Who cares how Vastra knows what she knows? You want to see the five of them arguing about how to deal with it.
Steven Moffat applies this to the Doctor’s story, as well. Clara relays the message about Trenzalore to the Doctor and there’s a touching moment where the Doctor reveals how grateful he is to Team Vastra for their caregiving. He will go to Trenzalore to rescue them, even though it means crossing his own timeline in the worst way possible. Even though the TARDIS herself refuses to touch the planet, so much so that the Doctor has to break it just to get it to land. Then the Doctor tells Clara why: Trenzalore is literally his grave.
As Doctor Who twists go, this is possibly one of my favorites. Going to the Doctor’s tomb promises information about the Doctor that even he might not know. It promises the unknown, because what could his grave possible be? What could it possibly look like? And it does something that almost always results in a great episode of the show: it forces the Doctor to face a reality that he really really does not want to deal with.
Trenzalore is suitably bleak, and suitably empty of the living. It is a warrior’s graveyard, and the size of the gravestone denotes the size of the warrior’s accomplishments and rank. The Doctor’s tomb is, of course, the TARDIS herself. The “bigger” of its insides has broken down over the course of its lifespan and inflated its outside. It now blots out the sky. “What else would they bury me in?” he snarls.
Chancing upon River Song’s own gravestone reveals that it’s actually a passageway into the Doctor’s tomb, which comes in handy when Clara and the Doctor get surrounded by Whispermen. Strax, a revived Jenny, Vastra, Clara, and the Doctor get to the door of the tomb, which can only be opened if the Doctor utters his true name. The Great Intelligence is there, too, and sets about attempting to murder everyone as a way to coerce the Doctor into opening his tomb. River’s telepathic ghost, now connected to Clara, utters the name and opens the tomb before the Doctor can. (Either that or the Doctor’s true name, which he could never ever say, is “Please.” Which strikes me as Moffat wryly commenting on his own characterization of the Doctor.)
Inside the tomb isn’t the Doctor’s body, it never would be according to him, but a broken down TARDIS console room centered around a column of ribboning energy. It’s a visualization of the Doctor’s path through time and, suitably, it loops in and around itself endlessly.
The Great Intelligence means to dive into it, to be there to destroy or lead astray every single incarnation of the Doctor, rewriting the Doctor himself and subsequently, the universe that the Doctor has defined with his actions. The Great Intelligence espouses the same reasoning that the Silence had for wanting the Doctor stopped. He is a monster. A “slaughterer of ten billion, the vessel of the final darkness.” This is an aspect of the character that both Davies and Moffat often refer to, the former tagging him as “The Oncoming Storm” and the latter bringing up the notion that the very word “doctor” means warrior or tyrant to some people simply based on how the Doctor’s actions affected them. The Doctor will have other names before his life is through, the Great Intelligence reveals, “the Beast… the Valeyard” and tells those assembled that what ultimately fells the Doctor is another battle, along the same “blood-soaked” lines as his more violent encounters with the Daleks or the Cybermen. He wins, of course, but the burden of dealing more death finally proves too much for him to take. No matter how reclusive he chooses to be, the Doctor will never be able to avoid his fate as a happenstance arbiter. There will always be those he destroys.
The Great Intelligence means to change this, and steps into the Doctor’s timeline, instantly perverting the course of his life. We see the Great Intelligence lead the first seven Doctors astray, directly or indirectly, and outside the tomb the stars begin to vanish. The Doctor brings great change to the worlds and the people he visits, but along with the catastrophe that follows in his wake are the people, the worlds—entire galaxies—that continue to live because he stood up and made the hard choice. Without the Doctor, the sky falls.
During the course of events, Clara’s memories from “Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS” resurface. She knows she’s an impossible girl. She knows she has helped the Doctor time and time again. And she knows that she is the only one there that can fix what the Great Intelligence has made wrong. She’ll be scattered across time and space, thousands of Claras intervening in the Doctor’s life, but none of them will be her. The real Clara will be dead and they’ll be copies, River warns. “They’ll be real enough to save him,” Clara responds, not quite believing River. “It’s like my mum said, the souffle isn’t the souffle, the souffle is the recipe.” And besides, Clara and River both know that this is the only way to save him. “Run, you clever boy, and remember me.”
Clara jumps into the Doctor’s timeline and appears again and again to previous Doctors, saving them without being noticed. Sometimes she’s aware of what she is, and sometimes she isn’t. But even if she doesn’t know what she is, she still knows she has to help the Doctor.
If there is one overriding failure to this recent half-season of Doctor Who, it’s that Clara hasn’t been given any characterization aside from the mystery of her multiple selves. We don’t know why she travels with the Doctor or why either of them are as devoted to each other as they seem to be. Clara sacrifices her life for the Doctor in this episode, but we don’t know her well enough to know why she would. The only reason Moffat gets away with it in “The Name of the Doctor” (and you could argue that he doesn’t) is because he makes a point of revealing that this IS all there is to Clara. Her entire definition is being The Impossible Girl, so everything she does in the show plays into that until finally it’s revealed that it was Clara herself who created that definition. It’s a really ooogy cheat. She is the Bad Wolf, she creates herself, but her self is poorly thought out.
(Also if nobody minds, I’m going to go ahead and give myself partial credit for calling this, thank youuu.)
The Doctor’s proper timeline is restored and he reveals to River that he’s been seeing her telepathic projection the entire time. She reveals that if she’s still there then the real Clara is still alive, but before any of that, she wants a proper goodbye. The Doctor saved her in the Library, but he “left me like a book on the shelf. He doesn’t like endings.” The Doctor agrees as much, because saying goodbye hurts too much. (He’s actually very forthright in this episode, I’m realizing. He’s upfront about his feelings and explaining a lot.) She has tried to move on, she says, but she can’t without knowing, for sure, from the Doctor that they’ll never see each other again. That this is goodbye.
He plants one very amazing kiss on River Song and with a final “spoilers” she is gone, possibly from the series outright.
Then we all pretend that the episode ended there because the rest of it makes no sense. The Doctor jumps into his own timeline to search for Clara. Who is…somewhere? A bunch of previous Doctors run by, faces obscured, and Clara starts freaking out until the Eleventh Doctor sends her the leaf that blew into her parents life and resulted in her. This calms her down enough for him to show up and hug her, I guess? This portion is seriously batty. But Clara’s alive, and that’s nice. The two of them make like they’re leaving Doctor-timeline-verse but then they see…A GUY! Clara is confused, because she saw all eleven faces of the Doctor and hers is definitely the Eleventh Doctor. “I said he was me,” the Doctor replies. “I didn’t say he was the Doctor. My real name… that is not the point. The name I chose was the Doctor. It’s like a promise you make.” They face the mystery man, who hasn’t yet noticed them. “He’s the one who broke the promise.”
“What I did I did without choice. In the name of peace and sanity,” the man says, then turns around and gives us some seriously grizzled puppy dog eyes. Then the show literally writes on the screen that this is John Hurt as the Doctor, leaving a cliffhanger to be resolved in the 50th anniversary special.
So you see what I mean about “The Name of the Doctor” not being a great episode of television. (Great tip for spec script writers: If you have to open your script with an explanatory voice-over then end it by literally writing out the important stuff on the screen, you need to rework your script. Also what is wrong with you?!?) It feels like a natural episode of Doctor Who, though, and takes the characters struggles over the past two seasons and successfully points them towards the looming 50th anniversary. The show feels like it’s truly building towards something, and that is all because of “The Name of the Doctor.”
It also gives long-time viewers a lot to pick through. Wondering about the Doctor’s timeline alone could keep me busy for months. Does the fact that the Doctor is the most time-traveled being in the history of the universe mean that the universe was thus shaped by his morality? Others will want to examine Clara’s role as an impetus in the Doctor’s life and her identity beyond that (if any). Some will try and map out if the Silence and the Great Intelligence are actually connected. And how awesome would it have been if the Master had been the villain for this one instead of the Great Intelligence? (The answer is SUPER AWESOME.)
After a season of standalone episodes, “The Name of the Doctor” was truly for the fans. I’ll certainly be thinking about it for longer than any of the other installments.
Introducing Chris Lough as The Tor.com Production Manager.