"Doctor Who" Season Finale Recap: A Jelly Baby By Any Other Name Would Taste Just As Sweet
It was almost thirty years ago that I first watched Doctor Who. They syndicated the Tom Baker and Peter Davison years on my local PBS station, picked up the story with Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy not long after their episodes first aired, and went back to fill in some of the blanks on Hartnell, Troughton, and Pertwee. My adolescence saw many late solitary Saturday nights in which I enjoyed the show and reveled in my Whovian nerdery, and never do I once recall wondering or caring what the name of The Doctor might be. The Doctor's past and Gallifreyan background were interesting facets of the story, but what mattered the most was the present, or as much of a "present" as a time traveler can have. Here was a dependable Time Lord who was -- to paraphrase Cuato from Total Recall -- defined by his actions and not by his memories.
Even though "Doctor Who?" had remained little more than a recurring quip to me over the years, I did find it to be an impressive MacGuffin when Steven Moffat dropped it on us at the end of last season as that oldest question that must never be answered. Tackling it carried an ambitious promise that superseded the reliable formula of so many adventures and companions over the years. Ultimately, though, a MacGuffin is all that I wanted the question to be. He is "The Doctor," and he has been exactly that too long for me to want more or less than that in his name.
Thankfully, "The Name Of The Doctor" ultimately leaves the question unanswered for the audience, and in further service to fans of those many years of classic Who, weaves an unexpected amount of the show's old history into its story. As we find out, Clara Oswald has been helping our nameless hero from the very beginning of his journeys in an absconded TARDIS. "Asylum of the Daleks" and "The Snowmen" were only the tip of the iceberg; she was there for a scarf, she was there for Bessie, she was there for a stalk of celery, and she was there for a multi-colored patchwork coat. How did she arrive at all these places to nudge The Doctor's fate in a particularly helpful direction each time?
Vastra, Strax, Jenny, Clara, and the projection of River's spirit from the library network convene in an emergency conference call that plays like a seance across time and space. Haunted by mysterious whispers, an imprisoned convict in Victorian London told Vastra: "The Doctor's greatest secret, which he will take to the grave -- it is discovered." Before the circle can fully ascertain the implications of this revelation, Vastra, Strax, and Jenny are captured by the Whisper Men, a creepy new enemy that work as agents of the Great Intelligence, back for vengeance after being thwarted by The Doctor in "The Snowmen" and "The Bells Of Saint John."
Clara awakes to her present-day self and finds The Doctor in the midst of playing the role of conned babysitter to Angie and Artie. Clara tells The Doctor what happened, and he realizes they must travel to Trenzalore, the site of The Doctor's future grave, which has now been discovered (as opposed to the secret). The Doctor tearfully informs Clara that there is no more dangerous place for a time traveller to go, but he owes a debt to these friends that saw him through his dark post-Amy-Pond period and must attempt to rescue them. Trenzalore is a battle-ravaged planet that hints at a non-peaceful resolution to The Doctor's life; there is no easy retirement for him in this future. The Great Intelligence and his Whisper Men, who have the distinct advantages of no permanent corporeal form and the ability to reach into your body and squeeze your heart to death, are waiting for them there. Fortunately, River Song's networked self -- still linked to Clara's mind -- is also there to guide them.
They find their way to Vastra, Strax, and Jenny, but they are all cornered and threatened by the Whisper Men at the gates of The Doctor's tomb, a dying version of the TARDIS, out of control in its physical proportions. The entrance can only be accessed by utterance of The Doctor's name. The Doctor refuses the Great Intelligence's demand for the answer to the question, even with his friends' lives in the balance. River opens the gate instead, uttering his name out of our earshot.
Inside they find what remains of The Doctor -- a glowing dance of light that represents the "scar tissue" remaining from all of his travels across time and space. The Great Intelligence dives inside, destroying itself but also attacking all The Doctor's past selves at once and preventing all his victories. Stars go out in the sky, signifying the destruction of worlds that were no longer rescued by The Doctor; Jenny disappears from existence; Strax reverts to his most brutal Sontaran self without The Doctor's influence and attacks Vastra. Clara realizes what she must do and also dives into the matrix of The Doctor's past to prevent the Great Intelligence's vengeance and close the loop on her mysterious origin in The Doctor's life. The Doctor shares a poignant goodbye with River Song, whom he had been pretending not to hear to spare themselves pain, and then enters his own timestream to save Clara.
The Doctor and Clara meet again in a cavern, a "place" only inhabited by echoes of The Doctor's selves. There they find a mysterious individual that is not one of the eleven Doctors we know, all of whom Clara mentions seeing. The Doctor tells us that this is the one who broke the promise of "The Doctor," a name chosen as a sort of covenant with himself. This person is his secret. The figure tells us that he committed the acts he committed in the name of peace and sanity. The Doctor counters that might be true but that the choices made were not done in the name of The Doctor.
The figure turns, and a title card informs us that this is in fact The Doctor, portrayed by John Hurt. Is he a splinter regeneration from some alternate past? Is he a past incarnation that was concealed from us all along, perhaps involved in the pre-Eccleston Time War? Is he the future self that was entombed on Trenzalore, the blood-soaked, war-tested darker self mentioned by the Great Intelligence?
I do not know the answer, and I have no strong inclination toward a theory or explanation. Now that the "Impossible Girl" is solved (dashing my earlier bold but completely wrong prediction of a surprise regeneration with Jenna-Louise Coleman as the new Doctor, as did the official announcement by Smith this past week that he will be returning for another season), we have a new mystery to ponder for the 50th anniversary special in November, which promises to feature at least three Doctors, including this new one. The Internet is abuzz over this, so please continue the buzz here.
As for this episode, I did find it to be quite satisfying, but as you might have concluded from my other columns, I am something of a sucker for Strax's one joke. I'm also a fan of River Song, and I thought her farewell a fitting one, even if it only seemed to be the last one.
I wonder about all those Claras strewn across the universe. How much of a life do they have outside of their critical moments with The Doctor? How much conscious awareness do any of them have, if any? For example, the Claras of "The Snowmen" and "Asylum of the Daleks" seem to stumble into the adventure with their own full backgrounds and an awareness only coming in death, while the Clara that sends William Hartnell's Doctor on his way in the correct TARDIS seems much more conscious of the scheme. It must be a tragic thing to exist in each instance only for that interaction, but with so many possibilities and opportunities in the universe, tragedies can always be placed in the appropriate perspective.
I also do wonder if the fan service for the classic Who folks might not have resonated as well with those that have only watched new Who, but for me it was a rewarding conclusion to a five-decade legacy. Doctor Who has had its ups and downs, but I feel optimistic about its future, and I am happy that I have given it so much of my time.
C. Robert Dimitri plans to fill some of the time before the 50th anniversary special by introducing himself to the Doctor Who Big Finish audio dramas. May your days in the next six months be filled with the spirit of the TARDIS and all your relationships carry the double-heartedness of a Time Lord.