I’m sorry it’s taken me such a long time to report back on Neil (‘Sandman’) Gaiman’s debut writing effort on Who, but what can you say about this episode other than that it was just beautiful. A love letter to the past, present and future, hitting old, familiar beats and creating new ones, this epitomised the potential of Steven Moffat’s run – sophisticated narratives, strong character development and filling in gaps (albeit off-screen) in canon, making you long for more.
The Doctor receives a message in a box, which could only have come from a Time Lord. Racing into the pocket universe from which it was sent, he, Rory and Amy find themselves on a sentient junkyard world, but all is not as it seems. The Tardis matrix is ripped from the console room, as House unveils its trap, leaving the time travellers in genuine danger and the Doctor with no idea of how to escape, while his companions run for their lives through a suddenly possessed Tardis. But they are far from helpless – the matrix has been deposited in the body of patchwork human Idris (Suranne Jones), who gets to talk one-on-one with her Doctor for the very first time.
The relationship between Time Lord and his ‘old girl’ is investigated with warmth, sensitivity and huge intelligence. It has to – he lives his life out of order and she exists throughout all time and space simultaneously – how on earth can they possibly understand one another? The acting picks up on this and is just sublime – Suranne Jones in particular as Idris is spellbinding – channelling Helena Bonham-Carter style madness yet refining it into incredible sophistication, acting as the perfect foil for a 900 year old man who’s still a boy at heart. ‘What makes you think I would ever give you back’ made me laugh out loud. It would be churlish not to remark on just how good Matt Smith is in this episode too – it’s hard to imagine David Tennant delivering the Doctor’s joy and bewilderment in such an honest yet alien way. His Eleventh Doctor is a brilliant creation, and his ability to vary his performance (under the right director) from boyish glee to ancient stature really is exactly what Steven Moffat’s run needed.
The production values this time around are also superb – Victorian costumes, possessed Ood and half eaten Tardises sit alongside butchered Time Lords, patchwork people and even a (welcome) return to the coral console room used by the Doctor’s last two incarnations. The revelation that the companions are standing in a graveyard of hundreds of Tardises and Time Lords is particularly fascinating and horrific (and impressively delivered), and Gaiman doesn’t scrimp on the horror. The architect of many of the last of the Time Lords’ people’s demises (voiced brilliantly by Michael Sheen) puts captives Amy and Rory through extraordinary levels of hell, and it’s unsettling viewing. Yet it’s delightfully filled with humour too: from Idris’ remarks about the Doctor’s misuse of her front doors to the freshly revealed irony of their very first encounter and the true nature of their relationship (‘I always got you where you needed to go’), the master author is always sure to vary the sensitivity of his touch.
It’s an episode with enormous heart, as the Tardis of course can’t remain in a human host, leaving the Doctor to continue with the way things used to be between them, and I must confess I was pretty moved by their parting comments. Yet now they understand each other for the first time, and Amy rightly voiced the truth that these two travellers will stay together long after his human friends leave him. ’The Doctor’s Wife’ didn’t expand on the series’ mysteries, other than a cryptic comment about (presumably) River Song, but it didn’t matter. Directed by Richard Clark, this standalone did what others in Steven Moffat’s run haven’t always managed – it delivered humour and horror alongside dramatic character development (which I hope Moffat draws on), whilst evolving the mythos in a way to appeal to viewers old, new, classic and rebooted. I really hope this isn’t the last we see of Gaiman. It may be the best episode of the series ever written.