“The one who broke the promise”: ‘The Name of the Doctor’ Review

I wasn’t sure at first. This, the seventh series finale, took three viewings to wrap my mind around, but I’ve come to a conclusion: I love it. Did it answer every lingering question of the Steven Moffat era and beyond? Of course not. We still don’t know why the TARDIS exploded, how River knows the Doctor’s name, or even what the Doctor’s name is. That’s ok. Moffat still has time to answer those questions, but even if he doesn’t I’m not sure how much I care. What he gave us was a tight, dark, emotional series finale which left me hungry for November’s 50th anniversary. “The Name of the Doctor” is definitely one of the best finales in New Who. Both Russell T. Davies and Moffat have the tendency to create finales that get a little out of control, though in different ways. Davies’ plot resolutions were often borderline nonsensical, but often forgivably so in light of the wonderful service they did the characters. Moffat, a much more ideas-driven writer, has tended to get carried away with his own ideas, sometimes sacrificing character in the process. I’ve come around to appreciate “The Big Bang/The Pandorica Opens” (the series 5 finale) although on the first viewing I found it a bit confusing. I have yet to rewatch “The Wedding of River Song” (series 6 finale), but found it confusing both emotionally and intellectually. “The Name of the Doctor” may be the first New Who finale that has reigned in its ideas and plot to a manageable size. The restraint that Moffat shows is admirable, and in constructing what may be the smallest finale in New Who history he’s paradoxically allowed its ideas and themes to reach a new scale.

We start with one of the most fun pre-titles sequences I can remember. “A long time ago in Gallifrey,” the title card reads, ushering in the classic fairy-tale beginning of “Once upon a time” (and with a nice hint of one of my favorite Murray Gold musical themes, “This is Gallifrey“). Clara, falling down the Doctor’s time stream like Alice descending the rabbit hole, flashes back to her multiple meetings with the classic era Doctors, First through Seventh. “I was born to save the Doctor,” she explains. We’re finally given the reason why Clara is the Impossible Girl: She has sacrificed herself to save the Doctor, spreading herself throughout his personal history, watching over him like a guardian angel. Strangely, this both sets her apart and makes her “just the latest in a long line,” as Rose once put it. Yes, she is souffle girl, the brave woman who makes the self-sacrificial choice, doing what is necessary to save the Doctor’s life. However, she is only doing what every good companion has and will continue to do for the Doctor. Is she special? Yes. But the speculation that Clara is in some way the embodiment of the show is also true. She is the representative of what the story is all about: The relationship between the Doctor and his companions. As we see when the Great Intelligence corrupts the Doctor’s timeline, the world without the Doctor is a poorer place: The universe needs the Doctor. Equally, however, the Doctor needs people. Very early in series 1 the Ninth Doctor gives Mickey a computer virus that would erase him from all internet records. Recently, the Eleventh Doctor has been going around erasing himself from history because he has “got too big.” The assumption that this is true and right has been unspoken all along, but here, just in time for the anniversary celebrations, Moffat has set the record straight: The Doctor is a hero and the world would be poorer without him.

The explanation of Clara’s impossibility is neat enough and makes a sort of fairy-tale sense. I’m a little confused as to the particulars. For example, why can she remember who she is sometimes and not others? Or why did the Doctor only start recognizing her the last two times he saw her? Still, who am I to argue with the logic of what happens when you jump into a time traveler’s time stream and spread yourself across his entire life. At times like this I am reminded that Doctor Who is as much fantasy as it is science fiction, and while that does not excuse shoddy plotting it does help smooth over potential wrinkles when the emotion and character development are true.

The character development for Clara has been a little stilted up to this point, but Moffat has finally done her justice here at the very end of the series, and not a moment too soon. Perhaps for the first time we’ve truly seen Jenna Louise Coleman’s capabilities, and it’s a reminder of what great actors can do when given the opportunity. In Coleman’s performance I felt both her overwhelming fear and her quiet determination. Her bravery shines through, and the Doctor and Clara finally feel connected as true companions, willing to risk all for each other. Her hesitance in the moments when she watches the Doctor warily, not sure whether to be scared for him or a bit scared of him, were just perfect. In that moment she reminded me less of brash Amy and Donna but more of sensitive, supportive Martha, and it’s nice to once again to have a tender companion on board, especially for such a dark adventure as this.

And this episode was quite dark, perhaps the darkest Moffat-era episode that I can remember and one of the darkest in all of New Who. The tone was elegiac, all of the characters were dressed in dark funeral attire, and appropriately so: Trenzalone, the one place the Doctor must never go, turns out to be the site of the Doctor’s grave. Since we’ve finally arrived it would be well to revisit the prophecies as we know them so far. In the Eleventh Doctor’s very first episode, Prisoner Zero says that, “silence will fall.” In series 6 we learn that “silence” refers to the Silence, an order who have sworn to assassinate the Doctor in order to prevent him from reaching Trenzalore and speaking his name. As Dorium explains:

‘Silence must fall’ would be a better translation. The Silence are determined that the question must never be answered…The first question. The oldest question in the universe., hidden in plain sight…The question you’ve been running from all your life: Doctor Who?

Well, we’ve reached the Fields of Trenzalore, although we have yet to see why “no living creature can speak falsely or fail to answer,” or just what is meant by the “fall of the Eleventh” (The metaphorical fall of the Eleventh Doctor? His literal death and regeneration? The end of the eleventh month?). Apparently River knows and has spoken the Doctor’s name without any apparently dire consequences, so we also are still in the dark as to the significance of the Doctor’s name. Intriguingly, however, “The Name of the Doctor” was less about the Doctor’s actual name than his physical grave. “The Doctor has a secret which he will take to the grave,” the madman says in the beginning of the episode. “It is discovered.” In a lovely twist, “it” refers not to the secret but to the grave itself. Just as Clara wondered in “Hide” whether her body was out there somewhere, we are reminded  that everyone, including the Doctor, has a grave waiting for them. “This man must fall as as all men must,” the eerie Whisper Men intone, “The fate of all is always dust.” Trenzalore is a grim place, littered with the mouldering graves of soldiers, and it is hard to disbelieve the Great Intelligence when he insists that the Doctor will one day die an “old man” in this place, soaked in blood and buried in the only fitting tomb: His TARDIS. Although the Doctor explains why it has grown so big, Clara can’t help but notice that, in this graveyard of fallen soldiers, the Doctor’s monument is by far the biggest.

Damning though the evidence may be, no one knows the Doctor better than his companions, and Clara believes in him and chooses to save him in a way reminiscent of River Song who hovers in the wings. She saves the Doctor, and the Doctor reciprocates. Simple enough; I never doubted it. That, however, is when things really got interesting. Ladies and gentlemen, introducing John Hurt as The Doctor. I have to admit, I was a bit disappointed that this episode wasn’t titled “The Doctor’s Name” as it fits rhythmically with “The Doctor’s Wife” and “The Doctor’s Daughter.” However, I now understand that the strange cadence of the title was a clue to its actual meaning. More properly, it should have been called “In the Name of the Doctor.” Although it was the grave sight itself which was discovered by the Great Intelligence, we are given a few hints as to the Doctor’s actual secret, the one which he will “take to the grave.” A secret in the form of John Hurt.

Until proven otherwise, I am going with the common consensus that he represents a lost incarnation. Certainly he did something unspeakable, which has caused him to be denied by every other regeneration. Probably we’re looking at the Doctor who used The Moment and ended the Time War. I’m not quite sure how this qualifies as a secret, since we’ve known since series 1 that the Doctor ended the Time War, effectively wiping out both the Dalek and Time Lord races, and that he has been plagued by guilt and loneliness ever since. However, I will reserve judgment until the 50th. What we saw of this forlorn incarnation was moving, chilling, and truly effective. While all of the other Doctors* zipped around, running here to there, he stood off by himself, absolutely still, head bowed and back turned. As others have pointed out, his costume is a curious mix of Romantic age trimmings under a worn leather overcoat, suggesting a hybrid of the Eighth and Ninth Doctors’ costumes and further hinting at his place in the sequence. The final shot, lingering on Hurt’s weathered face, was absolutely haunting.

“Your name is like a promise,” the Eleventh Doctor explains. “He’s the one who broke the promise.” Translated, the title “Doctor” represents the Doctor’s commitment to care for life, to save and heal others. “What I did, I did without choice, in the name of peace and sanity,” the other Doctor says wearily. It’s interesting that the Eleventh Doctor, before telling him off, simply says, “I know.” Don’t forget, Moffat is reminding us, they’re all the same man.  Though the Doctor may insist that this secret man is him but “not the Doctor,” the title which introduces “John Hurt as The Doctor” would beg to differ. The Doctor in the New Who has always been at war with his own feelings of guilt. While acknowledging the horrific nature of his own actions, and wanting to be forgiven as he says in “The Doctor’s Wife,” he has also always excused his actions with statements such as “I had no choice” or “what else could I do?” There is still a part of the Doctor who feels as though he did the right thing, the only thing that could have been done. Eleven doesn’t deny that this other Doctor’s motives were just, but his actions, he insists coldly, were not done “in the name of the Doctor.”

I can feel all the the thematic strands converging, weaving and wrapping around the revelation of this other Doctor just as the Doctor’s time strands weave around the TARDIS console: The Last Great Time War and the actions the Doctor took to end it, his loneliness, his selfless heroism balanced against his potential for megalomania, his great capacity to care for others, his need for human companions. But above all, his fun and adventure. Matt Smith has spoken of how funny the anniversary episode is, and more recently Moffat has insisted that Smith and Tennant together are “special” and “really, properly funny,” and I would expect nothing less from an episode that brings those two together. Even as Clara sat crying, terrified and lost in the Doctor’s overwhelming psyche, I couldn’t help but smile as the various forms of the Doctor did what they do best: Run. I’m predicting that we’ve got the dirge out of the way, and that the 50th will be what it should be: A celebration of the Doctor. It will be a redemption story, hopefully not in a way that denies or rewrites the Doctor’s past (as Moffat has done a few too many times) but that acknowledges and makes peace with it. I can’t even predict how Moffat will bring these two opposed tones, the funereal and the joyful, together, and I don’t envy him the task. I only know that I’m excited, and you can’t ask for more from a season finale than that.

*The Tenth Doctor was conspicuously absent from both the flashback sequences and this scene in the pit of the Doctor’s time stream. Is this just out of courtesy to the other Doctors, making sure to give them their due as David Tennant is returning for the anniversary, or perhaps a clue to Ten’s more active involvement in the plot? November can’t come too soon! In the meantime, have this to list your spirits and whet your appetite: 

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About Katherine Sas

I graduated from Messiah College in 2009 with a B.A. in English Literature. I'm a student of all things arts and humanities, in particular Tolkien, the Inklings, and the fantastic and imaginative tradition in storytelling.
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