This is a tricky one. I feel quite mixed, and it may take writing this review to find out why. I think my main complaint (if I can dwell on boring complaints very briefly before transitioning to the much more interesting analysis of what the episode actually gave us) would be that too much screen time was devoted to things that don’t actually matter in the long run: The Time Zombies and the Van Baalen Brothers. Normally this would be fine. Doctor Who always has monsters and guest stars of the week. Not every moment needs to be devoted to the Doctor, Clara, and the overarching mythology. Except, in this episode, I think it actually does. Other than the thematic symmetry between the older Van Baalen brothers keeping a vital secret about himself from their young brother and the Doctor’s keeping a vital secret about Clara from herself, I think we spent entirely too much get-to-know-you time with these characters in an episode that should have been all about the TARDIS and its secrets. I’m sorry, but who cares about immature fraternal relationships when we have the TARDIS Library to explore! Similarly, the Time Zombies felt like a distraction. Their twist was a little predictable, and they’re disposed of by the end of the episode anyway. While normally they would serve the function of amping up the tension, what actually had me on the edge of my seat was not the roaming monsters but the dusty old book that Clara leafs through. I think this episode could have trusted more to the intrinsically fascinating nature of the show’s mythology, and not felt the need to include as much of the standard monster chasing and supporting character development.
If you want more elaborate complaints, I guarantee you can find them elsewhere in the Whoniverse. My job is not to whinge about what we didn’t get, but look at what we did get and think about what that might mean. We did get a pretty good look at the Doctor’s “infinite” space ship, and a fair few easter eggs tucked away in its endless corridors. We saw the briefest glimpse of the TARDIS swimming pool which we’ve heard so much about (unfortunately no sign of the multiple squash courts). We were given ample demonstrations of the TARDIS’ ability to reconfigure itself at will, and saw its interior workings, its guts, if you will. In the little knick knack room we were reminded of trinkets from episodes past: The cradle from “A Good Man Goes To War,” the Seventh Doctor’s question mark umbrella, Amy Pond’s toy TARDIS. The Eye of Harmony was suitably beautiful and majestic, and I love the fact that the Doctor stopped them in their terrified tracks to explain this little bit of Time Lord science.
We spent some quality time in the grand library, which reminded me of the Beast’s giant library in the Disney Beauty and the Beast. Of course, more intriguing even than the size and scale of the library is what’s contained in it, and again we only get the barest of hints. There is the entire Encyclopedia of Gallifrey in bottle form, and when Clara bumps the bookshelf, spilling one of the volumes, we hear whispers of Time Lord voices gone by, vanishing into thin air in ephemeral puffs of smoke. Does that imply that Clara has accidentally erased some of Gallifrey’s recorded history, or does the information contained within go back into the bottle? We’ll probably never know. I like the idea of the Encyclopedia as a sort of futuristic and magical audio book.
Most tantalizing of all is the great tome which Clara peruses: The History of the Time War. As the camera lingered stubbornly on Clara’s face, refusing us even one look at the pages and the words written therein, I had to smile to myself at the cheek of the writers. We should have know that all we’d get is the title. Sigh. Moffat. It is Clara who gets a good look, and she almost flaunts her privileged knowledge at the unseen audience. “So that’s who,” she whispers to herself. She has just answered the First Question: Doctor Who? Now, we know from the last few series that “silence will fall when the question is asked.” Is this it? Did Clara just ask and answer THE question, “the question which must never be answered”? We know that this year’s series finale is called “The Name of the Doctor” and that it and the 50th Anniversary special will take us to the Fields of Trenzalore and the revelation of the Doctor’s greatest secret. What exactly that means we don’t yet know, but I think Clara’s glimpse of the Doctor’s name (even though the memory is wiped by the end of the episode) has set in motion those cataclysmic events.
Unfortunately for Clara, her moment of knowing more than the audience was short lived. However, just like the Van Baalen Brothers who begin to treat Tricky more kindly even though they cannot remember the reason for their change of heart, Clara must have some residual memory of what she’s seen. As we’ve seen multiple times in New Who (ex. “Last of the Time Lords,” “The Big Bang,” “The Angels Take Manhattan,” “The Wedding of River Song”) time is wibbly-wobbly, and even when time is rewritten “nothing is ever truly forgotten.” Somewhere deep inside, Clara knows his name. What interested me is how nonchalant she seemed about this knowledge before it was erased. She doesn’t seem to understand why the Doctor doesn’t use it all the time, which means that the reason for this is not self-evident in the name itself. Perhaps the name itself isn’t as important as the identity it reveals. It is the Doctor himself who attaches to it importance and weight. “You will not go looking for my name,” he says to Clara with deadly seriousness. Do we believe him? Is this really a matter of life or death? Or is he tricking Clara , playing a game of chicken, as he did with the Van Baalen Brothers and the fake countdown? We’ll find out soon.
In the end, “Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS” was all about secrets. We explore the rarely-seen bowels of the TARDIS. The Van Baalen Brothers kept Tricky’s humanity a secret from him. The Doctor suspects that Clara is keeping the secret of her identity from him (although it turns out she’s as clueless as he is). The Doctor, naturally, has the most secrets of all: The fake countdown, the identity of the Time Zombies, the knowledge of his multiple meetings with Clara, and most importantly his name and identity. This episode is telling us to question the nature of secrecy and its relative value. “Secrets keep us safe!” the Doctor declares when Clara forces him to tell her what’s going on. “We’re not safe,” she counters, and she’s got a point. The Doctor’s life being as dangerous as it is, I shudder to think what fresh hell he fears might descend on himself and the universe if his name is revealed. “Some things,” he assures us, technically speaking of the Time Zombies but really more broadly than that, “you don’t want to know.” Clara, however, reminds him that safety isn’t everything. A full, rich, adventurous life is far more important, as the Doctor should know if he’d allow himself to stop and think about it. The Tenth Doctor sheepishly admitted that “the worse it gets, the more I love it.” Will Eleven soon reach the point that his pathological fear of honesty is outweighed by the desire to tell his deepest, darkest secret? He reminds Clara that “anything could happen” in her travels with him. “That’s what I’m counting on,” she replies with confidence. That’s what I’m counting on for the finale and the anniversary special, too.