Ah, The Doctor’s Wife. That one episode we’ve been promised for a very, very long time but never seemed quite to materialise. The one that quite a few people were starting to suggest would turn into the Stephen Fry episode*. The one that’s been hyped up to infinite ends because it was written by Neil Gaiman.
One of my many, many gripes about the New Series is the way in which the writing is done. A big part of what made Human Nature/Family of Blood so good** was the fact that it was just a question of Paul Cornell streamlining his novel for TV and obviously modifying the characterisations so Bernice was now Martha and the Seventh Doctor was now the Tenth Doctor. But, as has been admitted a fair few times on Confidential and the like, the writing on NuWho is often a case of the showrunner saying, “Right, episode ten: the one with pirates” and then someone goes and drafts a script. The worse episodes, I suspect, are the ones that are very shopping cart, like Victory of the Daleks.
This episode is a very welcome breather, in that it definitely was not a shopping list episode. Or if it was, Gaiman is talented enough to mask that fact completely. I suspect, though, that it truly was the former, and that Neil Gaiman merely wrote a script and worked with whomever the current script editor is, Moffat, and other people to keep things from spiralling out of budgetary control and within the context of the series’ overarching plot for the finale.
Ah, but for all its goodness, this episode still gets on my nerves. I don’t know. I think I’m at my wits end with NuWho. I watched the first three episodes dutifully, and while I was enjoying each of them on some level, it never really felt right. I thought perhaps I’d grown tired of Doctor Who after all these years, but no. I listened to The Massacre again the other night and watched The Edge of Destruction again earlier this evening, and I still quite like them. Actually, The Edge of Destruction is still one of my favourites, although I know a lot of fans won’t agree with me on that one.
Some of my gripes with this episode are a bit nitpicky. For example, Michael Sheen. Michael. Fucking. Sheen. One of the greatest actors alive today and this is how you use him? Oh yes, it’s a wonderful performance, as far as deep, boomy, technologically-modified voices go. But you may as well have said to Nick Briggs, “Oi mate, we’ve got another voice for you to do”. The odds of nabbing Sheen for Who again are slim, and this is how you use him?
And as is often my complaint with the new series, WHY IS THERE A FORTY FIVE MINUTE TIME LIMIT? The trouble with Doctor Who is it still insists on doing one-off stories. The reason Caprica worked so well during the first half of the season, the reason BSG worked so well, the reason DS9 was trailblazing, was because it said “Okay, forty-five minutes to an episode, but we’ll do series-wide arcs across episodes.” And yet here is Doctor Who, a show which BEGAN in serial format, suddenly saying “Once a week and we’ll toss in some vague clues in the most hamfisted manner possible that build up to the finale with varying degrees of success”. If they would make the show longer, like Moffat’s other project Sherlock, or go back to doing hour long serials like they experimented with in the 1980s, it would do Doctor Who a hell of a lot of good.
I think, really, this is my biggest complaint with The Doctor’s Wife. It’s well written, definitely. It’s nowhere near my favourite episode, and I doubt it would be even if it were given more time, but in the impossibly narrow space it has, it’s useless. I haven’t read much Gaiman, I admit, but what I’ve read is brilliant. And what we see here is trying to be brilliant. But it just isn’t. It isn’t anywhere near brilliant because the episode has no length to it, and because it has no length to it the episode has no time to establish anything – anything at all – that would lend it anything even vaguely resembling narrative weight. Ultimately, because the narrative isn’t allowed to be anything more than a series of cleverly written lines and some pretty shots, it becomes an exercise in abject futility.
I just really, seriously, am struggling to find anything good to say about this episode. Well, not anything. Like I said, there is good there. But it isn’t proper good. It isn’t something which makes me want to say, “You should go out and watch this” in the way a lot of First and Second Doctor serials do. Even episodes like The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood and the Vampires of Venice, undoubtedly the three worst of last year, there is something there which makes me want to say, “Yeah, this is a proper story. It might not be the best, but go and watch it”.
As it stands we are now four episodes into Series Six, more than halfway through the spring half of the series (three episodes left to go and then no Doctor Who until September) and there has yet to be an episode I would call properly good. An episode I will sit down and want to watch again. An episode I can take someone who’s only a casual fan, or has maybe never seen the programme before, and get them to watch it. There has yet to be an episode that even feels anything like Doctor Who.
Definitely, of the four so far, if you have to watch one, watch this one. It’s certainly got good moments. Clever writing – clever writing that tries to be brilliant – and excellent direction and some wonderful acting from Sheen (as much as his role lends), Smith, and Jones (even if she does, at times, remind a bit too much of Helena Bonham Carter as Bellatrix). I suspect that when both halves are said and done, this will be amongst the best, if not THE best. But honestly it means nothing in the end. It’s just another hectic mess of forty-five minutes, another episode so void of that which makes narrative meaningful. It’s like watching the Transformers films. It’s shiny and fun and there’s a plot, but that doesn’t make it good.
I don't know. I want to like this episode. Not just because it's Neil Gaiman, not just because it's Doctor Who, but because the goodness is there. The goodness just feels stale. Flat. Smothered to the point well past deadness.
I really think I am just done with NuWho. Call me when we learn how to clone William Hartnell.
Next week: The guy who wrote one of the worst episodes of Who in recent memory, yet somehow created the sheer epicness of Life on Mars, gets a two-parter.
*Specifically, Stephen Fry wrote a script for the second season of the New Season, but budget constraints meant it had to be moved to the third series. Because Rose is no longer the Doctor’s companion in series three, however, it would have to have been edited to suit the new companion. Fry couldn’t find the time to edit the script accordingly, and it was never produced. I still hope he’ll write another in the future, though.
**Although not as good as the original novel. This is in part because the Seventh Doctor is my absolute favourite Doctor. This is also in part because I have yet to see a Seventh Doctor story which is entirely awful (seriously, the Seventh Doctor’s nature as a walking Xanatos Speed Chess requires at least some degree of careful storytelling). But, mostly, this is because it is a novel, and as with any adaptation things are always left out because A. there are elements of a novel which do not work on film and B. even parts that work have to be cut for runtime, whereas a novel can be however long it pleases.