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Doctor Who Recap: Press the Big Friendly Button

Programme Name: Doctor Who - TX: 27/04/2013 - Episode: Journey to the Centre of the Tardis (No. 05) - Embargoed for publication until: 23/04/2013 - Picture Shows:  Gregor Van Baalen (ASHLEY WALTERS), Clara (JENNA-LOUISE COLEMAN), The Doctor (MATT SMITH), Tricky (JAHVEL HALL)

Since “Let’s Kill Hitler,” Steven Moffat’s been playing around with what I believe he once referred to as “sexy” episode titles – phrases chosen to provoke instantaneous fannish excitement. “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship” from earlier this season was one. The upcoming season finale, “The Name of the Doctor,” is another obvious example. When the title “Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS” was unveiled last year, one can only imagine the myriad deafening sounds of squee that registered across the land. How big is the TARDIS, and what’s beyond the console room? The TARDIS is infinite, so even within the confines of an episode devoted to that exploration, it still feels like we’ve barely scratched the surface … but that doesn’t mean the production team didn’t do a pretty sweet job of making that scratch.

Steven Moffat said that the entire idea for the episode emerged from his feelings of childhood disappointment over the Tom Baker serial “The Invasion of Time,” which featured an extensive – albeit mostly unimpressive – journey through the TARDIS. To be fair to that serial and at the same time taking Moffat ever so slightly to task, it was the first time viewers saw the TARDIS swimming pool, so due credit must be given for that alone. That swimming pool was clearly important enough to Moffat’s imagination that he used it in “The Eleventh Hour” — in the very first moments of his era of Doctor Who, and it’s been referenced numerous times since, and it was shown once again here.

In any case, “The Invasion of Time” wasn’t the final word on the deeper recesses of the TARDIS (nor was it even the first; “The Edge of Destruction” from the very first season claims that honor). A couple seasons later, between Baker’s finale, “Logopolis,” and Peter Davison’s introductory tale, “Castrovalva,” writer Christopher H. Bidmead explored the TARDIS further, and far more in-depth, introducing concepts such as the Cloister Room, the Cloister Bell (heard last week, and again here), the Zero Room (which was eventually jettisoned), and endless grey and white corridors and roundels. Throughout the Davison era, the series frequently showed other bits of the TARDIS, such as the companion’s bedrooms, and Colin Baker’s first story, “The Twin Dilemma,” spent a lengthy amount of time in the wardrobe – a room we seemingly saw a different version of in “The Christmas Invasion,” when David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor was choosing his new clothes.

But surely the most impressive showcase of “other” areas of the TARDIS, prior to the latest episode, was in the 1996 TV movie starring Paul McGann, which introduced the idea of the Eye of Harmony existing within the TARDIS (previously it was said to be on Gallifrey). This is a concept that “Journey” (and Sherlock) scribe Stephen Thompson expanded upon, and the production team brought to life with great success. Indeed, if there’s one concept that truly drives this episode, it’s the Eye – a collapsing star continually on the verge of becoming a black hole that essentially fuels the TARDIS.

All one wants to do after viewing this is talk TARDIS. Honestly, the rest of the episode genuinely feels less important — a feeling the episode exacerbates by pressing a literal big friendly [reset] button at the close, so we essentially now have an episode that happened for the viewer, but not to the characters (though there did appear to be leftover echoes of the adventure resonating in their minds). It would be a hugely annoying narrative decision if I didn’t believe that on some level Thompson recognized how irritating it would be, and went ahead and did it anyway, seemingly to spite the TV writing process – to do the thing that shouldn’t be done, and revel in it. How else to explain the phrase “big friendly button”? It’s such a knockoff it earns some respect.

“Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS” is a story of ideas, some taken to their conclusions, others left dangling. The echo rooms, the TARDIS reinventing its architecture, ruptures in time causing the past and future to spill out, the exploded heart of the TARDIS, the time rift (that was highly reminiscent of the crack in Amy’s wall), and how about those killer rods? The concept of the Architectural Reconfiguration System, which, according to the Doctor, “reconstructs particles according to your needs,” is an idea that’s given a fair amount of screen time and yet almost nothing’s done with it. If I didn’t know better (and I don’t), my guess would be that this is set-up for something further down the road. Too much time was spent on it, given that it ultimately didn’t figure into the plot in a big way. Further, the tech sounds like an extension in both name and function of the Chameleon Arch from the third season.

The Van Baalen Brothers were an adequate addition, but it was difficult to get into their story given everything else that was going on. That said, the notion of the two brothers tricking their third brother, Tricky, into believing he was an android — apparently out of spite more than anything else — was dark stuff. But then this is a relentlessly dark episode, much like “Cold War” was two weeks ago — light on humor, but heavy on concept, which, it must be said again, is a welcome change from some of the over the top fluff that’s often permeated Moffat’s era. The Time Zombies – twisted, burnt future remnants of Clara and the Van Baalens (was there a Doctor zombie or not?) having spent too much time exposed to the Eye – were extremely effective bogeymen.

In a book titled The History of the Time War, Clara learned the Doctor’s name. Later on, he finally confessed to her the details of the previous Claras, however all of this stuff is forgotten by the episode’s end, though it remains a fine tease for the viewer for the upcoming finale. The Doctor asserts, “Secrets protect us. Secrets keep us safe.” That says as much about the Time Lord as anything else that’s been said this season.

The biggest thing “Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS” has working against it is the viewer’s own imagination. Anyone who’s watched this series for any length of time has formed in their head ideas of what lies beyond the console room. I have been watching since 1984, so you can imagine how high my expectations were for this. It did not deliver a TARDIS that was as vast and intricate as I’d have liked, but then what I’d have liked would have required a budget that exceeded the amount spent on the entire season. (Something grand and Escher-like as the movie poster art promised would have been a lovely inclusion.) But within the boundaries of what Doctor Who can achieve on its modest budget, the show did right by the TARDIS, and maybe, from here on out, the series will be less shy about occasionally showing us other areas of the interior. It is, after all, home for our heroes, and you can always tell a lot about someone based on where they live.

Odds and Ends

  • The Encyclopedia Gallifreya – liquid in bottles! Utterly batty and inspired.
  • “What do you keep in there? Why have you got zombie creatures? Good guys do not have zombie creatures! Rule One of basic storytelling.” Surely I wasn’t alone in wishing Clara had been around to break this down for Andrea on The Walking Dead?
  • That lengthy tracking shot at the top of the episode looked great – right up until the realization hit that the Doctor was essentially chasing Clara round and round the console, which seemed sort of goofy. What has The West Wing wrought?
  • Did that little cardboard TARDIS once belong to Amy?
  • This episode is loaded with audio clips from previous stories, both classic and new. Industrious fans have already listed them on the episode’s Wikipedia page.
  • It occurred to me how easily this story, with a number of tweaks, could have been the 50th anniversary episode. Pretty much everything a writer would need to celebrate the past, present and future of Doctor Who could be found somewhere within the infinite TARDIS.
Photo: ADRIAN ROGERS/©BBC WORLDWIDE