As a general rule, the finales of Doctor Who have never been among my favorite episodes of the season. I loved “The Pandorica Opens”/”The Big Bang,” but other than that, if I’m going to choose a random episode to watch it’s not going to be a finale. I feel like the finales often end up overstuffed with ideas and so action oriented that the characters get a bit lost (and I’m not always sure that all of the ideas add up in the end). Plus, there is just about always a big reset button to get out of whatever trouble the universe is currently in, making it as if none of the events ever happened, which gets a bit formulaic. Especially with this being the lead in to the fiftieth anniversary special, I was a bit apprehensive about “The Name of the Doctor,” but thankfully I was wrong to worry. While “The Name of the Doctor” was not probably not my favorite episode of the season, it was a strong ending that has left me eagerly awaiting the anniversary special. Needless to say there are going to be plenty of spoilers in this post.
The story begins with Clara helping (or attempting to help) all of the Doctor’s earlier incarnations before it switches to Victorian London and Madam Vastra meeting with a condemned man (who has murdered 14 women) hoping to save his life with information. He apparently can hear the whispermen, and has learned about Trenzalore and the discovery of the Doctor’s biggest secret. He states, “the Doctor has a secret he will take to the grave. It is discovered.” This causes Vastra to have a very clever “conference call” with Jenny, Strax (who is enjoying a weekend off, fighting in Scotland), Clara, and River. Each member joins the conference call by entering a trance-like (or, in Strax’s case, an unconscious) state because time travel has always been possible in dreams. The call is abruptly ended, however, when the Victorian group comes under attack of the whispermen; Jenny is murdered (but Strax does manage to bring her back to life) and Vastra and Strax are kidnapped.
The whispermen are the new henchmen of the Great Intelligence, who still has no form, but takes on the appearance of Doctor Simeon. He has kidnapped the Victorian trio to force the Doctor to travel to Trenzalore to save them. The Doctor realizes what awaits him in Trenzalore and why it is the one place he must never go: it is the site of his grave. Unfortunately he must go to save his friends, so he and Clara (and a projection of River who is still linked with Clara’s mind because of the conference call) set off for Trenzalore. To make a long story short, the Great Intelligence wants access to the Doctor’s timeline, which is all that remains of him inside the tomb. The tomb can only be opened by saying the Doctor’s name, which we thankfully don’t hear because River says it off-screen. Once inside, the Great Intelligence enters the Doctor’s timeline, destroying himself, but also killing the Doctor everywhere in his timeline at once. Clara realizes the only way to save the Doctor is for her to enter his timeline as well, which will result in her being fragmented amongst it so that she can help him. The episode ends with the Doctor entering his timestream to save Clara and the two of them encountering a mysterious unknown version of the Doctor.
This episode delivered in both being a satisfying way to wrap up the Clara mystery and a fitting tribute to the history of the show. I loved the way that Clara was inserted into clips with past Doctors. And I especially loved her interaction with the first Doctor, telling him which TARDIS to steal. It was a great way to show all of the different people who had played the Doctor without having to deal with the fact that they are quite a bit older (although I still do love seeing the Doctor interact with himself). There were also a few other references to the past, such as the Great Intelligence’s mention of the other names for the Doctor, including the Valeyard.
This episode also delivered a satisfying and unexpected explanation of the truth about Clara. She really was just an ordinary girl who became the “impossible girl” when she entered the Doctor’s timestream. All the different versions of her came from that moment, and each new version was born and grew up somewhere different, but would end up helping the Doctor in some way, with no knowledge of the others. That also explains how the Claras could share some characteristics without actually being the same person, since they were all copies of the same person, but growing up under different circumstances made them all turn out slightly different.
I also liked the pacing of this story more than the previous year’s finale, “The Wedding of River Song.” While that episode has some interesting ideas it was so fast paced that everything just kind of flew by. This one was fast paced, but it allowed certain moments to have some space and be developed a bit. For instance, time was allotted to the conference call, allowing for some humor in what is basically a fairly serious episode, but also it allowed the presence of the whispermen to be gradually felt, and allowed a sense of menace to build throughout the scene. Jenny’s gradual realization of what is going on was an eerie and slightly disturbing moment, which wouldn’t have had the same impact if everything in the episode moved at the same breakneck pace as the previous year’s finale.
The pace also slowed down at other emotional moments, allowing for some great character moments and performances. Matt Smith gave an excellent performance in this, as did Alex Kingston and Jenna-Louis Coleman. The moment that really stands out for me was when the Doctor realized just what was waiting for him at Trenzalore and began to cry. A display of emotion like that from the Doctor is very unusual and I thought that Matt Smith played it well. To see the Doctor break down added to the sense of doom about going to Trenzalore, but Matt Smith kept it very subtle, as if he just couldn’t quite keep all of his anguish inside. I’ve always thought that Matt Smith is better than any other Doctor at showing the darkness the Doctor carries with him, reminding us just how old he really is, despite his youthful appearance.
I’ve also never been the biggest fan of River. I don’t dislike her, mind you, but I’ve never loved her character. I’m also not a “shipper.” I actually prefer my Doctor to be a bit more asexual than the recent incarnations of the Doctor have been, which is perhaps why I’ve never been a huge River fan. That being said, however, I thought she was excellent in this story. The idea that this was the digital River from the library was a nice parallel with the fact that they were also visiting the Doctor’s “corpse.” Her goodbye with the Doctor was very touching and was a fitting farewell to the character.
There’s a great deal more to discuss, but I think I’ll save that for another time. I enjoyed the finale. I’m not sure all of the timey-wimey stuff actually works, but I’m really not in a mood to nitpick it. The only part of the story that didn’t completely work for me was the part with the whispermen and the Great Intelligence. I felt that their part of the story was not particularly fleshed out. I thought Richard E. Grant did a great job, and I was glad to see his role expanded, since he wasn’t given much to do when he first appeared in “The Snowmen.” The whispermen were creepy and I liked the look of them, but I was left wishing a bit more had been explained. Where did they come from? Did the Great Intelligence create them (they are a bit more practical that the Yeti)? What exactly are the Great Intelligence’s powers? Also, how did the convict know about Trenzalore and know who to contact about it? Still, none of this really diminished my enjoyment of the story as a whole.
Overall, I really enjoyed this episode. If this had been the fiftieth, I wouldn’t have been disappointed. It managed to play tribute to the history of the show, while still introducing new developments and twists. The episode covered a range of emotions and tones without missing a beat. While some of that credit goes to Steven Moffat, I have to say that the director, Saul Metzstein, did a great job of navigating the tonal shifts in the script (and was largely responsible for the better pacing too, I would assume). It was moving, funny, scary…all while being engaging and entertaining as well. It was quite a ride and a great lead in to the anniversary special. I also loved the way that the Moffat played with the meaning of the title. It was a relief that the Doctor’s biggest secret was not, in fact, his actual name, although it was the password protecting his secret. The real, important name is the one he chose, which is a promise, and his secret is a version who did not live up to the name. Of course, this led to the cliffhanger ending in which John Hurt is revealed as this incarnation of the Doctor, the one who didn’t keep the promise of the name. Who is he? My suspicions are that he had something to do with the Time War, but that’s probably too obvious. I guess we’ll have to wait until November to find out.