Unlike the various incarnations of Star Trek which regularly included “bottle shows” using only the standing spaceship interior sets as a cost-saving measure, stories set largely or completely inside the TARDIS are rare on Doctor Who, despite the fact that the Doctor’s Type 40 is potentially a much more interesting space. Or maybe because of that. Like Gallifrey, the Time War or – nota bene Mr Moffatt – the Doctor’s name, some things are much more interesting because we know so little about them.
So, in the 1960s we had the distinctly peculiar two-parter, The Edge of Destruction, in the 1970s, Tom Baker gave Sontarans the run-around in a very atypical TARDIS in The Invasion of Time and in the 1980s, Peter Davison spent the first two episodes of Castrovalva wandering around the TARDIS impersonating his predecessors. Since the show returned in 2005, however, we’ve almost never seen anything beyond the console room, so we were about due an episode like this.
Regular blog readers (hello!) may recall that I don’t hold Steve Thompson’s last effort The Soggy Pirate Rubbish (I genuinely cannot recall its real name off the top of my head) in particularly high regard, so while I have a definite fondness for stories told within formal constraints and I’m well up for seeing a bit more TARDIS feng shui, I just wish they hadn’t given the job to this guy. TSPR was typified by scanty explanations, very little originality, a fatal lack of follow-through on its few interesting ideas and a general “that’ll do” approach to structure and characterisation. Surely this would be an improvement…?
Well, it doesn’t make a very good first impression. The space haulage team are clumsily-made photocopies of the crew of the Nostromo, even down to the fact that one of them is an android, complete with cute but implausible vocal effect. Better “Tricky” than those appalling would-be comedy robots from Dinosaurs on a Spaceship I suppose, but c’mon. Their ship is equipped with a sort of souped-up tractor beam, which mysteriously comes equipped with a remote control. I cannot think of a single reason why this piece of equipment should require operation from anywhere other than the command deck, especially with more than a one-man crew. As we’ll see, the real reason has nothing whatever to do with logic or world-building, but is simply a requirement to resolve the plot.
The plot firstly requires that make this impossibly, magical, indestructible, engineering miracle of a time-space ship vulnerable to the three stooges’ space-grabby thing. The Doctor, annoyed that the TARDIS and Clara don’t get along, offers to show her how to pilot it, promising he will make it easy by “shutting it down to basics”. In other words, switch off all the automatic safety devices and switching to manual. But isn’t switching to manual what you do when you’re an expert? When you’re a novice, don’t you need as many automatic systems as you can possibly get your hands on? Rather like the Ice Warrior leaving its shell, this action clearly results in the opposite outcome from what was intended, regardless of what the script later claims.
The titles end and we witness the TARDIS being carried hundreds of feet inside the salvage ship by a great claw hammer. Rather than place it conveniently on the deck, this machine ends up dumping the old girl on a big pile of cables. Then I can only imagine that the poor director turned two pages of script at once because somehow we are asked to accept that, while our backs were turned, Clara has been lost in the TARDIS’s labyrinthine corridors, while the Doctor now finds himself buried in the pile of cables and outside his own ship. Try as I might, I can see no way in which this can have happened. Evidently neither could the writer, but that’s what he requires in order to make the story work, so we are just presented with it and have to accept it. Sigh.
The android crew member now announces that the TARDIS is leaking fuel and that Clara will be overcome by fumes. Remember that they believe the Doctor’s ship to be a product of their own technology, a small escape pod just big enough for two. They evidently have no knowledge of Gallifreyan time-space manipulation, and yet on the basis of a glance, van Baalen number one, seems to know more about the Doctor’s ship than he does. Because that’s what the writer requires in order to make the story work, so we have to accept it. Sigh.
The Doctor accepts this diagnosis and rather than fixing his ship which he knows intimately, on his own and in his own time, he decides that he needs to recruit the help of these three shady individuals, who are clearly out for themselves and have already lied to him to protect their own skin. Can’t see anything wrong with that plan – can you?
Why the Doctor needs the Chuckle Brothers is therefore something of a mystery. Why they need this expedition is even more puzzling. The Doctor promises them “the salvage of a lifetime” and the director – doing what the script can’t or won’t – dollies in on Ashely Walters who clearly decides this is worth risking everything for – even though he has no idea what the Doctor is actually promising him and has absolutely no reason to believe him. No, he just goes along with it because – well you get the idea.
Once on board, the Doctor pushes a button and removes the “poison” from the air but announces that the rest of the TARDIS may still be toxic (there’s zero evidence of this at any point in the episode) and so finding Clara must be done swiftly. I would have thought there would be another button there somewhere which would remove the rest of the “poison” too but apparently not. There’s probably a “locate passenger” button if you look hard enough. There is on the Enterprise. (In fact, one of the salvage brothers turns out to be packing one.) And the mission is so urgent, the Doctor is even willing to play around with the TARDIS self-destruct system. 30 minutes to find Clara or we all die. This of course turns out to be a lie. Even this version of the Doctor isn’t quite that idiotic.
So, the set up is dumb, badly constructed and scarcely making a particle of sense, but given we’ve all agreed to get on the train, let’s see if we can’t at least enjoy the ride. And this is the real point of this episode – Clara, plus Huey, Duey and Louey wandering around beautifully designed corridors, bumping into boot closets, swimming pools and libraries of which we’ve often heard tell.
Except that we can’t get on with that because we’re saddled with these characters of the greedy salvage haulers. And you don’t have to be the most brilliant man in the universe to realise that if you let greedy salvage haulers wander around the most incredible ship in the universe, then they will try and carve bits off it to take home. I suppose we should be grateful for some consistent characterisation, but it’s hard not to think that the Doctor must have hit his head a bit harder than we thought. His actions throughout the first fifteen minutes of the story seem designed to make his life far, far harder than necessary.
There’s some nice The House That Jack Built stuff once Gregor nicks the glowy globe thing, but just as the Doctor’s pointless stupidity weakens his character, the TARDIS’s reaction to this threat weakens it in turn. Inside the ship, space, volume even gravity are completely configurable by the ship itself. Guy’s nicked your glowy globe thing? Reverse gravity so it falls out of his backpack. Then burn him up like you nearly did Clara. Why fuck about just making them walk in circles?
And I thought the TARDIS was bust? If it isn’t bust, then the Doctor can fly it to a more convenient location and hunt for Clara at his leisure. But it seems perfectly capable of pulling these sub-M C Escher tricks so just how bust is it? And of course, trapping the Doctor in a maze means he won’t be able to get to the console room to cancel the self-destruct, as possibly one of the Marx Brothers should have noticed. Still maybe they will concluded that the TARDIS will cancel it of its own accord if “she’s” genuinely that self-aware. You see? Once you start trying to make story out of these ideas you have to make them rigorous, and then you run the risk of making them mundane. Thompson needs the capabilities and limitations of the TARDIS to be accurately defined for his story to have any power, but evidently is anxious about binding his successors (or contradicting his predecessors) and so refuses to give us any such clarity.
Now, just being lost isn’t interesting enough, so send in the cheap-looking shambling monsters to menace the interlopers. Director Mat King, possibly aware that this dog of a script has been let down by some shoddy design work shoots them in the dark and out-of-focus but it doesn’t really help. One of them offs Huey (or was it Duey?) which again makes the Doctor’s decision to drag these three reprobates into this environment very, very questionable.
And of course, all of this frantic wandering around, this introduction of morally-bankrupt ship-wreckers, is rendered instantly moot as soon as the TARDIS obediently guides Clara back to the console room. So if the Doctor had jumped in and shut the doors (we’ve seen that damaged or not, it’s as invulnerable as ever, so who cares what the salvage crew try and do to it), Clara would have strolled in about ten minutes later. Job done. Sigh. Sigh. Sigh. Except it isn’t the same console room as the one the Doctor enters later. It’s a shadow… echo… thing… And the TARDIS has done this because…?
Rather than subject you (and me) to much more of this, let’s brush past much of the rest – echoes of the past for no very good reason, steel poles shooting through the walls for no very good reason, and then the genuinely peculiar revelation that yeah, Huey did tell his brother he was an android, BUT AS A JOKE, YEAH?! Moffat is very fond of this Philip K Dick style revelation and with good reason – handled correctly it can be very powerful, as in the case of Oswin the Dalek or poor Miss Kizlet. Here what might have been a neat flip of the android who thinks it’s human never really plays. It doesn’t seem to be a real part of this story and it’s not given sufficient detail to gain any credibility. I mean, be honest, which of us hasn’t tried to deal with the grief brought on by seeing a loved-one suffer a near-fatal accident by attempting to rewrite their entire identity for them. What laughs!
On to the Gantry of Doom. Once again, things we are told in dialogue turn out to have no tangible reality at all. “We can only remain in there for a minute or two or our skin will burn and our cells will liquify,” intones the Doctor severely, but all four then spend many many minutes trotting back and forth, Benny Hill style, without even a wisp of smoke curling up from them. Remember that the apparitions of the Doctor and Clara are because the past was echoing back into the TARDIS? But the golems turn out to be Clara (because one identity crisis is never enough) because now there are echoes of the future too. Why? Does it matter at this point?
And for that matter, just why does being burned up by the Eye of Harmony turn one into a murderous zombie? If there’s enough Clara DNA left for the tricorder to identify, why isn’t there enough for some residual compassion? If her cells have liquified why isn’t she a puddle on the floor?
“Don’t touch each other, or time will reassert itself,” proclaims the Doctor mysteriously, as not-Android-van-Balen bashes the zombie Claras about the head and neck and the two brothers grapple with each other. Who mustn’t touch whom? What will happen should time reassert itself? Is anyone remotely following any of this any more, writer, director and cast included? At this point, the glowy-globe thing suddenly ceases to have any impact on the plot, becoming just another in a long list of ideas that don’t go anywhere or connect to anything in this complete dogs-dinner of a script. It’s also disappointing to see the remaining Val Baalen brothers slaughtered with zero remorse from the Doctor, who tricked them into entering this fatal environment for his own purposes and largely unnecessarily as we’ve seen. That’s more than a sliver of ice in your heart. That’s just being a bastard.
Once we get to the Heart of the TARDIS things improve a little. For once, what we are told actually matches what we see, and the rendering of the exploded TARDIS engine, frozen in time is hugely impressive. But it’s telling that the vision we see here is not a coherent explanation of what we’ve seen before, tying together the loose threads from earlier in the episode. On the contrary, it’s just another new idea stacked on top of an already perilously shaky pile of largely disconnected ideas. And almost as soon as we’ve been taken here, we are taken away by a literal reset button. Okay, Steve Thompson gets a couple of points for bothering to chuck in a couple of lines of dialogue early on to set this up, but instantly loses them again for stealing the key clue shamelessly from Raiders of the Lost Ark.
He then loses more by fudging the reset. At the beginning of the episode we saw the remote control rolling along the floor, so it must have been thrown there by the future Doctor. But we didn’t see the future Doctor whom the past Doctor clearly sees and acknowledges this time. And just what exactly is supposed to have happened when the Doctor presses the button? I think the idea here is just a little cleverer than the execution. By bringing the magic grappling hook’s unnecessary remote control on board the TARDIS, the Doctor is able to give it to his earlier self and use it to switch off the machine before its TARDIS-destroying capabilities are given long enough to do any real damage. But Thompson seems so delighted that he’s been able to generate a reset button that he’s lost interest in how it actually works and so far from seeing Gregor van Baalen mystified at just how another party has managed to take control of his space salvage scoop, seeing the TARDIS freed from its grasp so the Doctor can dematerialise, we just get told that the TARDIS disappeared from the scanner.
And, just as with all good “it was only a dream” endings, we get to have our cake and eat it too. Because of the traumatic experiences that he hasn’t actually been through Gregor van Baalen might be 5% less of a shit from now on. Whoop-de-doo.
So, what can we salvage from this mess? Well, production design and effects were largely up-to-snuff – which used to be a given, but ever since that rotten space bike in The Ringpiece of Akhaten I’m not so complacent. The exception being the Clara-creatures which looked like they could have walked straight off the set of a Jon Pertwee adventure. Matt Smith and Jenna-Louise Coleman continued to give it their all, but the guest cast looked ill-at-ease throughout, and who can blame them with a script that makes as little sense as this?
It’s almost a cliché of the older actor asked to perform in a Doctor Who script that they cheerfully admit they didn’t really understand a word of it, but like an old pro, they manage to look the other actor in the eye and say the lines with conviction. But it’s actually rather atypical of the series that it makes as little sense as this. The Void in Doomsday might be an awfully convenient way of hoovering up an army of Cybermen and Daleks but it has specifically defined qualities and capabilities that do not get rewritten as the plot demands. Time and again in this script, the only explanation for all of the bizarre landscapes and peculiarities visited by the cast is the one word TARDIS and that just isn’t good enough. What’s really unforgivable, however, is the lack of connection between the dialogue and the visuals. If the cast are going into a location hot enough to fry their skin and liquify their body cells, is it asking too much to see their clothing smoulder a little?
So, I’m a grumpy fan today. Exploring the delights of the TARDIS should have been a joy and instead it was nonsense. Worse if anything than Akhaten because it promised so much more. But at least we were spared the earlier story’s glacial pacing, litres of schmaltz and adorable moppety heroine, so it’s probably a wash. Two, very grudging stars.
And whither Doctor Who under Steven Moffat? It really is troubling that for all the effort he has gone to to surround new companion Clara with a mysterious plot, he has apparently forgotten to put an actual person in the centre of it. Mistaking complication for complexity is easily done, but there needs to be some actual human cost to all of this mucking about with multiple Claras and there needs to be somebody reading these scripts who is at least trying to connect the dots properly. Dare I say it – possibly the best thing Moffatt could do now for Doctor Who is to leave after the fiftieth anniversary and let someone else take over.