Wednesday, 13 November 2013

My Top Three Doctor Who Stories: The Doctor's Wife by Neil Gaiman

In the lead-up to Doctor Who's fiftieth birthday - it's only David Tennant days away, folks! - I'm penning a trilogy of posts concerning my three favourite Doctor Who stories ever. It's a tough choice, to boil down (debatably) 238 stories down to just three but, after much deliberation, I have made my choice. First up, we go to the scrapyard at the end of the universe to meet a very important woman to the Doctor, his soul mate, his significant other, you might say, his... well, his TARDIS.

It's quite hard to describe Doctor Who to someone who's never seen it before. The main character,you might say, is an alien. Oh, they reply, what kind of alien? Actually, he looks human. Who plays him? Hmm, several people. Okaaayy, well, where is it set? Oh, boy...
The one way you can sum it up is about a man and his blue box, with the occasional stray, who go travelling around time and space. That broadly encapsulates every Doctor Who story under one (question-marked) umbrella. Every story, that is, apart from 'The Doctor's Wife'.

In this episode, acclaimed writer Neil Gaiman takes this core idea of Doctor Who and completely turns it on his head. What if the TARDIS wasn't a police box but a woman? Landing in a bubble universe outside our own, The TARDIS' internal matrix - it's soul - is ousted by the machine and put in the body of human woman. The episode involves a wonderful subplot with Amy and Rory trapped in a dangerous TARDIS (complete with CORRIDORS - trust me, corridors are exciting) but its core is the relationship between the constant companions, the Doctor and his TARDIS. What exactly are they to each other? Who owns who? Are they mother and son? Husband and wife? It's left suitably undefined but we see that they are perfectly matched for the other. The Doctor's loneliness as the last of the Time Lords is here temporarily lifted; until the eventual heartbreaking end. TARDISes aren't meant to live in human bodies... 

A great strength of this episode is its use of Doctor Who continuity that, rather than seeming superfluous and shoehorned in, adds another layer to the story. References go from The Doctor's leaving from Gallifrey (untouched in the series up that point but recently seen in 'The Name of the Doctor') to the Eleventh Doctor's first episode (in his calling the TARDIS 'sexy') and many others in between. Other stories have chucked this many references to earlier episodes in, making the whole feel like its desperately trying to please fans but merely ends up alienating most of the audience. Gaiman, on the other hand, handles the kisses to the past beautifully in a way that celebrates the legend of the show. The upcoming 'The Day of the Doctor' could do far worse than to take its lead from this story in how to commemorate Doctor Who's long and illustrious history.  

Away from the excellent script, Gaiman's words are brought to life by some tremendous acting. While Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill are of course endearing as Amy and Rory they are secondary characters, although Darvill does get to do some frightening crazed Rory acting and Karen, the horror of believing that she's lost her husband (again). Also, a nod must be made to the talented Michael Sheen who lends his voice to House, the sentient asteroid that eats TARDISes. It's a shame you can't really hear its him but there's still a certain gleeful maliciousness to House that makes him a memorable villain. 
However, there are really two stars of this show. Suranne Jones as Idris gives a great turn in a very difficult role. All the backwards-words and predictions of the future the TARDIS babbles about could have fallen flat if delivered by a different actress but Jones pitches the role expertly, playing Idris as a quirky, mad woman - a perfect foil for Matt Smith's madman without a box. Speaking of which, Matt Smith, as ever, is tremendous. His distilled anger and hurt when he discovers that the Time Lords he hoped he would find are, in fact, dead is only trumped by the Doctor's breaking down into tears at the episode's close. When Matt Smith cries in a Doctor Who episode it is always sad. And, here, his acting and the sentiment of the scene arguably make this the most affecting moment of his era. 

A funny, touching fairy tale of a Doctor Who story, 'The Doctor's Wife' is a seminal adventure that is simultaneously strong enough as a piece to have its own identity as well as being a wholly celebratory affair of the entire story of Doctor Who. However you look at it, though, 'The Doctor's Wife' certainly deserves to go down as one of Doctor Who's stand-out stories.


  1. I'm so proud of myself for figuring out in advance who the Doctor's "Wife" of the title was going to be. Because he's been married before, and may marry again, but romantic relationships are just a tiny part of his personal timeline, in the story viewed as a whole. For a title such as "THE Doctor's Wife," she had to be someone really special. And then I remembered in the previous episode, the pirate one, the pirate captain running to his son, Amy running to Rory, and the Doctor running to... his TARDIS. Mr Gaiman did a splendid job with this story, which sums up the Doctor's relationship with his spaceship perfectly, immediately becoming canon. Also I loved seeing more than just the console room, the sentient and malevolent House planet, and how it messes with your head. (I think some of Neil's best work is when he gets inside your brain and makes you start doubting yourself, like the terrifying "ordeal" scene in Neverwhere.)

  2. Kudos to you for guessing that it would be about the TARDIS! Despite being a rather eye-grabbing title, 'The Doctor's Wife' is very fitting for this episode. I know Gaiman didn't agree with it at first - he called it 'Bigger on the Inside' - but Moffat talked him into it. Rightly so, I think. Though his title wouldn't have been terrible.
    I do love seeing more of the TARDIS - Amy's Choice and this are two of my favourites and when I was a kid I often wrote stories about exploring its depths.
    And I very much agree with you on Gaiman's strength at messing with your head. As you say, the 'ordeal' scene is excellent and, of course, 'getting inside your brain' is the sort of definition of The Sandman, being about dreams and whatnot.


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