Plot spoilers... and how!!!
In a recent ’Radio Times’ feature, Steven Moffat enthused that this episode would be by Neil Gaiman – a “Proper Writing God.” He seems drawn to the idea of getting in one Proper Writer per season, even though the marriage hasn’t always worked well.
Neil Gaiman is a more complicated story. Starting out in the then-marginalised field of comics, he’s more of a genre-buster than a ‘proper’ writer, which is all to the good. He’s a known ’Doctor Who’ fan, though of course that can work for either good or ill. But more to the point, if truth be told I’ve never been much of a fan of his.
I’ve sometimes wondered if he’d listened to Bob Dylan’s ’Blonde on Blonde’ too much at am impressionable age. He tends to create a locale, then fill it with a collection of incongruous characters and get them to talk in idiosyncratic cadences. And then... well, he often seems to forget to then do anything else. A setting is a fine thing for a song or a painting, but a genre storyline really needs causation of one kind or another. There’s a reason why we call them storylines. His comics often read like someone had hired Samuel Beckett to write a thriller, the result being neither very Beckettian nor very thrilling. And indeed things start off with our crew stranded in a locale where everyone talks funny...
But just as we’re taking in this ill-boding - how brilliant a concept! That audacious-sounding title has been dangling before us for weeks, now we’re told the answer and its head-slappingly obvious! The Doctor’s wife has to be his only constant companion, the Tardis itself! All these years we’ve believed he stole that timeship and, as it turns out, they virtually eloped... The scenes between the Doctor and Suranne Jones as Idris/ the Tardis were perfectly played, blunted only slightly by the fact we’ve already had the bickering old couple routine between the Doctor and River.
Everything seemed built around her. There’s the supreme irony of the Doctor being drawn in with the promise of seeing his people again, only to finally meet the one he’s always had beside him. Beyond their sharing sentience, the House is of course the anti-Tardis, the perfect adversary. It is male to her female, it draws things to it rather then venturing afield, it’s inhabitants live on its surface not inside it, it treats those inhabitants as it’s servants not it’s master, as toys or parts.
All these sentient objects and people who behave like toys. Even the junk in the junkyard turns out to be Tardises! (In Gaiman’s original concept, they transform into Tardises.) Sailors commonly give their ships female names and figureheads. It seems to make sense that, come to life, the ship would first try to kiss her Captain. But perhaps there’s something deeper - a child’s drive towards animism, to ascribe every place and every thing with a personality. There’s a strange parallel with the sadness at the heart of ’Toy Story’, where this great love between person and object must always remain unstated.
(Though this did lead to one of the few complaints I could make. The Doctor seemed almost as indifferent as the House to the deaths which occur. Of course he is angry about the distress call scam, but even so...)
I am on record as having an antipathy to the Tardis being made the focus of the story, previously insisting “it works best as a Narnian wardrobe, enabling another adventure then sitting quietly in the corner until its end.” Of course there need to be firewalls against its use as a deus ex machina device, but there’s more to it. With it’s bigger-on-the-inside business, it is like a microcosm of the Whoniverse - it needs to be strange, unpredictable and seemingly infinite. When fans try to map it into a foolish consistency they erode one of the most vital ingredients of the show, it’s mystery, and kill the thing they love.
So it was splendid to see Tardis space presented as ceaselessly mutable; creating, changing and destroying rooms like files on a computer. This is an object lesson in the way you do continuity on a long-running show; past events can be evaporated into never-was at any point, without so much as a backward glance, but can be brought back without comment just as quickly. (Isn’t that the way we live our lives, after all? Don’t we rework the meaning and significance of past events according to what we’re doing now?)
In general, Gaiman gave us the upside of fannish writing – putting in things for other fans, but never to the degree that the general audience would notice they were missing something. Even the comparatively recent moment of bringing back the previous console worked this way, for only Amy and Rory step into it. Like any new audience member, they have never seen it before, so can’t start talking about things the viewer knows not of. (Meanwhile some of us oldsters were making mental references all the way back to ’Edge of Destruction’!) There was even a gag about running through corridors, transformed into something genuinely frightening.
Like the junkyard setting and its patchwork people, the whole thing was cobbled together from parts. ’The Bride of Frankenstein’, ‘2001’ (both the HAL plotline and the hotel room ending), the Avengers episode ’The House That Jack Built’, ‘The Shining’... I probably missed some in the headlong rush of it all. But, unlike other episodes we might mention, rather than recycle all these it combined them into strange new arrangements – it was collage, not facsimile.
My fears over Gaiman were ultimately unwarranted. A great concept was the focus for a good story, not a replacement. Stuff happened. People did things, went places and it all led to a resolution. Above all, it set the right tone - it was a tale of reckless adventure and cheerful absurdity. It probably all falls apart the second you stop to think about it, so let’s not. The love between a madman and his box may be integral to the show, but that’s only a means towards realising its very core. Gaiman has described the Tardis as “a door to adventure.” For ultimately, what this show is is a love affair with adventure...