Monday, 6 May 2013

Smaller On The Inside

Doctor Who
Journey To The Centre Of The TARDIS
Series Seven, Episode Ten

Well, fanboys, here it is: an episode set in the depths of the TARDIS.

And why not?  It's been a part of Doctor Who since the very beginning, and happens to be one of the most mind-bogglingly good ideas in all of science fiction.  A spaceship you can fit on a forklift, which can contain as much or as little as the writer demands?  Genius!

So why, over the years, has the emphasis been on the little?  Oh, we've seen control rooms and the occasional corridor, but otherwise the TARDIS is little more than a thing that gets the Doctor where he needs to go.  Such a waste; it's like getting your hands on a wardrobe to Narnia, and using it primarily to store coats.

Okay, the TARDIS is amazing at storing coats.
So it's obvious why they made Journey To The Centre Of The TARDIS.  Damn it, we want to see those rooms!  But just strolling around the Doctor's spaceship won't cut it.  If we're going to be stuck indoors, even if it is the TARDIS, we need a strong plot and interesting characters.  It can be done: Amy's Choice never leaves the TARDIS (spoiler alert!), and that's awesome.  But sadly, Journey To The Centre Of The TARDIS isn't up to the challenge.  It strains to inject jeopardy and incident into what is, essentially, a sightseeing trip through some corridors.

Okay, so after finding out that Clara and the TARDIS don't get along, the Doctor takes action, and lets her take the wheel.  The TARDIS is immediately damaged and ensnared by a garbage ship (because apparently, it sucks), leaving Clara trapped inside, and the Doctor stuck with three salvage-obsessed scavengers.  (How he wound up outside the TARDIS is an intriguing mystery/gaping plot hole.)  He enlists their help to rescue Clara (for some reason, although no one knows the TARDIS better than he does), offering them the ship in exchange for their help (a promise on which he'll obviously and immediately welsh).  He's so keen to gain their co-operation that he sets up a bogus self-destruct, because nothing spells "Excitement!" like a completely redundant ticking clock that the cast will forget about in the next scene.  If he's only going to spend the rest of the episode mewling at them not to touch anything – which they will, because he specifically offered them the salvage, before immediately betraying and threatening them – then why bring them along?

There's nothing wrong with having very few characters, but it does put a lot more pressure on them to be interesting.  (In an episode offering us an exclusive look inside the TARDIS, even more so.)  This week's guest stars, the Van Baalen brothers, are neither likeable people nor dazzling actors, and awesome dialogue like "There's good salvage here, I can smell it" and "You're always on the side of the machines!" doesn't help.  (Fun fact: this was written by Steve Thompson, who also wrote The Curse Of The Black Spot, aka The Boring Pirate Episode With All The Plot Holes.  Uh, welcome back, I guess?)

The Doctor doesn't like them.  The TARDIS doesn't like them.  We don't like them, since they're only in it to steal the TARDIS.  They don't even particularly like each other: one reacts to the other's apparent death with "It's too late, he's gone!  Let's just worry about the salvage!"  What, exactly, is the point of these idiots?  I'm guessing not character development, as it later turns out the third bloke isn't an android after all but their younger brother, who was told he was a robot as a joke.  What, and he believed them?  Urgh.  Feed these morons to the zombies and have done with it.  (It later turns out it wasn't really a joke, but an attempt to steal the captain's seat from under him.  Okay: and he believed them?)

"Mate, I'm not bein' funny, but robots don't go to the toilet."
"You said they was downloads!"
Ah yes, the zombies.  There are ashen man-shaped monsters running around the TARDIS (and smearing the camera lense with Vaseline), out to get everybody.  This fills the (apparently non-negotiable) monster quotient, and makes it seem like the Doctor's got something very nasty to hide.  Brilliant!  Well, why shouldn't there be someting sinister lurking in the TARDIS?  The Doctor's stowed monsters away in there before; couldn't there be a Ghostbusters-style containment unit in there?  Ooh, imagine if it broke down!

No such luck.  The zombies are really future echoes of Clara, the Doctor and the Van Baalens, horribly burned by the TARDIS's power source.  Why they're suddenly driven to homicide is unclear, as is how they're capable of touching anybody in a different timestream.  Oh well: the episode required monsters, and evidently this is the best they could do.

There's just something so perfunctory about all this  especially when the ending rolls along and the whole thing is magicked away, literally, with a reset button.  Is this some kind of response to the popular fan complaint, or just a crap ending?  Who knows, but having the Doctor obliterate the last forty-five minutes means it was all a waste of time, and allows the episode to lazily have its cake and eat it.  Suddenly, despite having never met the Doctor, the Van Baalen brothers are being nicer to each other.  (But they're still doing the android bit.  Awesome.)  Clara has forgotten finding out the Doctor's name (and his being highly suspicious of who and what she is a crucial scene, you would think, so why can't we keep it?), but the Doctor remembers it, for some reason.  Hang on: if you can pick and choose which bits stick, then which bits actually matter?

Again, it's obvious they made this one just to show us more of the TARDIS.  We do, at least, see some stuff.  But it's mostly quite nondescript (corridors, a library, a swimming pool, an observatory), and not very alien.  Considering the TARDIS can contain anything, it's a shame more imagination wasn't used.  Tom Baker once joked that you might find a cleaner pottering around in there, or a field of sheep the Doctor's forgotten about, or an entire town used to store Wellington boots.  And we know from The Doctor's Wife a much stronger, much more special look into the TARDIS that there are old control rooms dotted about.  I like my Ghostbusters-themed idea.  So where's all that anything?  Where's the weirdness, and the pervading personality that the Doctor insists is there all along?  Even the episode's movie-of-the-week poster hinted at a bunch of Escher-style architecture that didn't turn up.  To borrow a phrase from countless Doctor Who companions: all these corridors look the same!

Warning: staircases may appear less cool in actual episode.
There are good bits, like the engine room (which is frozen mid-exposion against a white background) and the power source (which probably contradicts a lot of stuff from over the years, but makes enough sense on its own).  There's also Matt Smith and Jenna Louise-Coleman, both ebullient as ever.  For once, the Clara Who stuff is the best stuff in the episode: the moment where the Doctor stops beating around the bush and discusses it with her is hugely satisfying.  But then it all never happened, so what's the point?  Besides that, there's some lovely CGI, but that's not quite enough to recommend an episode.

Journey To The Centre Of The TARDIS should be something special, and it just plain isn't.  This is all the more depressing because, to the guys who make Doctor Who, it's probably now considered a "done" thing – we don't need to see those rooms any more.  I hope someone else takes a whack at it some day.  Some of the show's best episodes have revolved around the TARDIS, and there's got to be a lot left to explore, monsters to release, sheep to stumble upon – only next time, go easy on the corridors.

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