Let’s get this out of the way up top: Neil Gaiman has delivered what is easily the best episode of this young season of Doctor Who, and what is possible an all time classic. There were pretty high expectations for this, but Gaiman – as well as the regular Who-crew – gave an emotional, hilarious, and most of all, awesomely creative episode that ranks among the best.
So what happened? We kick things off on a strange planet populated by Tim Burton rejects, including one Ood (remember the Ood? The evil/not evil race of Cthulu-looking servants from Russell T. Davies run on Who) talking about how one of their number will have to lose her mind and soul. Meanwhile, The Doctor gets a strange knock at his door, which turns out to be a glowing cube, which turns out to be a message from a missing Timelord. And then two things happen at the same time: the woman who is to lose her soul is told it will leave an empty space for the mind of Timelord… And The TARDIS shuts down.
And then the woman opens her mouth, making a very, very TARDIS like sound. Cue credits.
Quick side-step here, and I’ve touched on this point before, but we once again get Amy Pond’s narration, which gives us the rundown of everything we need to know about Doctor Who. And it’s come to my attention that some people don’t like this. Some people: you are wrong. This season of Who, in particular, is not new viewer friendly, something that the past forty years have strived for. So any olive branch to a new viewer is important. Plus, for constant viewers, it’s a reminder of Amy and the Doctor’s unique relationship, which if I was a betting man, would say will come into play sometime soon.
Anywho, back to the plot. The Doctor and companions land on one of the rejected sets from Wall-E, and immediately encounter Uncle, Aunt, and Nephew (The Ood). They welcome our heroes, saying that Timelords are always welcome on their planet – or rather, their house. Who is called House. House then introduces himself to the doctor, and turns out to be some sort of giant, cosmic, friendly sea urchin. House tells the gang he’s happy to have them there, and they can stay as long as they want.
And everybody is super creepy about it, so The Doctor, Amy, and Rory all excuse themselves. The Doctor sends Amy and Rory back to the broken down TARDIS, and The Doctor heads off on his own after lost Timelords. And he finds them. Or rather, he finds what remains of them, many, many of those glowing, cube distress signals from the first scene. Seems House wasn’t being honest, and has been cutting up Timelords for centuries, using their parts to make patchwork people out of Uncle and Aunt.
Fun-fact: so far, this is nothing like anything Neil Gaiman has written before, specifically not Coraline.
So The Doctor heads off, and encounters the woman from the first scene, Idris, who, it turns out… Is the TARDIS now. Or the TARDIS come to life. She calls The Doctor, “My thief,” because, of course, The Doctor stole her way back when – though it turns out later, she really chose him. And she talks all out of order, because the TARDIS exists in all time and space simultaneously.
Fun-fact 2: This is also nothing like anything Neil Gaiman has ever written before, specifically not Delirium from Sandman.
They flirt, they fight, and it turns out that out of all the great romances in the Doctor’s life: Rose Tyler, River Song… There’s only been one, true love: The TARDIS. And he can finally talk to her. As Amy asks later on, trying to make sense of the situation, “Did you wish REALLY hard?”
There’s trouble in paradise, though. Hooking into the idea that The Doctor is the last Timelord, House goes for broke, and takes over the mind-empty TARDIS, and heads to our Universe to cause trouble, Amy and Rory in tow. And on the trip, just to stay amused, House makes the Ponds run through the TARDIS corridors, turning off the anti-grav, and playing with time so it seems like Rory dies for the fifteenth time this season. Truly, Rory Pond is the British Kenny.
Too bad The Doctor doesn’t have his own TARDIS, right? Wrong. He’s in a TARDIS graveyard, since House killed so many Timelords and left their ships for dead. He and Idris build a makeshift TARDIS control room, and whip off in hot pursuit of House. Idris, using psychic powers or something, leads Amy and Rory to an older control room not on House’s radar – the TARDIS control room from the David Tennant era, no less – and then crash lands right on top of the malevolent Ood, Dorothy Gale style.
House, infuriated, deletes the entire control room… Which was The Doctor’s plan, sending them right back to the main control room (any organic matter in a deleted room gets sent back there, of course). And Idris – who is dying (sorry, skipped a few details) – lets lose her TARDISy time essence, and houses House. Before she goes, though, she tells The Doctor one last time that she loves him without saying it, and disappears forever back into her police box shaped home.
We’re left with a scene where Amy and Rory ask if the TARDIS can give them a room that doesn’t have a bunk bed in it (which The Doctor doesn’t understand, because it’s a bed… With a ladder!), and wonder whether The Doctor has a room. He does, it turns out: the Control Room of the TARDIS, where he dances, flipping switches as he goes, with his one true love.
So what worked about this episode, besides pretty much everything? Well, there were beautiful turns of phrase throughout, from Idris’ out-of-order speeches, to the Gaiman-isms like patchwork people, gothic horror, and houses that kill. And the basic ideas were slap your head simple “why didn’t I think of that!” ideas like the TARDIS is human form, or the evil TARDIS House.
In fact, the only thing that didn’t quite work were the retrofit nature of the episode, which was originally intended for the Tennant era – hence the focus on The Ood and missing Timelords, and the slight difference in the voice of The Doctor.
But that’s a small quibble, because what this episode did have, which previous episodes have been lacking is pure, honest emotion, and a true challenge for The Doctor. He uses his brilliance to outsmart the enemy, of course, but there’s a good chunk of the episode where he’s out of his element, and really does not know what to do. It’s a beautiful thing to see. And the romance between the TARDIS and The Doctor is so gorgeous, so beautiful, so patented Gaiman fairy tale, it will be impossible to watch any episode of the show again without thinking about Suranne Jones portrayal of Idris. That’s good TV, and here’s hoping the rest of the episodes can follow suit.