Voyage to the heart of a 1000-year old timeship in our definitive review...
Seemingly at the heart of this 50th Anniversary Spring run of Doctor Who is the promise that half a decade on, the show can still provide multitudes of surprises around some of its alleged constants. Case in point, this week's utterly brilliant blockbuster episode, Journey To The Centre Of The TARDIS, the third consecutive gem in three weeks that's once again up with the best of Season Seven.
Without a shadow of a doubt, at the heart of the episode's success (other than the heart of the TARDIS itself, of course) was Sherlock writer Stephen Thompson's superb handling of our voyage into the depths of the Doctor's iconic time-and-space Type 40 travel machine. It would have been all too easy for our glimpses into the confines of the ship and its inner workings to have felt like a simple nostalgia tour with anti-climactic resolutions- hello, The Invasion Of Time!- yet the science-fiction themed family drama of the Van Baalen brothers, the innovative plot twists and the season arc elements elevated it far beyond such a lowly status.
Indeed, this week more than ever, for the first time since the mid-season opener The Bells Of Saint John, we can begin to discuss proper the implications of the wider plot arc. Once again, this entire season's arc has been structured quite differently from Seasons Five (the cracks in time) and Season Six (River and the Doctor's death), with two self-contained strands running through, the first being the Fall of the Ponds and the second being the mystery of Clara interwoven with the issues of the Great Intelligence and the Doctor's secrets. This time around, the Doctor revealed his full worries about the Oswald trio to Clara, scaring her more than ever as he realised that she was totally oblivious to any past incarnations of herself. More excitingly still, in the depths of an all-encompassing Gallifreyan library on board the Doctor's 'old girl', Clara actually discovered the Doctor's true name...
Now, some critics have argued the inevitable 'reset' button the Doctor launches through the TARDIS' leaked crack was a cop-out on Thompson's part. For me, though, it worked well in ensuring that the next two episodes don't simply have viewers going "Well, why aren't they talking about the elephant(s) in the room?", and moreso it revealed the almost worrying lengths that the Time Lord will go to in order to keep his name hidden. If River whispered it into his ear in Season Four, and Clara was ready to say it now until the madman in a box cut her short, then it seems that it's not so much the pronunciation of the word which has the Doctor on edge, but rather the implications this knowledge could have for either himself or the universe. Perhaps the reason the Doctor needs to keep his name a secret is a selfish one- could it stop him travelling if the name were to fall into the wrong hands, and/or rob him of the essence of being a Time Lord? Whatever the secret truly is, it seems we'll know for sure in three weeks' time where everything's heading for the 50th Anniversary!
Back to the episode at hand, though- another point of huge commendation from this reviewer was the visionary direction from Mat King. Once again, there was a reinforced sense of true blockbuster-esque science-fiction action on offer here, with many of the wonders of science-fiction legends in film such as Prometheus and Avatar present via vistas such as the Library, the Eye of Harmony and the Van Baalen salvage ship itself. Yet at the same time, it didn't feel as if we were jarringly outside the realms of Who- more and more, in a positive sense it feels as if writers are trying to show us now how classic-era tales of wonder and galactic exploration can fare on a show that now has an impressively large televisual budget and yet can employ great character guest stars such as Ashley Walters every week to great effect.
What's most consistently astounding for this reviewer regarding Journey To The Centre Of The TARDIS is that it has come from the same mind which gave us The Curse Of The Black Spot in 2011's Season Six. Although that nautical sea-bound yarn has its fair share of merits, and warranted a strong 4* score from us, its ending felt ripped out of other recent Who tales and as a whole brought the entire story down with its deus ex machina nature. In contrast, Journey's ending provides a well-rounded (well-roundeled? Sorry.) sense to the whole viewing experience, both wrapping up brimming season plot arcs with a golden bow waiting to be fully unwrapped in two weeks' time and giving a dazzling science-fiction-heavy conclusion to a true blockbuster of an episode.
When Doctor Who returned to our screens at the end of March, I'll admit that it was something of a shame to have it return with a great-rather-than-spectacular 4.5* episode in The Bells Of Saint John that wasn't quite the masterpiece that episodes like The Snowmen and Asylum Of The Daleks were. Once Cold War had arrived, though, it was clear that the show was back on top form, with Hide and now Journey To The Centre Of The TARDIS failing to disappoint in any respect either. Tonight, we've had ourselves a glorious time exploring shocking areas of a ship that we thought we understood, yet which in the end could house darker secrets than we as viewers might ever possibly have imagined in 50 years- and that's saying something. It begs the question that if this is the kind of innovation upon a half-century-young format we can still get on a weekly basis, then just what might we expect when we reach 2063? Because judging by the spectacular results on offer tonight, Doctor Who isn't going anywhere from BBC1 other than up, up and up into the distant reaches of time and space!