The Doctor: Now, this is really – a bit – strange.
Doctor Who Season: S34 (Ep4).
Story Number: 245.
So very Moffat…
The first three episodes have established this new Doctor, established the show with its varying styles. Now the television programme can be wildly experimental.
Of course, Doctor Who hasn’t just been in existence for these three episodes, but for 51 years. The extraordinary final sequence of this story can, when this huge span of the show is thought of, either be considered: momentously radical, or one more intriguing yet still-mysterious addition to a programme that has always added to its mythology incrementally.
Momentously radical: because it’s an unwritten rule of Doctor Who that was went before the episode that began it all in 1963 should never be shown, (and yet we’ve already had such a scene in The Name of the Doctor).
One more intriguing yet still-mysterious addition: from the litany of regeneration, the running away with a TARDIS from the Time Lords, the foe from the Doctor’s past on Gallifrey, the supposed impossibility of 13 regenerations, the celery, (each added during one Doctor’s era over the first 20 years), to the will-never-be-shown (yet it was) Time War, it’s been one thing after another.
So if this extra addition to the mythology is more tradition than breaking with any tradition, this episode is still wildly experimental, but for many other reasons.
Boom Town dared to have simple scenes of two people talking over a restuaurant-dinner, but this episode dares to have it at the organising centre, as the other scenes dematerialise off to the past and future, the story begins – after the precredits prologue – with the restaurant, returns to it for the middle, and with the kiss it’s one of the episode’s multiple endings.
Another reason: there is no monster for the story. (Or is there?) It’s simply the Doctor’s imagination. (Or is it?) One subtly clever element of the story is that they do provide an alternate explanation for each instance, whether it’s the hull cooling or the Doctor’s forgetfulness regarding chalking LISTEN everywhere.
Also – the plot is like experimental jazz. The restaurant scenes have a melody to return to, but otherwise the Doctor is playing chords Doctor Who never has before. Moffat’s favourite motifs are heard once more – the causal loops, the fearsome everyday-objects, younger versions of characters, the whipsmart dialogue, but the storyline twists into new spiraling and sometimes dischordant new sounds. The Doctor shouting at his companion? He’s an idiot. He knows.
It’s an intriguing relationship that’s being sketched with these 4 episodes. If Moffat & Gatiss’s Sherlock could be said to make the Sherlock’n’John dynamic more of a partnership, with Watson understanding when he has to guide Sherlock, then the same could be said of Doctor Who 2014.
“A soldier so brave he doesn’t need a gun” – there’s a complex web of influence and inspiration going on with this episode, as Clara tries to settle Rupert after their encounter with the whatever-that-was. After his inspirational “Fear is a superpower” speech (and Capaldi really gets to showcase his multi-layered Doctor with this), the Doctor doesn’t quite get what she’s saying – “Sit”, he’s told. (Clara control-freakery used to try and make a situation the best it can be.)
The “heirloom” of the plastic toy eventually makes it way along family-lines (backwards) via Orson Pink, but it’s the final imagery of the episode that emphasises the Doctor isn’t beyond being reminded and guided.
Along with the two Pinks, and Clara and the Doctor, there is a fifth character which is within the web of influence and inspiration – the TARDIS. Look again at the shape of barn-walls, and the blue of this place-of-safety that the young Doctor has run to. Chameleon Circuit “error” or calming echo?
What makes this story so very brilliant isn’t merely the emotion of Clara’s speech that closes the episode, (and the clever editing and juxtaposition of the imagery) or the wildly experimental elements but also the fun and wit of Capaldi’s performance. It’s hilarious how the scene of the bemused Orson and Clara and the excited Doctor is played, lost in a mystery of his own creation. “Now, this is really – a bit – strange” he tells them gleefully. It’s a strange episode, scary but ultimately a sort of guide of how not to be cowed by fear of monsters, whether they are real or imaginary.