-Dr. River Song
Great casting is when an actor fits his role so perfectly that you feel like you’ve seen that person before — at the grocery store, passing by on the sidewalk — even if you have, in fact, never seen that person before in your life. As it turns out, I had never seen Adrian Schiller (Uncle), though I felt sure I had. Then there are the people you’ve seen, but there’s no reason you should remember, like Elizabeth Berrington (Auntie), who has been in several notable films and shows, but of the ones I’d seen, she did not play major roles. That’s also great casting. But perhaps the greatest casting — let’s call it Sublime Casting — is when an actor fits his role so perfectly that you feel like you’ve never seen that person before, even if, in fact, you know the person intimately, or have seen them very recently. As it turns out, I’d seen Suranne Jones not more than a few months ago, when my wife and I watched series 3 of The Sarah Jane Adventures. She played Mona Lisa, a deliciously batty and malevolent monster-of-the-week that made me sit up and go, “Wow. What a great villain of the week.” You’d think that I would recognize someone I had seen so recently, and of whom I’d thought so highly. Nope. Instead, Jones gave the best kind of performance in this last week’s episode: the kind that, no matter how many times you watch it, feels like a total revelation.
Which is appropriate. After all, she’s playing the TARDIS.
I hyperbolize, of course. Just a tad. I’m confident that if Matt Smith (for instance) popped up in anything from this point forward, I’d recognize him. He’s the Eleventh Doctor. Another bit of great casting is an actor doing a role so well that it kind of sticks to him forever after. I’m not talking about typecasting, which is when an actor, for whatever reason, can’t get any kind of role except that which conforms to the traits of a single, past part. No, I’m talking about being able to refer to Bob Hoskins as “Mario” and not have it be an insult — infamy never hurt anyone with real talent. Hoskins was a great actor before Super Mario Bros., and he’s still great, but there’s just something about a certain kind of role that, when a performer just owns it, the aura of that ownership becomes part of their charisma. So if Matt Smith wins an Oscar someday and a thousand people Tweet, “The Doctor just won the Oscar!” it’s not that they don’t appreciate his range or technique; it’s that, to them, he is the Doctor.
In a similar fashion, I think Suranne Jones is now the TARDIS. Whatever she does from now on (and I certainly hope that she moves on to huge and even more wonderful things), I’ll be able to say, “Oh, I love her. She’s the TARDIS.” Nine out of ten people will look at me like I have coconut milk dribbling down my jowls, but that tenth person will chuckle and give me a mental (or perhaps literal) high five. We’ll know what I meant. It’s a compliment of the highest kind. Perhaps a peculiarly fanboyish kind of compliment, but dead sincere.
Most actors on Doctor Who, whether they’re playing companions, recurring regulars, or one-week guest stars, are along for the ride. Even when he’s not on screen, everyone is more or less trying to keep up with whomever is playing the Doctor. That’s the way they’re written. And most might be capable of channeling the energy and presence needed to play the role, but it’s in the nature of the Doctor to command the room whenever he’s on screen. Jones is asked to do one better, to one-up the Doctor in terms of characterization and in presence. She succeeds. Miraculously, she succeeds. I love Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill; they are awesome companions, and they have grown into robust characters and headliners in their own right. But they’re not really foils for the Doctor. They simply aren’t allowed by the constraints of the series to operate on his level. The only characters that ever outstrip the Doctor tend to be geniuses of historical importance or supervillains. For a single episode, Jones was tasked with the nigh-insurmountable task of playing a character that has been in the series as long as the Doctor — indeed, longer than any one incarnation of the Doctor. The TARDIS has undergone cosmetic changes over the years; it got one right at the outset of the Smith era. But when you think about it, the TARDIS has only been a character in the series in an abstract sense, with the exertions of the Doctors and the fondness of the fans doing the heavy lifting. Jones has to take all of that history and inertia and turn it into a workable character for a single episode. To work with Smith and turn it into a plausible romance between a boy and his time machine.
That’s, uh, fairly daunting.
But “The Doctor’s Wife” never even seems like it’s stressed under all that weight; neither does Jones, who handily walks away with the episode, thanks in part to Smith’s tremendous work as a sparring partner and as the current trustee of the show’s legacy. (If he wins any awards for this season, this is the episode that will have done it.) Her support also comes in the form of episode director Richard Clark, who helmed “Gridlock” and “The Lazarus Experiment” in series 3; nothing in those episodes suggested the dexterity he displays here, moving with deft, fluid moves from comedy to heartbreak to danger to comedy to heartbreak and on and on in a spry, poignant rondel. Maybe he just needed the right script to unlock his talent, and boy does he get it. Neil Gaiman’s name has been on the lips of fans for years, ever since the relaunch of the series in 2005. The script has been in the works for years, and the polish of time and a scrupulous writing process shows in the final product. Moffat has shepherded Gaiman through the process, and it’s clear that these two longtime Who geeks wanted to get the story of the Doctor and the TARDIS just right.
Besides feeding the Doctor and Idris (the name of the human into whose body the TARDIS gets transplanted) tons of great lines, Gaiman draws from the same vein that bled into his more macabre Sandman tales in the second half of the episode. The whole thing is rather dark, actually, but more viscerally so later on. A sentient asteroid named House (played by Michael Sheen, pinch hitting for Hugh Laurie?) lures Time Lords to his own little pocket universe in order to kill them and feed off the energies of their TARDISes. When he learns that the Doctor is the last, he realizes he needs to escape into our universe and find a new energy source. For technobabbly reasons, he puts the TARDIS’s soul in Idris and hijacks the shell… with Amy and Rory trapped inside.
As mournful as it is to see the Doctor’s hope of seeing some of his fellow Time Lords again get smushed (not to mention another poor Ood under malevolent mind control), it’s even more harrowing to witness the psychological torture Amy and Rory endure at House’s hands. In a recurring motif, Rory is killed again, trapped in the infinite labyrinth of the TARDIS interior, abused and driven mad by unseen “they” until he rots to death hating Amy. Oh — just kidding! It’s just a little hallucination House cooked up to screw with Amelia Pond, apparently figuring out that as horrible as it is to keep silent about the Doctor’s impending demise, making her husband hate her and die is a little worse. Gillan is getting quite the workout in this series crying over the corpses of the men in her life. What House does to Amy isn’t really much different in practice from what the Doctor’s subconscious “Dream Lord” did to her in “Amy’s Choice” in last season — the difference being that House tortures them for sick pleasure, while the Doctor was doing it as bizarre couples’ therapy. That said, though, our first glimpse of the inner TARDIS in the new series (apart from a snippet in the wardrobe in series 2) is appropriately nightmarish and dilapidated in the manner of Ridley Scott’s Alien. I suppose it’s a step up from the corridors resembling an abandoned factory in “The Invasion of Time,” but still.
All things considered, House may actually be one of the most sadistic villains in Doctor Who. He delights in his grotesque games in a way rarely seen in Who monsters. The fact that he’s more or less a souped-up version of HAL doesn’t make him any less terrifying. As giddy as the Doctor is to actually speak to his beloved TARDIS (and get an answer), the parting is one of the saddest moments of the new series, and one of the few in which Eleven is so nakedly vulnerable. It was a rare gift, snatched away. And the things House did cut the Doctor to the rawest nerve. He’s faced down monsters who destroy planets and try to manipulate the entirety of space and time, but House specifically goes after his companions, his TARDIS, his fellow Time Lords — the only family the Doctor has. I continue to be impressed with just how take-no-prisoners the Doctor is being of late, but here his fist-pumping “Finish him off girl!” is straight up chilling. It’s an aesthetically lovely moment, but very cold; not terribly triumphant, which is okay — “triumphant” would have been the wrong tone. Having spent most of the episode a step or two behind or racing to catch up (and the brief shots of jury-rigged TARDIS control whizzing through the crack in the universe were awe-inspiring), the clever turning of the tables right near the end is vintage Who, and light years away from the RTD era, in which the Doctor would have apologized — “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. But you forced me to do this.” — to the entity that just tried to kill him and his family and invade his universe to devour it a tiny piece at a time. As vulgar as that may have been, the Doctor in a cold, calculated rage is the stuff of horror stories. I love it.
Given all the quirky touches in this episode (the knocking, the very Gaimanesque non sequiturs from Auntie and Uncle, “Sexy”), the romantic sweep almost shouldn’t work… but it does. Even with all the macabre, heartbreaking things going on; even with the screwball dialogue kicked up a few notches, the episode is intimate and tender. Rarely have we seen the Eleventh Doctor in an approachable light; he’s always just a bit too alien, a bit too rebel-with-a-bow-tie. Here, he’s the loneliest man in two universes, who travels with two lively young people, but those people are in love with each other. They’ll move on someday, and he’ll be alone with his TARDIS again. This is how the episode ends — the Doctor alone in the control room, tinkering and spinning about, talking aloud to himself…
But not quite.
Now we know that he has a constant companion (we’ve met her properly; a pleasure to make your acquaintance, old girl!) that will never abandon him, and he’ll never abandon her. There is an unbreachable wall between them, but when all they have is each other, he’ll still be flitting about his control room, wires fraying, sparks flying, lights blinking, alarms blaring, a laughing Madman and his Box. A match made in the heavens. A love that literally spans eternity, every wibbly-wobby, timey-wimey second of it. ☕