It turns out Doctor Who's time-traveling misfit has always had one great love in his life. Tonight's episode was writer Neil Gaiman's love letter to the series, but it was also a showcase for the Doctor's great love affair.
"The Doctor's Wife" provides a weirdly skewed take on the show's premise, which might well serve as an intro to the show for neophytes as well as making longtime fans very happy. It's a bit daft, quite silly, and surprisingly scary in parts. And it might be the final notice to those fans who still prefer to think of Doctor Who as a chaste sciencey adventure series: 21st century Doctor Who is all about relationships, and it's written into the very DNA of the show.
The idea that the Doctor's time machine, the TARDIS, was a living thing has been a part of Doctor Who for decades — at the very least since the Jon Pertwee era, when the Doctor used to say that the TARDIS was alive "after a fashion." And the TARDIS' telepathic properties were mentioned here and there, from the early 70s onwards as well. And in more recent years, the show's gone even further, suggesting that TARDISes are grown rather than built, and are basically organic machines. (Grown from chicken nuggets, apparently.)
But even though we've heard the Doctor speaking to his TARDIS countless times, we've never really seen his TARDIS talk back, and the idea that his TARDIS has a mind of its own has always been left rather vague.
Until now, when we actually see the consciousness (or "Matrix") of the TARDIS ported into a human brain, so that the TARDIS can speak and kiss the Doctor and bite the Doctor and run around acting like a madwoman. And we finally get the TARDIS' perspective on the story of Doctor Who. While the Doctor thought he was choosing to steal this obsolete TARDIS from a museum, the TARDIS thought it was choosing him, and they were sort of stealing each other. What's the point, after all, of being a capsule that can go any place or any time in the universe, if all you do is sit in a dusty room on Gallifrey, the Time Lord home planet? "I wanted to see the universe, so I stole a Time Lord and ran away. And you were the only one mad enough."
Becoming a person is sort of a disorienting process for a mind that previously inhabited a vast boundless and shifting topography outside of normal space, and so we see Idris (for lack of a better name) having to discover how to use language and communicate normally. She still has some kind of vague extra-temporal awareness, so the future and the past and the present tend to blend together quite a bit, and she has a hard time with finding the right words for things, especially one word in particular, which turns out to be "alive."
(For quite a bit of the episode, I thought the word Idris was groping towards was "wife," but actually the word "wife" is never uttered on screen despite being in the title of the episode.)
And even though Idris is used to being a vast interdimensional entity inside a deceptively small blue box, she still keeps marveling at how big and complicated people are — people, she remarks, are "bigger on the inside." (Which was a working title for this episode, according to the BBC site.) In a sense, we're all like TARDISes, all of us living in the past and obsessing about the future and having shifting internal topographies. Except that we have bodies, and language. And the mystery of language is that it embodies us, sort of.
And while Idris (or maybe we should call her "Sexy") is learning to be in a flesh-and-blood body (which is, rather inconveniently, dying), the sentient planet known as House has moved in to the vacant TARDIS consciousness and is marveling at what it's like to have a vehicular body. ("I have corridors now... I'm rather enjoying the sensation of having you running around inside me.") House has been eating TARDISes to survive — but now that he knows this is the last TARDIS ever, he has to come to our universe to look for more food sources. So he hijacks the TARDIS with Rory and Amy on board.
(One does have to wonder, though — if House, occupying the TARDIS consciousness, is able to speak and act like a sentient being, why can't Sexy? Why doesn't the TARDIS speechify all the time? Actually, let's hope the TARDIS doesn't start talking, since that would do away with a lot of the show's mystery going forward, and cheapen this episode.)
This is definitely the closest the show's come to its oft-stated aim of being a fairy tale in the Steven Moffat era. The Doctor is a mad man who thought he was stealing a box, but it was actually stealing him, and now the box is a woman who's kinda sorta in love with the Doctor.
The Doctor and Sexy bicker and process their relationship a bit, and Sexy explains what anyone who's been paying attention all along probably knows — that the TARDIS' famed inability to travel where the Doctor wants to go is not actually a fault. The TARDIS always takes the Doctor where he needs to go, rather than where he wants to go. She vents a bit about his inability to follow instructions, he acts proprietorial towards her, and they definitely start to seem like a married couple. If the episode has a flaw, it's that it gets a bit too cute at times, and it's maybe a bit too much of a fannish love letter. But the thing is, the show, under Russell T. Davies, was frequently more self-indulgent than this, with less of a solid story to tell. And it's actually quite moving and powerful at the end, when the glowing holographic Idris vanishes with a wheezing, groaning sound, leaving the Doctor unable to communicate with her in quite the same way ever again.
And the other thing that makes "The Doctor's Wife" absolutely work — as a great Doctor Who story rather than just an excuse to explore the Doctor's relationship with his time machine — is the fact that the Doctor faces a really horrible dilemma that pushes all of his buttons, and he very nearly gives up. The Doctor is already emotionally charged in the early part of the episode, because of the prospect of finding another Time Lord who's survived the Time War — and then this turns into the possibility of saving lots of Time Lords. As Amy points out, the Doctor still wants to be forgiven — and when he's emotional, he makes mistakes. (Like missing the danger he and his TARDIS are in.)
Later, the Doctor actually utters the words, "I don't know what to do," and has a brief moment of despair. House has stolen his TARDIS, with Amy and Rory on board, and he's stuck with the TARDIS' consciousness in a dying body, in a dying universe, with no way to save his friends and his beloved time machine. Of course, the moment of surrender is ultra-brief, and he figures out a totally insane plan: to build a working TARDIS console out of all the broken bits of hundreds of bits of TARDISes in the junkyard.
In the end, though, the Doctor defeats House because of House's own selfishness and sadism. Given all of the infinite potential and time-warping awareness of the TARDIS, all House can think of to do is find ways to torture Amy and Rory. And when the Doctor offers House a deal to save all of them, House betrays him — as the Doctor is hoping he will. As the Doctor says, House was the size of a planet, "but inside, you're just so small." Which brings the story back around to the idea that what makes us (and the TARDIS) bigger on the inside is our emotions and dreams and stuff.
The story has lots of lovely references back to old Who stories, including the telepathic distress call box from "The War Games" and the Cloister Bell from various other stories. And a mention of Artron Energy as well as fish fingers — and the return of David Tennant's control room! Also at first, I thought the reference to the robot King Arthur was a very garbled version of "The King's Demons," but then Amy says she was there for that adventure. Oh, and with the backstory of the Corsair, we finally have confirmation that Time Lords can swap genders when they regenerate — although, really, was there ever any doubt given what we saw Romana able to do? Oh, and I'm sure the whole "only water in the forest is the river" thing will turn out to be significant somehow. Do we know anybody named River?
At the end of the story, you get the sense that the Doctor's relationship with his TARDIS has been changed forever, and he's aware to a much greater extent that the TARDIS is more than just his travel capsule — when he talks to her, as he always has, he wonders if she's listening. And that last whoop when the TARDIS starts taking him where he needs to go gave me goosebumps, really. At the end, too, the Doctor says two different things are "the best thing there is": 1) Being alive, and thus letting things get to you. 2) A boy and his box, traveling through the universe, long after the others have come and gone.