It's never a good feeling when you find yourself suddenly less interested in something you've previously been near-obsessive about. Not exactly actively disliking it, and certainly not turning against it, just feeling that taken a direction that's really not for you, and that while you still wish it well, you just can't get excited about it any more. Like when Suede released Head Music, when Monster Munch discontinued the Sizzlin' Bacon flavour, and when Vic Reeves did... well, anything after Big Night Out really.
|Too much Sizzlin' Bacon in the TARDIS|
Given its long and varied history, chances are that if you're a Doctor Who fan, you'll have felt this at one time or another. There've been unpopular Doctors, unpopular production teams, even unpopular programme logos, and that's not even getting started on the sheer number of tedious, incomprehensible or just plain mean-spirited stories that were almost enough to put people off watching ever again by themselves. Of course every fan will have their own experiences of this, and – in a revelation that will doubtless cause many to stop reading in indignance – this reviewer is having just such an experience right now.
For whatever reason (though bloody River Song clearly has a lot to do with it), the rather low-key approach and proliferation of ‘slow reveal’ story arcs just don’t seem to hold the same sort of personal appeal as the more grandstanding and in-your-face Russell T. Davies era did, to the extent that rewatching the four-decade-old black and white The War Games on DVD was actually a more exciting and enjoyable experience than first-watching the previous series. If anything, the first three episodes of this run have been even more convoluted and meandering, which is why it was so satisfying to have The Doctor’s Wife as a timely reminder of exactly why it’s always worth persevering with Doctor Who.
With no small irony, it had already been revealed in a pre-transmission ‘teaser’ (not ‘spoiler’, goodness no) that the episode would open with ‘something we haven’t seen since episode ten of The War Games’. Sadly this wasn’t one of the ‘incredible bunch’ of faces that the Time Lords ask the Second Doctor to choose from, but the Maths In A Box-esque psychic cube thingymajig that they use to send distress signals to each other – a fitting start for an episode that was both akin to an unexpected message of hope beaming out from nowhere, and indeed almost as enjoyable as The War Games. Said cube contains a distress signal supposedly sent by a fellow renegade Time Lord named ‘The Corsair’ (presumably after the sixteenth-century buccaneers rather than the doo-wop hitmakers), though happily nobody saw fit to make a charity single about his predicament. This leads The Doctor and his two inconsistently-scripted chums to what appears to be the home planet of forgotten cheapo eighties animated robots CP & Qwikstitch, but is in fact a sentient asteroid situated just outside the universe, which lures unwary Time Lords onto its surface to it can subsume the energy from their Tardises, and goes by the name of ‘House’.
‘House’ may share its name with Hugh Laurie’s Vicodin-addicted maverick surgeon (whose sidekick Taub, incidentally, has recently expressed a preference for "Classic Doctor Who"), but not his mastery of diagnostic lateral thinking, meaning that it remains oblivious to the Doctor’s Tardis – which, lest we forget, the makers of the seventies Doctor Who Top Trumps cards thought had a ‘mental ability’ of ‘nil’ – having the presence of mind to implant itself mentally into one of the asteroid’s hapless inhabitants. It's always been implied that everyone's favourite bigger-on-the-inside time machine was possessed of some degree of intelligence and capacity for independent thought, and here we finally get some evidence of that as the Tardis takes on the bigger-on-the-outside form of Suranne Jones, who would be easy to dismiss as stunt-casting designed to get the more 'feverish' fans thinking "phwoar, wouldn't mind giving her Ormulu Clock a good winding up" if she wasn't so unexpectedly good in the role, playing with just the right combination of smugness, flirtiness and scatterbrained scientific genius. Yes, this – confounding months of increasingly ridiculous and unrealistic speculation – is the Doctor’s ‘wife’. It’s a simple yet effective idea that fits so well that it’s hard to believe nobody had ever thought of it until now. Or at least nobody in a position to do anything constructive like write an actual proper television script had thought of it until now; ‘fan fiction’ may well have used the idea before, but it’s got about as much place in a proper review of a proper TV episode as YouTube videos of ‘mock’ ITV continuity recorded by someone with an inability to take a couple of steps away from the microphone and access to far too many bland ‘big band’ records, so take your harrumphing elsewhere please.
Michael Sheen was a little less impressive. Given a rare opportunity to do something other than play one of a series of recent-history figures who all apparently had the same face, he didn’t really manage to do as much with House’s voice as might have been expected (or indeed had been anticipated), lapsing into the usual ‘booming malevolence’ default setting when something a touch more detached and sinister (and indeed indicative of House’s non-Universal origins) would have been more appropriate. In fact, it wasn’t even as frightening as that French bloke staring into the camera on The Eurovision Song Contest later that evening. Disagree if you must, but it’s impossible to avoid the conclusion that he’s only going to end up on the long list of Doctor Who voice artists who weren’t Gabriel Woolf and his ‘sibilant’ voice.
Meanwhile – and this is supposed to be a positive review, believe it or not – Amy and Rory yet again proved to be the most forgettable aspect of the entire episode, with their spectacular lack of depth giving the already rather tedious chase around the Tardis corridors an unpersonal air that left the entire sequence feeling as though it would have been more comfortable in an episode of Space: 1999. The lack of ‘other’ Tardis rooms didn’t exactly help, and the inclusion of yet another false death for Rory must have left most sane viewers having to be physically restrained from throwing large and heavy objects at their television in lieu of actually being able to throw them at the production team. True, this is hardly Neil Gaiman’s fault, and it did work in the context of the episode, but this is one time too many on top of one time too many and it’s worth pointing out that Heroes, a series that was more or less run out of television town for featuring fake deaths, actually only ever featured one. Matt Smith, on the other hand, rises to the challenge of what is a rather offbeat storyline admirably, particularly in his alternately witty and tender exchanges with the ‘Tardis’, and his glee at cobbling together a new console room out of old wrecked bits of scrap. Though just imagine how much more effective that “fear me – I’ve killed all of them” line would have been if it hadn’t been featured in approximately thirteen million pre-transmission trailers.
|"...and a packet of Sizzlin' Bacon please..."|
More pertinently, though again less of a direct criticism of this episode, there’s the recurring problem of the post-Russell T. Davies era seemingly being unable to convey the sense that there’s an entire universe beyond the three leads and the handful of people they encounter each episode. Yes, technically this one was set ‘outside’ the universe and mostly given over to literally four characters and a voice, and as such this was an appropriate atmosphere, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that this was a happy accident rather than design. While it’s something of a relief not to have to endure any more shots of everyone running out of their houses to look at the sky and news reports by Trinity Wells, it is possible to go too far in the other direction and end up with, say, seemingly nobody else in the world being bothered that subterranean reptiles had infiltrated a high profile experimental drilling programme. Given that other prominent examples of this problem include such big-hitting ratings winners as Volume 3 of Heroes (yes, alright, the one with the fake death) and the big-screen remake of The Avengers, it’s fairly safe to say that this is a problem that needs addressing pretty sharpish.
By now you’re probably thinking that this is all rather nitpicky for a supposedly positive review, and, well, you’re absolutely right. That’s kind of the point. Everything is so streamlined now, especially in this post-RTD era, that it’s hard to get a spanner into really good episodes and say what made them really good without resorting to generalisms, cliches and good old fashioned repeating yourself, let alone finding something to say that hasn’t already been said by every other reviewer; negative points, however, are as easy to seize on and hold up to ridicule as ever. In all seriousness, you can get five times as many words as this out of saying you actually quite like The Underwater Menace, and yet struggle to bring this review up to a decent length. Which is probably why the original attempt at it was full of ill-fitting references to Craig Gannon’s guitar playing on the live version of Rusholme Ruffians – because, well, you have to say something. So, one single decent episode brings home the Sizzlin’ Bacon and suddenly I’m hooked again. But it’s so difficult to say exactly why.