29 Apr 2013

[Review] - Doctor Who, Series 7 Episode 11, "Journey To The Centre Of The TARDIS"

Well. That happened.

If the poster above had been in anyway indicative of the episode it was meant to represent, I'd say we might have been in for a good time. Sadly what we got was a mess of an episode which, despite having watched it multiple times now, I have no shame in admitting I'm still not entirely certain what it was about. Journey had the most promise of any episode this series, including the one scripted by Neil Gaiman, and is without a doubt the biggest disappointment, and possibly the unparallelled failure of the bunch. I didn't care for The Bells of St. John, but at least it was a muddle that held itself together. Journey ran itself round in circles, then collapsed on the floor, trying desperately to catch its breath. And never did.

Hit the jump for the review, which contains spoilers that also once two days running through the same room, dressed as a strawberry.

I've been starting these reviews with examining the references to the series as a whole, and a break down of the episode it was meant to be undoing. However, if Moffat's intention was to wipe clean the memory of The Invasion of Time, you'll excuse me in sticking with the dodgy set pieces and potato-headed baddies. As slap dash as the sets might have been in that Tom Baker serial, at least there were set pieces. Exactly what is the point in devoting an episode of the series to exploring the TARDIS interior, and set 80% of said episode in the bloody console room? Fleeting glimpses and endless corridors is not exploration, it is fan wanking at its very worst.

I think the problem lies with the basic thesis of the episode: that there needs to be a special episode devoted to the TARDIS insides, a premise I disagree with heartily. The best looks inside the TARDIS we've gotten over the years have been those that are incidental. I take issue with the idea that the Doctor, living for more the 900 years in an "infinite" space, spends all his time in the console room. That'd be like owning Wayne Manor, and spending all the time in the breakfast nook. In the classic series, occasionally, the action would follow the Doctor (or more likely, his companions) as they walked the halls. The Fifth trying desperately to locate the Zero Room after his regeneration. Or the Tenth trying on outfits in the Wardrobe room, or Four and Adric visiting the Cloister room, or starring sadly into Romana's abandoned accommodations. It's never given us a full picture of the interior, but we can never know the arrangement and full capabilities of the TARDIS. To attempt to do so would be, well, probably something akin to what we got here.

I also don't understand why, if the show was intent on showing us specific rooms, why they wouldn't just go and do some location shooting. From a storytelling point of view, it seems like it would serve everyone better then having to wait until the budget would allow for a temporary set to be built, for use in one scene. And it's not as if there is a overarching architectural theme to the specific rooms. Need the library, find a university willing to sacrifice the periodical section for a couple days. Need a swimming pool, or an observatory, or garage, plenty of places like that out in the world.

I also take issue with the idea that, if a special episode must be devoted to it, why it has to be a one with a ticking clock and a finger on the trigger? It seems to me, the best way to do such an episode would be right after the acquisition of a new companion. The second episodes tend to be the Doctor showing the companion something amazing, and what would be more amazing then the labyrinthian corridors and endless wonders within the TARDIS herself. Stuff the exterior threat, and just have the companion get lost on the way to the bathroom. I'm certain the Doctor has enough secrets tucked away for a newbie to get themselves into a touch of trouble all on their own. All the addition of a baddie does is mean that instead of lingering and examining and exploring, everyone will spend their time running back and forth, and that Mr. Moffat is why the Invasion of Time lacked punch, not that the sets looked dodgy. It's because, much like this episode, no one stood still long enough for anything of any substance to happen. This episode could have taken place on any space station or alien colony or a giant hamster cage. Nothing, and I mean nothing, was uniquely TARDISy about it.

Nor, if you are making an episode set within the TARDIS, do you focus the emotional narrative on three wholly unlikeable characters we have no attachment to, and will be dispensed of in various ways. The fodder is not who we're invested in. Considering that two of the previous episodes have made such a deal about the TARDIS not liking Clara, would this not have been the perfect opportunity to build on that idea? The Doctor insists in this episode that it is important that they get along, so why wouldn't you build the episode around the TARDIS being petty and screwing with Clara, and having them work out their issues with each other? That is called character development. That is called good writing. This is a waste of an hour.

I've said it many times before, and I'll keep on saying it until someone listens, but simple stories are better. Insist on overcomplicating the story, and it will collapse in on itself, and take the characters along with it. Complexity should be built up gradually, over the course of an arc. And this episode is a perfect example of how not to write an episode of Doctor Who, so perfect that I will improve my opinion of Bells and Rings, which didn't bungle things as badly as this. There are salvage traders, which were a stupid way to precipitate the plot, and can I say how exactly little sense there was in how the story got started. The Doctor gets knocked out of, and under, the TARDIS, despite the doors being well and properly locked, while Clara gets dumped down several levels?

But anyway, so there was the magnetic blast thing, which caused the release of the terrible deadly gas, which is everywhere, except it isn't and is never mentioned again. Then there is the self destruct, which the Doctor does himself, because he need the salvage crew's help, which he doesn't. But it's not real, except it is, because... it says so in the script, I guess. Then also, there is a rip in time. Small one, so small it wasn't important to mention until half way through, but the rest of the plot pretty much relies on it, so should probably say something. Then the one salvage guy isn't an android, but the victim of the worst practical joke ever, but that doesn't matter because we don't care about him. Then there are the burnt future things, and I guess having your cells burn up at the molecule level not only somehow means you're kept reasonably whole, but also that you start acting like a wolf. But that's alright, because there is also the engines exploding, and going back in time and warning not to let the thing that just happened happen, and somehow a grenade reversing time even more, and the Doctor remembering that time reset, despite it being reset further back then even his future self had warned him about and oh no I've gone crosseyed.

Look, OK, this is your problem. And I don't know if Steve Thompson was just woefully ill equipped to write for Who, or if he felt he need to include every single story idea he developed when trying to break this story. Or if the mess is the result of some overzealous editorial control. But I want to know who to blame for this traffic accident of an episode, where everything was smashed together at high velocities and we got to watch them try to pry apart the wreckage. There was a genuine moment in the episode, at the end, in the quarry, when the Doctor confronted Clara. When he admitted everything he should have told her straight away because secrets never help, and she admitted she was frightened of him just then. Clara's shell-shock like reaction, and Smith's turn, from anger, to sadness, to father like joy was wonderful, , I just wish that a) it had happened in a better episode, and 2) that it hadn't been erased by plot contrivance #24601. Such a moment is deep and profound, and shouldn't be used as a cheap trick in an episode where nothing counts.

This episode had the potential to be that episode. The one episode a series that stands by itself, that shrugs off fifty years of programming and elevates itself to another level. It had the potential to be Blink, to be Midnight, to be The Doctor's Wife. Instead, it's now the episode of the series that fans (or, me at least) will pretend never happened, will skip over on the DVD, and is relegated to the shame-filled chuckles when we talk about the series low points. Congratulations Journey, you are the Ghost Light of the Eleventh era. Now, go to your room and think about what you did.

Oh, and can I just add how ridiculous the History of the Time War book was. The Doctor is the only survivor with enough details to write a book that thick, and he certainly wouldn't have included his real name in the text, nor would he have the patience to write such a volume, unless he did it during one of his depressive funks. Or why he would keep it on a pedestal in his library? There was a lot of everything about this episode that doesn't make any sense. I suppose we should be happy that, in universe, it never really happened.

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