The Doctor: My name, my real name – that is not the point. The name I chose is the Doctor. The name you choose, is like… it’s like a promise you make.
The recent season finale of Doctor Who has been quite an explosive one, and that’s putting it mildly. And why not? It has to lead up to the show’s fiftieth anniversary special in November.
The Doctor (Matt Smith) finally receives a summons to the planet Trenzalore, where it has been foretold that he will meet his end and finally answer the First Question: “Doctor who?” The Whisper Men have kidnapped his friends Vastra, Jenny, and Strax, forcing the Doctor to bring his new companion Clara (Jenna Louise-Coleman) with him to the ominous world. There, he must face his future, clash once more with the Great Intelligence, and say goodbye to the woman he loves the most.
Naturally, I’m quite happy for any episode that brings back the wonderful trio of Madame Vastra, Jenny Flint, and Strax. They’re fun to watch, and I still think Vastra and Jenny are the best couple in the whole show. River Song (Alex Kingston) also shows up for a quiet but meaningful performance, calling back to her first appearance from “Forest of the Dead.” As for the antagonists, the Whisper Men were certainly threatening, but only for the first half of the episode. Once the show got to Trenzalore, the real threat went to the Great Intelligence, whose latest plan against the Doctor was less Machiavellian and more of a last-ditch “screw you” to the Time Lord. Not quite as grand as his previous efforts, but decent for this episode.
And to be fair, the villain isn’t the centerpiece of the finale. It’s the Doctor and Clara. Here we get to see Matt Smith’s Doctor pushed to the emotional edge. The way he collapses on a couch or looks at Clara with sorrow, you can feel how old he is and how old he will be when his life finally runs out. And when we finally learn why Clara Oswald is “The Impossible Girl,” it’s fascinating to see her (retroactive) effect on the Doctor’s timeline, explaining how she keeps reappearing in different times and places. It also gives her a new dimension that her character was lacking until now, going beyond her plucky attitude and her calling as a nanny. It’s a little like having Amelia “I’m Gonna Pull Time Apart For You” Pond back.
Besides the acting, the visuals are pretty great on this episode. The Whisper Men are simple and terrifying, with a cool rhyming couplet motif. Trenzalore itself is a massive battlefield-turned-graveyard, with the Doctor’s own tomb as the centerpiece. And while it can come off as a little corny, the show pulls off a few clever tricks with editing stock footage to insert Clara into different parts of the Doctor’s timeline, putting her on the same screen as former stars like William Hartnell, Sylvester McCoy, and Jon Pertwee.
One thing I definitely have to give Steven Moffat credit for is the finale’s clever subversion. Although it’s called “The Name of the Doctor,” we never learn the Doctor’s real name–because it’s irrelevant. What matters is why this particular Time Lord calls himself “The Doctor” and what tragic event in his timeline he’s trying to atone for (on that note, the very last scene is not to be missed). This show is less about the Doctor’s death and more about what–and who–he’s living for.
Doctor Who is available through BBC One and BBC America. New episodes air on Saturday. The Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Special will air on Saturday, November 23.
Bibliography: “The Name of the Doctor.” Doctor Who (Series 7). Directed by Saul Metzstein. Written by Steven Moffat. Produced by Denise Paul, Marcus Wilson, Steven Moffat, and Caroline Skinner. BBC One, BBC America. Original broadcast date: May 16, 2013.