Dr. Moo breaks the promise.
An episode called “The Name of the Doctor” with the tagline “His Secret Revealed” has a lot to live up to. Then it turns out that the Doctor’s name is still unknown and the true secret is actually an incarnation that was somehow unworthy to be called “Doctor”. Steven Moffat is a master of misdirection!
The story is fan-service in essence. From the opening with every Doctor being saved by infinity of Claras to its end with that twist reveal, this has several fan-pleasing moments thrown in. By the end we now have an answer to how Clara came to be The Impossible Girl but have a huge question to answer in its place: Who is John Hurt?
No, sorry, not “who is John Hurt?” but “Who is John Hurt!” (See what I did there?), because the greatest British actor working in the world today has just been revealed as playing The Doctor. John Hurt! If you’re trying to convince us that there’s a whole other version of the character flying around in the past, if you’re going to rewrite history like that, you need an actor of his caliber to be involved to even stand a chance to get away with it. This is inspired casting!
Casting is one of this story’s strongest assets. Not only is there the small matter that Who is John Hurt but there’s also everyone else. Matt Smith is more restrained than usual, selling the Doctor’s anxieties about visiting his grave and pitching his performance perfectly, blending that with the Doctor as a warrior facing down the Great Intelligence, with Richard E Grant reprising the role with more menace and distilled evil than ever before. Jenna Coleman gets to show us many splintered versions of Clara and convinces with multiple roles while growing in confidence with the original 2013 version, and it’s her who steals the show.
Also returning we have Alex Kingston as River Song in her last appearance chronologically, this being from after Forest of the Dead and the tie-ins to that story are superb. It could feel shoehorned in (and probably would under a lesser writer) but instead it feels natural. For once she and the Doctor meet in the right order and their final goodbye is heart(s)breaking. Goodbye sweetie indeed, she will be missed. We all thought this was her last story didn’t we? We all worried when we heard she was returning for Christmas 2015, because it could’ve undermined this ending. Thankfully what we got was The Husbands of River Song and it was amazing, but I’m getting ahead of myself. She may have met three Doctors (on screen at least) but the 11th Doctor was “Her Doctor” so for her final meeting with him it’s fitting that it should be towards the end of that lifetime in particular.
Finally we have the Paternoster Gang (GIVE THEM A BIG FINISH SPIN-OFF!!!) of Vastra, Jenny and Strax. Once again I have mixed feelings. They’re entertaining as ever and provide the emotional core of the story – when the Doctor’s victories are undone it’s with these three that the effects of this are explored – and the conference call scene is a visual masterpiece. It’s just that I think they’re less effective than before, possibly because they’re taken out of their natural Victorian setting. The Snowmen, The Crimson Horror and Deep Breath are their best stories, and their being placed in Victorian London is why. I want these three there, not on some alien world. It feels more natural. I want to see (well, hear) a Big Finish spin-off for them set in that time period. That has potential to be wonderful.
Sadly that’s about it for The Name of the Doctor. It looks good, it’s filled with fan-service, it answers questions, it has that twist ending and the cast is top-notch but otherwise there’s not a lot that it does for me. The story itself is lacking in substance. The Great Intelligence's plot to rewrite the Doctor’s life is needlessly convoluted, as is the explanation for The Impossible Girl, and the story doesn’t really end so much as it stops. How do the Doctor and Clara get out of the Doctor’s timestream afterwards? Is it because it’s the Doctor’s timestream so it doesn’t do anything adverse to him? I guess it must be, but it’s never actually said and likely never will be.
It’s just a bit of a non-starter.
And that’s a shame because there are lots of neat ideas in play here.
I think then that The Name of the Doctor is best enjoyed on first viewing when you have no idea what’s coming. When you know what happens it kind of loses its edge. This, I think, makes it one of Moffat’s weaker episodes and easily his weakest season finale yet.
When he's not obsessing about Doctor Who whilst having I Am The
Doctor play in his head, Dr. Moo can usually be found reading up on the
latest in Quantum Physics. As you do when you're a physicist.