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Doctor Who, “The Doctor’s Wife” — a Love Letter

Neil Gaiman is one of us.

He’s a big nerd, in the best possible way, and we love him for it. And when it comes to Doctor Who, one of the formative shows of his childhood, his nerdery really shows. Go to YouTube and find clips of him talking about this episode, about prepping for it, and getting to lurk round the set. He’s so excited to be writing an episode of this show, he’s got this look in his eyes like the world is made of chocolate. More eloquent about it than you or I would be, and certainly more successful—but a great big nerd.

When the title for the episode dropped, several months before it aired, I remember the way the internet exploded. The assumption was that “The Doctor’s Wife” had to mean a return visit from River Song (Alex Kingston). And I would have been fine with that. Hell, it was River who lured me into the fandom proper to begin with. And Neil’s a fan of hers—he has said some very lovely things about both River and Kingston. Maybe Steven Moffat would have made an exception to his “nobody else plays with my toys” rule, and allowed someone else to write River. But River, for all her relevance and glory, is fairly new in the Doctor Who lexicon. If it were me, and I was going to write a love letter to a show I’ve adored my whole life, I would want to look at the bigger picture.

Promo shot of Neil Gaiman, Suranne Jones, and Matt Smith
Image courtesy of BBC

That’s what Gaiman does. The whole episode is a love letter to the show, the Doctor, and the TARDIS. Any Whovian can tell you that the TARDIS, the Doctor’s time-and-spaceship, has anthropomorphized over the years. It’s not a set piece or a prop, it’s a character. People cosplay the TARDIS. Neil took that idea, shaped it, and now TARDIS cosplayers can suit up in a Victorian looking frock if they want to, instead of just variations on a blue box. When I cosplayed Idris at New York Comic Con, I bit seven consenting Doctors that day. But I digress.

I came late to the Doctor Who party. I was aware of it as a kid, but beyond being able to identify the guy with the scarf, I never paid much attention to it. It made me feel like a bad nerd, but even when I tried, it didn’t grab me. Nor did New Who, when a friend gifted me with the DVD box set for the Eccleston season. I said thank you, watched an episode or two, and then it sat on a shelf and collected dust. Fast forward a bunch of years. BBC America announced that before premiering the 11thDoctor’s Christmas special, it would be showing a marathon of that whole season. I said “what the heck”, and hit record on the DVR. Matt Smith and/or Steven Moffat might not be every Whovian’s cuppa, but the combo was enough to hook me.

I refuse to get into those “my Doctor is better than your Doctor” arguments with other Whovians. It’s the same man, even though each regeneration is a little different in the details. And maybe his age and bow tie were off-putting to some, especially after David Tennant, but not to me. Eleven is and always shall be my Doctor, and this episode was able to showcase many of the reasons why.

I think it was actually Neil Gaiman who praised Smith’s Doctor by saying that Smith really nails the character’s combination of being an old man and a young kid at the same time. It’s really true. At the top of the episode, the Doctor and Amy and Rory, his current besties, are careening about in the TARDIS, on their way to wherever. We join them as the Doctor is in the middle of one of his endless anecdotes which will likely culminate with an example of how clever he is. A typical day for Team TARDIS. Then an alert goes off, there’s a little box afloat in space, a hint of another surviving Timelord (which is a big deal to the Doctor, as he always thought he was the last), and off they go.

It turns out the surviving Timelord thing was actually bait. There’s this big scary thing called House (Michael Sheen, Good Omens), and House eats TARDISes. It lures Timelords and their rides into its bubble universe, tears the TARDIS matrix from its box, sticks it into a living receptacle, and then eats it. Michael Sheen has no actual screen time, but he has the most versatile voice in the world and can sound really sinister when he wants to, so that’s okay. When our heroes arrive, they are confronted with a junkyard full of bits of TARDISes long gone, and a couple of patchwork people. Those people turn out to be House’s minions, and House keeps them alive-ish, replacing their gradually disintegrating parts with those of Timelords. Before the arrival of the Doctor and company, we meet Idris (Suranne Jones, Gentleman Jack). She’s not patchwork-y, she’s a hottie, and it is her turn to fatally host a TARDIS in her insides.

Idris, supported by Auntie and Uncle, first meets the Doctor

If you think about it, it was this episode that set Who on the road for an eventual female Doctor. An offhand mention about a previous Timelord, the Corsair, set up the canon that Timelords can genderflip when they regenerate. That idea ultimately became Chekhov’s gun. Mention of the Corsair was the gun being established in Act 1, so 13 (Jodie Whittaker, Broadchurch) became the necessary firing of that gun in Act 3. Missy (Michelle Gomez) reinforced that idea when she came on the scene, but (especially within the world of New Who) this was where it started. Talk about making your mark on one of your favourite things.

Really, the whole idea of the bubble universe could be a kind of metaphor for the episode, a standalone outside of—yet still connected to—the universe that is the show. The Doctor is lured there with the hope that he might not be the last Timelord after all, that maybe there were some he hadn’t killed. Amy is right on the nose when she says to the Doctor, “you want to be forgiven.” And when he realizes he has been duped—that there are no Timelords to be saved—the Doctor shows his teeth (metaphorically), and we get to see a bit of the Oncoming Storm. “You gave me hope and then you took it away. That’s enough to make anyone dangerous. God knows what it will do to me.” I love it when the Doctor gets scary, and “badass in a bow tie” is extra awesome.

The Doctor sends Amy and Rory back to the TARDIS, figuring they will be safe in there, while he deals with this crazy woman who keeps calling him her thief, and trying to kiss him (and for all that he is awkward and confused by this, when an attractive woman runs up and kisses him, his first reflex is to fix his hair, so he can’t be finding it all bad). Unfortunately, the TARDIS turns out to be the last place Amy and Rory want to be. While the Doctor is flirting and building and bickering and learning, his companions are running for their lives in a literal haunted House.

This is especially traumatic for Rory, who is still figuring out TARDIS life, and where he fits in this dynamic with his wife and their wacky friend. When House starts chasing them round the TARDIS for his amusement, Rory gets the worst of it. Someone tweeted Neil a while back to ask what had been happening to Rory during those times when they got separated and time had gone wibbly and made it much longer for him than for Amy. Neil replied, “Bad things.” (shudder)

Amy’s torment is more psychological. She’s lost in the dark, thinks she’s done something horrible to her husband, and keeps running into things like “die Amy” graffitied on the walls. I heard that the original script had a sequence in the TARDIS swimming pool in it, only Karen Gillan can’t swim, so it was cut. A shame.

Idris looks coyly out through the bars of her cage

Meanwhile, the Doctor and Idris face off through the bars of the cage she’s been put in. She tells him she’s the TARDIS. He looks quite baffled by the whole concept of her at first, but he opens the cage and lets her out. The moment he does, a waltz begins, both literal and figuratively. “It’s about time,” she says. If that isn’t a particularly loaded statement for this pair, I don’t know what is. And in minutes they are bickering like an old married couple, and he’s learning things about his blue box that he’d never considered before. When he accuses her of not being very reliable, since she didn’t always take him where he wanted to go, she whips back, “no, but I always took you where you needed to go.” Even he can’t argue with that. And the more he accepts that this woman is in fact his TARDIS, the more comfortable he gets when flirting with her. After all, when they are alone together, her name is Sexy.

So, they are stuck in this junkyard of old TARDIS bits, and they need to get out of there and go help Amy and Rory. So of course, what does the Doctor do, but build a new TARDIS out of the pieces of a bunch of junked ones. When he says “we’re going to build a TARDIS”, his face runs through this gamut of emotions. I don’t know about you, but I like to see the Doctor with the occasional flicker of  “oh-crap-is-this-really-going-to-work”. It’s human, which I know he isn’t, but I like it on him. And because our beautiful idiot has what he’s always had—his TARDIS—he is able to make his makeshift TARDIS fly.

I love the little detail that they add a velvet rope to the construction of the console. I have no idea what it was for, but I’ve been to enough museums to recognize a velvet rope as a sacred barrier that one does not cross on pain of death. Idris sends a telepathic message with the directions to the old control room of the TARDIS—she sends it to “the pretty one”, which turns out to be Rory. Kind of nice for him, getting to be the guy who knows things for a hot second. Also, when they get to the control room, I think every fan did a double take and then a shriek of joy. It’s the 10thDoctor’s control room, that we haven’t seen since the Tennant days. When you’re Neil Gaiman, they save sets for you.

Everyone is reunited. The Doctor introduces the Ponds to his friend Sexy, and explains that his TARDIS is a woman. Amy’s response is perfect— “did you wish really hard?” Then they do a thing, they defeat House, and Idris dies, almost all at once. It’s the physical death of Idris that releases the TARDIS matrix from her body, and since they’re in the control room, which is her home, the TARDIS is able to finish House off quite cleanly. It takes House a minute to realise that them being in the control room is a really bad idea for him, especially when the Doctor stands there congratulating him on being clever. Amy applauds and “yes-and”s alongside him, while Nurse Rory holds Idris. She whispers something about the only water in the forest to him as she dies, and that set the River Song fans off screaming again. I was one of them.

Break out the tissues, because the episode isn’t over yet. Idris goes from dying in Rory’s arms to hovering in front of the Doctor, spectral-like. It’s time to say goodbye, for her to go back into the box and not be able to speak to him in words anymore. He doesn’t want it to happen, but he knows it has to. Remember “School Reunion”? The series 2 episode where Sarah Jane Smith takes the 10th Doctor’s ass to school on how he needs to say goodbye to people, that humans need closure and it is unkind of him to just disappear? Clearly, when Sarah Jane takes you to task about a thing, you remember it. Hitting on that was one of my favourite things from this episode. I love seeing the Doctor learn, and how even at his age, he can still grow when it’s important. He assumes that the word the TARDIS has been wanting to say to him is goodbye. But Neil takes a sharp left, and twists the knife in my heart, as she says “I just wanted to say hello. Hello, Doctor. It’s so very nice to meet you.” I’m not the only one crying here—Matt Smith gets to flex some of his deeper acting muscles, and the moment is absolutely heartbreaking and beautiful. Idris drifts away in a cloud of golden vapour, and under the sound of the TARDIS wheeze, we hear her whisper “I love you”.

Idris, glowing gold, hovers before the Doctor, saying goodbye and hello

The last bit of the episode, they are back in 11’s usual control room, He’s doing repairs to the TARDIS, chatting with her all the while about where they should take the kids next. Happily married though Amy might be, I do detect a wee twinge of jealousy in her voice as she says “look at you pair. It’s always you and her, isn’t it? Long after the rest of us have gone.” Rory, on the other hand, is still a bit shook from Idris’s death. Mostly, as a nurse, he is bothered by the fact that he’s bothered, but the Doctor sets him straight. “Letting it get to you, you know what that’s called? Being alive.” Or, as Idris put it early on, bigger on the inside. The Ponds depart to their newly recreated bedroom, presumably now without bunk beds. Fun fact—someone tweeted Steven Moffat to ask if that meant that River was conceived in a bunk bed. He replied, “River was conceived on the ladder.”

Alone again the control room, the Doctor indulges himself in a moment of sentimentality. He wants to know if he really is alone in there, or if she is still sentient and with him. For a moment, nothing happens, and he berates himself for being a silly old man. Then, on its own, a lever shifts down, the controls spring to life, and the Doctor’s face lights up like a supernova. She’s still there, and she’s taking him off to a new adventure.

The Doctor, wearing goggles around his neck, tinkers with the workings of the TARDIS

I think even the snobbiest, most hard-bitten, old school, New-Who-scorning Whovians will admit to you that this episode is a thing of beauty. I remember seeing it for the first time and feeling a similar vibe to the Matt Smith episodes of The Sarah Jane Adventures, if you remember those. Russell T Davies wrote them, and you could feel all his love for the show and the characters in every bit of the writing. That’s what this was like. “The Doctor’s Wife” is a love letter, decades in the making, penned by one of the world’s most eloquent fanboys. He didn’t write this through rose-coloured glasses, he wrote it through great big heart-eyes emoji. Plus, he reintroduced the word “petrichor” into the standard nerd vocabulary. Thanks, Mr Gaiman.


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Written by Cat Smith

Cat Smith is the reigning Miss Nerdstiles, having inherited the crown from absolutely no one, because she made it up. She is an actor, a musician, a cosplayer since before they had a word for it, and a general nuisance (General Nuisance *salute*). She and her ukulele have charmed the collective socks off of LI Who and LI Geek, ReGeneration Who, WHOlanta, Potterverse, Coal Hill Con, Time Eddy, MISTI-Con, Hudson Valley Comic Con, Wicked Faire, SqueeCon, The Way Station, and The Pandorica Restaurant . She has written for "Outside In" and "Why I Geek" (among others), and you can find her music on bandcamp at https://missnerdstiles.bandcamp.com/album/who-riginals. Consider supporting her continuing adventures by becoming a patron at patreon.com/missnerdstiles

5 Comments

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  1. Unpopular opinion — Suranne’s talent was totally wasted here. She was there mostly to motivate 11th and then die. Shame on you, Gaiman, this woman is brilliant and deserved better.

    If anything, they should hire her to play The Doctor to make up for this mess.

  2. Great article! I must say I am not a fan of Matt Smith. His face looks like it was made out of clay and his personality is too ADHD. That being said “The Doctor’s Wife” is one of my very favorite episodes. I’ve only had the chance to watch it once and I think I got teary. And then your article had the same effect.

  3. “The Doctor’s Wife” was my very first full episode of “Doctor Who,” despite my being older than the franchise itself.

    I’d been a Trekkie since Day One in 1966, and a sci-fi fan before that, but the few clips I’d seen of O.G. Who on PBS just didn’t do anything for me.

    Years, passed, and Eccleston got he job. Still, I couldn’t be bothered to get involved. Then, “The Doctor’s Wife” was announced. “WHO’S writing ‘Who’??? I’m in!!!”

    I had had a few Twitter interactions with Neil Gaiman beforehand, and been introduced to him at a charity event by a dear friend. After the announcement, I promised Neil I would watch his work, and I’m SO glad I did.

    This episode was so well-crafted, it didn’t matter that I was a new viewer. There was enough exposition and context presented to offer a welcoming hug to someone unfamiliar with all the backstory. And it scored the franchise a new fan. I started watching regularly after “The Doctor’s Wife,” and recently finally had time to go back and play catch-up on all the Nine and Ten eps.

    I’ve enjoyed it all, but like this article’s author, Matt Smith will always be “my” Doctor, too. So, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to the chippie for fish fingers and custard. Ta.

  4. Wonderful article! I picked up Doctor Who when Tennant turned into Smith, so Smith will always be my doctor. As an ardent Neil Gaiman fan, that episode was two of my favorite things coming togather. Your take on it was fun and beautiful and now I want to go watch all of the Smith episodes again 🙂

  5. Just FYI, in years past (1970’s/80’s), there actually was a female Time Lady on the show named Romana. The actress who played the second incarnation of her started off as Princess Astra, the sixth piece of the time key in The Armageddon Factor. When Romana II decided to take Princess Astra’s form, the Doctor comments about them not taking the form of another living being, and she offhandedly comments that she liked the form and could be any form she chose, especially since they’d never see the Princess again. The episode was written by Douglas Adams, and is often debated for it’s lack of seriousness around regeneration, which up to that point had been touted as painful and emotional and not to be taken lightly.

    But, that opened the door for future casting directors to take advantage of previous actors taking more prominent rules on the show. It opened the door for Karen Gillian to become a companion after being in the episode ‘The Fires of Pompeii (10th Doctor’s incarnation)’, and made way for Peter Capaldi to become the 12th doctor, as he had played Caecilius during that same episode as Karen.

    So, really, that’s where the idea that a woman could be a Time Lord originally came from, not the 11th’s mention of the Corsair, though if you wanted to think in hindsight, it could have been considered a forbearing to Peter’s run on the show.

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