Doctor Who: 710 “Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS” Review
Reviewed by Adam James Cuthbert
“Ever pointed that thing at yourself, Gregor? What would it see? What sort of person does this to another human being?” – Tricky
If The Curse of the Black Spot was a flop that sank deep, then Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS witnesses Steve Thompson soar to new heights of esteem. Thompson delivers a riveting, atmospheric narrative, an effect supplemented by Mat King’s dynamic and innovative direction (including disorientating Dutch angles, tracking shots, and rotating camera-angles, for a vivid immersive experience).
Journey is reminiscent of The Doctor’s Wife in the respect that Steve Thompson reminds his audience that the TARDIS is a complex world within itself: on the one hand, it’s the Doctor’s conveyance and abode, a sanctuary; on the other, it’s a nightmarish death-trap. Like The Doctor’s Wife, Journey develops the notion that time (and space; causality) can be manipulated within the TARDIS. The intention is to disconcert the audience by perverting a locale we customarily associate with sanctuary or security – accentuating the impact created by Gaiman’s narrative on a grandiose scale, as Thompson proceeds to delve into the gargantuan belly of the beast. Characters find themselves experiencing recent history on more than one occasion, tracing their own footsteps. The implication these events have already transpired, with the Doctor and Clara entrapped within a time-loop is particularly effective. Certainly, one of the narrative’s more striking elements, visually, is Clara’s startling encounter with the apparitions (their presence would insinuate a recurring motif of ‘ghosts’, or a pervasive sense of ‘haunting’, within this half of the series).
Indeed, the Eleventh Doctor’s characterisation evokes shades of the Seventh Doctor’s inscrutable, manipulative personality: that of a man with a long, tenebrous, and forbidden past. Not only does the Doctor adroitly persuade the Van Baalens to assist him through skulduggery, but Clara’s later confrontation (“You call yourself Doctor, why is that?”) recalls Ace’s own pique in Silver Nemesis (“Doctor, who are you?”), only to be similarly hushed. The fact the Doctor treats it like a game (“You’ve got to do the face”) reminds me of the Seventh’s penchant for game-playing, albeit on a decisively lighter tone. Matt Smith’s performance has remarkably improved this week, as Thompson subdues the character’s more childlike traits. I’m not keen, however, on the Doctor’s treatment of Clara as “the salvage of a lifetime”. It strikes me as un-Doctorish, reducing Clara to a prized possession, selfishly belittling her humanity. It’s also illogical that the Doctor wouldn’t have deduced by now that Clara has no knowledge of her other selves. Any development within their dynamic, following the Doctor’s (belated) realisation, is disappointingly retconned by the resolution.
The plot, while straightforward, if unremarkable (‘ticking-clock’ scenario; the future negating itself by interaction with the past), does have an excitable, tense build-up. The climax, as the characters are surrounded by Time Zombies on either side, is impressively staged, with an almost apocalyptic atmosphere to the events, the characters bathed in the hellish, hypnotic radiance of the Eye of Harmony. (The Eye, to my understanding, was the nucleus of a black hole, not a star in a permanent state of collapsing into a black hole.) The Time Zombies themselves worked in a superior facility to Hide’s grotesqueries, as Thompson doesn’t retrospectively undermine their capacity for chilling horror – the horror lingers afterwards. It’s an ingenious twist, one with an underlying resonance: to be exposed to your future, manifest, especially in such a disfigured, feral physiology.
As for the Van Baalens: Gregor is meant to be abhorred. He’s a truly despicable character: avaricious, patronising, unscrupulous, craven, and heartless. Arguably, he’s a surprisingly realistic character. Not everyone’s a selfless hero, and sibling envy can make anyone behave obnoxiously. The Van Baalens are simply ordinary men with needs (as evidenced through their poster of an alien female model posing in lingerie), whose extraordinary situation happens to highlight their respective character traits and/or flaws.
Journey is a resounding treat for the fans. I was especially impressed and fascinated in the library: a tantalising wealth of unknown knowledge. The imagination lingers: which scribe wrote The History of the Time War? Why is the Doctor’s real name mentioned? Was it a chapter detailing the exploits the Doctor himself was involved in?
Some of the imagery within the story is eye-catchingly spectacular: the Heart of the TARDIS, and the fragments of the engine suspended in the white void; the Architectural Configuration System, and its tree-like formation symbolically conveying the TARDIS’ biotechnological nature.
In conclusion, Journey manages to be good fun. It’s an undemanding affair that proves to be a skilful world-building exercise, with intriguing contributions to the mythos about the world within the TARDIS.