Doctor Who season finale recap: The Name of the Doctor
Just one question for you, Doctor: What is your name?
It was always going to be a weird season of Doctor Who. Longtime companions were leaving and a new companion was coming in. Showrunner Steven Moffat had turned seasons 5 and 6 of Who into interlocking mythologies, with episodes doubling as puzzle pieces. The bigger picture kept changing, but not Moffat’s plan to piece them all together. He erased time, gave the Doctor a wife, and gave the TARDIS a body. If you believe that Moffat’s run on the show is maybe the best it’s had, as I do, season 7 was always a tall order. Having gone most anywhere, where would he go next?
(A note for our continuity-minded readers: Regular Who recapper Darren Franich is tied up in another dimension.)
The answer, we now know, is nowhere really. Of course yes the season’s two halves — the Amy/Rory half; the Clara half — went across the stars and fought the good alien fight. But instead of continuing to one-up Moffat’s impossible promises (that time-travel was a storyteller’s master key, allowing the series to come alive with exploration as an expression of not just humanity but humanness), the show dispatched the Ponds and delivered to us an “Impossible Girl,” Clara Oswin, with the impossible ability to come back from the dead, no matter the year, place, or cause of death. Before this week, it was a hook nifty enough to let Clara get away without having a personality. Nothing against Jenna-Louise Coleman, but does Clara want anything? She has preferences but not needs.
All of that and would you believe it? The season finale, “The Name of the Doctor,” was good — good in the way I’ve come to expect and good in a way I’d hoped Who would be again. Written by Moffat (his first credit since the spring premiere), the finale answered multiple questions, including what’s up with Clara, what’s happened to River Song, and what would happen if a TARDIS (gulp) died. But the hour’s strength was its center, a question: What is the Doctor’s name?
But first, the question of Clara — literally, the episode begins with her questions. In Gallifrey “a very long time ago,” we see the First Doctor make off with his TARDIS for the first time before Clara crashes into the archival footage. “Sorry,” she says, “but you’re about to make a very big mistake.” The pattern repeats: Cut-cut-cut, each new sequence is another of the Doctor’s regenerations, all coming across Clara. Meanwhile, she appears to be falling into a fiery (or at least hotly-glowing) abyss. “I don’t know where I am,” she voice-overs. “It’s like I’m breaking into a million pieces and there’s only one thing I can remember: I have to save the Doctor.”
And also: “I blew into this world on a leaf. I’m still blowing. I don’t think I’ll ever land. I’m Clara Oswin, the impossible girl. I was born to save the Doctor.”
NEXT: The Doctor and all his friends
London, 1893: It’s dark and dank and prison-y. A crazy man mutters about the “Whispermen.” A noise! A lizard! It’s Vastra (so happy to see her again) and the bald crazy man wants to make a trade. He’s been tuning into “the babble of the world” and has information about something in exchange for his life — and not just any information: This bit is good enough to save him from his crimes as a woman-murderer. The Doctor has a secret that he will take to his grave. “And it is discovered.”
That’s good enough for Vastra, who arranges “a conference call” with her good (human) wife Jenny, gathering the gang. Strax — it’s his weekend off — is in Glasgow fighting (apparently to death) and has to be knocked out by his opponent after a street urchin interrupts their battle with the message. Clara is back at home with the kids, making a soufflé. There’s chatter about the metaphysics of soufflé-ing. She notices a letter. It’s old! It’s more: Reading it, Clara learns that Vastra has enclosed a candle which contains a soporific which will induce a trance that will carry her across time and space so that they might convene. It’s important. It’s about the Doctor. But Vastra, assuming that Clara might not trust her or the strange correspondence, has doused the letter in the same substance. Out Clara passes.
The trance looks like this: There are candles, classical music, and a fancy inscribed table around which we find Vastra, Jenny, Strax, and now Clara. The tea is quite good (it’s made of memories). Clara’s surprised to be there, but she’s more surprised to learn of the imminent arrival of one River Song. River Song? River Song! And there she is, the professor, topped with hair and (disgracefully) summoning a bottle of champagne at her elbow. Clara’s heard a lot about her, of course, but she never knew that Professor Song was a woman. River doesn’t seem to have known anything about the Doctor’s newest “current traveling assistant.” This will change.
With a swirl, Vastra calls up some dust-y particles to replay footage from that earlier prison scene, with the crazy man spilling his spoils. He has space-time coordinates, the location of the Doctor’s greatest secret — which no one knows, because no one knows the Doctor’s greatest secret. Clara thinks she knows it, probably. Well then: What is the Doctor’s name? Clara doesn’t know and can’t remember why she doesn’t know. River knows, but obviously. (How? “It took a while,” she says.) Clara’s confused — so many new faces! River is a friend of the Doctor’s; indeed, she is…a little more than (a long time ago, of course; everything major in the Who-verse happens a long time ago, meaning now). But the Doctor hasn’t contacted River in quite a long time. Vastra disapproves, but the professor shrugs. “He doesn’t like endings.”
Anyway, River wants to know how they know that the prisoner was telling the truth. Vastra says he gave her one word: Trenzalore. That makes things worse, actually. How did he describe the information, exactly? Re: the magic dust video. River says they’ve misunderstood, with graveness on the syllable mis.
At the same time, Jenny has been freaking out because she thinks that she forgot to lock the door before she and Vastra went into the trance and she thinks that someone has broken in and (not now, Jenny!) she thinks that she might have been murdered. With a single tear, Jenny disappears, dead. It gets worse: White-skinned, black-mouthed creatures in top hats are attacking each of them in turn. “Tell the Doctor,” they chant. “His friends are lost forevermore unless he goes to Trenzalore.”
NEXT: To Trenzalore
In order to avoid Jenny’s same fate, River gets the rest of the group to wake themselves up. (A good slap to the face is sometimes necessary.) Clara, back at home, finds that the Doctor has joined her. Except he’s blindfolded. And the children are gone. They wanted to go to the cinema, see, and the Doctor told them no. So then they suggested that he play a game with them, blindfolded. Little Daleks!
Clara fills him in on the latest and breaking. River’s back, which is cause for some discussion. But the talk of Trenzalore is far, far more important. Indeed, it is with some alarm that we notice the Doctor has taken a seat in the living room and looks very, very shaken. Matt Smith Sad Face alert! (Is it the best of his faces? Debate.) Sorry! he says, and dashes off to the TARDIS, where Clara finds him beneath the main console, inconsolable. Even the Doctor doesn’t quite know what’s at Trenzalore. But River knows (River always knows).
In another moment, he’s plugging Clara into the ship’s telepathic circuits in order to use the coordinates that are still rolling around in her memory. They’ll go to Trenzalore! But, like, they can’t? “When you are a time traveler, there is one place you must never go. One place in all of space and time that you must never, ever find yourself.” That crazy prisoner wasn’t talking about the Doctor’s secret being discovered — he was talking about the Doctor’s grave. That’s the problem with being a time traveler: Everyone’s grave is waiting for them, out there in the future. And with a quick hop, you can go visit.
Of course they have to go. There are friends to save, friends that have been very kind to the Doctor when they had no reason to be, non-judgmental during “the dark times.” Of course he has to go. Clara is coming, too. And the only way to save them, apparently, is by breaking into the Doctor’s tomb. Unfortunately the TARDIS isn’t too keen on this idea — there are timey-wimey laws that even it would prefer not to bend or break. It won’t let them quite make it to Trenzalore (which appears glowing and fiery, á la the opening bit) and leaves them stranded in space, circling around it. Should we jump? Clara asks. “Don’t be silly,” the Doctor says. “We fall.”
NEXT: The Doctor’s grave
Down on the planet’s surface, the Doctor notices that Trenzalore is covered in a giant battlefield graveyard. (He cracked a window pane on the ship, too. Whovians, is this the first time we’ve seen the TARDIS noticeably damaged under assault?) The Doctor explains that the biggest gravestones are reserved for the highest-ranked soldiers. They look up and see a giant TARDIS — it’s enormous. And it’s his TARDIS, what’s left of it. When it dies, “all the bigger on the inside starts leaking on the outside.”
River Song appears! It’s a wonderful tendency of hers throughout the episode. She claims the Doctor won’t be able to see or hear her, though Clara will because River has maintained the psychic link from their earlier “conference.” The Doctor sees River’s grave, which shouldn’t be right? Except that she’s dead — “should have mentioned that,” he says. It’s a long story involving a library, but her grave can’t be here. The white-skinned men appear again, as if they’re omnipresent. Maybe it isn’t a grave, River whisper-says to Clara, who shout-says it to the Doctor. Maybe it’s a secret entrance. It is a secret entrance, and down the Doctor and Clara fall into it, alongside the revelation that River song is the Doctor’s wife.
Inside the giant TARDIS husk (sad face), Strax and Vastra are alive and awakening. Jenny, however, is still dead, though Vastra gets Strax to remedy that with an “electro-cardio restart” to her shock-stricken heart. This allows for a lovely couplet of conversation, as the lizard woman holds her once-dead human wife. Strax says, “The heart is a relatively simple thing.” Vastra responds, “I’ve not found it to be so.”
The white-skinned men appear again, circling the trio. Leading them is Dr. Simeon, who we last saw dying at the end of Christmas special “The Snowmen.” Ah, he’s dead, but the omnipotent parasite that he served isn’t. That’s who this is: The Great Intelligence. “Welcome to the final resting place of the cruel tyrant, of the slaughterer of the ten billion and the vessel of the final darkness,” Simeon says, “the tomb of the Doctor.” Lightning strikes! But know that there will be parsing of this leitmotif to come.
Clara and the Doctor are scouring through some catacombs (Clara hates catacombs) while also unraveling the mystery of how River is even alive, kind of. She isn’t: After the events of “Silence in the Library”/”Forest of the Dead,” a much earlier Moffat two-parter, the Doctor preserved River’s spirit/consciousness in a database in the largest library in the universe and then left her there “like a book on a shelf.” Didn’t even say goodbye (endings, understand).
At Dead TARDIS Central, Vastra, et al. are still questioning TGI about its plans. He knows so much about the Battle of Trenzalore — it was a minor skirmish by the Doctor’s standards, no Time War, but still enough — and about the Doctor’s bloody past because he is information. Literally, TGI rips back Simeon’s face like a peel to reveal that his body is hollow. It collapses but in a moment, TGI has jumped to one of the white-skinned men transformed it into another Dr. Simeon. Neat.
NEXT: “What were you expecting: a body?”
Clara and the Doctor are still running from Simeon’s creatures, up and up through a ruined TARDIS. Clara begins to feel woozy, a feeling of having done this before — running through a TARDIS, again and again. The Doctor comforts her by not, telling her that the ship’s telepathic circuits are awakening memories that she isn’t even supposed to have. She’s understandably frantic: “How can I die? What do you mean I died?”
Meanwhile, Simeon needs to open a door and the key is a word and the word is the Doctor’s. Who arrives! (People are always arriving like that, with exclamations attached.) Simeon orders him to open the tomb, to answer the question that only he knows: “Doctor, what is your name?” The Doctor is having none of it, so Simeon threatens to kill his friends — a reliably effective tactic, and more useful here because Simeon’s goons reform when attacked.
Before any of that terribleness happens, though, the tomb opens. Out walks River Song. The TARDIS can still hear her (she and the TARDIS are so close). But why did she say his name? Clara is shaken from the attack and gets a conciliatory hug while TGI is happy to have access, finally. It will bring peace for him — and pain, “everlasting,” for the Doctor.
Inside, we see the tomb is actually the main room of the TARDIS. Except the room is all overgrown and glowing a turquoise-blue — the source of which is a giant arc of energy at the center. “What were you expecting: a body?” the Doctor asks. “Bodies are boring. I’ve had loads of ’em. That’s not what my tomb is for.”
No, the tomb holds everything the Doctor’s body isn’t: “Time travel, it’s like a tear in the fabric of reality. This is the scar tissue,” he explains, a collection of all of the Doctor’s days, good and bad, even the ones he hasn’t lived. But being so close to it has weakened him and he collapses. The paradox of his presence is very bad for his health.
TGI approaches the energy — it’s like an open wound and so can be entered. It will kill him as a result, but it will destroy the Doctor by allowing TGI to rewrite his every living moment, turning victories into defeats and poisoning friendships. TGI may be “scattered along his timeline like confetti” but the Doctor will be undone. He enters the stream; the white-skinned men disappear and everyone freaks out.
NEXT: “There will be consequences”
With Simeon now at every point of the Doctor’s timeline, we see various old Doctors encountering him and going wrong, all being killed. The Dalek Asylum; London. Vastra heads outside to survey the damage among the stars. As she explains, “A universe without the Doctor. There will be consequences.”
And yes: One by one, so many local star systems are being lost, all the lives saved by the Doctor in his lifetime being un-saved. Even Jenny. Even Strax, who attacks Vastra before disappearing (dissolving?).
As the Doctor writhes, Clara is just realizing how impossible she really is, how she has been able to die and die and die and still save the Doctor. She has to do it again — for the first time. She has to enter his time stream. River warns her that the time winds will tear Clara into a million pieces, all living and dying, but none truly her. She will become copies. So be it: Like Clara’s mom always said, the soufflé isn’t the soufflé, it’s the recipe. (Clara is Soufflé Girl after all.) With a final line — “Run, run you clever boy…and remember me” — Clara leaps into the time stream. The episode’s beginning voice-over replays. I realize now that it isn’t an abyss that Clara is falling into, it’s time. She saves each Doctor, and even tells the First one which TARDIS to steal.
The Doctor’s time stream changes, from its wounded red to blue again. They are restored, Strax and Jenny and Vastra. But not Clara. The Doctor insists on saving her, though River warns him that stepping into his own time stream is madness. Use the TARDIS, use something, but be sensible! This she says with a slap, but he catches her slap — he can see her, and hear her, too.”You’re always here to me,” he tells her. This is both good news and bad: River is just an echo now, and she should be fading. But she can’t, not without a proper goodbye. But the Doctor can’t, he doesn’t know how. (So sad, y’all.) The only way is the best way, River says, to leave her as if he will return. He works his face a bit and smiles. “See you around, Professor Song.”
One more thing, before the Doctor jumps in: River is still mentally linked to Clara, which means she’s still alive. How? River smiles before fading away. “Spoilers.”
NEXT: The Doctor’s secret
With the Doctor joining Clara inside his time stream, we see that she’s fallen into a stormy, foggy, echo-y place and is lost. Everything around her is the Doctor, but isn’t. She can hear his voice and see his previous forms, but not him, not his 11th face. So he sends her something, not from his past but from hers. It’s a leaf, the one that began her life, floating down to her. Hold tight to it, he tells her. It will take you home.
But also: The Doctor arrives! (Moffat, preserve your climaxes.) She’s wary but he urges her over. How many times now has she saved him? Let him once return the favor. They embrace and are assuredly on their way to saving each other when the Doctor sees a figure, out over on the edge, his back to us. Who is that? Clara asks. It’s me, the Doctor says, but with a different name — not like the Doctor, who chose his present title. Names are like promises, and this man is the one who broke the promise. Clara collapses into the Doctor’s arms, dizzy from the convolutions. “He is my secret,” the Doctor tells no one/us.
The man speaks: “What I did, I did without choice in the name of peace and sanity.”
The Doctor replies: “But not in the name of the Doctor.”
The man turns: Introducing JOHN HURT as THE DOCTOR
That’s right, y’all: a development so enticingly arbitrary that it probably allows any possibility. The final bit of the finale is almost certainly a toss to the 50th Anniversary special in November, also a Moffat joint, of which Hurt will almost certainly play a role. Setting aside the tasty bits from the rest of the episode — sketching in more moods for the Doctor, post-Amy/Rory and post-River, other than “inquisitive melancholy” — this is Moffat’s big, mythos-expanding stroke, and an anarchic bit of wordplay besides. (I’ll give you all of the names!) I thought the episode was really strong before the reveal, but I’m not sure it’s any better because of it. Do you like the direction Who is headed? How great/sad (or sad/great) was River’s return? And isn’t it possible that the Doctor’s name is John, or am I just being a lousy American?
All speculation is welcome below, as are all revisions, retconning, reduxes and un-duxes. Timelines be damned!