I once said to a fellow fan that I disliked stories which end too conveniently. I think I used Terror of the Autons as an example. Towards the end of that story, there are Autons everywhere. The Nestene is descending. All’s going to hell in a handbasket. Then the Doctor (or the Master, to be precise) flicks a switch, the Nestene’s repelled and all the Autons topple over. All too handy, I complained. The other fan looked at me beadily and said, “you must dislike a lot of Doctor Who stories then.”
He had a point. But ever since the show returned in 2005, the use of a narrative shortcut to drive us to the climax has become more prominent. It happens at about the 35 minute mark. Usually, it’s a near-miraculous catch all development that saves the day in about 5 minutes, no matter how widespread the problem, how many monsters there are or how desperate the situation has become. Usually, it come courtesy of a gadget, or a magical substance or a reversal of the bad guy’s own powers.
I call it the “magic switch”, meaning there’s often a big switch to throw to solve the story’s problem. But it’d be equally valid to call it a “big friendly button”.
What then to make of Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS, which blatantly uses a big friendly button to conclude its story? Openly acknowledges it. Puts it on screen and gives it a name. Rarely has the series so boldly referenced its own narrative limitations. Why on earth draw attention to it? Unless writer Steve Thompson and showrunner Steven Moffat were looking for a wry in-joke. “We’ve now reached the point in the episode for the magic switch, so here it is!”
I think it’s more than self-knowing commentary. I think the big friendly button is a cry of defiance. “We know!” our authors seem to be saying. “Of course, we know. But you find a way to build up a big, bold adventure story, throw everything under the sun in it, and then wrap it up neatly in 5 mins. So sometimes we use a big friendly button. Get over it! We do that sometimes.”
Ages ago, before he made 7 years of Doctor Who, the Moff once made comment on the classic show’s occasional over concentration on the TARDIS as a setting for stories. “We kids want Narnia, not the wardrobe,” he confidently declared.
But then, of course, there’s this episode, where we explore the wardrobe extensively. In the pre-publicity, the Moff declared how he’d loved and now wanted to emulate the TARDIS tour section of The Invasion of Time, indicating a change of tune about the whole Narnia/wardrobe divide. I can understand the appeal. With an extensive world within the TARDIS, there’s a world of potential adventure in their too.
Stories which use the labyrinthine TARDIS corridors as a location apply slightly different emphases each time. The Invasion of Time uses it as the setting for a hunt/chase sequence. Castrovalva uses it as a confounding maze which ensnares unwary travelers. Way back in Inside the Spaceship it was not so much vast as claustrophobic, a place which played tricks on the mind. The same all the years later in The Doctor’s Wife, where it also became a mental torture chamber for Amy and Rory.
It’s all of these things in JTTCOTT. But what it never feels like is the slow perilous climb down into the heart of the ship which the title suggests. It feels a bit like bait and switch, because the suggestion is that it’ll be a Jules Verne-style descent into the core of the beast, facing peril as our heroes break through each stratum.
Instead, it feels much more random and disjointed; not a descent deep into the craft as The Invasion of Time and Castrovalva felt like, but a journey twisting and turning in all sorts of directions. And maybe that’s appropriate, because can a multi-dimensional time ship be said to have a centre at all? Still, it doesn’t feel like a journey to anywhere in particular, but with a lot of interesting sightseeing along the way.
Our companions on this meandering expedition are the Van Baalen brothers: Gregor (Ashley Walters), Bram (Mark Oliver) and Tricky (Jahvel Hall). Roughead salvage collectors, this story is the backdrop to a family drama which unfolds. It turns out that following an industrial accident, Tricky has been fooled into believing that he’s an android by Gregor. As an example of a commitment to gullibility in the face of easily accessible evidence, it’s right up there with Guy Crawford’s needless eyepatch and Countess Scarlioni’s alien marriage.
Gregor initially tries to pass it off as a joke that got a little out of hand, but later confesses he did it out of jealousy for their father’s respect. There are a couple of problems with this besides the simple straining of credulity. Firstly, the Van Baalen boys are sadly not interesting enough for us to care about their, admittedly unusual, inter-family dramas. Secondly, said dramas have nothing to do with the predicament at hand. When Gregor eventually fesses up to Tricky in a spare moment between set pieces, it should be a major revelation. But Clara (Jenna Louise Coleman) who is a silent observer to this exchange, is leaning against a wall with a look that says, “and this effects me exactly how?”
But then, if any of this, or anything else about JTTCOTT bothers you, worry not – because none of it ever happened. Our big friendly button not only brought this story to a close, it also reset the whole affair. This kind of ending worries me more than the magic switch. If the story’s events were so inconsequential they can be erased at a moment’s notice – why were they worth watching in the first place?
All that’s left is a couple of Wizard of Oz style moments where characters kind of remember something happening to them, but can’t recall why. The Van Baalen brothers might even, if you squint, be stand-ins for the Tin Man (Tricky), the brainless scarecrow (Bram) and the cowardly lion (Gregor). The Doctor, I suppose, has been our Wizard and Clara our Dorothy, although as I recall, Dorothy never got chased by time burnt zombie creatures and Clara doesn’t even have a little dog. And The Wizard of Oz didn’t hang around in the vehicle that transports its heroes to the site of the story. We kids want Oz, not the cyclone-borne farmhouse.
Or something like that. *Presses big friendly button*
LINK TO Planet of Fire: Companions with things burnt into their skin!
NEXT TIME: Goodbye trampoline, hello blondie! We’re checking in for treatment on New Earth.