This week's Doctor Who was all about secrets. Why do we keep things from people we care about—to protect them, or us? If those people discovered the truth, would they stick around, or would they leave? We even delved into two of the biggest secrets in all of the Whoniverse: Who is The Doctor, really, and where is the damned swimming pool in the TARDIS?
"Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS," written by Steven Thompson (who also wrote "The Curse of the Black Spot"), was a lively, well-paced, intimate exploration into the vastness that is the TARDIS, and also the mystery that is Clara. There were lots of insidery peeks at parts of the TARDIS that've only been mentioned over the years, but also some artificial-feeling stakes and cluttered, unnecessary side plots that ultimately cost the episode the honor of being one of the best of the series. Most importantly, it seemed to show us that perhaps certain things are becoming more essential to The Doctor than his time machine. Like Clara. But for me the big question remains the same: Is she so captivating because of who she is, or because of the mystery she represents?
The episode began with The Doctor trying to make nice between Clara and the TARDIS, as the old girl had been giving the new girl a bit of guff—refusing to let her in, making weird noises at her, etc. This issue has popped up so many times lately that it's definitely going to be a huge sticking point for the rest of the series. The TARDIS is alerting us, the viewers, that this companion is different; maybe something about who Clara is messes with the timey-wimeyness of it all? Maybe The Doctor is falling for Clara, and the TARDIS is jealous? Maybe Clara is hiding something about herself and the TARDIS can tell? We don't know yet.
But I digress. As The Doctor gave Clara driving lessons, a salvage team spotted the TARDIS and mistook it for scrap metal. In the process of loading it onto their salvage barge, they damaged the TARDIS's fuel line, apparently creating an incredibly dangerous situation inside. The Doctor escaped, but Clara didn't, so we had ourselves a situation with a girl lost somewhere in an infinite, banged-up, unsafe time machine. The Doctor enlisted the salvage team, the Van Baalens, to help in a very convincing way: by locking them in and rigging the TARDIS to explode in an hour. (The secret was that the threat was fake, as there's no self-destruct mode, but we didn't find that out until later, when there was actual danger.) "Don't get onto a spaceship with a madman!" The stakes were telling: Find the girl, and the Van Baalens get the TARDIS. Don't find the girl, and everyone blows up with the TARDIS.
Whoooa! How easily The Doctor gave up his old girl! I was quite surprised that not only was giving his beloved time machine to this salvage team not a big deal to him, but that it almost seemed like an afterthought. Sure, he most likely had a plan that would keep the TARDIS, but I would've liked to have seen the moment carry a bit more weight. After a warning to the Van Baalens that they'd best not mess with the TARDIS, lest she get huffy, they were off.
Clara, meanwhile, found herself waking up in a part of the TARDIS she'd never seen before, and we were treated to a few moments of her exploration, which were some of my favorite of the episode. Even if the exploration of this legendarily infinite time machine lacked the slack-jawed awe I had hoped for, it was still nice to look around. We saw an observatory, a room that looked like the Room of Requirement in Hogwarts, the famous swimming pool, and a library where Clara found the motherlode: a book entitled The History of the Time War. After presumably learning the most well-kept secret in the universe—who The Doctor is—she was interrupted. (This was another moment that could've had a bit more gravitas to it.) You see, there was more for us to fear than just the wreckage of the TARDIS: There were mysterious gray, blurry zombies with glowing red eyes chasing Clara, in a move that I first thought was just to add a sense of urgency to the proceedings. I was pleasantly surprised to find out later that they had a real purpose in the episode.
The Doctor was still teamed up with the Van Baalens, although I couldn't really tell why, since they seemed to not care at all about finding Clara. In fact, one of them even stole one of the gorgeous circuits of the living metal, the "bespoke engineering" that makes up the TARDIS. The TARDIS didn't like having her genetic material messed with, and reacted by changing her architecture, continually trapping the group in her own secret passageways.
Once the group was reunited, Clara, understandably, demanded to know why there were zombies on the TARDIS, a question The Doctor would not answer. But the zombies weren't the only thing they had to worry about: There was also the threat of time leakages coming from the TARDIS, so that Clara and The Doctor kept seeing versions of themselves from earlier that day as they wandered the ship. And the cherry on top was that the TARDIS engine started to overheat, forcing the entire group into the engine core while they were still being pursued by monsters.
If I may review, the dangers in this episode were:
1. fuel leakage
2. a (fake) self-destruct timer
3. greedy salvage guys
4. zombie monsters
5. warping fuel rods
6. time leakage
7. the engine overheating
That's a lot of enemies for one episode!
They eventually made their way to the engine core, which turned out to be an exploding star in the act of becoming a black hole, kept in that state perpetually. It's Time Lord engineering, and it's fascinating to me. The zombies found them there and they are trapped, surrounded on both sides, and The Doctor's knowledge about the zombies was secret no longer: The zombies were Clara and the Van Baalens, burned alive by the exploding star—the ship was leaking the future as well as the past. The Doctor let her die again, and in his misery, he wanted to keep it secret: "Secrets protect us. Secrets make us safe."
He's not the only one who felt that way. The TARDIS had been keeping a secret of her own: She'd actually exploded upon impact with the salvage barge, and they were all suspended in the time leakages. There was no hope for any of them to survive, including the TARDIS. In that moment, when The Doctor believed he'd let the TARDIS down and was on the brink of death without solving his greatest mystery, he turned on Clara and demanded that she tell him who she actually is.
This scene was the best of the episode—the intensity between the two of them was fantastic, and Clara finally understood that in The Doctor's eyes, they've met before, several times, even if she doesn't remember it. She insisted she had no tricks up her sleeve, she's just a girl who wants an adventure, and The Doctor eventually seemed to believe her. That's when he noticed her hand, and figured out that the only way to get them out of this mess was to reset the situation so that the salvage team would never take the TARDIS and none of the events of this episode would ever happen. There'd be no memory of Clara knowing The Doctor's name, Clara learning that she's lived several times already, the TARDIS exploding, the salvage team dying—only The Doctor would be aware of any of it. So Clara has now died one more time under The Doctor's watch, but again, without remembering. When The Doctor asked Clara if she feels safe with him, if she's afraid of the future, of running away with a madman in a box where anything could happen, she responded, "That's what I'm counting on."
The episode ended with everyones' secrets intact... but that can't last long. Whatever Clara is is affecting The Doctor more than he's comfortable with, and if we don't get to the bottom of it soon, I don't know that The Doctor or his old girl TARDIS will be able to take much more.
– The big reveal here was hyped to be the inner workings of the TARDIS, hinted at and discussed for 50 years, and on that front, I don't know that the episode delivered. There was no one moment during the exploration of the TARDIS where I uttered the word "whooooa" (although the library was lovely). None of it felt as epic as I was hoping for, or as epic as other episodes in this series—"The Rings of Akhaten" comes to mind as an episode that possessed a hint of the grandeur that I'd be looking for in my TARDIS. But then again, I don't know if anything the show constructed could ever live up to what I've had in my head all these years.
– How much did I wish, even though it would have made no sense, that the salvage team would have been Captain Mal and friends?
– It was nice to see a glimpse of the old glint-in-the-eye, slightly dangerous Doctor when he set the (non-functional) self-destruct on the TARDIS. I could use a bit more of him.
– God bless the Van Baalens. Their subplot seemed to exist solely to reflect the episode's main theme that sometimes we do things we're not proud of and then keep them a secret to protect someone we love, which is why I didn't comment on it much. I don't see how it really fit in otherwise, unless Clara turns out to be a human with cyborg parts, and that's why she's died so many times and doesn't remember meeting The Doctor. OH MY GOODNESS WHAT IF THAT'S THE CASE?!
– If there were other rooms that we saw in the TARDIS that are references to past episodes that I missed (and I'm sure there are), please tell me! I want to know too!
– Did anyone manage to make out any of the whispers that we heard when the Encyclopedia Gallifrey bottle tipped over?
– Best line of the episode goes to Clara: "Why do you have zombie creatures? Good guys do not have zombie creatures! Rule one of storytelling!"
– I'm not 100 percent sure why the dead, burned-up version of Clara would want to kill the living Clara.
What'd you think of "Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS"?