Review: DOCTOR WHO S7E14, THE NAME OF THE DOCTOR (Or, Things Get Dark And Interesting In An Excellent Finale)
Steven Moffat has made a great number of promises throughout the seventh series of Doctor Who. I was unsure whether he'd really be able to write a satisfying answer to the mystery of Clara but "The Name of the Doctor" delivers answers to the most pressing questions while it establishes tantalising new mysteries for the upcoming 50th anniversary special and the next series. It's one of the most assured finales yet, an episode that looks back to the show's past as it prepares to step into a much more unpredictable future.
Let's talk about Clara first. Improbable as it seems, the revelations about who she is feel like they make perfect sense. I'm sure people will be around to analyse it and rip apart these scenes but, in the moment, it works. Clara is just a regular person, a normal companion who is made extraordinary in a moment of sacrifice to save the Doctor and the entire universe. No matter whether the plotting is comprehensible, that's a seriously powerful idea. It is really conveyed in the script and in the tremendous performances of Jenna-Louise Coleman and Matt Smith.
The story of this concluding instalment takes Doctor Who to a darker place than we're used to but manages to make it feel fitting as we deal with momentous events in his life on a much smaller scale. This is an episode that prioritises ideas over spectacle. The Great Intelligence is back and is seeking vengeance, attempting to draw the Doctor out by threatening his friends. The time traveller soon learns that he needs to go to the one place that he dreads more than anywhere else, Trenzalore, the location of his tomb.
This finale makes heavy use of flashbacks to the classic era of Doctor Who, right back to the really early episodes. Even as someone who has only watched the revived years of the show, I feel like these scenes work as they really put things in context and show respect to the history of the character. The sense of nostalgia gives "The Name of the Doctor" a really unique atmosphere and gets us ready for some of the more surprising revelations towards the end of the hour.
Vastra, Jenny and Strax all return, as does River Song. I'm someone who has grown tired of River's appearances but I feel like this one had much more meaning and feeling behind it, especially as it hints at a different dynamic for her as the show goes forward. The others are also used in a distinctly different way, they're there to punctate the emotional beats of the episode and don't serve as much of a comedic function as usual (although Strax does get a couple of excellent lines).
Much of Moffat's time as showrunner has been spent exploring exactly who the Doctor is. Of course, the episode doesn't go as far as giving him a name (that could spoil the mystery a bit too much) because that would be merely exploring details about his history. It's more important to look at why he does what he does and what he values, which is something that we can do much more thoroughly through the characters who are close to him. This episode does a fairly good job of doing that, although he does come off as annoyingly reactive rather than proactive this time around.
While Coleman raises her game to bring real gravitas to Clara's decision, Smith also steps up a gear to bring a kind of vulnerability to the Doctor that we rarely see. One of the reasons this episode works as well as it does is that it blends emotion with the intrigue very successfully. Because everything has been building to this, it doesn't need to erupt in explosions and loud drama. It gets much more mileage out of being contemplative and focussing on the characters above all else. I'm encouraged about the new direction of the Doctor and Clara's relationship too, as it means they can now move beyond the secrets and develop into something deeper and more profound.
Sure, the plot of "The Name of the Doctor" is not exactly straightforward or even logical but that hardly matters when it sweeps you along like this. It's a complex story told in a simple way, something that Doctor Who is great at but sometimes forgets to do. The ambition of Steven Moffat deserves recognition, as he aims to do so much and remarkably gets the message across in most instances. The setup for the 50th anniversary at the end is a complicated and cool twist that appears to foreshadow something very crazy right around the corner. If it's anything like as exciting as this, I can hardly wait.