Not only do I believe that Neil Gaiman’s first episode of Doctor Who is one of the best Matt Smith episodes I also happen to believe that this mad, witty, abstract, fast-paced and tragic adventure is one of the best episodes in the history of the show.I remember hearing about this episode before the series actually aired and right off the bat I started hyping myself up for it to the point where there was surely no way that it could actually deliver.
Turns out, it smashed all my expectations anyway. I don’t even know where to begin with this episode because there is so much packed into these 45 minutes…
The story begins with a group of strange patchwork humans and an Ood on an asteroid, a woman called Idris is being taken to a chamber where it seems something is about to kill her. One of the patchwork people, named Auntie, assures Idris that there’ll be a Time Lord coming soon. Sure enough, the Doctor and the Ponds are surprised to hear a knock on the TARDIS door while they’re in-flight in space and a strange cube starts zooming around. For those familiar with the classic series, you’ll have recognised the ‘hypercube’ immediately as the Time Lord messaging system which the Second Doctor used prior to his regeneration in The War Games. The cube bears the mark of the Corsair, a Time Lord who used to be an old friend of the Doctor’s – this is also the first time we get confirmation that Time Lords could regenerate into different genders, as the Corsair apparently did a bit of swapping around every now and then.The Doctor eagerly follows the Corsair’s signal from the cube outside the universe and into a ‘bubble universe’, and after an explosive landing the TARDIS suddenly seems to die. The heart and soul of the TARDIS, the ‘matrix’, has simply disappeared and is absorbed by Idris.
This sets up the core premise of the episode which is delightfully simple – what if the Doctor and the TARDIS could actually talk to one another face to face? What if, just for once, the TARDIS could take on the form of an actual person? The TARDIS has, after all, been the Doctor’s one constant companion from the very beginning of the show and The Doctor’s Wife manages to beautifully turn the relationship between the Doctor and his box on its head. It’s a mad, even weird concept, but it somehow just works so well and carries so much emotional weight to it.
One of my favourite ideas which Gaiman pitches in this episode is that it wasn’t the Doctor who chose which TARDIS he was going to steal, but rather it was the TARDIS who chose a Time Lord to steal so she could see the universe. The chemistry between Matt Smith and Suranne Jones is amazing, their constant childish bickering over things as trivial as the Doctor pushing the TARDIS doors open for 700 years instead of pulling them open (as it says on the front door sign) was a stroke of absolute genius and the episode is filled with these little quirks which add so much life to the performances of the actors.Matt gets to show off a bit of the Doctor’s more sober, darker side as well when he gets his hopes up because he hears Time Lords in his head, believing that some are alive on the asteroid. He tracks the voices down and discovers dozens of hypercubes containing distress messages, and it’s at this point that the intentions of the episode’s villain, House, are revealed. House devours TARDISes, the junkyard that the Doctor landed in isn’t a junkyard but a valley of TARDISes which have been consumed over the years. Because a living being can’t hold a TARDIS matrix within them, House has to move the matrix elsewhere to make sure that it burns out safely before he can have his lunch, so the Doctor and Idris are plunged into a race against time to build a makeshift TARDIS to pursue House as he kidnaps Amy and Rory with the Doctor’s one.
Speaking of Amy and Rory, their part in the story is where the fear factor comes in as they’re subjected to various degrees of psychological torment. House plays around with gravity, manipulates time, causes vivid hallucinations and even makes it look like Rory dies (twice). He’s a really sinister villain and is voiced brilliantly by Michael Sheen, there are some genuinely frightening moments in the claustrophobic corridors of the TARDIS – at one point, the walls are littered with scribbles of things like ‘HATE AMY’ and ‘KILL AMY’ from a deranged, 2000 year old Rory whose skeleton lies on the floor.It was really cool to see the control room of the Ninth and Tenth Doctor back, as Idris says that she archives all the controls rooms – having archived over 30, despite the Doctor only having changed the desktop a dozen or so times. The whole chase sequence looked really cool, this definitely doesn’t look like it was a ‘cheap’ episode to make because the set design and the CG is perfectly pulled off.And the ending… wow, that was a tear-jerker. After defeating House, as the TARDIS matrix burns out of Idris inside the main control room, she sticks around to say one last goodbye to the Doctor – or rather, to say her first “hello” to him and that “it’s so very, very nice to meet you”. I don’t know about you, but when I see Matt cry in an episode, I start going off as well. This poignant moment was a wonderful denouement to the story, this is an episode which will continue to live in Who history as one of those quintessential episodes, and for good reason!