For a “Doctor Who” finale that accomplishes quite a lot in a rather brief amount of time, “The Name of the Doctor” is an incredibly smooth ride.
Just think of everything on Steven Moffat’s “to-do list” here: revealing the Doctor’s greatest secret, explaining the mystery of Clara the Impossible Girl, bringing back River Song and the Great Intelligence, closing out the season and setting up the 50th anniversary special. And he pulls it all off with wit, verve and quite a bit of nerve — topped off by a final scene that immediately goes down in “Who” history.
To put it more succinctly: Yowza, what a finale.
The episode zips right along, driven by everything we learn about both Clara and the Doctor. It gets off to a thrilling start on the Doctor’s home planet of Gallifrey and immediately introduces a dazzling bit of 50th anniversary magic as Clara encounters every one of the past Doctors (including the original, as played by William Hartnell, who Clara warns is “about to make a very big mistake” — by stealing the wrong TARDIS).
Let’s get one thing out of the way: The tantalizing “secret” revealed about the Doctor isn’t his name (that would be both too obvious and too misguided after all these years), but there are still plenty of teases that it could be said at any moment as the journey heads to the Doctor’s grave. Madame Vastra uncovers a mystery that leads the Doctor and Clara to Trenzalore — the site of the Doctor’s tomb, the one place he knows he should never go and “potentially the most dangerous place in the universe.”
But he can’t help it, partly out of loyalty to Jenny, Vastra and Strax — who are being threatened by the Great Intelligence and an army of Whispermen — and partly because he’s the Doctor and needs to save the universe. At any rate, Clara has a destiny to face, so off they go over the objections of the TARDIS.
Even though the Doctor’s name is the key to opening his tomb, it’s River Song who utters it (and only to the TARDIS, not to us), which isn’t so much a cheat as a clever necessity. And it’s the Great Intelligence stepping into the Doctor’s time stream (apparently the Time Lord’s version of a corpse) in an effort to destroy the enemy that leads to Clara’s most heroic act yet and explains why she’s the Impossible Girl.
She too steps into the time stream to prevent the Great Intelligence from rewriting the Doctor’s past for evil, and in the process is scattered into a million echoes across the Doctor’s various lifetimes.
Ignoring River’s pleas to be “sensible,” the Doctor goes in after her and runs directly into … himself. But it’s a version of himself — as played by British screen legend John Hurt — that we’ve never seen (and neither has Clara). There’s a darkness to this man that the Doctor finds highly objectionable. Alas, that’s all we get for now… at least until the 50th anniversary special (in which Hurt has long been scheduled to appear).
As for the finale’s major accomplishment: Tying Clara into the entire history of “Doctor Who” is a brilliant nod to the show’s legacy while remaining fresh enough to reaffirm the franchise’s future.
Here was a season finale that did more than fill us with giddy enthusiasm for the future. It made us feel better about the recent past. Now that we know what makes the Impossible Girl possible, there’s something even more satisfying about key episodes like “Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS” (when the Doctor first revealed Clara’s fate to her and then tried to erase it from her timeline) and “The Crimson Horror” (with its return to Victorian England and re-introduction of Vastra, Jenny and Strax).
It’s also important that Clara has been strongly defined in these past seven episodes as both sensible and brave, not one to seek out danger but never one to run from it either. She’s exactly the companion the Doctor needs for this moment in time, and “The Name of the Doctor” is exactly the episode we needed right now.
– Bringing Vastra, Jenny and Strax back for the finale gives Clara’s debut half-season a nice bit of consistency (following their roles in “The Snowmen” and “The Crimson Horror”), and the trio’s interactions here are among their all-time best. That spinoff talk sparked by “Crimson” should get a whole lot louder after this, with good reason.
– The much-awaited meeting of Clara and River Song happens not in the flesh but via Vastra’s psychic “conference call.” Although there’s a bit of expected rivalry between the Doctor’s wife and the new companion after his heart(s), that’s mostly swept aside by the urgent business at hand.
– If River’s goodbye to the Doctor is the end of Alex Kingston’s time on “Who,” it’s an elegant, understated and touching exit. She leaves with a mysterious tease (why didn’t the psychic link she shared with Clara end when Clara stepped into the time stream?) and a “Goodbye, Sweetie.”
– Should we assume that the hostility the TARDIS showed Clara was a hint that the TARDIS knew this Impossible Girl would lead the Doctor to his grave?
– The Whispermen were very scary window-dressing. No objections to the role they played here, but their creepiness probably could’ve sustained an entire episode of their own.
– The Doctor after his passionate kiss with River: “Since nobody else in this room can see you, god knows how that looked!”
– See you for the 50th, in November.
Photo/Video credit: BBC America