I have never met Neil Gaiman (or read The Sandman for that matter), but for the first half of Series 6, his story tops the list of the best episode. It’s a really fantastic episode. According to the A.V. Club review:
But let’s talk about this week’s episode, the most-anticipated Doctor Who episode in recent memory, “The Doctor’s Wife,” a.k.a. “The One Neil Gaiman Wrote.” Doctor Who viewers who are also Gaiman fans—a pretty sizable Venn diagram overlap, I’m guessing—have been looking forward to this since it was announced in February of 2010, before the fifth season had even begun. Did it live up to expectations? I think so, but I wonder if it did for viewers who expected “The Doctor’s Wife” to be anything beyond a very well-written Who episode. There’s a lot of Gaiman DNA in the script, but it’s first and foremost an episode of Doctor Who. And a pretty terrific one in my book, a brisk, scary, inventive adventure filled with clever concepts and witty dialogue. And a lot of heart when in the way it deals with an important relationship rarely addressed on the series. If this Gaiman newcomer keeps it up, he’s going to go places.
Speaking of going places, where are we this week? We’re outside the universe, which is kind of the same as being in a tiny soap bubble attached to the side of a larger bubble, except not at all. Or maybe it’s more like being in the place where everything drains out, except that doesn’t make much sense either. Wherever it is, it’s forbidding and unstable and it smells like armpits. In short, it’s not place anyone would want to be for long.
Unless, of course, you don’t really fit in anywhere, like its creepy inhabitants: Auntie, Uncle, an Ood named Nephew, and Idris who becomes… Well, we’ll get to that. Patchwork people, to use the Doctor’s phrase, put together out of the spare parts of those who’ve wrecked there, they’re kept alive by the will of House, the living planet whom they serve. The Doctor, Amy, and Rory don’t catch that right away. The latter two have the pretty good excuse of being relatively new to traversing time and space, but the Doctor’s distracted by sentimental reasons, thinking he’s stumbled on an unexpected cache of lost Time Lords.
Though he arguably ought to know better, it’s impossible to underestimate the degree to which loneliness motivates the Doctor. He’s the last of his kind, due in part to his own actions. He has all of the universe—and just beyond, apparently—to explore, but he’s motivated mainly by his need to help others, and to seek out companions to share his mission with him. The best Who stories, or at least the best ones interested exploring his character, get that, and also get that, after the adventures die down and his companions depart, he’s left alone.
Mostly. Beyond the universe, The Doctor gets a chance to hang out with a familiar companion in an unfamiliar form: The TARDIS. Upon landing, “her” soul gets drained and transplanted into Idris (played by Suranne Jones, a British TV veteran who gained fame on the long-running soap opera Corontation Street.) As scripted by Gaiman and portrayed by Jones, she seems at first like a cross between Ophelia and Delirium from Gaiman’s Sandman. But everything she says makes sense coming from the TARDIS (especially watching her scenes the second time through). Of course she’d have trouble with tenses. And of course she’d want to kiss The Doctor, firmly, on the lips upon first seeing him. The title of “The Doctor’s Wife” sets up expectations for the episode it ends up fulfilling by a side door.
But beyond admiring the cleverness of Idris/TARDIS’ characterization, I found it quite touching. Here’s The Doctor, a creature of endless compassion but often limited social skills, finally to spend time with a companion who gets him. (That’s not even touching on the fact that, however muted his sexuality when it comes to others, he freely calls the TARDIS sexy when no one else is around.) What’s more, theirs is a marriage of equals. Did he steal her or did she steal him? Does he steer her or does she take him where he needs to go?
While the Doctor/TARDIS scenes are the most memorable aspects of the episode, they’re hardly all “The Doctor’s Wife” has to recommend it. Rory and Amy’s adventures inside the TARDIS are both cleverly staged, and quite scary. Amy’s scenes with the aged Rory and her trip through TARDIS passageways filled with violent graffiti against her are particular highlights, but I also liked the return to the old control room (even if I’m not quite clear how it still exists). Also quite chilling: The Doctor’s discovery of the glowing distress boxes he mistook for Time Lords. For all his cuddly charm, the Doctor can also be quite scary and, when angered, menacing. One of the strengths of Matt Smith’s performance—here, and in general—is the way he can switch from one gear to the next in a snap.
But let’s get back to the Doctor and his TARDIS wife. Gaiman’s script cleverly raises that may or may not have long-term impact on the show. Will the Doctor go back to thinking of the TARDIS as he has before, or is there nothing in this new recognition of how their relationship works to upset the status quo? I suspect the latter. He’s always loved his TARDIS and the TARDIS has always loved him back. Really, he might not even have needed her sojourn into the land of flesh and blood to recognize that. But I suspect they’re both grateful for it anyway.