Across fifty years of Doctor Who, one of the few constants has been the TARDIS (standing for either “Time And Relative Dimension In Space” or “Time And Relative Dimensions In Space” depending which episode you watch and who you ask). It’s always been there to some degree, usually seen at the beginning and end of a story—a literal vehicle to transport the Doctor and his companions to the story’s location. Like the Doctor, the TARDIS has changed a lot over the years. Even its exterior, stuck in the form of a police box due to a faulty chameleon circuit, has undergone small changes. However, the interior has appeared in numerous different ways. But despite the changes in appearance, the TARDIS has always remained more or less the same.
It’s actually been quite rare for any particular episode or story to focus on the TARDIS to any degree. Despite the constant changing and reinventing of the show as a whole, this is one thing that has remained quite constant—and for good reason, I think. Fans have often clamoured for more stories about the TARDIS, particularly stories set entirely on board the TARDIS. Yet production teams have remained resistant to doing this, adamant that the TARDIS is just a plot device, that literal vehicle I mentioned. The programme rarely showed more than just the console room, and sometimes not even that, instead having the TARDIS appear and the Doctor and companions come out. Indeed, in the early years, despite common fan belief, there was nothing to indicate that the TARDIS interior was the massive size it became in later years. It was bigger on the inside than the outside, yes, but in the early William Hartnell years, only the console room and a couple of adjoining rooms were ever seen, and there was no indication that there was more. Throughout the late sixties and all of the third Doctor’s tenure, we never saw anything beyond the console room at all. It wasn’t until the fourth Doctor story, “The Masque of Mandragora” that the first indication of those endless corridors appeared.
But just because most stories do little with the TARDIS, that doesn’t mean there has never been a story focused on, or set primarily on board, the TARDIS. There have been a few. The third ever Doctor Who story, commonly called “The Edge of Destruction” (although that’s technically only the name of the first episode) is set entirely on board the TARDIS with only the principal cast and no guest characters. It’s the first story to suggest the possibility that the TARDIS is alive. However, despite this and the fact the characters never leave the TARDIS in the story, “The Edge of Destruction” is not really about the TARDIS. It’s about the relationships between the characters.
The sixth episode of the Tom Baker story, “The Invasion of Time” is famous for being a chase through the TARDIS—revealing a TARDIS interior quite unlike anything ever seen before, filmed as it was in an old, run-down hospital. The early 80s often had scenes in parts of the TARDIS other than the console room, showing us companions’ bedrooms and numerous endless corridors, and the 1996 tv movie had numerous scenes in various rooms of the TARDIS, all done in a gothic style. The new series has continued to show very little of the TARDIS beyond the console room, only occasionally offering a glimpse of anything beyond.
The Series Six episode, “The Doctor’s Wife” is the first episode in the show’s history to actually be about the TARDIS. It makes the TARDIS into an actual character by giving her a literal body to move about in. Through this story, we actually learn more about the TARDIS, and about the Doctor’s relationship with the TARDIS. “The Doctor’s Wife” shows that it is possible to do stories that are focused on the TARDIS, but they have to be done right. Otherwise, they become a bit of a mess, much like this week’s episode, “Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS”. As its name suggests, “Journey” is focused on the TARDIS and is set almost entirely on board the ship. But unlike “The Doctor’s Wife”, “Journey” is not really about the TARDIS. Indeed, it’s not really about anything, and that is at the heart of its problems.
I can’t help but feel there was a huge missed opportunity with “Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS”. Over the past few episodes, there have been mentions of Clara getting the feeling that the TARDIS doesn’t like her. Now, I admit I’ve had my problems with the way this has been handled, mainly that Clara gets this impression through situations that are perfectly normal. Not being able to get into the TARDIS without a key is not weird. But that aside, the intention is clearly that the TARDIS really doesn’t like Clara, and this probably has something to do with the mystery surrounding her and the fact that the Doctor himself doesn’t fully trust her. So it would make sense that a story set on board the TARDIS, in which Clara gets separated from the Doctor, would be a great opportunity to explore this animosity the TARDIS has towards her. The episode even seems to be setting this up at the beginning as the Doctor tries to get Clara to talk to the TARDIS so they can work out their differences.
But then it goes nowhere. The remainder of the episode never addresses this issue at all. In “The Doctor’s Wife”, we learnt new things about the TARDIS and saw old things in a new light. The episode revealed more about the relationship between the Doctor and the TARDIS and developed that relationship to a new level. In “Journey”, we learn nothing about the TARDIS, nothing about Clara, and their relationship does not develop or change in any way at all—even before the reset puts everything back to the way it was in the beginning.
Upon reaching the end of the episode, I’m left wondering, what was the point? Moreso because the episode isn’t about anyone else either. There’s a bit of a story for the guest characters, but that is never developed as anything more than a minor subplot. There is also some development of the Clara mystery, but that gets undone at the end, becoming inconsequential. Basically, the story is about a lot of running through corridors and shouting. Now, don’t get me wrong: running through corridors is an iconic part of Doctor Who. But generally, the running is there either as a means to build tension or as filler. It’s not usually the point of the story. Yet since I can’t figure out any other point to the story, all that’s left is the running around.
To be fair, I don’t think “Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS” is the worst of the worst. I enjoyed parts of it, and I think there are some very clever moments. But a few clever moments don’t make a clever whole. In this case, the whole just doesn’t hold together. At best, it’s a mediocre episode. At worst, it’s a wibbly wobbly timey wimey mess.
There’s a good reason why, until recently, Doctor Who only made minimal use of time travel and the TARDIS as plot elements. Heavy use of time travel opens the door to many problems. The moment characters learn about their futures is the moment they start to lose free will. Rewriting history removes the consequences of actions. These things can be done well and have been done well. But the more often they’re done, the more likely it becomes that they will fall into one of the many traps. Doctor Who has been doing a lot of “timey wimey” episodes recently, and it’s failing at it more and more often. The rules for time travel constantly change. History can be rewritten, then it can’t. Paradoxes work themselves out except when they don’t. Time will reassert it self, except when it doesn’t.
At the heart of the problem in “Journey” is the reset button. Revealing at the end of a story that “it was all a dream” is generally one of the worst things a writer can do. It removes all consequences of what happened in the story. Any and all character development is immediately revoked. Revelations and accomplishments become meaningless because none of it actually happened. As a result, the entire story becomes a waste of time for its audience. Rewriting or resetting history so that the events of the story never happened is the science fiction time travel equivalent of “it was all a dream”. The reset button this technique is often called, and it’s far too common in time travel plots. Like the dream plotline, it makes everything that happened meaningless and a waste of time to the audience. It takes away all consequences, and without consequences, a story has no point.
To make matters worse, while much of the story is pretty inconsequential anyway, there is a moment of huge consequence that is completely negated by the reset: Clara learns that the Doctor has met other versions of her and overall is a pretty scary guy. Likewise, the Doctor learns that Clara really doesn’t know what’s going on, that she’s even more in the dark than he is. This ought to be a defining moment in their relationship and in Clara’s development as a whole, and it should have huge implications on how she reacts to him from here on out. Except it doesn’t have to anymore because it never happened and she doesn’t remember it. The reset button is like a “get out of jail free” card that allows writers to do big things and then avoid having to follow up on them in any way. Of course, the Clara mystery will be addressed and solved in a future episode, but if this moment hadn’t been erased here, it would have been an opportunity to have real complications in the relationship between Clara and the Doctor, an opportunity to explore where her shaken faith in him takes her. Instead, she is reset to stock-companion mode. It’s a shame, too, because the scene plays so well—in fact it’s probably the best moment in the episode. Matt Smith and Jenna-Louise Coleman turn in brilliant performances. “I think I’m more scared of you right now than anything on that TARDIS.” That line is a powerful moment that sends shivers down the spine as Clara realizes that the Doctor has a dark and dangerous side. I honestly feel cheated that that moment now never happened.
It’s not impossible to do a story in which time is reset and to do it well. Doctor Who has managed it before. At the end of “Last of the Time Lords”, an entire year is undone, but in this case, there are a number of people (indeed, most of the characters who played a significant role in the story) who retain full memories of the events of that year and still must deal with the consequences of it. Martha’s family is traumatized and Martha leaves the Doctor partly to help her family recover. Not only that, not everything that happened in the story is undone as time only reverses so far. The Master still becomes prime minister, and still kills his entire cabinet and the president of the United States. In “Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS”, not even Clara remembers the events of what happened. There can be no character development as a result. Arguably, the Doctor might remember (it’s not really clear in this regard), and I hope he does because then at least his discovery that Clara doesn’t know about her own mystery might have some impact.
On top of all this is the fact that the reset button is a literal button. “Big friendly button” it’s called. In my review of “The Bells of Saint John”, I commented on how jokes in the show these days tend to be written and performed in a way that’s just short of breaking the fourth wall, a knowing wink to the audience that says, “Hey! We’re being funny!” The big friendly button comes across in a very similar way. The tongue-in-cheek manner of its use seems to say, “We know it’s a reset button. We know some people aren’t going to like it, but we’re doing it anyway.” I may be reading way too much into it there, but it honestly comes across that way.
As I said above, I don’t think “Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS” is all bad. There are some things about it I rather like, even if the whole doesn’t hold together all that well. In particular, I like the Van Baalen brothers, who make suitable semi-antagonists for the story. I do wish they were developed a little more (although they do get more development than many guest characters these days) and a little more thought was put into the whole android/not android subplot. Really, how can Tricky possibly truly believe he’s an android? Does he never get hungry? Sleepy? Need to go to the bathroom? That aside, I liked the characters. Each had a distinctive personality and a believable relationship to the other two brothers, and I liked where their story was headed, even though it didn’t get a proper resolution. The performances were good, too, particularly Ashley Walters as Gregor and Jahvel Hall as Tricky.
I do have one other problem with the events surrounding the Van Baalen brothers: If Tricky isn’t an android, just how did he make such an amazing recovery from being impaled? There doesn’t even seem to be a wound present after that incident and all Tricky does is clutch his shoulder a bit to indicate some pain. It’s almost like a mirror to the reset button erasing the consequences of the entire episode. Tricky gets impaled because the plot requires a situation that will force Gregor to tell him the truth. Once that’s dealt with, the plot no longer needs Tricky to be injured, and so it’s glossed over and forgotten about quickly. This is really not realistic or strong storytelling.
Other good moments in the episode include the rooms Clara travels through while trying to find her way through the TARDIS. Most of the time in this episode is spent in corridors, which in it’s own way is a nice nod to the past as the TARDIS has always been made up of a lot of corridors (just look at the story first fifth-Doctor story, “Castrovalva”, the first episode of which is set almost entirely on board the TARDIS; it’s almost all corridors). However, it’s always nice to see the rooms too, and there are some clever ones here. I particularly like the library with its bottled volumes of the Encyclopedia Gallifrey (though I’m less fond of the History of the Time War book, which is very conveniently placed, opens to an incredibly convenient page, and then is conveniently erased from Clara’s memory). The workroom Clara passes through also contains some fun nods to the past, from the Doctor’s crib to Amy’s model TARDIS to what appears to be the seventh Doctor’s umbrella from “Paradise Towers”.
Indeed, there are also a number of other nods to the past, particularly the voices from the past heard when Bram is dismantling the console. Numerous voices from all fifty years of the show are just barely audible, going all the way back to Ian Chesterton when he first entered the TARDIS in the very first episode of Doctor Who. There’s a glimpse of the oft-mentioned-but-rarely-seen swimming pool, and oddly, there’s even a glimpse of the telescope from the tenth Doctor story “Tooth and Claw”, though how it got into the TARDIS is anyone’s guess. Perhaps the TARDIS simply recreated it for some reason or another.
As fun as nods to the past can be (they help add continuity and flavour), all they really do is appeal to nostalgia, and they don’t make a story. While the episode certainly has its good moments, there are also has a number of moments that just plain don’t work, along with a considerable number of unanswered questions. Clara makes an utterly stupid decision (after talking to herself about how it’s probably a bad decision) to open the door with the flashing red light and then even stands there for a second while a fireball rushes at her to say, “Bad decision.” Nevertheless, she still manages to miraculously walk away from the explosion without injury.
The Doctor somehow ends up outside the TARDIS after the Van Baalens bring it on board the salvage ship. He is lying in a pile of junk under the TARDIS. Going back a little bit, why does the Doctor turn off the shields in the first place? How do they interfere with “basic mode”? I will say that I like the fact that the Doctor is, on the whole, much more serious and far less manic in this episode than he tends to be of late. Matt Smith does a good job with the serious, darker side of the Doctor (“My ship, my rules!”), and the Doctor is much more believable and much more compelling when he isn’t always flailing his arms and spinning around.
Finally, how did the picture of the Van Baalen brothers with their father get repaired at the end? At the beginning of the episode, the picture is missing its left side, the part that shows Tricky with the family. At the end, the left side is back, showing Tricky there. I realize this is meant to show that Gregor retains a bit of the new empathy he discovered in the episode despite the reset, but it leaves the question of how. It seems the reset button also rewrote some earlier history as well, as there is no indication on the final picture that it was ever torn (no tape/glue/staples). And if it’s now meant to imply the picture was never torn in the first place, it makes it even more ludicrous that Tricky doesn’t realize he’s not an android. I’ve seen it suggested that the picture was just folded, but it certainly doesn’t look that way at the beginning (the layers are even peeling apart in one of the torn corners) and even if it were, there are no crease marks at the end. The picture is pristine. It’s yet another random element of no-rules time travel.
In the end, “Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS” is a pretty good example of why, unless you’re Neil Gaiman, TARDIS-bound stories are not a good idea, and why the show has generally avoided them in the past. The episode has its moments, but overall is something of a mess. It lacks a purpose and isn’t really about anything at all. To be fair, I actually enjoyed it more on my first viewing when I hadn’t yet had time to think in great detail about what I had just seen (although most of its problems were already apparent), so for one-time viewing, it’s not too bad, I suppose. But overall, it’s one of the weakest episodes of Series Seven.