Doctor Who‘s built up something of a winning streak recently. After the slip-up that was The Rings of Akhaten, there’s been two excellent episodes (four and a half stars each from this reviewer) – and with tonight’s episode, Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS being one of the most anticipated episodes of the series, can the episode match the high standards set by both fans and the previous episodes?
Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS began with the titular ship being grabbed by space salvage crew the Van Baalen Bros, and unceremoniously being dumped onto a garbage pile. And while the Doctor makes it out of the TARDIS, Clara is left on board with a malfunctioning ship that never really liked her in the first place. Breaking into the ship, the Doctor locks the brothers in the TARDIS and turns on the ship’s self-destruct button, set for half an hour – and the only way he’ll turn it off is if the brothers help him fish Clara out of the ship.
As you’d expect, Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS features a journey to the centre of the TARDIS, via an awful lot of corridors and some of the rooms that have been teased for years. Yep, we see the TARDIS swimming pool, the observatory, the library, a rocky ridge, the Eye of Harmony and the centre itself – and they’re all excellently designed by production designer Michael Pickwoad. We don’t see much of some of the rooms mentioned, but they’re still visual treats nevertheless.
But back to Clara, who’s been flung into the bowels of the TARDIS. But she’s not alone, because there are some gruesome bone zombies to worry about. They’re rather scary for six-o’clock family viewing – shot in a hazy, murky fashion that’ll be sure to send younger viewers scuttling behind the sofa. In an episode that doesn’t really have a villain, they’re an effectively menacing presence – especially in the scenes where they’re slightly more shadowy presences – but heck, they still hold water out in the open, and after their true identity has been revealed… but more on that later.
Journey follows what seems to be becoming a trend in Doctor Who – a minimal guest cast. This week, it’s the Van Baalen Bros – so do they match last week’s superb guest performances? Er… not really. Ashley Walters is the best of the three – giving a mildly sympathetic performance as Gregor that still manages to be the best guest performance of the episode. Then again, there’s not much competition – Jahval Hall and Mark Oliver could just as easily have been replaced with trees and it would’ve been hard to notice. Guest performances are hardly the point of an episode like this – but surely the usually immaculate casting department could have done better.
Still, when you’ve got regulars like Matt Smith and Jenna-Louise Coleman on top form, the acting will never be truly awful. Matt Smith gets to play a slightly darker Doctor than usual, and it’s an excellent, stand-out performance from Smith – and yes, I’m still going by my praise-by-exception rule. Jenna-Louise Coleman, after a couple of weeks off from the plot arc, gets some of her meatiest material yet – and she absolutely nails it, providing a sympathetic blend of spunk and vulnerability. There have been complaints about Clara not really being her own character yet – but she should hopefully silence the doubters here.
Clara is pulled out of her alternate time-stream just in time – and it seems that the Doctor’s objective has been completed. It was a little obvious that the self-destruct was a bluff – but sadly for the Doctor and co, the TARDIS’ engine had been damaged… and it’s off to the centre of the TARDIS to fix the engine – and we finally got a look at the re-designed Eye of Harmony in the process (last seen in the 1996 TV Movie) – which was sadly just flicked off and forgotten about. In an episode of missed opportunities in the TARDIS, this was perhaps the worst.
However, the truth about the zombies – that they’re the future versions of the Doctor, Clara and the Van Baalen bros who’ve been barbecued by the Eye of Harmony, is a neat twist, and provides quite a creepy spin on the scenes featuring the time zombies. The revelation that Tricky the android is human? It’s an admirable effort to add personality to a blander-than-bland character, but it just doesn’t feel particularly interesting when there’s far more exciting things going on.
As for the fragmented centre of the TARDIS itself? It looks beautiful, and it’s something that actually delivers in its promises… but again, it’s only used briefly, and it’s back to the control room, where the Doctor’s attempting to erase the timeline, via the use of… THE TIME CRACK! Yes, our old friend from Series 5 is back, and it’s a welcome cameo from the er… crack. But despite it hurting quite a lot in Cold Blood, the Doctor decides to jump through the crack and throw a ‘Big Friendly Button’ to the past Doctor from the start of the episode.
It’s a little bit of a cop-out to erase the events of the episode (not quite on the scale of Last of the Time Lords, where they re-wrote a whole two-part finale) – but you have to admire the sheer chutzpah of Steve Thompson, who in a defiant middle-finger to the fandom, calls the button that re-writes the events the ‘Big Friendly Button’. You may not like the episode, but that’s pretty much the definition of audacity.
Overall, Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS is a fun, pacy action-adventure that gives us the most in-depth trip into the TARDIS we’ve seen yet, alongside an excellent script, arc advancements and great regular performances. Sadly, the wooden guest performances, the slightly cheaty ending and and the skimming-over of TARDIS rooms force me to give Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS a score of:
What’s crimson and horrible? Tune in next Saturday to find out the answer to the mystery in my review of episode eleven, The Crimson Horror.