Besides the 50th anniversary special feature-length film/episode 3-D thing, “Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS” immediately caught my attention when scanning episode titles before Series 7.5 premiered. Fans have been teased with the endlessness of the TARDIS since the beginning of Who, and though several rooms have been revealed in the past, “Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS” was an episode that promised to focus exclusively on the interior of the ship that has been a pillar of the show since 1963. Every fan of Doctor Who has their own preconceptions of what rooms the TARDIS holds – myself included – so naturally there was bound to be some disappointment involved. How could a television episode live up to that title? But before we get there, let’s start at the beginning.
The Doctor begins the episode by commenting on the hostility between Clara and the TARDIS. This has been a recurring theme throughout the second half of Series 7, and one that will no doubt be connected to the fact that Clara keeps popping up in different times as different versions of herself. The TARDIS seems to react aggressively towards anything with an unnatural timeline, and Ms. Oswald would appear to fit the bill. In previous series, the Doctor’s companion and the TARDIS have had little to no interaction. The fact that this is suddenly reversed is a compelling development. The Doctor is insistent that the two get along, and shuts the TARDIS down to “Basic Mode” so that Clara can fly it.
What piqued my curiosity about this scene was that Clara seemed able to pilot the TARDIS relatively well in the previous episode, “Hide.” No, it was not River Song-level flying, but it was impressive nonetheless. So the fact that she suddenly needs training wheels is somewhat confusing. But I digress.
The crew of a passing scavenger spaceship notice the TARDIS on their radar and reel it in with a magnetic tractor beam, hoping for loot. This seems to cause the TARDIS to go haywire. Amidst the mechanical havoc around her, Clara notices an egg-shaped metal object rolling across the floor and bends to pick it up – then drops it almost immediately as if burned. The console room shakes and then goes dark.
“Please tell me there’s a button you can press to fix this!”
“Oh, yes, a big friendly button!”
Cut to the salvage ship. The team – the two Van Baalen brothers Gregor and Bram and a very human-looking android named Tricky – examine the TARDIS and deem it to be of little value. They are about to throw it back into space when the Doctor appears to scold them. Bram immediately declares that they found the ship drifting, already broken. The Doctor corrects him: it was the illegal magna-grab used to capture his ship that injured it. He pulls what looks like the same egg-like object that Clara picked up in the TARDIS out of Gregor’s pocket to illustrate his point – it is the controller for the magna-grab. The beam would have been safe had the Doctor not disabled the TARDIS’ shields so that Clara could fly. Realizing that his companion is still stuck somewhere inside, he enlists the help of the crew to get her out, promising them the ship in return. Once inside the console room, to ensure the trio’s cooperation and motivation, he initiates a self-destruct countdown which will shut off once Clara is found. The gang has half an hour to find her.
“Don’t get into a spaceship with a madman! Didn’t anyone ever teach you that?”
Clara, meanwhile, has woken up in a corridor and is attempting to get her bearings when she realizes that she is being pursued by zombie-like creatures with burnt flesh – seems like a great way to wake up. Now is the moment we’ve all been waiting for – the chance to see just a few of the bewildering, infinite rooms of the TARDIS. This is where the episode diverges from the path of ‘potentially awesome’ to that of ‘somewhat underwhelming.’ As she runs through the seemingly endless hallways, we catch a glimpse of the much-talked-about swimming pool and an observatory containing a gigantic telescope. Yet…we should have seen more rooms. Yes, only so much can be crammed into one 45-minute episode. Yes, building elaborate sets is expensive. However, a considerable part of those precious 45 minutes is spent running through passages that look nearly identical. In an episode whose name promised grandeur, I was disappointed with the lack thereof. (These hallway shots are spiced up with slightly different lighting, disconcerting camera angles, and various configurations of scrap metal strewn about.)
Gregor – having sent Bram off to strip the console under the pretense of “divide and conquer” – chances upon the architectural reconfiguration system of the TARDIS. This is a machine that builds machines. According to Gregor’s scanner, it is “more valuable than the total sum of any currency.” The system itself looks like one of the bioluminescent trees from Avatar, and is possibly the most impressive room shown. It is illustrated, yet again, that the TARDIS is more than just a static machine. Gregor begins to pull off one of the circuits, which are bulb-like and lit from the inside. The Doctor tries to stop him, warning that the TARDIS will throw a tantrum, but his protests are to no avail. Tricky, the android, senses pain from the TARDIS after the circuit is removed. The three attempt to continue their search for Clara, but every way they turn seems to bring them back to the same intersection of corridors. On top of all this, they hear Bram screaming over the radio as he is killed by one of the zombies.
As she runs through the TARDIS, Clara discovers a room containing relics of companions past, as well as a gigantic library containing, among bottled encyclopedias and several floors of bookshelves, a large leather-bound tome titled The History of the Time War. Opening it in the middle, she turns a page and whispers, “So that’s who.” Great. Now even the companion knows the Doctor’s name. Her hand is still hurting since she burned it on the magna-grab controller, and the marks on her palm seem to be resolving into words. She eventually finds the console room, but accidentally lets in one of the lava zombies. It lurches towards her and she screams…
The Doctor, Gregor, and Tricky have also arrived in the console room, but there is no sign of Clara. The Doctor realizes that there are multiple versions of the console room all occupying the same space, and pulls Clara out of hers right before she can be attacked. Gregor asks the Doctor to halt the countdown. The Doctor laughs and reveals that there was no self-destruct; the ploy was only to give the salvagers incentive to find Clara. However, the Doctor finds that the TARDIS’ engines have become unstable due to the time leak caused by the magna-grab, and leads everyone down to the engine room via the Eye of Harmony. The Eye is an exploding star frozen in the act of becoming a black hole, and used to power the TARDIS. This particular incarnation of it is wonderfully showy and impressive, as illustrated by the picture below. On the way there, Tricky is injured and Gregor reveals to him that he is not, in fact, an android – the two are brothers. He had lost his memory and several vital organs in an accident that also killed their father. Gregor replaced his eyes and larynx with robotics, and convinced him that he was a flesh-covered android in order to claim captaincy of the salvage vessel. The Doctor is surprisingly not angry with Gregor, instead merely disappointed.
Upon arrival at the Eye of Harmony, the Doctor explains that they have to get across the catwalk in the center of the room as quickly as possible, for extended exposure to the intense heat of the exploding star would result in the liquefaction and burning of a person’s cells. However, once inside, the zombies block off the entrance and exit doors. Leaving would require pushing past them. After Gregor’s scanner informs them that the zombies are made of human flesh, the Doctor confesses that the creatures are the gang, after nearly dying from staying in the room too long. They are bleeding through from the future due to the time leak. We have arrived at one of this episode’s weak links: why would your future zombified self want to kill you? Ah, well. Movie mysteries.
The Doctor opens the doors to let the monsters in, claiming that as long as Gregor and Tricky do not come in contact with each other, they will not turn into the conjoined zombie before them. However, when Gregor tries to save Tricky from falling over the edge of the catwalk, the two meld together and “time…reassert[s] itself.” Another weak link – this was not fully explained. Why would their touch make the future come to life?
The Doctor and Clara, the path behind them clear, run out of the the Eye of Harmony room…and out onto a cliff. Believing death to be imminent as the zombies bang on the door, he confronts her, asking who she is and how she died twice before in different times. She insists that she has no idea what he is talking about, and he finally realizes that this Clara knows nothing about her other selves. So, there was virtually no development in that plot line. Realizing that the cliff is just the TARDIS “snarling” at them, the Doctor and Clara take a running leap off the edge.
They land in the engine room to find that the engine has already exploded. This was one of the cooler moments of the episode, because its various component parts are hanging around them in stasis. It made me really want to see the engine in its non-exploded state. The Doctor talks about how the TARDIS has always taken care of him, and now that it’s his turn he doesn’t know what to do. He then looks down at Clara’s burnt hand – the marks have fully resolved into the words “Big Friendly Button.” He realizes that he has to go back through the rift in time that, unless I am mistaken, was not previously mentioned, and prevent the magna-grab from latching on to the TARDIS, subsequently rendering the rest of the day nonexistent. Don’t worry, I’ll expound upon the problems with this later.
Clara asks the Doctor how much she will forget, telling him that she saw his name in The History of the Time War book in the library. He promises her that she will forget everything that happened since she picked up the magna-grab controller. After she expresses an interest in keeping hold of her memories, the Doctor informs her that “secrets protect us.” This saddens me, because although the Doctor should always remain an enigma, the closer we the viewers think we are to figuring him out, the more satisfied we feel. The fact that the Doctor wants to hide information from Clara – and by extension, us – is somewhat disappointing. However, I will hold out on the criticism of this comment, because it could be a setup for the undoubtedly secret-centric 50th Anniversary Special.
So, the Doctor squeezes through the rift in time to the moment when the TARDIS began fritzing due to the magna-grab and tosses the egglike controller to his past self. Clara from the past picks it up, burning her hand, but her Doctor snatches it away and, noticing the words “Big Friendly Button” inscribed on it, presses the control on the top, disabling the magna-grab.
Be warned: thus follows a short rant about the ending of “Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS”
And there you have it! One of the more blatant uses of deus ex machina from a writer evidently in a tight spot. I don’t object to the plot device in principle, but in this particular situation, I dislike the fact that no one remembered the events of the day (except for Clara saying she felt “tired,” and Gregor acting more nicely towards Tricky). These people and I just went on an incredibly epic journey through the TARDIS together, defeating monsters and discovering secrets – and then you tell me, “Oh yeah, none of that actually happened.” I just put my emotions on the line for 45 whole minutes, and now I’m told that nothing has changed. There will be no character development due to these events, because they never occurred. I am reminded of the all-encompassing ending of the fourth grader’s story – “And then I woke up.” It’s clean, it requires no thought, and it’s absolutely infuriating.
All in all, this episode did deliver some moments of true neek joy. It was really cool to see a glimpse of the interior of the TARDIS, and the Van Baalen brothers’ subplot was yet another subtly warped mirror of the Doctor-Clara relationship. However, I wish that less of the episode had been spent in corridors, and that the ending had been given more thought. I would recommend this episode nonetheless, if just for the beautiful parts of the TARDIS that we do see.