Doctor Who TV Reviews

Why Doctor Who’s “A Journey to the Center of the Tardis” Was One Re-Set Button Too Many for the Show

Doctor Who just potentially flashed a giant middle finger to its audience last night with the giant reset-button conclusion to “Journey to the Center of the Tardis.”  My reaction?  To quote Communtiy, “I’m not mad; I’m just disappointed.”  Okay.  I’m lying.  I’m kind of mad.

Brian: “So, it was sort of like a dream?
Stewie: “No, it was a simulation.”

Brian: “But theoretically if someone were to watch the events from that simulation from start to finish only to find out none of it happened you don’t think that would just be like a giant middle finger to them?”
Stewie: “Well, hopefully they will have enjoyed the ride.”

Brian: “I don’t know man.  I think you piss a lot of people off that way.” Family Guy, Lois Kills Stewie: Part 2” (S 6, EP 6)

*Spoilers for Doctor Who’s “Journey to the Center of the Tardis” Below*

To be a science fiction fan is to begrudgingly accept that around any narrative conflict could be lurking a deus ex machina-esque solution.  Something you and the characters in the show have no way of predicting can suddenly solve any problem (often in defiance of logic) at the last second, and everything you have seen can be completely undone in the science fiction version of “it was all just a dream”: the temporal paradox.  As argued by Family Guy, such solutions inevitably threaten to “piss a lot of people off.”  Why? Because the solution may not feel completely earned (looking at you Deep Space Nine and your cavalry of wormhole aliens) and gives the audience the impression that their time has been wasted.

Doctor Who just wasted my time last night.  I think.

In “Journey to the Center of the Tardis,” we were promised a trip to the many heretofore unseen interior chambers of the iconic spaceship and along the way we got some major plot advancement and character development.  Finally, the Doctor addressed the dead girl in the room, and revealed all to Clara (Jenna Louise-Coleman): that he has met two other version of her, both of whom died, at different points of time and space.  As such, he has no idea what she is and stands in fear of her.  However, her befuddled reaction indicated she may in fact, at least as far she knows, be a simple human girl.  Moreover, in her own sleuthing in the Tardis Clara came upon a book containing the Doctor’s real name, which the show is sledge hammer-style beating home to us is something which should not be known by anyone.

Suspension of disbelief and everything, but it was pretty funny that Clara opened the book to exactly the right page.
Suspension of disbelief and everything, but it was pretty funny that Clara opened the book to exactly the right page.

Then the show hit the giant re-set button by having the Doctor hit a “big friendly button.”  This was an admittedly so on-the-nose-to-somehow-still-seem-funny acknowledgement of what the show was up to: everything we had seen was being undone.  Whereas before a scrap salvage team with basically a really fancy magnet caught and unintentionally crashed the Tardis with Clara trapped inside now the salvage team declined to pursue the Tardis and the Doctor and Clara went about their day, incident free.  This was an episode in which the Tardis appeared to have been damaged beyond repair by the end meaning one could tell a giant re-set was coming because obviously the show would need to put the Tardis back to default settings.

For better or worse, the show has done this type of thing before many times.  The most egregious and notorious example is the season 3 finale “The Last of the Time Lords,” in which an entire year of a Master-occupied, Toclafane-enforced Earth is erased.  Basically, it amounts to, “Remember how the Master was Earth’s cruel overlord for an entire year with the Doctor his prisoner?  Yeah, that never happened.”

Last of the Time Lords (7)
On the plus side, the Doctor being turned into Dobby the House Elf is also erased. On the down side, some things once seen can’t be unseen.

Crucially, though, all of our primary characters remember everything.  The major plot events are erased from history, but Martha and her family, Captain Jack, and the Doctor each remember everything.  Her memories completely in-tact, Martha decides to part ways with the Doctor, having seen and not liked the lengths she will go to for a man who will never love her the way she loves him.  Captain Jack realizes how much he misses his new nuclear family at Torchwood and departs to rejoin them as a friend and leader (if you’ve seen the second season of Torchwood you’ll know this does not go as well as he expected).  The Doctor maintains the trauma of having tried and failed to save the Master, again made the last of the Time Lords.

Of course, that was nothing compared to what Steven Moffat did with the season five finale “The Big Bang,” in which all of reality is completely re-set.  By the end, we are briefly led to believe that the Doctor has been vanquished from reality and Amy and Rory have no memory of him.  However, through piecing together subtle clues left to her by the Doctor this leads to Amy’s defiant (and absolutely brilliant!) proclamation, “Raggedy man, I remember you and you are late for my wedding!”  The events may have been temporarily erased, but they are ultimately restored in a particularly heroic moment for both the Doctor and Amy.

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Full disclosure: I re-watched this scene while writing this article, and it made me miss Amy Pond more than I have ever missed her before.

However, the show usually gets away with it by only erasing plots points, such as the Master taking over the Earth, but not character development.  There is a notable exception which actually inverts that formula, in which at the conclusion of the fourth season all of the actions taken by the Doctor and Donna Noble stand but her memories of them are erased thus robbing her of the character enrichening exposure to the 10th Doctor.  In that instance, the show rather effectively played the erasure of her character development for its obvious tragedy.

tumblr_m88725c9La1qbn57mo1_500
You’ll go on to bigger and better things on the American version of “The Office” where apparently, everyone – characters in the show and viewers of the show – hates you.  Ouch.

The ending of “Journey to the Center of the Tardis” may have actually erased both plot points and character development.  There are hints that perhaps the Doctor’s erased day has left some impact, with the leader of the salvage team now inexplicably (I guess just because the Doctor told him to remember it, and he somehow magically did) showing “a little, tiny scrap of decency.”  Moreover, if the Doctor does not actually remember any of the events of the lost day he at least knows a day has been lost, telling Clara she’s had “two days crammed into the space of one” before asking her whether or not she feels save with him.  We know that in the course of “Journey to the Center of the Tardis” she admitted to being terrified of him, although that only came as he was accusing her of being some sort of trick or trap.  However, now Clara clearly appears to have no memory of the events whatsoever.

We’ll have to see how this plays out.  Amy’s memory was actually robbed several times, having Rory erased from her memory for a while and then remembering the Doctor but not Rory in “The Wedding of River Song.”  However, on both occasions along with the aforementioned moment from “Big Bang” the memory loss was a prelude to a triumphant moment of Amy reclaiming her agency, brilliantly written and performed on every occasion.  Something similar could happen with Clara and negate all of my concerns.

There’s something about this time, though, that feels different.  In the Moffat era, when the re-set button/memory loss device has been used it has felt clever because it created an interesting narrative tension that both the Doctor and the audience knew more than the companion.  The Doctor is often a god-like entity meaning he pretty much knows more than everyone.  However, placing us on his side as he, for example, tiptoed emotionally around Amy during season five when she had no memory of Rory, whom we had seen die, was brilliant.  Finally making some serious progress with Clara and the Doctor only to have it taken away, at least from Clara, on the other hand, feels lazy and cruel.

uktv-doctor-who-s07-e05-1
Don’t worry. This is nothing a magic “forget me now” can’t solve.

The conclusion rendered far too powerless Clara, who can only meekly proclaim, “I don’t want to forget, at least not everything,” before the Doctor completely ignores her, patronizingly, and makes her forget everything.  That is, of course, if I am right.  Maybe this is building to something cool, but for the first time in my watching of modern Doctor Who it felt like the worst type of “it was all just a dream” conclusions in that I felt as if nothing was truly accomplished.  It is cool, I guess, that we know there is a book in the Tardis’ library which contains the Doctor’s name, and that Clara claims ignorance to any of the Doctor’s claims even in a moment of near-certain death.  However, without any lasting impact all that does is provide more pieces to a puzzle while rendering increasingly hollow the actual characters on the show.

Based upon an early reading of a handful of “Journey to the Center of the Tardis” reviews (several of which are linked to as related articles), it would seem as if I am in the minority in my viewpoint (although Charlie Jane Anders at io9.com is with me).  Bloggers and paid reviewers alike seem to have really liked this episode, while perhaps acknowledging the ending as a slight annoyance.  The episode was certainly enjoyable, but that ending?  It was one re-set button ending too far for me.

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9 comments

  1. I do agree that reset buttons can be annoying for the viewer. But (and it’s a big but in the case of this episode) I also think that much of Doctor Who is set on the premise of “What if”. Those reset episodes are plots and adventures that the conventional narrative constraints – where things have consequences and long-lasting influences on the characters – don’t allow. Sometimes I think that much of our annoyance comes from the fact that we are so used to things having consequences and don’t see why script writers should get away with anything else.

    In response to one particular point of your review: I think the way they wrote it, the Doctor remembers everything and Clara only has a hint of a memory (because she hasn’t been a time traveller for very long yet). It might be unfair, but it fits well with the themes of secret keeping and memory (loss) this season.

    And thanks for linking! 🙂

    1. First of all, thanks for reading and leaving a very cordial comment even though we appear to disagree on the episode.

      On the topic of the re-set button, I think that science fiction in general gets away with this tv trope because the genre allows for more agreeable and logical in-universe explanations for it than a soap opera can for “it was all just a dream.” Everything can be returned to normal because a temporal paradox has been solved or something. This can be incredibly compelling in a science fiction setting, and Doctor Who regularly delivers endings which on another show would feel like a total narrative cheat. So, I am used to it when it comes to Doctor Who. Before “Journey to the Center of the Tardis” it has only ever bothered me in “The Last of the Time Lords.” They’ve done the “what if” episodes before, but the people on the show remembered how the “what if” played out.

      This gets to the next point which is interpreting the ending. It’s certainly possible the Doctor remembers everything and he who shows “a tiny scrap of decency” and Clara maintain trace memories. It doesn’t really make any sense why they would, but it really barely makes any sense why Amy remembers the Doctor at the end of “Big Bang” which also entailed a crack in time. At least there we have some explanation given the power of Amy’s mind and connection to the cracks in time whereas here there is nothing like that. It’s just that the ending does not at all play like that to me. It plays like the Doctor either remembers everything or knows something bad has happened which had to be undone which makes him worried about Clara, who remembers nothing ala Rose immediately after absorbing the time vortex (although the Davies era was inconsistent about how much of that Rose remembered). For the reasons I argued in the article, I found that really upsetting.

      However, I attempted to frame my argument in the article as “I think” in that my interpretation could be wrong or even if it is this could be building to something amazing. Next week’s episode takes us to Victorian England again, and Clara appears to be dressed up like her Snowmen character. If she does actually remember everything or at least some of “Journey to the Center of the Tardis” then that scenario could be brilliant. I tend to think she won’t remember any of it and instead Strax, Jenny, and Vastra will be tip-toeing around not revealing anything to her even though she looks exactly like the Clara they knew, which I find less interesting. That is the one think I completely failed to mention in my article which is next week’s episode actually looks pretty great, based upon the trailer alone, regardless of how I think things might play out with Clara.

      1. Thanks for the reply! (And I hope you’re not usually left any non-cordial comments … O.o)

        It’s interesting that memory seems to make such a difference to whether or not we consider resets to be successful. I have to admit that if I had viewed the episode and thought that the Doctor didn’t remember what happend, I would have been disappointed as well.

        As it is, I felt that Journey to the Centre of the Tardis was mainly a journey for the Doctor – not in terms of the actual journeying, but in terms of character development. Clara, apart from once again nearly dying, and finding out the Doctor’s name… well, her main ‘development’ that I could see is that she might no longer feel safe aboard the Tardis. But this aborted character development is addressed in the final scenes, first with “Secrets keep us safe” and then the Doctor repeatedly asking “Do you feel safe?”

        So yes, they could follow this up with an episode where we are constantly reminded that Clara still doesn’t know about her previous/future incarnations, and they could drag her whole story arc along quite boringly. They could also not do that though. I’m holding onto hope.

        In comparison to Clara, the Doctor has taken a lot more from this episode, most importantly that he should no longer obsess about the impossibility of Clara, and the experience of the Tardis needing his help for a change. I think that if he remembers everything (as I think he does, since he has – to my memory – never yet forgotten an aborted time line), this development is enough consequence and overall development for me to enjoy the episode.

  2. Honestly, I prefer your interpretation of the episode to my own because if both the Doctor AND Clara maintain memories (complete or partial) of the lost day then that ending works so much better and could make for an interesting final three episodes of the season. .

    I agree that the actual journey undertaken in the episode is done so by the Doctor, and that Clara’s character development is minimal in comparison to that of the Doctor’s. In truth, as the one who is trapped in the Tardis Clara does not actually do nearly as much exploring as might have been expected. It is the Doctor who has the emotional journey throughout the episode and the resolution reached, at least as you have argued, makes it complete. The sticking point for me is Clara, i.e., how much of it she remembers. Even though the dialogue between her and the Doctor at the end seems to also bring a conclusion to her arc in the episode, I cannot escape the impression that it was simply another the-Doctor-knowing-more-than-a-companion moment, and that they will drag out her arc of ignorance further even after we’ve now seen the Doctor admit everything to her.

    That all being said, I actually enjoyed quite a bit of “Journey to the Center.” What I wrote was not a review of the episode but a reflection upon the ending and the history of the re-set button in modern Doctor Who. It’s apparent that I felt cheated at the end, but probably not apparent that I was kind of on board with the episode to that point. Even with my reservations, I am looking forward to next week’s episode. My frustration at the end of “Journey” was undercut almost immediately when the trailer popped up and I saw Strax for the first time since “The Snowmen.” His presence brought forth an involuntary smile in me.

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