“The Doctor’s Wife” might be the most anticipated episode in the Doctor Who canon since the series returned in 2005. There was a lot riding on it. Because of the ever-growing fandom of writer Neil Gaiman (a Doctor Who viewer since toddlerhood), there were likely to be a number of first time viewers, not to mention lapsed viewers pondering a return to the series, tuning in Saturday night. For Gaiman himself, it was a chance to prove that his particular brand of storytelling magic could translate into his favorite TV show. If anyone was disappointed, they weren’t paying attention. Not only is “The Doctor’s Wife” a love letter to Doctor Who from one of the most inventive storytellers of our time, it also might be best Who story since 2007’s “Blink.”
SPOILER WARNING: Plot details ahead. Proceed with caution.
Gaiman promised an ambitious episode, and “The Doctor’s Wife” crackles from the very beginning with big concepts. It begins with the classic “The Doctor, Amy and Rory are hurtling through space in the TARDIS, when suddenly…” setup, then progresses into realms heretofore unexplored.
The Doctor hears a knock on the TARDIS door (in the middle of space, no less) and opens it to find a glowing box contain a telepathic message from The Corsair, a Time Lord long thought dead (you know, like the rest of the Time Lords). It seems impossible, until The Doctor realizes that the message didn’t come from within the known universe, but from a pocket universe just outside of a rift. That’s right, this is a story told in pocket dimension.
The TARDIS lands on a desolate junkyard planet, where it promptly powers down and its soul transfers into Idris (Suranne Jones), one of the world’s four inhabitants. As a mysterious entity known only as House (voiced by the wonderful Michael Sheen) menaces Amy and Rory (and the blue box that is the TARDIS shell), The Doctor must team up with the personified form of the time machine he’s traveled in for centuries to set things right.
So yes, “The Doctor’s Wife” is not, in this case, a reference to Dr. River Song, or to some other newly-formed character. The Doctor’s marriage is what it’s always been, a timeless link to a beautiful blue box, but this time the blue box can talk back.
It’s a story concept that feels like a classic fanboy flight of fancy, and it is, but the fanboy in question is Neil Gaiman. Under the weight of his talent, “The Doctor’s Wife” becomes much more than a good idea. It’s a stirring examination of the Doctor’s longest and only lasting relationship, his true love, his talisman. All that cursing at the TARDIS console, all those decades of celebrating her journeys and declaiming against her every malfunction are focused for a brief span into the form of a brave, brilliant woman who’d just as soon argue with The Doctor as kiss him. In her human form, she’s the perfect foil for the Doctor’s mad genius, but more importantly, this story makes you realize she’s been that all along.
But there’s more at work here than just the novelty of a super-famous writer working on the series, or the “hey neato” factor of The Doctor having a chat with his time machine. “The Doctor’s Wife” is a watershed episode, one of those stories that writers, historians and fans of the series will look back on as one of those mythic moments where The Doctor’s towering history and his frantic present converged to make something new and magical and timeless. This is, very simply, Doctor Who at its best.