Well. That was certainly a Doctor Who episode written by Neil Gaiman.
It’s not that I particularly find Gaiman a bad writer. He can be quite good at times and is frequently a very funny writer. But I find his stock plots rote and frequently derivative and his fans, like Joss Whedon’s, tend to favor the “omigod” and “awesome” and “win” schools of criticism, and an intense negative reaction to any apostates or heretics offering more nuanced critiques. So my expectations going into this episode were that we would get a moderately clever idea, though possibly a bit fanwanky, good dialogue for the leads, and that the reaction from fans would be far in excess of the episode’s actual merit.
Mostly I think my expectations were met. The banter in this episode, particularly between Idris and the Doctor was frequently hilarious and sparkled with well-observed statements about the Doctor and his relationship to the TARDIS. The performances of Matt Smith and Suranne Jones were excellent in this regard as well, showing that good actors and good dialogue are an absolutely necessary combination for genre material. Though it drifts heavily towards fanwank territory, giving the TARDIS a voice, however briefly, is a nice way to play with the show’s format and history. The notion of the TARDIS thinking of the Doctor as “her thief” and of taking him where he “needs to go” puts a new spin on much of the series back-story while opening up possibilities for future stories. Rory and Amy didn’t fare as well in this episode, but with what little they were given to do, that’s not surprising. This is actually the place where I felt the episode was most lacking, with Amy and Rory running through corridors in what was either a deliberate nod to the original series or an attempt to save on the budget by creating just one set to shoot from multiple angles. And, of course, Rory dying again, in what has become the most tiresome running joke in television history. Most of their story seemed to exist merely to provide some characterization for the antagonist, House, a living asteroid/disembodied voice. And since most of that characterization amounted to comically sinister threats of execution, this left all the Amy and Rory bits somewhat lacking in drama.
Most of my fears of Gaimanisms weren’t met, thankfully, with the exception of the characters of Auntie and Uncle, two patchwork Victorians who could be dropped into virtually any other work Gaiman has written and fit right in. They didn’t feel “right” for this episode somehow. They were a bit too deliberately odd and out of place in a story that was already fundamentally weird given its central premise. And it was, indeed, very fanwanky. Yes, I did like the idea and the characterization of Idris the humanoid TARDIS. And yes, I liked her relationship with the Doctor. But the premise felt like Gaiman’s Who fan-fiction and veered dangerously close to plot-lines from the Eighth Doctor novel line (or, as I like to call them “the books that the guy who read every New Adventures novel couldn’t even get through”), not to mention Gaiman’s own Stardust.
So the end result, in line with the rest of the episodes so far this season, was something that was good but not great. Good characterization for the Doctor, a fan pleasing spin on prior continuity, and a heavy-handed hint at the season meta-arc with Idris’ “the only water in the forest is the river” line. Well, at least it wasn’t the Rani peeking at Amy through a cupboard.