“Journey To The Centre Of The TARDIS” (named after one of Jules Verne’s most famous novels) is penned by Stephen Thompson, who previously wrote “The Curse Of The Black Spot” in Series 6. For Doctor Who’s seventh season, Steven Moffat wanted to give the TARDIS her second spotlight episode, after Neil Gaiman’s “The Doctor Wife“, that was devoted to exploring her inner depths. He was inspired to do so by “The Invasion Of Time”, a serial from the classic series that also set out to show off more of the Doctor’s ship, but was held back by budget limitations at the time. Considering how much further filmmaking technology had advanced by 2013, Mr. Moffat thought it would be an interesting challenge for the show to tackle during its fiftieth anniversary season, so he assigned the basic pitch to Stephen Thompson.
The main premise of this episode underwent several revisions before the final version of it was settled on: in one draft, the TARDIS wound up crashing a high school field trip, which led to several troublesome teenagers damaging the Doctor’s ship. Ultimately, the main plot Stephen Thompson went with was the TARDIS being damaged by an outer space salvage crew, which forces the Doctor and Clara to venture inside a labyrinth to try to fix it while they’re being hunted down by rabid monsters from their future. In a lot of ways, “Journey To The Centre Of The TARDIS” is a large step up from Mr. Thompson’s last story, “The Curse Of The Black Spot”, especially in terms of its sheer scale, ambition and fright factor. Everything the audience discovers about the TARDIS in this episode is a lot more memorable than your standard high-seas romp with pirates. But there is one area where “Journey To The Centre Of The TARDIS” misses the mark and fares worse than “The Curse Of The Black Spot”: namely the supporting cast and the emotional thread of their storyline.
In “Journey To The Centre Of The TARDIS”, the Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith) decides to teach Clara how to fly the TARDIS, so she can have a chance to bond with his ship. He lowers the ship’s defenses to make it easier for her, which backfires horribly when the TARDIS is spotted by a crew of greedy salvage men and assaulted with an illegal tractor beam. In the aftermath, the Doctor’s ship is left fatally damaged, and Clara is lost inside it, thrown into the depths of a maze. By this point, the Doctor has grown quite attached to Clara, so he’s determined to save her from any danger that might be lurking inside the ship, and he’s certainly intent on fixing up his oldest friend as well. The Eleventh Doctor’s ruthless streak is highlighted again this week, when he uses the Van Baalen brothers’ greed to get them onboard his ship, trap them there, and then blackmail them into cleaning up their mess. He forces them to help him find Clara by threatening to blow up his ship with all of them inside it (which turns out to be a bluff, of course).
The TARDIS has a crack in time inside of it that’s leaking out the past and future, and as a result, there are charred, murderous zombies running through the ship, presenting our heroes with a deadly danger to face inside the maze. The zombies are constantly obscured and kept out of focus with some clever camera work, like the Crooked Man in “Hide“, which builds up suspense about what they might be. One thing you can say for certain is that they look like creatures who stepped right out of hell. They spend most of the episode chasing our heroes, trying to kill them – trying to kill their own past selves. As it turns out, the zombies are future versions of the Doctor, Clara and the Van Baalen brothers, who burned alive inside the TARDIS’s engine room. Their horrific fate drove them insane and turned them into ruthless, deranged predators.
The Doctor figured that out very early on but he kept it a secret from Clara, to spare her the horror of her potential future, and spare himself the unenviable task of having to explain it, especially since this isn’t the first time he’s seen a version of her die. By Series 7, it’s become very apparent that the Eleventh Doctor tends to lie quite often: to protect himself, to protect others, and to avoid things that are terrible. He always keeps his cards close to his chest, even from his friends, so he can have an advantage – like his knowledge about the cracks in time, Amy being a ganger, his fake death in Utah, and now the mystery surrounding the Impossible Girl. Not even River Song, his lover, can say she knows what’s going on inside his head all the time. Right now, the Doctor doesn’t know what to make of Clara, and even though he clearly cares for her, he refuses to trust her fully, which makes sense. The Doctor’s enemies have taken advantage of blind spots in his judgment to set traps for him before, like the Pandorica or the battle of Demons’ Run.
During the climax, the Doctor finally confronts Clara about all her past lives and accuses her of lying to him, and once he forces a bewildered answer out of her, he’s finally convinced that whatever is going on with her, she’s just as clueless about it as he is and she bears him no ill-will. This episode devotes very little time to exploring the emotional fallout of that scene, once a reset button is pressed, which is somewhat frustrating to see, but thankfully the consequences of it are picked up again a few episodes later in “The Name Of The Doctor”. As for how it affects the Doctor’s relationship with Clara going forward, his views on her have shifted and softened. He’s finally starting to realize he’s been overly paranoid and overthinking things, approaching her more like a mystery than a person, though that discovery won’t sink in fully until “The Name Of The Doctor“.
In “Journey To The Centre Of The TARDIS”, what was supposed to be a fun day out for Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman) quickly goes horribly wrong, when the TARDIS is totally trashed and she’s flung deep into the depths of the Doctor’s ship. She manages to land herself in trouble quite a few times while she’s trying to find her way out of the maze, due to being insatiably curious. By this point, Clara is starting to realize she and the Doctor won’t always have a good plan – and even when they do, it’s very easy for their plans to go awry, as she’s seen over the last few episodes – so it’s important for her to learn how to improvise.
This is easily Clara’s scariest adventure so far: being hunted down by zombies in a labyrinth, completely on her own for the first half of this episode. However, as terrifying as the monsters are, it’s the things she learns about the Doctor that freak her out the most of all. Emma warned her there was a sliver of ice in the Doctor’s heart in the last episode, and here she finally starts to realize just how much of a chessmaster he is, and just how often he keeps things from her: like who he is, what he knows, and why he’s so interested in her. When it briefly looks like the Doctor’s deceit might cost them all their lives in the TARDIS’s engine room, Clara quite rightly lets him have it, and when he confronts her about her past lives in return, something she knows nothing about, Clara is deeply disturbed. The pair of them make up afterwards, but when Clara reveals she learned the Doctor’s true name while she was looking through his personal library, the time lord quickly grows cold towards her once more: he immediately wants to wipe it clean from her head.
This episode fully establishes another aspect of how Steven Moffat writes the Doctor’s character (which he’s hinted at before, in stories like “Silence In The Library“): how the time lord treats his title versus his real name. The Doctor always gives people the title he chose for himself instead of the name he was given at birth, which is apparently an age old tradition of the time lords. However, the Moffat era implies that the Doctor’s real name is forbidden knowledge, and it’s actually dangerous for people to know it. “The Name Of The Doctor” gives us at least one explanation about why this is serious business: the Series 7 finale reveals that if you learn a time lord’s true identity, you can use it to defile their grave and destroy their entire lives by corrupting their timeline. So if I knew that sort of thing could happen, I would probably take that knowledge to my grave too.
Of course, the main purpose of this episode is giving us some new lore about the TARDIS and the time lords for the show’s 50th anniversary season, and I would say it definitely succeeds in that area. We learn the TARDIS is made out living metal that creates everything the Doctor and his friends might need. The inner dimensions of the ship are infinite, just like the Doctor claimed, and can stretch on forever. The ship as a whole is powered by an exploding star that’s right in the middle of becoming a black hole (the time lords are terrible people, but there’s no denying their science is incredible). The ship’s alive with a mind of her own, so she tries to help our heroes whenever she can, but she also works against them at times, to protect herself from thieves while she’s wounded. The Doctor’s relationship with the TARDIS (which is always touching to see) shines through brightly in this episode: he’s very protective of his oldest friend, he’s deeply appalled that a bunch of humans would try to hurt her so callously, and for a short time, he’s devastated when it looks like he can’t save her from dying. In the last act, the Doctor realizes the TARDIS has been damaged past the point of no return, so the only way he can save her and everyone else is by resetting the timeline.
The B-plot of this episode is devoted to the Van Baalen brothers, a crew of outer space salvage men who are severely lacking in morals and principles. They have little to no concern for human life, and they certainly don’t care if the TARDIS is suffering, so long as they can make some money off of it. All except for Tricky, the youngest crew member, who has a real affinity towards machines and is shown to be fairly empathetic. He’s really the only one with a good amount of common sense, and the only one who keeps his crewmates – Gregor and Bram – from being completely morally bankrupt. The leader of the men, Gregor, is a bullying tough guy who talks down to his subordinates and pushes them around frequently. In almost every scene he’s in, he only seems to care about himself – and he’s hiding a dark secret about Tricky, because secrets and lies are a major recurring theme in this episode.
It’s pretty easy to see the big twist coming in advance, because if you weren’t repeatedly told Tricky is supposed to be an android, you would automatically assume he was the third Van Baalen brother from the dynamic he has with them in his earliest scenes. Tricky was their late father’s favorite son, and the one he trusted enough to make him captain of their ship before he died. One day, a terrible accident gave Tricky amnesia and wounded him so badly that several of his body parts had to be replaced with cybernetic organs. His older brothers took advantage of how vulnerable he was in his weakened state to convince him he was an android, so they could steal his position, cut him out of the family business and treat him like trash for years – which is extremely messed-up. When Tricky finds out, he is quite rightly furious and decides to beat Gregor’s ass, but the Doctor stops him from going through with it.
Gregor’s character arc in this episode rethreads a lot of the same ground as Captain Avery’s journey in “The Curse Of The Black Spot”: he’s consumed by greed to the point where it threatens to destroy him and everyone around him, until he’s given a harsh reminder of what’s truly important in life and he manages to find a bit of redemption in the end. However, the pay-off for this arc is not as satisfying as what Stephen Thompson previously pulled off in “The Curse Of The Black Spot”. Captain Avery steadily grew to become a more likable character over the course of that episode, which made it easier to get invested in his redemption arc. By comparison, Gregor doesn’t start to soften up and show a little fraternal loyalty until around the last act, which makes it very difficult to care about whether or not he ever patches things up with Tricky.
Also, the way this subplot wraps up is pretty confusing. When our heroes get cornered in the TARDIS’s engine rooms, Gregor and Tricky suffer the unfortunate fate of getting turned into zombies, before this is thankfully undone when the timeline is reset. Afterwards, a new timeline is created where everyone has forgotten everything, except Gregor apparently, and it’s implied that this do-over somehow created a world where Gregor and Bram never convinced Tricky he was an android – even though that deception happened years before the events of this episode. So how does that work? Considering how much screen-time is devoted to this subplot of Tricky being betrayed by his brothers, it’s really strange how Tricky is denied any memory of it, and how there’s very little resolution to it – though it is nice to see that Gregor kept his word about changing his ways when he was given a second chance. “Journey To The Centre Of The TARDIS” doesn’t quite manage to stick the landing with this story about estranged family members reconciling, but at least it’s not a complete and total failure like the B-plot in “The Idiot’s Lantern“.
“Journey To The Centre Of The TARDIS” is directed by newcomer Mat King, who does an impressive job of handling this episode. Unlike most Doctor Who episodes, this story utilizes a steadycam quite a lot, which gives us plenty of crooked, slanted panning shots and plenty of off-kilter zoom-ins as the cameraman slides around the various sets that make up the TARDIS’s interior, exploring the other-worldly location of the Doctor’s ship. “Journey To The Centre Of The TARDIS” is a very well-lit episode as well, and features a very striking color scheme that reminds me a lot of Chris Chibnall’s “42“: once we’re inside the TARDIS full-time, there are three primary colors for the backgrounds that are never far away – dark green, fiery red, and sea blue. Like “The Doctor’s Wife”, a bunch of new sets were created for the TARDIS’s interior rooms, and this episode was filmed in a variety of locations, like Roath Lock Studios in Wales, Cardiff Castle in Cardiff, and Argoed Isha Quarry in the Vale of Glamorgan.
Like most episodes in Series 7, “Journey To The Centre Of The TARDIS” has some truly gorgeous visual effects, courtesy of the BBC Wales VFX team, like the exterior shots of the Van Baalen’s brothers’ ship flying through space, or the establishing shots of the Eye of Harmony burning away in the TARDIS’s engine room: you can really tell a good chunk of the season’s budget was devoted to this episode. When it comes to Murray Gold’s score, he once again repurposes a lot of his old material, since this episode did not have it’s own designated scoring session (for the third week in a row), outside of the electronic piece “A Machine That Makes Machines“. “Journey To The Centre Of The TARDIS” heavily reuses a lot of music from the Series 7 Christmas special “The Doctor, The Widow And The Wardrobe“, along with a few other pieces from “The Beast Below“, “The Bells Of Saint John” and “The Rings Of Akhaten“.
All in all, “Journey To The Centre Of The TARDIS” is a pretty wild episode of Doctor Who that succeeds at what it set out to do: showing off more of the TARDIS and making the big blue box (which is usually a pretty warm and welcoming environment) seem like a truly alien and frightening place for once. It’s easily one of the standout stories of Series 7B when it comes to the fright factor and the character progression for the Doctor and Clara.
* “Take the wheel. I’ll make it easy. Shut it down to basic mode for you” “Basic? Because I’m a girl?” “No” Your mouth says ‘no’, but your eyes say ‘yes’, Doctor.
* “You’re lying” “Yep!” “To stop me freaking out?” “Is it working?” “Not so much!”
* “Outlawed in most galaxies, this little beastie can disable whole vessels unless you have shield oscillators… which I turned off so that Clara could fly. Damnit!”
* “You crazy lunatic!” “My ship, my rules!” “You’ll kill us all, and the girl!” “She’s going to die if you don’t help me. Don’t get into a spaceship with a madman. Didn’t anyone ever teach you that?”
* “It’s your own time you’re wasting. The salvage of a lifetime: You meant the ship. I meant Clara”.
* “What’s the matter, TARDIS? Scared to fight me?” Bitch, please.
* “Tricky, what are you doing?! You’re always on the side of the machines!” That line made me snicker. I’d love to know the context behind that claim.
* “It’s all right. Clara, I’m so, so sorry. Please forgive me, Clara- OW! Okay, so we’re not doing hugging. I get that now!”
* “What do you keep in here?! Why have you got zombie creatures?! Good guys do not have zombie creatures! Rule one: basic storytelling!” Perhaps he was planning on recreating Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video. Did you ever think about that, Clara?
* “Where are we going?” “A detour to the center of the TARDIS!”
* “The TARDIS is leaking the past. You and me. Everything we’ve done, everything we’ve said. Recent history. It’s not real. It’s a memory” “What about this?” “If you’re giving me the option, I’d say this one’s real”.
* “We can only survive for a minute or two in there” “What happens if we stay longer?” “Our cells with liquefy and our skin will start to burn” “I always feel so good after we’ve spoken” “Clara, keep this door shut” “That will not be a problem”.
* “You did this to me just to be captain of a heap of junk?!” Pretty much.
* “You’re going to tell me right now! If we’re going to die here, you’re going to tell me what they are!” “I can’t” “Tell me! What’s the use in secrets now?!” “Secrets protect us. Secrets make us safe!” “We’re not safe!”
* “That’s me. I burn in here: “It isn’t just the past leaking out through the time rift. It’s the future. Listen, I brought you here to keep you safe, but it happened again. You died again” “…What do you mean, ‘again’?”
* “I met you in the Dalek Asylum. There was a girl in a shipwreck and she died saving my life, and she was you!” “She really wasn’t”.
* “Hey now, Clara, I have piloted this ship for over nine hundred years. Trust me this one time, please. Okay, okay, as well as all the other times. Ready? Geronimo“.
* “You call yourself ‘Doctor’. Why do you do that? You have a name. I’ve seen it, in one corner of that tiny-” “If I rewrite today, you won’t remember. You won’t go looking for my name” “We’ll still have secrets? “It’s better that way”.
* “I need to know if you feel safe. I need to know you’re not afraid” “Of?” “The future. Running away with a spaceman in a box, anything could happen to you” “That’s what I’m counting on.”.