A title like Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS promises much. The Doctor’s trusty timeship is the single central icon of the entire series from its very first episode up to the present iteration, and it seemed that, in this anniversary year, we were finally going to get right into its inner workings and see what made it tick.
Only… well, we’ve had that episode, haven’t we? Two years ago, The Doctor’s Wife showed us the soul of the TARDIS, explored its labyrinthine structure and atemporal existence. The Doctor’s Wife already gave us our exploration of the TARDIS, providing the living machine with the equivalent of an origin story for a long-serving human (or human-like) character. This, then, raised the stakes even higher for the latest episode; not only did Journey have to provide an intriguing, exciting voyage of discovery, it had to outdo Gaiman’s episode and bring us even greater, more intimate revelations about the TARDIS’s character.
Under that criterion, this episode can only be regarded as a failure. I’ll accept that, with the shields down, the TARDIS was able to be severely damaged by some relatively primitive technology, even if it does make the ship seem disquietingly vulnerable. I’ll accept that the Doctor suddenly found himself outside the TARDIS and on the salvage ship, yet Clara found herself lost within the time machine’s corridors. I’ll accept any amount of frankly illogical plotting (although I’ll still revel in pointing it out) as long as it brings us to a powerful, affecting story. Journey didn’t.
There are some nice elements to the trip through the TARDIS’s interior. The rooms that contain whole environments hark back to highly imaginative moment sin the novel line, which finally gave the TARDIS the feel of something truly gigantic (even infinite, as it is claimed here). The architectural reconfiguration system, manifested as a techno-organic tree with glowing bulbs, was visually effective. The library, despite the rather obviously CG’d stacks, was an essential inclusion, the antique look summoning the baroque stylings of the eighth Doctor’s version of the Ship. I will come back to this. However, beyond these elements and some fun echoes of the past, the TARDIS seems rather hollow. Endless corridors do not make an exciting or interesting environment, even when they loop back on themselves in order to trap their occupants. Too much of the TARDIS feels just like any old spaceship.
Later on, we take a walk by the Eye of Harmony, an element of Gallifreyan lore now reinterpreted once more into something more visually impressive. The description of a star held in stasis at the moment of collapse from supernova to black hole is a fine science fiction conceit, but the roiling ball of flame by a bridge of death makes even less sense than the Eye’s previous iterations, even in the notoriously illogical TV Movie. Once we’re past this, the Doctor and Clara make it to the core of the TARDIS, an engine room that appears to be little more than a selection of gizmos spread-eagled across space with little regard to form or function. Yes, I understand that the engine had exploded and was being held in the moment, but it’s still presented as just an engine. If we’ve been taken past the mystical Eye of Harmony and into the TARDIS’s true heart, we should really be given something more than just a spacey motor.
So, yes, that library; a room with much information to impart. For Clara to find, displayed proudly on a pedestal, a book charting the Time War and the Doctor’s role within it, is potentially a hugely significant development. Not only does it promise revelations about the Doctor’s past, it also suggests that the TARDIS is eager for Clara to discover it. I’m not entirely sure if I’m happy with the prospect of the Doctor’s ‘secret identity’ being revealed; I really don’t think he needs secrets to be exposed. I will, however, wait until the promised revelation finally arrives before making up my mind. In any case, the ongoing mysteries regarding both the Doctor and Clara come to something of a peak here, only for the developments to be completely thrown out the window by the episode’s end. Clara discovers the Doctor’s real name from the book in the library, while the Doctor (and the audience) discover that Clara is, apparently, nothing more than a perfectly ordinary young woman. Then the Doctor presses a literal reset switch and wipes the entire episode from the timeline.