The Boob Tube Review: Doctor Who & The Splinter of Ice by Adam Bunch

[Spoiler alert!] "There's a splinter of ice in the heart of a writer." Graham Greene wrote that in his autobiography. He was talking about a writer's sense of detachment from the world. Their distance from other people. Once, while Greene was in a London hospital for appendicitis, a 10 year-old boy died in his ward. Everyone else in the room gave the family their privacy, put on their headphones and listened to the BBC. But not Greene. He listened to the mother's grieving "banalities", knowing he could use them in a story some day. And years later, he did. To be able to do something like that, he says, you have to have a heart that isn't entirely warm.

Or maybe two hearts. A version of that same line came up on Doctor Who this week, as the TARDIS took us to a haunted mansion on a dark and stormy night on the windswept moors of 1974. The Doctor and Clara teamed up with yet another Professor — this one a Scottish war hero turned ghost hunter, Alec Palmer  — and his young, psychic, awesomely argyle-knit-vested assistant, Emma Grayling. Not only can Emma use her empathic powers to establish a connection with the spectre haunting the creaky old manor, she can also sense other people's thoughts and feelings. And she doesn't like what she senses from the Doctor. "Don't trust him," she warns Clara. "There's a sliver of ice in his heart."

When it comes to men who keep an emotional distance, Emma Grayling should be something of an expert. She's in love with one of them: the Professor. He loves her too, but he can't bring himself to do something about it — to reach out across the emotional divide. He was a spy during the war, haunted by what he saw and did; meanwhile she's so young, she wasn't even born back then. When she tries to talk about their feelings, he quickly changes the subject and gets back to the business of ghosthunting. He's obsessed with solving the mystery of the Caliburn Ghast — he even used his own money to buy the haunted mansion — and you get the sense that he's burying himself in the mystery instead of dealing with his own shit.

"How does that man — that war hero — end up here," the Doctor asks him at one point, "in a lonely old house looking for ghosts?"

"Because I killed and I caused to have killed," the Professor tells him. "I sent young men and women to their deaths, but here I am, still alive. And it does tend to haunt you: living after so much of... the other thing."

That, of course, is something the Doctor can understand. Our favourite survivor of the Time War is plenty haunted, too. Just a few episodes ago, he was feeling so guilty over what happened to Amy and Rory that he was living as a hermit in the clouds above Victorian London. (That is, until he found his own ghost story to obsess over: Clara Oswald.) And even when he is actively engaged in the world, the Doctor keeps people at a distance — even his companions. Sometimes he lies to them, withholds information, makes unilateral decisions about their lives. When people like Rose Tyler and Martha Jones fall in love with him, their love is doomed to go unrequited. There's a dark side to it all. A sliver of ice.

The Professor
When we first meet them, the Professor is treating Emma a bit like a companion, too. (There's even a meta-y joke about it. She's not a companion, she tells the Doctor, she's an "assistant" — which is what the Third Doctor was calling his companion back in 1974.) The Professor has lied to her, withheld information, and is trying to keep a professional distance. In the very first scene, when Emma is wiling to risk her safety for a chance to track down the ghost, he's pleased. He's less worried about Emma's safety than about solving the mystery of the Caliburn Ghast.

But that changes. He changes. She keeps reaching out to him and eventually he reaches back. He really does love her. By the time she's going to open the wormhole and save the time traveller, he's more concerned about her safety than the ghost. "Don't do it," he begs her. "Whoever she is, however brilliant, however brave, she's not you, she's not worth risking a single hair on your head, not to me."

So, if you're the kind of person who gets off on metaphors: Emma Grayling doesn't just bridge the gap to the time traveller's pocket universe, but also to the Professor's own metaphorical, emotional pocket universe. "Emma, I was as lost as her," he tells his assistant-turned-soulmate. "But being with you... You gave me a reason to be, Emma. You brought me back from the dead." If there was once a sliver of ice in his heart, it's been melted away.

"It's the oldest story in the universe, this one or any other," the Doctor explains to Clara. He's talking about the love-lorn aliens, but it could just as easily be a metaphor for Emma and the Professor. Or, for that matter, the Doctor and a few of his past companions (coughrosecough): "Boy and girl fall in love, get separated by events: war, politics, accidents in time. Since then they've been yearning for each other across time and space, across dimensions. This isn't a ghost story. This is a love story."

He puts his arm around Clara while he says those lines, but remembers himself and takes it back. "Sorry." It's a little reminder that the Doctor has his own emotional pocket universe, too. But the Doctor's hearts are a tougher challenge than the Professor's. He never gets to live happily ever after.

For one thing, a thousand year-old time travelling alien war veteran is bound to be a bit more detached than even the most introverted Scottish Professor. It dawned on Clara this week at the end of their TARDIS trip through the entire history of the Earth. "To you I haven't been born yet," she realizes. "And to you I've been dead a hundred billion years... But here we are talking, so I am a ghost. To you, I'm a ghost. We're all ghosts to you. We must be nothing."

The Doctor is quick to reassure her. Humans do mean something to him. "You are the only mystery worth solving."

But that's exactly it. Clara doesn't want to be treated as a mystery. She wants to be treated like a person. She told him that two weeks ago on Akhaten: "I won't compete with a ghost."

A haunted man
That's always been one of the Doctor's problems: he's liable to get so caught up in an adventure that he forgets to be nice to the people around him. It's one of the reasons he needs his companions: as a reminder of humanity in the moments he forgets. ("Every lonely monster needs a companion," as he said this week.) Clara caught the Doctor once during their adventure at Caliburn, as he rambled on insensitively to Emma about how lonely empaths are. But how much of a companion can Clara be when Clara is the mystery? How can she be his reminder of humanity when he's not even completely convinced she is a human? And who's there to remind him to treat her with the same kind of respect he shows Ice Warriors and scary, gray, vaguely crustacean-y aliens? Even the ghost of Caliburn House turned out to be a person in the end.

He's already lying to Clara, withholding information, keeping an emotional distance. And he seems more than willing to push her into danger when she hesitates — something she does more than his other recent companions did. "She's more scared than she lets on," Emma tells the Doctor. This week, he had to use good old fashioned peer pressure in order to convince her to come along on a search of the mansion. And he was even more distracted than usual as they poked around the music room. When Clara started getting scared, he pretty much ignored her. And when she finally just said point blank, "I'm not happy," he walked off into the next room.

And this might be worth a mention, too: in so doing, he walks right through the cold spot in the music room, the room Emma called "the heart of the house."

In the next episode, "Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS", it looks like we might finally start getting some answers. The time machine clearly has her own reservations about Clara. And this week's mention of the Eye of Harmony — the artificial black hole the Time Lords used to power Gallifrey and the hearts of their TARDISes — suggests that there might be some pretty big Time Lord-y stuff coming. And then there's the Doctor's line from the preview, which he seems to be directing at Clara: "What are you, a trick? A trap?"

Meanwhile, the references to cold and ice and snow keeping building up. Ghosts, too. And maybe Rose, while we're at it — we got another little one this week: she and the Tenth Doctor made their own Ghostbusters joke back in Season Two.

Of course, who the fuck really knows? The show isn't giving us much to go on — keeping its distance if you will. Steven Moffat is a writer, after all. There's a sliver of ice in his heart, too.

Other thoughts:

- This week's episode was written by Neil Cross (creator of "Luther", the BBC cop show starring Stringer Bell from The Wire). He's the same guy who penned "The Rings of Akhaten" episode from two weeks ago, which I 'm pretty sure was also a giant metaphor for the Doctor's darker side. I wrote all about it here.

- "I don't believe in ghosts," said Clara Oswald at the end of the Christmas special. And neither does Doctor Who. Ghosts always turn out to be something else. A footprint doesn't look like a boot, the Doctor reminded us in that ghost-oriented episode in Season Two. Those ones turned out to be Cybermen.

- Over at Slate, Philip Sandifer has a thought that compliments my thoughts about this week's episode: "It fits with my overall view of Moffat's work, which is that it's about clever but fundamentally aloof people learning to exist in society with friends and family. And it’s the fundamental difference between Moffat and Russell T. Davies. Davies wrote the Doctor as a humanity fan: 'I think you look like giants.' Moffat writes him as someone constantly grappling with a desire for humanity."

- The Doctor digs out a crystal from Metebelis III in order to help Emma open the wormhole. It's a reference to old-school Doctor Who: various Doctors have been to that planet over the years; the Third Doctor got the crystal.

- I hadn't caught this one in the blizzard of references to the cold but (of course!) the ship the first version of Clara came from was called the Alaska. And there was snow on that asylum planet of insane Daleks, too.

- Actually, while I'm thinking about the Asylum planet: Dalek-Clara was being held in the same place as the Daleks who had been driven insane by fighting the Doctor. Coincidence?

- The Doctor is in so much trouble in the collapsing pocket universe that the TARDIS' cloister bells starts ringing. That's pretty rare, reserved for the most dire of circumstances.
- I don't get why the TARDIS wouldn't let Clara inside at all and then suddenly not only let her in, but also accepted her as a pilot.
- And how come the Doctor was able to travel back from the pocket universe while clinging to the outside of the TARDIS? Only Captain Jack has been able to do that — and it killed him.

- "Whisky is the eleventh most disgusting thing ever invented," says Clara. Bells are going to go off inside my head any time she mentions the number eleven — what with Matt Smith being the Eleventh Doctor.

- When Emma asks her about it, Clara dismisses the idea of a romantic relationship with the Doctor pretty quickly. So nothing doing there, it seems.

- The Doctor says the Professor was a member of the Baker Street Irregulars, which is a Sherlock Holmes reference. They were a group of street kids who helped out in the books. And they're also a modern group of Sherlock Holmes fans, including Neil Gaiman (author of Sandman). He's the guy who wrote the episode of Doctor Who back when the TARDIS took human form. And he's got another episode coming up later this year.

- I can't imagine it's relevant, but jussssssst in case: I happened to re-watch "The Planet of the Ood" from the beginning of Season Four. "You will never be forgotten," the Ood say at the end of the episode, "Our children will sing of the Doctor Donna, and our children's children, and the wind and the ice and the snow will carry your names forever."

- Clara's association with the colour red continued this week: with a little red umbrella!
Next Doctor Who recap: Doctor Who & The Big Friendly Button.
Previous Doctor Who recap: Doctor Who & The Cold Warriors. 

Adam Bunch is the Editor-in-Chief of the Little Red Umbrella and the creator of the Toronto Dreams Project. You can read his posts here, follow him on Twitter here, or email him at


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