The Boob Tube Review: Doctor Who & The Big Friendly Button by Adam Bunch

[Spoiler alert!] Well, that was quite the wink-wink nudge-nudge meta-meta episode this week, as Doctor Who tackled one of the most common complaints made by cranky fans: that the show too often uses some kind of "reset button" as a solution to the Doctor's problems. He just rewinds time or destroys an alternate reality so that none of the bad stuff ever happened. And the show's answer to the complaint? It was pretty much "fuck you" with a smile. They embraced the narrative device completely, introducing a button literally labelled "big friendly button" that just reset everything at the end of the episode so that none of the bad stuff ever happened.

Of course, it was a bit more clever than that: the button was really the remote control for the magnetic tractor beam that had ensnared the TARDIS, leading to its near destruction. (A fact that some grumpy people on the Internet seem to have missed.)

And, as you'd expect from an episode called "Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS", there was plenty more inside-joke-y-ness this week. Clara got to explore more of the Doctor's mysterious time machine than we'd ever seen on screen before — and it was chock full of nerd-friendly references to earlier episodes. There was the Doctor's crib, Amy's model TARDIS, the Seventh Doctor's umbrella, a history of Gallifrey contained in bottles, a history of the Time War contained in a book, the swimming pool, a telescope that looked an awful lot like the one from the Victorian Torchwood house, and even the Eye of Harmony — the black hole that powers the time machine (and used to power Gallifrey). And the references weren't just limited to the bowels of the machine: when the jerkiest of the brothers from the salvage company pulled out the console of the TARDIS, you could hear clips from episodes ranging all the way back to the 1963 premiere: when the Doctor's granddaugther Susan explained the time machine's acronym for the very first time.

There were more nerdy hints about the mystery of Clara and the Doctor's big secret, too. Although, like every "hint" this season, they actually raised more questions than they answered.

For instance: where did Clara read the Doctor's name? My first time watching the episode, I assumed she read it in The History of the Time War. But what she actually says to the Doctor is, "I read it in the corner of that tiny—" And then he cuts her off. The book wasn't tiny. And neither was the library. So where did she read it? (The only tiny thing I can remember her looking at during the episode was the tiny model of the TARDIS — which she does maybe seem to check out with a magnifying glass. But why would his name be there?)

And if she didn't read the Doctor's name in the book, what did she read it in? "Oh, so thaaat's who..." she says. Huh? Wuh? Huh?

And for that matter: who wrote The History of the Time War? There aren't many survivors of the war other than the Doctor and I'm pretty sure they're all Daleks. Did the Doctor write it himself? Why would he do that? And why would he leave it lying around? And what language is it in? Gallifreyan? (It does, after all, have the Seal of Rassilon on the cover — the symbol of power used by the Time Lord Rassilon, the villain from the last David Tennant episode.) If so, does that mean Clara can read Gallifreyan? And if she can, did she also read the writing on the crib? Could that be where she read the Doctor's name? But why would she be able to read Gallifreyan? Is she a Time Lord? A TARDIS? An obsessed Doctor Who fan?

And while we're at it, why exactly did the Doctor refer to Clara as "the salvage of a lifetime"? Am I missing something there?

Of course, it's a bit risky for the show to delve this deeply into its own lore and to commit so much time to a mysterious overarching storyline. It's not exactly friendly to new and/or casual viewers. For this episode, online reviews generally seem to agree that the storyline of the brothers was a bit underdeveloped — sacrificed in favour of all those nerdy TARDIS details. And as someone who is thoroughly enjoying all the Clara-osity and the TARDISishness, I have no idea how much this episode — and this entire half-season — would appeal to people who aren't as obsessed with invested in the show.

But that's not the only risk. Steven Moffat's playing a dangerous game when it comes to die-hard fans too. Part of the reason some people don't like the "big friendly button" approach is because it seems to un-write the show. Things that have happened to the characters have suddenly not happened. And it's unclear how much the characters do — or do not — remember. This week, for instance, some of the memories seemed to seep through into the new timeline. The jerk brother was no longer such a jerk. And at the end of the episode, was Clara drying herself off after a swim in the TARDIS pool? (And standing in the same spot River was when she did the same thing, by the way, and shot from the angle too.) Does she remember the pool? And if so, does that mean Clara still does remember the Doctor's name?

Oy, with the never-ending questions.

Leap of faith
Of course, right now it feels like it's not just the timelines of individual episodes that are at risk of re-writing, but the entire season. Heck, the whole history of the show. In interviews, Steven Moffat and Matt Smith are talking about the season finale in the most ambitious terms possible. It will "change the course of Who forever," Moffat says. "It's full of surprises and questions that have never been answered in the history of Who, including the Doctor's greatest secret. We're not pretending, we're not kidding, it's actually going to happen." According to Smith, "It's a complete game changer." With all the old references that have been popping up in recent episodes, it seems like everything could be on the table.

Exciting? Sure. Nauseatingly worrying? Yup, that too.

But that's kind of the deal with any franchise that's still going: it's always at risk of getting George Lucas-ed. As Heidegger or somebody might say, it's of one of the fundamental facts of existence: being alive means being continually thronw into possibility. And as Oprah or somebody might say, as long as you're still alive, you haven't finished writing the story of your life. The Doctor and Doctor Who are still very much alive. And they've always try to write their in the most ambitious and risky way possible. It's why we love them.

In just a few weeks, we get to learn what the most recent chapter has all been about.

Favourite pet theories of the moment:

- The Doctor is currently a story (or stored as memory or data), which is why he's surrounded by all these recurring references and memes. Or maybe a song, since music seems to be coming up so often — again this week, using the song to track down the right time to throw the button through the crack. It could be the people of the universe remembering him. Or the TARDIS having "saved" him from the explosion? Explosions and shards are coming up a lot these days. Maybe the explosion at the heart of the TARDIS we saw this week wasn't caused the magnetic tractor beam, maybe it's been exploding all along.

- In the future, the TARDIS explodes, shattering Clara throughout history.

- The Doctor is still inside the Pandorica and the world of the current episodes is either the result of the Doctor going mad due to his inability to face the reality of it ("Don't get into a spaceship with a mad man," he said this week, "didn't anyone ever teach you that?") or the "ever-shifting maze" of his prison, tailor-made from his memories. Clara is the key to his eventual escape. 

- The Doctor is a Dalek, still trapped on the asylum planet, driven mad by the horror of it.

- Clara is River Song after River Song gets uploaded in the CAL hard drive of the library planet. There's still plenty to be explained about that episode: like how River Song knew the Doctor's name (remember he didn't tell her at their wedding, he told her to look into his eye) and how she got his sonic screwdriver.

- Clara is a TARDIS

- The Doctor is about to turn into the Valeyard, a Time Lord character from episodes back in 1986. He was supposed to be an evil regeneration of the Doctor (every Time Lord is supposed is supposed to have one evil version at some point) coming around the time of the Twelfth Doctor. (The Thirteenth is also supposed to be the last one!) There have been of references to the Doctor's dark side recently, including last week's "sliver of ice" comment. This week, it was the Doctor's lie about the self-destruct sequence and Clara's comment, "Why have you got zombie creatures? Good guys do not have zombie creatures! Rule One of basic storytelling."

- Clara is somehow related to Mercy Hartigan, the woman who teamed up with the Cyberman in Victorian London in the final Christmas special with the Tenth Doctor. She wore read, like Clara does. She linked into the Cybermen's hive mind thingy just like the first Clara did with the Daleks. (The Cybermen are supposed to be back in a couple of weeks in an episode penned by Neil Gaiman.)

- We'll learn who fired the shot from the grassy knoll that killed JFK. Or, at least, it'll all be related tot he Kennedy assassination in some way. Doctor Who stated airing the very next day after he was shot, which means the anniversary special will be happening the day after the 50th anniversary of the assassination. And Clara OSWALD is the only connection. Her shipmate on the Alaska that first found Clara and the Doctor on the Dalek's asylum planet? His name was Harvey.

Other tidbits I've noticed while re-watching episodes or searching the internet: 

- The specials from the end of David Tennant's tenure are full of tiny little potential links to the current episodes. Especially "The Next Doctor": the false Victorian Doctor is called Jackson LAKE. He also lives on Latimer street, the last name of the family the Victorian version of Clara worked as a governess for. And it's the last name of the boy at the boarding school who helped the Doctor recover his memory from his pocketwatch.

- The other specials have some tidbits too: the last name of the Mars expedition commander is Brooke. (Also: the story of when Clara got lost and her mum found her happened in BlackPOOL.) And when the Doctor tries to call UNIT while stranded on the double-decker bus in an alien desert, he gets a wrong number at first: "Pizza Geronimo."

- Clara has been associated with the colour red ever since we met her on the asylum planet. But in her flashbacks to when she human, she was wearing white. I wonder if that symbolically connects to all the snow/ice/cold references we've been getting recently.

- Man did the crack in time this week look like the cracks in time from Season Five.

- Susan's Gallifreyan name means "Rose".

- The TARDIS key the Doctor used in this week's episode says "SMITHS":

- This (via):


Next Doctor Who recap: Doctor Who & The Crimson Herrings.

Previous Doctor Who recap: Doctor Who & The Sliver of Ice. 

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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