“You’ve decided the universe would be better off without you… the universe didn’t agree.”
“…they were all wearing eyepatches!” Right, got that out of the way. So, this was the big one, the one that had to wrap up the oh-so-confusing story arc that’s divided fandom and caused newspapers to write articles with titles like “Has Doctor Who got too complicated?” And did it manage to tie up all those loose ends successfully? Well, actually yes, with yet more hints of a bigger storyline to come that surely must lead up to the 2013 50th anniversary of the show.
As usual with Steven Moffat, The Wedding of River Song was bursting with imaginative ideas almost thrown randomly into the mix, and hinged on some pretty sophisticated sci-fi and philosophical concepts. This was, actually, more satisfying as a plot resolution than I expected Mr Moffat to manage. And yet, for all that, I found it curiously lacking in… something. I can’t really pin down what, though my first thought was ‘feeling’. Yes, it resolved this season’s aspect of what it now clearly a longer overall plot. But while I’ve enjoyed the puzzle box plotting so beloved of Mr Moffat, his Rubik’s Cube plot has been so cerebral this year that it satisfies without actually stirring the emotions. I used to complain that Russell T Davies’ plot conclusions were all feeling at the expense of logic; this time, despite a fine balance in last year’s The Big Bang, the season finale seems to be quite the opposite. It’s logical, it makes sense, it answers the questions (well, the ones for this year anyway) – and yet it left me curiously unmoved. It’s as though Moffat’s having such a fine time showing how he solved the puzzle, he’s forgotten we’re supposed to like and be emotionally affected by the characters who form its component parts.
That’s not to say I hated this, mind. It perhaps had too much to pack in for a one episode story, and it certainly would have been totally inaccessible to anyone who hadn’t watched the series overall. But what we saw rattled along quite excitingly, pulling together not just plot points but themes that have dominated the year.
The main theme, of course, was the Doctor’s increasing guilt and self-loathing, and the story showed us how, over the course of this season, he’s managed to convince himself that he does more harm than good. And that, ultimately, the universe would be a better place without him. His weary acceptance of his own oncoming death, which Matt Smith brought across so well last week, was very much to the fore here. One of the key factors about the Eleventh Doctor, as I mentioned a while ago, is his fallibility; and it fits that, in thinking this, he’s actually wrong. If the episode can be said to have had an emotional climax, it was when River opened his eyes to that, with the universe eager to come to his aid – “all you had to do was ask”.
And of course, how the Doctor gets out of that death has been the biggest question of the year. Steven Moffat stated as the year began that “one of the main characters will definitely die in the season opener”. It was audacious that it should be the Doctor himself; still more audacious to state bluntly that it was a real death that couldn’t be got out of, a point hammered home by this episode’s insistence that the Doctor’s death was one of those fixed points in time that simply cannot be changed. But this is Steven Moffat, and he’s getting good at misdirecting his audience in advance. The Doctor’s Rule One – the Doctor lies – is almost certainly the mantra of its showrunner these days.
He may perhaps have overloaded the series with red herrings this year, conscious of the fact that fans would be analysing every little detail. What was the business about Rory talking about his time in the TARDIS in the past tense in The God Complex? Why so many episodes that centred on father/son relationships? These things may pay off later, as the longer arc is gradually revealed; but it’s probably not a bad idea to have each season function as one complete story within that arc. Year one was all about the Crack and the Pandorica (and we still haven’t had a satisfactory explanation of why the TARDIS exploded); this year has been all about the Silence, River Song, and her erratically unfolding life story. These aspects meshed together logically enough as a resolution to how the Doctor’s death could be simultaneously guaranteed and averted.
First though, we had to see how we got there. The episode had a clever, tricksy, non-linear narrative. Plunging us first of all into a visually imaginative world where steam trains roam the London skylines, cars float around under balloons, and Roman legionaries wait impatiently at traffic lights was deliberately disorienting. The further revelation that it was always 5.02pm on 22 April was another Sapphire and Steel like touch in a series that has been full of them this year.
It was also nice (if fan-pleasingly self-indulgent) to see the return of so many characters from the show’s past. Simon Callow popped up in a cameo as Charles Dickens, with a presumably post-modern reference to how good “this year’s Christmas Special” was going to be. Dr Mahlokeh the Silurian was back, as Roman Emperor Winston Churchill’s personal physician. And Churchill himself had rather more than the cameo part that those were; although ultimately, his appearance had nothing to do with the advancement of the plot. As he called for his soothsayer to explain “what’s gone wrong with time”, it was a surprise to absolutely no-one that the ragged figure his legionaries dragged in turned out to be none other than the Doctor – albeit with some of the most unconvincing stick-on facial hair I’ve ever seen. And I may have been imagining it, but was Matt Smith wearing a wig this week? His usual hairstyle was there, but somehow unconvincing, as though it was glued on…
That may or may not be a Moffat Big Clue (it probably isn’t), but we then got the preceding events filled in as one of those Star Wars style quests across multiple alien worlds Moffat seems so fond of. Here again, we got some really imaginative ideas tossed into the mix without any real exploration or development. As with A Good Man Goes to War, a lot of these might have been interesting enough to sustain an episode in themselves; the ‘live chess’ game with 4000 volts running through the pieces, the seedy bar the Doctor meets the Teselecta in (Mos Eisley spaceport?), the cavern of still-living, carnivorous heads lopped off by the headless monks. When I reviewed A Good Man Goes to War, I said that this was evidence of the abundance of interesting ideas Moffat has, and I still think that’s true; but churlish though it may be, I’m beginning to wonder whether it’s more the case that he has the ideas and doesn’t really know what to do with them beyond making glancing references.
Whether or not that’s the case, it made for a colourful snapshot of a complicated galaxy (though whether the vignettes all took place in the same time zone was unclear). And the pit of skulls devouring an almost unrecognisable Mark Gatiss as Gantok was one of a number of memorable scary images this week. Not to mention another Moffat trope, the cameo inclusion of a big bad just to move the plot along – in this case a rather muted coloured New Dalek. I wonder whether its grey look was a result of damage or whether the production team have had second thoughts about their new Day Glo look? It’s also worth noting that the Dalek Amy drew as part of her remembrance of the Doctor was definitely an old style one…
Of course, this was all to lead us to the point where we came in – the death of the Doctor at Lake Silencio, in what, as Richard says over at the Millennium Dome blog, must be the most ridiculously convoluted assassination plot ever. And that was where it all changed, as River declared (contrary to what we’d previously been led to believe) that fixed points can be changed. Whoosh, bang, whiteout, and there we were back at the episode’s start, with all of history happening simultaneously.
That’s a neat concept I’ve seen played out in various comic strips over the years (notably 2000AD and, erm, Doctor Who Monthly). I’m not sure it actually makes any sense if you stop and think about it, but it mined a rich seam of weirdness as we saw Buckingham Palace adorned with ‘SPQR’ banners and heard Winston Churchill talking about downloads.
At that point it started to flow in a bit more of a linear way, and became slightly easier to follow. The return of the Silence was well-handled,with the creepy revelation that Winston and the Doctor have been seeing and forgetting them all through their conversation; though given that the Edvard Munch-alikes still seem to be in charge, it seems that, contrary to what we’ve been told, they are a species rather more than they’re a religion. Certainly their human lackeys – in this case Frances Barber as the memorably hubristic Madam Kovarian – seem quite disposable to them.
It all led to the big emotional scene at the top of the pyramid, in which River finally, actually, married the Doctor. This was an emotional scene, but it somehow lacked the punch of previous Big Teary bits in the Finale – notably the Doctor’s sacrificing of himself at the end of last year’s The Big Bang. And in fact, the plot here was quite similar to that episode too; the Doctor has to die, but how can he get out of it?
As it happened, I thought the way he got out of it this time was considerably less imaginative than having Amy dream him back into being. With at least one duplicate Doctor (from The Rebel Flesh) and one shape shifting time travelling robot having been seen this year, it seemed so obvious that it would be one of those substituting for the real Doctor that I assumed it would be another red herring. But no; with the Teselecta robot and its crew featuring so heavily in the ‘Previously on…’ sequence, it seemed a clincher from that point that they’d be taking it on. When the Doctor actually bumped into the Teselecta at the seedy space bar, that felt like it pretty much confirmed it. So when the script revealed the big switch, in that actually rather nice scene with a River out of time visiting Amy, it actually felt like a bit of an anticlimax. It also seems rather lucky that the Teselecta is capable of doing such a convincing job of imitating the regeneration process…
Of course, the other main plot point driving this year has been Amy’s pregnancy, and the not entirely unexpected reveal that River was her daughter. I – and a number of others – have found it slightly unbelievable that, since she discovered the truth about where baby Melody had gone, she and Rory seemed so unaffected by the loss of her opportunity to actually bring her up. Yes, it’s sort of a resolution that she actually grew up alongside her, and that, as River, Amy knows she’s going to turn out all right. And yet, at the same time, it never seemed believable that any parent would so easily accept that she would never get to bring her child up in a normal family environment.
I’d been hoping this uncharacteristic behaviour would pay off later (as some sort of mind control, perhaps), and here it did, but in a rather half hearted way. OK, you could say that Amy cold-bloodedly murdering Madam Kovarian for revenge over her lost baby is actually quite extreme; but as River comments later, it happened in an aborted alternate timeline – even if Amy is still torturing herself with guilt over it. It seemed to come rather out of nowhere too; this is the first time since she lost Melody to Madam Kovarian that Amy has even seemed that upset about it. For that matter, she’s had Madam Kovarian locked up for a while in the alternate reality and hasn’t hurt her till this point. Still, while I generally didn’t find it that satisfying, this was at least an acknowledgement that a real, breathing mum would actually be pretty upset over this turn of events.
Alternate Rory was pretty cool though, with his black ops uniform, gun and eyepatch. He got to be a hero again this week, as he held off the Silence despite being in agony. The fact that the Silent who spoke to him knew that he dies and comes back all the time was amusing, but did unfortunately underline another Moffat trope that many have come to dislike – the fact that, in Doctor Who these days, death is no real threat as anyone who dies will be back in some contrived way. This point was even further underlined by the return of the now bodiless Dorium Maldovar, who was mainly there to explain the plot.
And the plot’s not over, it seems (not that I really expected it to be, after last year’s finale). We now know that the Silence want the Doctor dead because, at some point in the future at a place called the Field of Trenzillor, he will answer a question they don’t want answered. We were teased by this all the way through the episode, as Maldovar told the Doctor fairly early on offscreen, but it didn’t take a genius to work out that the question (in a show that’s ever more concerned with dissecting the identity of its title character) was “Doctor who?” To underline the point, Maldovar’s head shouted it ever louder as the screen faded to black on an enigmatic close-up of Matt Smith. Doctor who indeed? A query the show’s never fully answered, with hints dropped every time we learn something about him that there’s some other, bigger revelation to come. If his identity is enough for a species/religious order to want him dead because it threatens them, it’s obviously a pretty big deal – and again, I’m wondering whether all this tantalising is leading up to a big revelation for the 50th anniversary.
All those returning characters felt, like Journey’s End, a bit self-indulgent, so if they do another big reunion for an anniversary special, it will already seem like a tiresome gimmick. But it was nice to see Amy and Rory again; the fact that they were in an alternate reality is a neat way of not invalidating the impact of their departure a couple of weeks ago. Plus, very much in keeping with the style of new Who, that penultimate scene in their garden was pretty much confirmation that they’re not gone for good. Whether they’re back as regulars next year I’m not sure (though there are enough unanswered questions about them that I feel they should be). But I’m sure we’ll be seeing them again at some point.
Unlike, sadly, Nicholas Courtney. It was a lovely decision of Steven Moffat to have Nick’s memorial within the show itself, rather than as a line in the credits. Admittedly, the scene felt tacked on, but if anyone deserves to have a scene tacked on to an episode, Nicholas Courtney is the one. Matt Smith did a nicely subtle job of portraying grief, something he seems very good at this year. It felt right that this often repressed Doctor should react in such an admirably stiff upper lip to hearing of the death of his longest standing friend. Of course, as a time traveller, he could pop back and visit the Brigadier whenever he liked, but that wasn’t really the point. This was really a memorial to the man who played him, but it was fitting that the character too got a send off. Whether it was intentional or a mere coincidence for it to have happened in a story so full of eyepatches we may never know..
All in all then, a conclusion to a controversially complex series that tied up the loose ends well enough while leaving us with hints of more to come, yet was for me a bit unsatisfying. It satisfied my head, but not my heart. Last year’s finale got this balance just right, for me anyway, but this year’s felt like it had tipped just too far towards the cerebral, despite the glorious visual invention on display. In a final analysis, I didn’t hate the Big Arc as so many others did, but this year neither was I that thrilled by it. I’ve actually found the standalone episodes more rewarding generally, with the arc stories (particularly A Good Man Goes to War and Let’s Kill Hitler) seeming like witty pyrotechnic displays that were full of complexity but somehow lacked substance. While I’d hoped for more, The Wedding of River Song was enjoyable enough, but I hope Mr Moffat pulls out a few more stops next time.