Russell T. Davies used to wrap up a season with a two-parter. Here Steven Moffat wraps up two seasons with a one-parter. The resulting episode is a bit of a muddle, and reprises a lot of things in slightly less exciting ways than before, but it still ticks all the right boxes. Firstly we get the amazing sight of everything from different time periods jumbled together. It makes no sense in terms of time no longer moving forwards, because quite clearly time is passing. But that doesn’t matter because it functions well in terms of the idea of time being broken, and is also a good excuse to see some of our favourite characters again, most bizarrely Charles Dickens from right back in Season One.
By necessity this is a backwards-looking episode, and Moffat just embraces that, complete with a lovely little scene where real life events drive the narrative and the death of Nicholas Courtney is acknowledged, tying in with the Seventh Doctor’s assertion that the Brigadier was “supposed to die in bed” (Battlefield). It’s a mundane ending for a man who we would probably expect to die in battle, but it also celebrates the indomitability of a man who defeated all his enemies and earned his quiet ending with a glass of brandy in hand, and another poured for his best friend. It is integrated cleverly into the plot of the episode, becoming the moment where the Doctor realises that he must also face his death. Of course, the Doctor being the Doctor, he finds a way to cheat it anyway. Looking back over his adventures, a better “first rule” would be “the Doctor cheats”.
So the past is invoked with the Brigadier and also the return of several familiar characters, including Dorium, who is now a head in a box, revealed in a fabulous Indiana Jones pastiche. The idea of a disembodied but living head goes right back to the legend of Orpheus, whose head was said to have floated down the river Hebrus singing mournful songs, and a tradition has since developed of wise disembodied heads, often with psychic abilities. The one that always sticks in my mind is the bronze head from The Box of Delights, but there are endless examples in television and literature. Of course, this is not even the first example from Doctor Who itself. Not so long ago we had the Face of Boe fulfilling the same plot role, just with less humour. Dorium’s final riddle is gloriously meta, with the “first question hidden in plain sight”… in the opening credits.
Also returning are the Silence, but the problem is they are one-trick ponies. Their big selling point is being forgotten, but that only works for their debut story. As soon as anyone finds a way around that then they become a generic monster to be gunned down. They are still incredibly creepy and it’s great to see them back, but they lack the impact they had at the beginning of the season.
For an episode that wraps up threads going back a lot further than just this series, The Wedding of River Song has surprisingly little to achieve, beyond being a box-ticking exercise. The two big things to resolve are the Doctor’s death, and the whole storyline about River Song being kidnapped as a baby. Both of these come in for a lot of criticism, but both are actually dealt with very effectively.
Firstly, the Doctor’s death is guessable but won’t be guessed by everyone. The Doctor’s survival was never in doubt, the question was only “how?” and across the season we have had clues to the solution, and also a major red herring. This is exactly how a mystery should function. It’s supposed to be guessable. If it isn’t then there really is a problem because instead you would have a resolution based on nothing and that really would be something to complain about. What we have here is basically the structure of a whodunnit, playing out across a series and working within that context, although it’s actually a howdunnit in the tradition of something like a locked room mystery, to pick a random example from a popular genre. The question of how something happens functions perfectly well dramatically and we have to be able to figure out the answer if we are paying attention, or the resolution feels like a cheat.
Secondly, and more importantly, we finally get the issue of River’s kidnapping addressed. The way Amy was able to move on with her life has been a big problem with the second half of the series. She should be a broken woman, single-mindedly focussing on getting her baby back, and knowing that Melody will grow up just fine wouldn’t cancel that out. We have only really seen this realistically portrayed in the prequel to Let’s Kill Hitler, which has robbed the season of much of its realism. But here we finally get some acknowledgement of how Melody’s kidnapping has affected her, because she murders the kidnapper.
It’s a stunningly brave moment, and the conversation Amy has with River about it afterwards makes it clear that she realises the cancelled timeline doesn’t completely cancel out her actions. It’s a strikingly realistic reaction of a woman who has been robbed of something so fundamentally important that she is beyond the point of anger and desperation. The only problem is that this whole plot should continue to eat away at her, even more so now in fact, but being Doctor Who the only option really open to Steven Moffat is to draw a line under it at this point and move on. The happy family is back together, but what demons must lurk behind those eyes. RP
The view from across the pond:
A season finale should be powerful enough that you want to come back for more. Season 6 had an opening that was cranked up to 11 so it would need a really special ending to make it all work. And writer Stephen Moffat has given us some classics. But the problem with The Wedding of River Song is that he was aiming too big. He wanted to include everything. It’s been said that he who makes everything incredible, makes nothing incredible. Same rule applies; when everything is big, is anything really big? The story has to be built on a concept that everything else connects to. When everything is an idea, what does it hold onto, what is “real” to determine what’s strange and new?
So we are introduced to the idea that the Doctor’s anti-death lead to a universe-wide freeze at 5:02pm. This means that all of history is happening all at once. But this makes no sense! Pete Tyler’s anti-death didn’t lead to anything like this, and the idea that the Doctor creates more ripples simply does not hold up. It might affect everything he does from that day forward, but would not freeze time on that day and suddenly make all of history happen all at once. Not to mention, does Moffat even understand a frozen moment? In The Space Museum or more recently in Big Finish’s Time Works, time freezes around the main characters. What this means is that time stopped moving for all but the Doctor and company. All that happens in Winston’s world is that everyone’s clocks stopped at 5:02. Nothing is actually frozen; people can move around and time is passing. Why would the Doctor’s death at that point actually create such a problem? Why didn’t the same problem occur when Capaldi is fighting his regeneration? Moffat went so big, it was impossible to keep that momentum going throughout the series.
Besides which, how this would spawn pterodactyls anyway doesn’t make sense, but Moffat wants big visuals that pack a punch without the internal logic being required. Ironically, this is not dissimilar to what many superhero movies aim for: big on visuals, low on logic. And while I could accept that in my superhero movie, I expect more from my favorite television show.
Then there’s River, the most convoluted character in Doctor Who history. First of all, she knew the Doctor’s name in the Library, which supposedly the Doctor would only tell her in one specific set of circumstances. But it wasn’t at the wedding that he told her, because he tells her only to look into his eye. (I accept that there’s still time for the Doctor to tell her before their final meeting, but that’s not the point. It’s Moffat’s insistence on twisted stories that even he got confused by.)
And here we come to my biggest issue with the episode. The Doctor has an incredibly triumphant flashback showing us how he gets out of dying on the beach but… it’s idiotic. There’s no way I could believe that time froze and stood still and created this “all of history all at once” craziness for a robot to die on the beach. The Teselecta stand-in was a completely ill-thought-out cop-out. Somehow the “organic machine” that looks like the Doctor was enough to not only trick friends and enemies alike, but the universe itself! So, you ask, when the Abbot died in The Massacre, it should have led to the same events? Yep, because it just has to look like the Doctor and fool his friends! Mind you, there are 8 other times there has been a “duplicate” Doctor and at least one was an android that died and you know what didn’t happen? Any of what happened here! The worst part is that the season gave us the perfect solution with The Rebel Flesh. The Doctor had established that his flesh avatar was an EXACT duplicate in all respects. All respects including memories of past incarnations; not necessarily the ability to regenerate but not ruling it out either. So the Flesh Doctor’s surviving, only to die on the beach could have caused a sort of “confusion” in time: the Doctor was dead and alive at the same time. Universal glitch… the rest could be explained. But the robot dying in place of the Doctor… it just failed. And it lost the potential for so much ontological debate about the nature of being by ignoring, or even forgetting, about this great possibility! That was a tragic blunder that tainted so much of Moffat’s writing from then on!
That said, there are a number of amazing moments in the story, most notably the Silence in the Pyramid. Seeing them sleeping in their watery tombs was wonderfully reminiscent of that classic image of the Cybermen in their ice tombs. The Silence are among my most loved villains, and anything they do impresses me. Then there’s Amy’s response to Madame Kovarian. Well played, Amy! Well played! I said Kovarian should laugh it up while she could, because her comeuppance was a’comin’!
Amy: “You took my baby from me and hurt her. And now she’s all grown up and she’s fine, but I’ll never see my baby again.”
Kovarian: “But you’ll still save me, though. Because he would, and you’d never do anything to disappoint your precious Doctor.”
Amy: “The Doctor is very precious to me, you’re right. But do you know what else he is, Madame Kovarian? Not here.” (And she puts the eyepatch back on Kovarian’s face leaving her screaming! Sorry, I may be a peaceful person, but that was deserved!)
The episode also kicks us while we’re not expecting it: the Doctor tries to call an old friend, Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethridge-Stewart, only to find he passed away in his sleep. (Unfortunately even that seemed shoe-horned into the episode but I’ll ignore that in favor of a touching tribute.)
So the Doctor survives, great, even if the way he did it was nonsensical. He says he’s gotten too big, too noisy…. If the universe thinks he’s dead, he can be free to do more work “undercover”, so to speak. So the Christmas episode has him go to see Amy and Rory and the very episode after that, he is summoned to help the Daleks. You know, the race that, along with the rest of the universe, thinks he’s dead. (Only to then be forgotten by the Daleks forever which lasted precisely until their next appearance…)
Moffat aims big but the story does not require “big”, it required epic and epic can be done in very simple ways. Vincent and the Doctor has an epic quality because it touches on something important, meaningful. Not everything has to be epic like The Impossible Astronaut. Epic can be big, but it can just be simple too. If it enhances the lore of the show like The Deadly Assassin did all those years ago, that has a quality of the epic. Alas, this wedding had too much of something old, something borrowed and something blue, missing perhaps the most enjoyable part: something new! ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe