Thoughts on Doctor Who 06×13: ‘The Wedding of River Song’

The Doctor

Paging Doctor… Who?

So that was Season Six of Doctor Who (or Season Something-Ridiculous if you’re an old-school nerd). Showrunner Stephen Moffat brought his season-long arc to a kind of a conclusion and we’re left with as many, if not more, questions than we had before. But questions are fun, mostly, and the ultimate questions is… Was this much-hyped, much-foreshadowed finale what we all hoped it was going to be?

Oh, and it goes without saying that spoilers abound here for ‘The Wedding of River Song’.

I’m going to be honest with you, on first viewing ‘TWoRS’ left me a little cold. I enjoyed it, yes, I just think I would have enjoyed it more – or perhaps been less dissatisfied – if it had been a regular episode rather than a season finale with so much riding on it. As a culmination of the story being told all season, I initially felt that it lacked (though not for lack of trying) the gee-whiz wonder and Rubix Cube complexity-simplicity of last year’s ‘The Pandorica Opens’/’The Big Bang’. It wasn’t as tightly written, it didn’t have as much emotional resonance or as many big surprises, plus I think it suffered from leaning on an all-too-similar trope to its predecessor: an alternate time-line where things are not as they should be. That it’s a time-line which can only be rectified by The Doctor’s heroic sacrifice underlines ‘TWoRS’s debt to ‘The Big Bang’, and not in a complimentary fashion.

Having watched it a second time though I’m much happier with it. Comparisons with ‘The Big Bang’ seem less of a distraction and it ties together more neatly than I first thought. Of course, it’s still an episode in two distinct halves – the Churchill/Flashbacks segments and the Pyramid material – but it feels more cohesive on the second go (and I quite like the way that, structurally, the division of the story pivots almost exactly on a replay of The Doctor’s death from ‘The Impossible Astronaut’). While ‘TWoRS’ doesn’t make us look at the season in a whole new light (like ‘The Big Bang’) it does succeed in setting up a new status quo for the next year, a more low-key Doctor who no longer has to live up to the reputation which precedes him everywhere.

In such a light, is it possible to view ‘TWoRS’ through a metafictional prism of build-up and reaction? I ask this because just like the mid-season finale ‘A Good Man Goes to War’, ‘The Wedding of River Song’ tended at times towards becoming a victim of its own hype: The Doctor is going to die. Though we all know The Doctor isn’t going to die, so the issue becomes how is he going to get out of it? The audience demands a clever solution, Stephen Moffat’s specialty. Again, the first time I watched it, I thought that this was probably his least successful effort to produce one. On second viewing, I have fewer problems with it. It’s internally consistent (for the most part) and it ties directly to one of the season’s best episodes, ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’. Actually, the worst aspect of the finale’s get-out clause has nothing to do with Moffat’s writing; it’s more a handicap of episodic television’s need to remind people what came before. From the moment we see the Captain of the Tessalector in the ‘Previously’ segment at the start of the show, we have it twigged that this shape-changing robot will be the Doctor which is killed by the lake in Utah. It’s kind of an unavoidable fail, though Moffat – producer hat on – covers as well as he can by having the Captain deliver plot-relevant exposition about who Melody Pond/River Song is.

I’ll go through some of the episode’s nitty-gritty in a moment, but before I do I just have to say that Matt Smith continues to be an *amazing* Doctor. His performance in this episode caps a terrific season for him. He’s easily up there with David Tennant and (sorry ladies of the world) has more than enough potential to surpass him as The Doctor. Take that incredibly badass moment where he taunts the Dalek he has just disabled/destroyed. It’s terrifying and wonderful and horrifying all at once! Naturally a lot of it is due to the writing, but it’s fair to say that Smith delivers the best heroic speeches of any Doctor (recall his performance at Stonehenge or his declaration of defiance to the Weeping Angels, his ‘Monster are real’ from earlier on this season, or even his first true Doctor moment, his confrontation with The Atraxi in ‘The Eleventh Hour’). Christopher Eccleston did a good trade in these too (his ‘I’m coming to get you’ is properly epic) but Tennant’s Doctor, a fan of the sad, quiet moments, has fewer examples. His ‘I’m The Doctor…’ from ‘Voyage of the Damned’ springs to mind, however in this department I think Smith has him beaten, hands down.

Anyway, some Pros and Cons of the finale as they occur to me…

Pro: Stetson-wearing, vaguely-Indiana-Jones-style Doctor. His skulking around in dark corners trying to figure out why he has to die is very entertaining to watch. Kind of makes me wonder why Moffat chose not to have a whole episode of it? Surely we could have dropped, say, the pirate episode from earlier on this year? Actually, on consideration, my favourite parts (I’m not going to label them the ‘best’ parts) of both viewings were The Doctor investigating the reason for his own forthcoming death. Would more have been overkill, if you’ll pardon the pun? I’m not sure.

Con: The human race’s last hope is… An army of soldiers with eye-patches? I promise, I won’t say too much about this, but no wonder they seem so bad at shooting the menacing Silence: they’ve got no depth perception!

Pro: The episode’s humour, such as The Doctor’s ‘threat’ to attend all of Captain Jack’s stag parties in one evening.

Bonus Pro: The pathos which balances this. Smith can do sad as well as Tennant. Consider the scene where he learns about the death of The Brigadier. Gut punch of emotion, right there.

Con: The ‘ultimate question’. Had everyone not figured this out when its existence was first revealed? The ‘ultimate question, hidden in plain sight’? In a show with a name like this, was else was it ever going to be? And is it too cute, too much of a wink at the audience? I’m undecided on this yet, I’ll be honest with you, but Moffat is going with it so we’re all tagging along. Just where exactly is he going though? Most likely to a 50th anniversary eleven-Doctor spectacular (dependent on CGI versions of Hartnell, Troughton, Pertwee, and – because he’s so awkward – probably Eccleston to boot!). I’m calling it now.

Pro: The return of Pantsuit/High-Class-Prostitute Amy Pond. Which I mention here mainly because after I called her this in my review of ‘Day of the Moon’, Illusory Promise got a surprising number of hits originating from Google searches for “Amy Pond prostitute”. Just saying.

Con: Alternate Amy lead a mysterious paramilitary organisation dedicated to fighting The Silence, and sure her office was on a train and her headquarters were in a stars-and-stripes emblazoned Great Pyramid of Giza (wonder how that’s going to go down in the Middle East?), but nonetheless there was an extent to which the dystopian time-line was a little perfunctory in how it was drawn. Again, this was more or an issue the first time I watched it. On my second viewing, I just went with it. Which is probably how one should watch Doctor Who really, isn’t it?

So, in all, ‘The Wedding of River Song’ grew on me. It’s neither the season’s strongest episode nor the show’s most masterful finale, but I think the temptation is to react to it without letting it sink in (oh, where have I heard that before?!). Go back and re-watch the scene on the top of the Pyramid if you don’t believe me. It’s better than you think it was.

Because yes, on first viewing I felt strongly that the episode had cheapened the best installments of the season (and my favourites of this year), the opening two-parter of ‘The Impossible Astronaut’ and ‘Day of the Moon’, the central mystery of which – is The Doctor really going to die – ‘TWoRS’ is designed to answer. Now I’ve pulled more than a little back from that impression. It is, I think, impossible that even Stephen Moffat could have crafted a conclusion to this arc which would have surprised and astounded everyone; however, with a little sleight-of-hand he did write a solution that surprised and astounded the characters.  Surely that’s storytelling right there?

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