Saturday, 1 October 2011

DOCTOR WHO, 6.13 – "The Wedding Of River Song"

Saturday, 1 October 2011
written by Steven Moffat / directed by Jeremy Webb

"You've decided the Universe is better without you... but the Universe doesn't agree."

Maybe I've just adjusted to Steven Moffat's whirligig plotting since he's been able to indulge himself as showrunner, but "The Wedding Of River Song" actually made some sense to me. Naturally you had to swallow the show's fantastical approaches to space-time logic, where it essentially makes its own rules that bend to the will of whatever's required by the plot, but the ways it explained the year's two biggest puzzles satisfied me. More importantly, the Series 6 finale was very imaginative, visually stimulating, and tore through its hour with total conviction. If you're still left scratching your head by the end, so be it.

Things began in a way that intentionally bewildered, with a present-day London now containing a steampunk monorail, where Winston Churchill (Ian McNeice) rules the country, Charles Dickens (Simon Callow) is alive and writing plays, cars are suspended from hot air balloons, and pterodactyls fly around local parks. It soon became clear that The Doctor (Matt Smith), imprisoned for being a Soothsayer, exists in a weird parallel universe where time's effectively a stationery car crash around one single point and gradually disintegrating. But why?

Well, in flashbacks this episode essentially answered the events of the two-part premiere, where The Doctor was seemingly killed at Lake Silencio by the Impossible Astronaut. As indeed he was, eventually, but not before a brief sojourn into this bizarro universe thanks to his disguised killer, River Song (Alex Kingston), choosing to act against this "fixed point in time" and not kill The Doctor. Which brought us to this "bubble-universe" where The Doctor and River exist as two parts of a space-time explosion, Amy's (Karen Gillan) managed to remember the lost timeline because she grew up next to a temporal crack, Rory's (Arthur Darvill) a brave eye-patched soldier, and everyone's holed up in a pyramid version of Area 52 where Madam Kovarian (Frances Barber) is their prisoner, along with a hundred Silence sealed into water-filled cells.

As you can tell, this is the kind of episode that's once again tough to explain in simple sentences. The big argument this series has been about Doctor Who's increased complexity, and I'm not yet convinced that the show isn't alienating casual viewers because it's now so intricately plotted. If there are indeed children who can understand everything that's happening, that's great, but I think children are also just easier to distract with exuberance, monsters, and fireworks. It's the adult sci-fi fans who are left trying to parse everything with the accumulated knowledge of how other TV shows, movies and novels handle similar ideas. Still, as I said in my opening statement, "The Wedding Of River Song" didn't do a terrible job answering most of Series 6's key questions. The Doctor's survival created a tangent universe, which was later fixed when The Doctor and River got married (their connective kiss restoring the original timeline), only this time "The Doctor" at Lake Silencio was just a robotic copy created by the Teselecta crew we met in "Let's Kill Hitler".

That actually makes sense to me, although I quite agree there was so much garnish that it was hard to keep things together in your head. I admire and enjoy Moffat's fertile imagination, but I do think he has a tendency to communicate dense ideas in a style/speed that makes them overly confusing. He probably feels that the big mytharc episodes (especially premieres and finales) have to look particularly impressive and, for the umpteenth time, involve truly apocalyptic stakes, but I can't say I agree. I'm all for big ideas, expensive location work, and lashings of special effects, but it's ultimately a brilliant story and engaging characters that keeps me watching. There was some of that here, but it had a tendency to get lost in the noise, like a mother reading a fairy tale in the middle of a booming music festival.

I also liked how this episode left the show as a whole. In the restored universe, everyone thinks The Doctor is dead, which means he'll be under less universal threat for a change. And just as Series 5 left us dangling with the question of what "Silence Will Fall" means, Series 6 has setup the idea that the great question--"Doctor who?"--is going to be explored. To me, that suggests next year will be delving into the Time Lord's personal history, and perhaps means we'll be getting some Gallifreyan back-story. Considering 2013 marks the show's 50th anniversary (and half of Series 7 will be shown that year), I think it's a certainty that Steven Moffat's going to be giving fans big explanations about The Doctor and his people's origins. Plus there was foreshadowing of the "events of Tranzalor" and "the fall of the Eleventh", which will undoubtedly factor into next year's episodes. The latter suggests we'll be seeing the end of Matt Smith's Doctor for the 50th anniversary, but it could also be very misleading...

Overall, "The Wedding Of River Song" was everything we've come to expect from Steven Moffat since he took over the show: intense, inspired, flamboyant, and utterly bonkers. I'm not going to say it wasn't easily comprehensible and satisfying on every level, but I think it made more sense than many people will feel. (Maybe give it a second viewing, right?) The tangent universe where time's crushed together, and the narrative trapdoor escape from the Doctor's death scene both worked for me. This is a show that, currently, isn't really in the business of providing watertight, pat explanations. Not if there are more enjoyable ways to cartwheel through a brisk story and drag the audience along for some brain-frazzling fun and laughs.


  • There was a touching nod to the death of Classic Who regular Nicholas Courtney, who played Brigadier Alastair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart in many, many old episodes. Here it was revealed that the Brigadier had died in hospital, which worked nicely to make The Doctor consider his own mortality.
  • There were some great lines and moments sprinkled throughout the finale. Some of my favourites: Amy realizing she's become The Doctor's mother-in-law now he's married her daughter River, The Doctor assuming that human dating involves "texting and scones", and Amy's parting shot to Madam Kovarian before she's killed ("River Song didn't get it all from you, sweetie").
  • It was fun to see the return of Simon Callow as Charles Dickens, from Series 2 episode "The Unquiet Dead". Who writer and Sherlock co-creator Mark Gatiss also appeared as Gantok, according to the credits. I assume Gantok was the Silurian, but would have to re-watch the episode. The comments reveal that Gantok was the chess-playing alien.
  • So, no explanation for what froze the TARDIS mid-explosion last series, which everyone assumed was something to do with The Silence. Looks like that's a loose end that can't be tied up. Oh well.
1 October 2011 / BBC1