“Look into my eye.”
And there it was. A simpler resolution than perhaps many would have guessed, but an episode undoubtedly jam-packed with more Who-isms than you can shake a paradoxic universe-ending stick at. And, of course, the eponymous wedding.
But I get ahead of myself.
I spoke a few episodes ago about the nature of serialized television, and about how Doctor Who had introduced so many long-running – and frankly welcome – elements that the stand-alone episodes had suffered. I should have also affixed an addendum to that thought, as of course the great casualty of doling out so much mystery and intrigue is that you are forced to answer so many questions in what can be an overly by-the-numbers finale. Going into “The Wedding Of River Song” I had these fears – that between Madame Kovarian and River and Lake Silencio and the question and the Silence we’d all be too busy ticking off boxes to actually have any fun at all.
This isn’t what happened. It kind of is, but it also kind of isn’t.
Stephen Moffatt’s brain must be fun. I write, so I suppose I’m sympathetic – but I wouldn’t begin to think that I’m turning in rhythms comparable to the man who’s currently juggling Who and Sherlock. He is ideas, he must wake up twisting and turning in them and spend most of his days just staring out windows until they begin to compile themselves into an approachable format (the ideas, not the windows).
He’s also a dab hand, though, with people dynamics. Part of his unending teeth-cutting process was the sitcom Coupling, which while flawed at times was pure Moffatt through and through. It was a sitcom, yes, but it was also a complicated story-telling device, the style of which you can see repeated in How I Met Your Mother these days. But where HIMYM succeeds in hitting the heart more often than not, Coupling often floundered in clunky characterizations among the clever and often hilarious exchanges.
It’s nice to know, then, that Moffatt’s biggest growth on joining a sci-fi show hasn’t been his imagination, but his ability to write compelling characters. He’s been ably helped by some rock-solid acting, but it’s the fact that he’s been willing to explore some really interesting issues that’s made these characters resonate. The one that comes to mind is of course the backwards Doctor-River romance, but I’ve always been more taken with Amy’s journey. River said something in “The Impossible Astronaut” which has stuck in my mind all season:
“When I first met the Doctor—a long long time ago—he knew all about me. Think about that. Impressionable young girl and suddenly this man just drops out of the sky. He’s clever and mad and wonderful and… and knows every last thing about her. Imagine what that does to a girl.”
Applicable to both mother and daughter, methinks. Amy is a girl who is essentially a product of disappointment, of having to wait and wait and wait. This draws back into a theme that you rarely see discussed – the Doctor as creator. He turned up on Amy’s doorstep when she was eight years old, and the woman he now travels with is a product of that.
And this goes doubly for River Song. She is who she is because the Doctor knew who she would become. This is a beautiful, terrible power that he wields, and while it’s been touched upon I don’t think it’s being explored as fully as it could be. I wouldn’t have explored it this season, as I think much of the joy of this past while has been watching River and the Doctor realize just how much they love each other – and how much they’re drifting by each other, pulled by opposing currents. It’s time-travel, yes, but River said something else in The Impossible Astronaut:
“Trouble is, it’s all back to front. My past is his future. We’re travelling in opposite directions. Every time we meet I know him more, he knows me less. I live for the days when I see him. But I know that every time I do he’ll be one step further away. The day’s coming when I’ll look into that man’s eyes—my Doctor—and he won’t have the faintest idea who I am. And I think it’s going to kill me.”
This story is many things: time travel, aliens, Alex Kingston firing a laser gun. But part of its heart lies somewhere deeper, in the feeling of watching someone you know slip away. It’s a story that’s played out in nursing homes and hospitals across the world every day, and at its best the River-Doctor relationship hasn’t shied away from this.
It may seem like I’m getting off topic, but the reason I bring this up is to point out the deep emotional themes that Who has been touching off in the past two seasons. And this is why I found the finale to be rich, but ultimately not what it could have been.
To recap, at the end of the last episode the Doctor went off to face his death – something we saw at the opening of the season, where an impossible astronaut rose from Lake Silencio in the Utah desert and shot him. We also saw at the end of the last episode that this astronaut was River, encased in the suit by Madame Kovarian and her team of Silence.
So obviously, with so many questions to answer the episode opened in a London where pterodactyls roam freely, Winston Churchill is Caesar, cars are floated around by air balloons, and the Gherkin has train lines laced william-nilliam through it. And herein lies the trouble.
This world isn’t necessarily a mistake – it’s a very interesting way of looking at the situation. River didn’t shoot the Doctor, but she did, and the paradox created by this inaction meant that time folded in on itself. It started with Earth, so we’re watching every past and future version of Earth folded up into 5:02pm on 22nd April 2011. You can just imagine Moffatt’s eyes glowing at the thought.
This is a ploy we saw something of in last season’s finale – the TARDIS exploded, creating a universe with only Earth, so we got to see little Amelia Pond growing up there. The difference was that “The Pandorica Opens” / “The Big Bang” was a two-parter, and had room to breathe amidst all the madness.
“The Wedding Of River Song”, however, is damaged by its premise – because this isn’t Earth. This isn’t our universe. This isn’t Amelia Pond, this is kick-ass business suit machine gun eyepatch Amy. This isn’t Rory Williams, this is Captain Williams. This isn’t even, as it turns out, the Doctor. And while I love parallel universe stories as much as the next person (hey look it’s the name of his website!), I understand that they lack consequence. Which is annoying, because there was a hell of a lot going on here.
The Doctor explained to Churchill in extended flashback that he’d done a lot of research before making his final trip to Lake Silencio, whether it’s playing Death Chess 3000, pumping the Tessalector for information on the Silence, or finding out what the question is (and, crucially, deciding his death is worth not answering that particular one).
And when he did turn up at Lake Silencio, he was ready to face his death. He met up with Amy, Rory and River for the last time – and faced off with the astronaut. But the past River, the one in the suit, had other ideas. She discharged the gun, and didn’t shoot. And what happens when you both shoot and don’t shoot? What happens when you simultaneously did something and didn’t? Mystery Paradox Theatre Showcase, that’s what.
So the Doctor talks Churchill through the problem then gets kidnapped by Super Special Secret Agent Amelia Pond and Captain Rory Williams, to be put on an Orient Express trip to Area 52 (housed inside the pyramids, of course). The Amy we see here is markedly different, as I said, but she does remember the Doctor at least.
I’m convinced there is a very good episode of Who out there that fully explores Amy’s memory and her resistance to different timelines, as it has been mostly used as a plot device thus far. There’s also a very good episode of Who about Rory’s retained memories of his 2,000 years as the Lone Centurion, but in this episode we get to see a different kick-ass version in the form of Captain Rory Williams.
And what happens when they get to the aforementioned Area 52? We meet River and a captive Madame Kovarian (along with hundreds of captive Silence), and the Doctor explains that without his death the world is ending. Time is dying. He tries to touch River – them both being opposite points of the paradox – but she resists.
Because she can’t bear to kill him. I did have a moment where I thought “River is mature enough to see the bigger good here”, but then remembered that this is a younger River. Just graduated from archaeology, she’s spent years trying to find the Doctor again – and now to have to kill him? When she says she will suffer “more than every living thing in the universe”, you don’t believe it. But you believe she believes it.
Before we can have too much down time, however, the Silence escape their captivity and storm the pyramid. And when the eyepatches – which as many bloggers guessed were designed to counteract the memory-wiping effects of this species – malfunction and start killing everybody, they are forced on to the top of the pyramid.
Amy does take a moment to save Rory, and to kill Madame Kovarian, though. Beyond Amy’s fantastic line that “[River] didn’t get it all from you, sweetie”, this was a very interesting piece of the puzzle. Amy killed a woman. But it wasn’t Amy, and as this universe collapsed this wasn’t really that woman, but the memory remains. I don’t expect it to be explored further, but I like that it is acknowledged later on. And that Amy pointed out that she will never see her baby again, even if she will continue to know her daughter.
And so, on top of the pyramid, the Doctor decides to marry River – not a decision that really makes any story sense, but it does fit from a couple of angles. Getting River on side, completing the “things they must have done” if he does die, and providing a chance to kiss her. And they used the old pagan ritual of the long piece of cloth binding the happy couple to do it, which was nice.
So the Doctor whispered his name in River’s ear, she kissed him, we skipped back to Lake Silencio (I love, by the way, that this whole episode took place in an instant) and River shot and killed him. There. Paradox averted.
But of course this wasn’t everything. As Amy sits in her new house, sipping some wine and going over the memories of the universe that never was, River appears. It’s just after the events of “The Time Of Angels” / “Flesh And Stone” for her, and she’s aware that she can finally let slip something she’s known all along – she didn’t kill the Doctor.
He didn’t whisper his name to her on top of that pyramid, he whispered “look into my eye”. Because that wasn’t the Doctor – that was the Tessalector being operated by a tiny Doctor. The paradox wasn’t caused by the Doctor not dying, it was caused by River not firing. So she did, and the universe is okay, and the Doctor is alive somewhere.
Which gave us an opportunity to see River and Amy dance around the garden like mother and daughter should (also fantastic to see Amy’s face when she realised that the Doctor is now her son-in-law). But it did feel like a bit of a cop-out, though in retrospect I think my expectations for this episode were too high, and I’m coming to terms with it being “part of a bigger story” with the benefit of time.
And then to that final scene. The Doctor returns the severed head of an old friend, who asks him the question that’s been plaguing us all season. A question hidden in plain sight.
The “fall of the Eleventh” will happen on the Fields of Trenzalore. And it will be because of this question. And it’s finally dawning on me that Stephen Moffatt didn’t just have a plan for all of River’s journey, he had a plan for the Doctor’s too. It’s likely that the Fields of Trenzalore, whatever they may be, will be the actual death of Doctor #11. And I do appreciate that kind of big thinking.
Overall, though, “The Wedding Of River Song” wasn’t what I wanted it to be. Apart from it not quite being real, it was also too rushed – and the pile-on of emotional moments didn’t have the breathing room necessary.
That is, until that second-to-last scene in Amy’s garden. It wasn’t big, it wasn’t loud, but it was one that will stick with me forever. Amy and her daughter – a daughter she met before she had her. A husband who waited 2,000 years to rescue her. A best friend who has two hearts. And none of that mattered, because this was just a family enjoying a glass of wine in the garden.
And that’s where Doctor Who needs to be – in your heart, not in your head. The most wonderful, most impossible family have been built over these past two seasons. I just can’t wait to see where they go next.
– For those of you who don’t know, BBC3 have decided to cancel Doctor Who Confidential, the behind-the-scenes look at the show. Whether you’re familiar with it from watching live or from the abridged DVD versions, I hope you’ll agree it will be a sore loss to the franchise. The Twitter hashtag #SaveDWC is buzzing at the moment, and there’s an online petition here with 25,000 signatures and counting, so please do help if you can. If for no other reason than the fact that the latest episode did an Alex Kingston-narrated life of River Song in the correct order.
– I presume Madame Kovarian is still alive then, right?
– Someone has to explain who remembers what here. So Amy definitely does, because she always remembers. And River obviously does because she said so. And the Doctor, I presume. What about Rory? What about everybody else?
– Rory didn’t die. Hurrah!
– I don’t know why River was crying and helpless in the suit when she knew she was going to discharge the weapon.
– “The Doctor is very precious to me, you’re right. But do you know what else he is, Madame Kovarian? Not here.”
– Is this the end of River? Probably not.
– That army suit from the Angels two-parter doesn’t do Alex Kingston any favours.
– Neither does Matt Smith’s beard, for that matter.
– That was an actual machine gun (with blanks) that Karen Gillan was operating. Thanks again, Doctor Who Confidential!
– Overall season thoughts? More ambitious than last, but also more uneven. Best episodes “The Girl Who Waited” (stand-alone) and “The Impossible Astronaut” (arc-related). Worst goes to the flaccid “Night Terrors”. But once this is all done I cannot wait to have some kids and get them the full story. And for someone to edit together River’s journey, Memento-stylee.
– This is my last Who review for now, and looking for another show to start doing. Any suggestions?