The Wedding of River Song

Review by Mark Bousquet

“THE WEDDING OF RIVER SONG” – Series 6, Episode 13, Story 223 – Written by Steven Moffat; Directed by Jeremy Webb – The Eleventh Doctor is ready to die, but he’s not going down without a plan. So he runs around a lot. But not literally runs around because this iteration doesn’t do so much of the running. It’s more like he just goes lots of different places, tracking down the Silence. And he gathers information, but he still dies. Except River screws it up by saving the Doctor, which makes all of time happen at once. Because Fixed Points in Time Blahbeddy Blahbeddy Blah Can’t Ever Ever Eve- Good Lord I Hate Arbitrary Rules.

After a long and disappointing (though not disastrous) season, Series 6 comes to a conclusion with THE WEDDING OF RIVER SONG, a disappointing (but not disastrous) finale.

Here’s the deal with WEDDING – taken as is, it’s a pretty good, pretty enjoyable episode. Moffat is drawing on some of his old timey wimey, self-contained tricks, employing them in a very muted way in order to let the story take precedence. River has saved the Doctor from his death we first witnessed in THE IMPOSSIBLE ASTRONAUT, which has created all of time to happen at once. This allows Winston Churchill to be Emperor, Charles Dickens to be interviewed on morning television, the Silurian Malokeh to be Churchill’s personal physician, pterodactyls to fly over London, 19th century trains to transport people around the continent, the Pyramids of Egypt to be the headquarters of the United States Area 52, and the Doctor to be a toga-wearing prisoner “soothsayer” of Caesar Churchill. It’s a truly fantastic visual, bright and bold, and serves as just the kind of interesting world that has so often been lacking this season.

Churchill has the prisoner brought to him and asks the Doctor to tell him what happened, and the bearded Doctor obliges. We see the Doctor following some leads on his Silence search, and we get a nice back-and-forth between seeing the Doctor’s adventures (taking some info from a Dalek’s data core, visiting Father Gideon Vandaleur, playing Live Chess against Gantok, stealing the head of Dorium Maldovar from the Headless Monks) and seeing him tell Winston the story. As the Doctor fills Winston in, he keeps glancing at his arm, where the number of marks on his arm increase, signifying the presence of the Silence. The Doctor tells Churchill not to worry because they’re not too hard to deal with in small amounts, and then we cut to a massive number of marks on the Doctor’s arm and a whole host of Silence gurgle above them, doing their creepy stand-upside-down-on-the-ceiling bit.

Before a full-blown attack can erupt, the Doctor and Winston are rescued by an eye-patch wearing Amy Pond and a group of soldiers and taken aboard Amy’s organization’s train, headed for Cairo. Sparing us from too much alternate universe stuff, Eye Patch Amy knows who the Doctor is and what’s happened. There’s two histories rattling around in Amy’s head, allowing her to remember two outcomes at Lake Silencio, the one we saw in IMPOSSIBLE ASTRONAUT and the one we’re going to see here. Unfortunately, Rory doesn’t know anything and Amy doesn’t know him and blah blah blah we’ve seen this done before.

The Teselecta is back again, and the second you see it you know (if you hadn’t already guessed) that this is the way out of the Doctor’s death.

We revisit the Doctor’s death at Lake Silencio, this time spending it down at the lakeside with the Doctor and the Impossible Astronaut Suit, which we now know contains River. The Doctor tells Winston he brought River, Amy, and Rory to the lake to witness his death because “just because you have to die doesn’t mean you have to die alone,” and that you should be reminded of what makes life worth living, but he tells River he brought her future self here to prove to the assassin River that this moment was inevitable. River surprises the Doctor by not killing him and that’s what sets up this entire alternate timeline.

Once the Doctor and River are reunited in the Pyramid, the Silence that are trapped there break free and there’s lots of shooting and water dripping. First the water dripping, then the shooting, if you want to be precise.

All of the allies of River and Amy wear eye patches because the Silence allies wear eye patches (which allows you to remember the Silence), but this ends up being a kind of Trojan Horse as the Silence only allowed them to use the eye-drives so they could eventually attack the patch-wearers. The Doctor keeps insisting that he needs to die to put everything right, but River and Amy refuse to let him touch River long enough for the deed to be completed. There’s a great bit from the Doctor when he tells Amy that people are dying because of him and “I won’t thank you for this!” but the mom and her daughter convince the Doctor to go to the roof and just hear them out. Reluctantly, the Doctor agrees.

As they leave, however, Captain Williams stays behind with Madame Kovarian. Rory is once again putting his life on the line for Amy, refusing to take his eye-drive off. Amy leaves him and the Silence break through the door, triggering his eye-drive and causing him great pain. The Silence are awesome here, taunting Captain Williams with the truth: “Rory Williams,” one of them sneers as he advances, “the man who dies and dies again. Die one last time and know she will never come back for you.”

But she does, as Amy shows back up with a machine gun and mows them all down.

Kovarian begs to be saved, and tells Amy she know she’ll save her because that’s what the Doctor would do, but in a particularly good moment for Karen Gillan, she leans in and tells Kovarian that River didn’t get everything she knows from Kovarian. Amy reattaches Kovarian’s eye-drive, consigning her to death. It’s a chilling moment, but it leaves you wondering where this anger has been.

As Amy and Rory walk away, Amy tells the man she knows she loves, “I think we should get a drink.”

“Okay,” answers the ever-agreeable Rory.

“And get married.”

It’s a great sequence and for all that the writers didn’t know what to do with Amy and Rory this year, Moffat finally steps in and gives them both a clear purpose and drive. Amy killing Kovarian brings all of the rage about having her baby taken away from her that’s been missing the second-half of the season, and Moffat doesn’t accomplish this by having Amy endlessly yap about it; we get a couple sentences, we get the point, and then we can move on. I don’t know why we couldn’t have gotten this earlier, and while it may be too little, too late to save the season, at least we get the issue of Amy and Rory’s stolen baby acknowledged here.

On the roof is what the Doctor refers to as a “timey-wimey distress beacon,” and River tells him that they’ve been asking for help from across time and history throughout the universe and the universe has responded with a willingness to help. It’s a wonderfully powerful scene, uplifting and tragic all at once. The Doctor is furious with her and River is devastated because she knows that there’s nothing they can do to save him, but that she didn’t want him to die without knowing he was loved.

The Doctor then performs a “wedding ceremony” between the two of them, his acknowledgment that he knows he’s loved by her, and they kiss, killing him back in the regular timeline.

Next comes my favorite part of the episode, as River drops in to visit Amy. For River, she’s just stepped off the Byzantium (from last season’s TIME OF ANGELS/FLESH AND STONE two-parter), but for Amy it’s post-Lake Silencio and the Doctor’s death. She’s having a hard time with the Doctor being gone and with her own actions in killing Kovarian and tells River that she really wants to talk to the Doctor, but of course she can’t because he’s dead.

“Oh, mother,” River assures her, “of course he isn’t.”

“Not for you, I suppose,” Amy says sadly, pointing out that River is going to keep running into earlier versions of the Doctor, but River tells her that while Amy’s right and she will be having those adventures, that’s not what she means.

“I’m going to tell you what I probably shouldn’t,” River confides. “The Doctor’s last secret. Don’t you want to know what he whispered in my ear?” she asks.

“He whispered his name,” Amy answers.

“Not his name, no,” River admits, a hint of playfulness coming back into her voice. Amy insists that’s what the Doctor said but River reminds her, “Rule Number One …”

“The Doctor lies.”

“So do I. All the time. Spoilers.”

Amy wants to know, has to know, as River reminds her that the Doctor is always one-step ahead, and then she tells her the secret, but we don’t get to hear it.

The final scene has the Doctor delivering Dorium back to his dank crypt and we get the big reveal, that he had the Teselecta transform into the Doctor as he hid inside. As predictable as it was, it’s a wonderfully rendered sequence, with Matt Smith’s bright energy and Murray Gold’s score tricking you into thinking this was all completely awesome.

“So you’re really going to do it?” Dorium wonders. “Let them all think you’re dead?”

“I got too big,” the Doctor tells him, his eyes sparkling with a plan. “Too noisy. Time to step back into the shadows.”

As the Doctor walks away, Dorium calls after him, reminding the Doctor that his whole future is still waiting for him, the future that the Silence want to prevent. We get the reveal about the big, mysterious question that can never be asked and answered, the question hiding in plain sight. “Doctor … who?” Dorium asks. “Doctor who? Doc … tor … who?” I had a friend suggest this the other day, so it wasn’t a thunderbolt surprise when it happened, but it’s a nice twist, protecting, preserving, and building on the myth of “the Doctor.”

Series 6 has been a disappointing season, but this ending is as good as we could have expected. We get real answers, and real resolutions, and a wonderful set-up for Series 7 with a Doctor going back “into the shadows.” I think history will judge Series 6 kinder than we’re judging it now. I don’t mean that in ten years people will look back on this season and think it was one of the best ever, but when some of these episodes get to be just one of 250 or 300 stories instead of THIS WEEK’S STORY it’s only natural they won’t need to carry the same weight. Living it in the moment, however, this season has failed because Moffat and his writers didn’t develop the season-long arc properly, and too many of the individual episodes just fell flat as stand-alone stories. I’m still not sure why REBEL FLESH and THE ALMOST PEOPLE needed to be a two-parter, or why there wasn’t more done with Amy and Rory worrying about their stolen baby. With all of this weight in front of WEDDING, there’s probably nothing the finale could have done to make it all seem worthwhile.

And that’s where WEDDING fails. Back at the start of this review I said this episode was enjoyable enough taken on its own, but in the context of this season, as what is supposed to be the capstone to a season-long story, it fails, serving to reinforce what was missing instead of bringing everything together. Still, even with the less-than-brilliant out (at least it wasn’t a Ganger Doctor, I suppose), there is a real energy to WEDDING that carries it through, Russell T. Davies-style. But …

But that’s really not enough. That wasn’t good enough last season, when the season-long story line did come together in a really well-made season finale (PANDORICA OPENS/BIG BANG), and I’m not about to make excuses for this season just because THE WEDDING is a well-paced episode with a few really good, honestly emotional scenes. Where’s any kind of resolution between the two Doctors (the 900 and 1100 year old versions, who alternately could and could not solve the Rubik’s Cube)? What was the point in jettisoning Amy and Rory two episodes ago, only to have them appear in both of the final two episodes. It would have been much better to have their exit coincide with the Doctor’s “death” since they really weren’t gone anyway.

I’m also not sure what the point is to have Rory and Amy “separated” again here, either. Sure, it gives us a few good lines (Rory: “I’m confused.” Amy: “We got married. Had a kid. Her,” she says, nodding to River), but it’s just a redo of PANDORICA, with Rory the loyal soldier and Amy the unknowing lover.

What’s frustrating but also reassuring, in a sense, is that this episode tells you that much of this season was a dropped ball. Look at the characters Moffat brings back for another appearance: Charles Dickens (from the Ninth Doctor serial, THE UNQUIET DEAD, written by Mark Gatiss, who plays Gantok in this episode), Malokeh (from last season’s Silurian two-parter: THE HUNGRY EARTH/COLD BLOOD), and Winston Churchill (from last season’s VICTORY OF THE DALEKS). The characters from this season that are brought back – the Teselecta, Dorium, Kovarian and the Silence – are from Moffat’s episodes, which again highlights the lack of proper coordination between Moffat and his writers. It’s almost like there’s two seasons here – the Moffat episodes that build the story and the non-Moffat episodes which just sort of exist.

Last but certainly not least, we finally have an on-screen goodbye to Brigadier Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart, one of the Doctor’s most beloved Companions. When the Doctor is bragging to Dorium that time never touches him and that he can run forever because he has a time machine, he’s also calling the nursing home where the Brigadier is living. The Doctor is full of ego here, but when he’s told by the nurse that the Brig has passed away, his ego comes crashing way back down to Earth. It’s a wonderful tribute to the Brigadier that the news of his passing is what pushes the Doctor to meet his own death. Smith is great here, making us feel the loss of the Brig to the Doctor when it’s been a long time since the Brig has been on-screen in DOCTOR WHO, his most recent appearances occurring in SARAH JANE ADVENTURES. This season started with a tribute to the departed Elisabeth Sladen and ends with a tribute to Nicholas Courtney. It was fitting and touching to see the tribute to the Brig happen inside an episode; the Doctor says he always draws strength from his friends and there weren’t any friends who’ve stuck around the Doctor longer than the Brig.

I’m looking forward to Series 7, but I’m glad there’s a bit of a break between now and then. I think Moffat needs to spend a bit more time at the drawing board with his writers, and not by himself. Improving cohesion between Moffat episodes and non-Moffat episodes should be one of the biggest off-season priorities for DOCTOR WHO.

Originally Published October 2, 2011

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