Here we are – the final episode of the sixth series, and my review from DWM #440, one I found particularly difficult to write. A tricky thing, balancing out my disappointments with the finale, and all the things I liked about it. Did I succeed? Dunno. Maybe you can tell me.
But end-of-season affairs always feel heightened – and not just in terms of the size of the plot. They’re also burdened with the expectation of being, well, better than average. That made it feel all the more cruel to pick out the bits I didn’t like so much.
Here we are on the morning after. And it was one helluva do. Thanks to that mid-series break, we’ve had double the number of event episodes of Doctor Who this year. Double the huge reveals, humongo twists and tantalising teases. These are now the programme’s core business, and business is booming, culminating in a story described by Steven Moffat himself as “probably the maddest ever”. You don’t sit back and watch The Wedding of River Song. It comes through the screen and pummels you. Right now I’m punch drunk.
However, I think the hangover is kicking in. Do I remember it correctly? In the midst of the madness? The marriage and stuff? Oh, I think I do. They killed off the Brigadier. Down the phone. It’s an event that’s been precipitated by the sad passing of the inestimable Nicholas Courtney earlier in the year and in its own terms the revelation arrives at precisely the right moment for the episode. It plays out poignantly and with great dignity. It also provides sufficiently weighty impetus to convince the Doctor that even for him, time continues to march on. Unlike the poor old Brig.
But should this have happened at all? In my opinion, despatching the character Nicholas made legend – and, in particular, despatching him in the past tense and off-stage – isn’t the way his story should have ended. It’s a bout of tidying up too far in a tale that comes with a difficult remit to make sense and resolve pretty much every dangling plot point from the last two years. However, as we’ve come to expect from Moffat, this is far more than an exercise in dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s. It’s more like jumping the q’s and flicking the v’s.
There’s a wonderful sense of abandonment as the adventure flits across different narrative strands, with the bedraggled, beardy Doctor (Mattweazle, anyone?) cuing up the clips package for Churchill. The feeling of school’s out emanates from the very first frame with that crazy patchwork of a London replete with floating cars, steam trains and pterodactyls. And Charles Dickens on BBC Breakfast, nattering to Bill and Sian about his upcoming Christmas special. It’s so postmodern a joke, if you listen hard you can hear Heidegger and Derrida taking spades to the earth in the groundbreaking ceremony for a new university built solely to run philosophy courses dedicated to exploring the mille feuiles-like properties of this metatextual funny.
The concept of all of history occurring at the same time is entirely ridiculous and completely fun. As a visual indication the stakes are higher than ever, it works very well indeed. Then, quite rightly, it’s put safely into the background, because it doesn’t bear a second’s scrutiny. The momentum instead comes via the Doctor’s journey from set piece to set piece, which unfolds a little like a night at the improv: Here we are at the docks of Calisto B – make fun with this Dalek eyestalk! Now you’re playing, umm, let’s call it ‘live chess’ with a Norse god! And now you’re in a dungeon and there’s a talking head in a box… see what sort of business you can come up with for those skulls.
By the 19th minute we’re back at Lake Silencio and wondering how come we’ve already reached the big finish. At which point the story turns round… and everyone’s wearing eye patches. (It really would have been great if there was a dedication to Nicholas Courtney at the start of the episode).
Here, I think, is where The Wedding of River Song hits a problem area. At the end of last week’s adventure, where we saw River being positioned to shoot the Doctor, there was a huge sense of excitement because now we were getting down to business. But even then, the fervour lay in the fact it was all to come. We’ve been teased about this since Easter, our expectations are sky-high. This is gonna be incredible.
Living up to that is even more impossible than a space-gun wielding, lake-dwelling astronaut. For the first time in its history, I think Doctor Who put itself in an unwinnable situation.
In part, this has been down to Moffat himself. He’s educated us to be attentive, to believe nothing. And even though he (and the Doctor and River) may lie, he does play fair. Everything we need to know is on the screen. But, Sensei Steven, you taught us too well. Upon my first viewing, and the bit where the Teselecta’s Captain Carter offers his assistance and the Time Lord seems to refuse, I was already mentally playing back the revisited version of that scene, which I knew would be presented to us come the story’s denouement. Others would undoubtedly be surprised by the revelation – but I’d spoilered myself.
In a broader fashion, this year has also prepared us for the final sleight of hand with the duplicate Doctor. I’m guessing inadvertently so. But these 13 episodes have been uncommonly preoccupied with doppelgangers and alternate versions of our time travellers. Granted, smart money was on the Ganger Doctor showing up to take the fall in Utah, but the fact it was the Teselecta instead is just nuance. It could have been an Auton, it could have been Matt Smith’s unwell waxwork liberated from TARDIS-guarding duties at the Doctor Who Experience in Earls Court (where, by the way, there’s a terrific sign that reads: ‘TOILETS BEHIND THE PANDORICA’). We’d been primed for a replica, and that’s what we got. There was no further twist, no final flip-flop to say, ah, you’d been set up to expect a double for the Doctor, but actually…
That it all played out as it was signalled to was perhaps the biggest surprise of the lot. The reason, in fact, why it’s taken me a second viewing and a few days’ pondering to try and decide what I made of it all. Yes, it was good, it was fun – definitely lots of fun. However we’ve been coached to believe that this year Doctor Who is all about how it was going to end. The very shape of the series drew you to that conclusion.
Initially, a sense of being nonplussed is what lingers. But during the process of reflecting upon the story for these very pages, I’m starting to see past it. How can one not have huge regard for an adventure in which the Doctor marries, not as a ruse, nor under sufferance, nor because he guilelessly shares a cup of cocoa with someone – but because he wants to? That plays fast and loose with almost every preconception of his character. But it didn’t bother me. It’s a superb moment. Better still, the joke we all shared that River Song was the Time Lord’s wife… it turns out to be true!
This is also the episode where we see the definitive take on “Pond, Amy Bond”, recast as a 007-style agent who’s happy to acknowledge her inner bitch and deposit baddies with a crippling bon mot: “River Song didn’t get it all from you – sweetie”. Plus we get to see her relationship with Rory on fast-forward. Even in an insane universe peopled with ghosts from the past, present and future, the Williamses will always find each other.
But the best thing of all? Maybe the best thing ever? The reclamation of Doctor Who. Previous series finales have been criticised for bailing out by whacking a metaphorical reset button. That’s kind of what Steven Moffat is doing here, but in a bolder, more conceptual fashion. Sure, I don’t really understand how a duplicate of the Doctor can in effect ‘dupe’ time, but I do very much like the notion our traveller is returning to first principles. “I’ve got too big, Dorium, too noisy,” he tells his torso-less pal. “Time to step back into the shadows.”
Heidegger and Derrida. Remember them from way back when? We left them somewhere around the fourth paragraph. They’ve now abandoned their shovels. They’re fleeing! The final hollering of “Doctor WHO?!” – the programme’s name, no less – and Matt Smith smiling right down the lens to all of us at home has taken the concept of postmodern and smashed it through the fourth wall. Meta is suddenly a big rampaging sci-fi monster, and the legend of Doctor Who is let loose.
It means our Time Lord is now free to continue his adventuring, fleet-of-foot minus the weight of the last 24 months of mythologizing (barring whatever The Fall of the Eleven is, of course). Really can’t wait to see him again.