|In this image, Clara is disguised as an empty room. |
It’s October 1st, 2011. Dappy is at number one with “No Regrets,” while Maroon Five, One Direction, and several bands without numbers in their names also chart. It is also the hottest October day in history, and the day in which New York City police arrested seven hundred people during Occupy Wall Street. And it’s the day Doctor Who’s sixth season wraps with The Wedding of River Song.
The obligatory introduction out of the way, let’s start where we left off. This is, after all, an episode about answering questions. So let’s just give the answer. “By adding another twist to the A Good Man Goes to War/Let’s Kill Hitler subversion of the epic and having River heal the Doctor.” That, at least, is what the plan seems to be. We’ve already discussed the nightmare that production on Season Six turned into back with Let’s Kill Hitler, and so we don’t need to go into it here, but suffice it to say that the distinction between Moffat’s first draft and the shooting script is in this case largely theoretical. As a result, like Let’s Kill Hitler, this is an episode of television in dire need of fine tuning. To quote that post, “it’s not so much that the episode does the wrong things as it is that the episode doesn’t quite put the emphasis on the right beats.”
But in this case there’s something more. Almost all of the major storyline of the season is resolved at its center, with the revelation of who River Song is. All that’s really left for The Wedding of River Song to do is to square away how the Doctor cheats death. But this is not actually a particularly interesting question, simply because there are so many ways to do it. On top of that, the out of order nature of the season means that the whole thing is necessarily a bit of a shaggy dog story. The big climax of this arc already happened in the season premiere. All that’s left to do is to pull back the curtain and reveal how the trick was accomplished, which is by definition the least interesting part.
So yes, ultimately the entire mystery of the season is “the Doctor gets away by hiding in a shapeshifting robot.” This is not a particularly effective plot beat, and the fact that it’s placed so close to the end of the episode makes it bear more weight than it can possibly support, but again, as we’ve seen, with these two episodes in particular it’s important to try to discern intent, not so much in order to argue that the episodes are secret works of genius, but rather as a sort of archeological process to uncover what would have happened if Moffat had actually had the chance to revise any of this.
Clearly the actual key beat of the story – the actual climax upon which everything hinges – is the scene atop the pyramid. It is, after all, what the episode is named after. And this is how these sorts of resolutions are supposed to work. The point isn’t supposed to be how the Doctor cheats death, but rather what the emotional consequences of his doing so are. The story shouldn’t be about the methodology, but rather about how the Doctor and the woman who both loves him and kills him reconcile all of that. (In this regard, you can see the entire thing done with the emphasis put in the right places by Mark Gatiss just over two years later in The Empty Hearse) And in that regard, it’s a mistake to treat this as “the story of how the Doctor survived.” The story tells us up front, with scrupulous fairness, exactly where to look for what the story is actually about. It does the exact opposite of Let’s Kill Hitler: where that title was a feint, this one is utterly sincere. This is a story about River.
So the key exchange in the episode becomes when the Doctor asks River if her killing him meant she’d suffer “more than every living thing in the universe,” and River, after a majestically timed pause, simply answers “yes.” It is, of course, a fantastically narcissistic line, but it’s narcissistic in a way that’s terribly, profoundly true. If Season Five was largely about how the Doctor makes amends to Amelia by teaching Amy how to be her, Season Six is about the reconciliation between the Doctor and River. Both ultimately hinge on the same moment: Amy and River both insist on their emotional and personal investments in the face of a universe that tries to categorically deny their validity. They declare their love for the Doctor, and in doing so defy reality. In each case, it’s a narrative substitution: the story insists that the Doctor has to have one fate, and they refuse, insisting on an entirely different sort of story.
But in River’s case, the narrative that’s substituted is distinctly positioned as an evolution of Amy’s saving of the Doctor last season. The first attempt at solving the problem – sending out a message to the entire universe – is largely similar to Amy’s rescue of the Doctor, which was largely based around the idea of saving the Doctor through love of Doctor Who as a set of stories. But the Doctor angrily spurns this sort of rescue, forcing River to instead demand his survival on the grounds of her love for him. And in turn, the Doctor has to reckon with River in a way that we haven’t really seen him do before. Because his reaction to River’s answer that yes, she will suffer more than every living thing in the universe is ultimately to believe her. Yes, he sulks for a few seconds, but ultimately, at the end of the day, he accepts what she says at face value.
What’s significant here isn’t so much that the Doctor falls in love, or even that someone falls in love with the Doctor. Rather, it’s that the Doctor accepts River’s love as a responsibility. It’s worth comparing to Rose, who the Doctor clearly knows loves him, and who he clearly loves, but who he repeatedly makes choices for, trying to send her into Pete’s World in Doomsday, and then exiling her back in Journey’s End. The Doctor may love Rose, but ultimately everything he does for and about her is done out of a fundamentally selfish belief that he knows what is best for her. But in this scene, confronted with River’s love for him, he is forced to abandon what he thinks best (erasing himself from history) in favor of accepting the implications of being loved by River. And in doing this, River heals the Doctor and saves his life. That’s the real answer. Saving the Doctor is easy – River already did that. Similarly, this was never a story about River’s healing. We saw that already, and it was confirmed the moment she showed that she was powerful enough to just cast off the Silence’s programming. In this moment, we get what the story is supposed to be about: the Doctor being healed by River’s love, and the fact that he recognizes the fact that he is loved as a responsibility.
This act on the Doctor’s part finally puts to right the trauma of Melody’s kidnapping and of Amy’s violation. We see it in the final scenes, with Amy, Rory, and River joyfully sharing a glass of wine in the back garden (clear shades of The Eleventh Hour, complete with musical cue), a family reunited and reconciled. It is an odd reconciliation, as befits a show like Doctor Who, but it is nevertheless a clear act of healing. We get, with this final act of reparation – of River’s love being accepted by the Doctor – the restoration of the happy family that we started the season with.
And, of course, that act of healing comes alongside the properly horrifying scene of Amy murdering Madame Kovarian in cold blood, a moment that is on the one hand very much in character for Amy and on the other hand feels shocking and wrong, and demonstrates, in case it was somehow in any doubt, that yes, Amy does carry real scars and damage from what happened to her. She ultimately does, if only for a fleeting moment, claim her revenge plot and succumb to all of the temptations of A Good Man Goes to War, just as the Doctor did. (And it sets up a lovely moment in which River tries to dismiss the idea that there’s any ethical concern there, only to have her mother coldly shoot her down by adhering to the logic that if she remembers it, she’s responsible for it – a claim that keeps perfectly with the larger aesthetics and ethics of the Moffat era.)
All of the bits, in other words, are here. It’s just that they’re lost in a story that’s a frustrating muddle. Without the time to work anything out properly, Moffat just goes for an unrelenting chain of set pieces. The “time has all run together” bits are charming enough, and the phrase “his personal mammoth” is wonderful. And, of course, the death of the Brigadier is one of the finest moments of the Moffat era, with the Doctor, at that moment not having any clue or plan how he’s going to get out of this, accepting his death as something that really is going to happen and coming to terms with it. For that to happen with a real death – one that comes out of the actual loss of Nicholas Courtney in the lead-up to this series – is heartbreakingly beautiful, and damn near steals the episode.
But other bits wear the desperation under which they were written on their sleeve. Live chess is cute, but not nearly funny enough to support the scene it’s in, and the less said about that pit of skulls the better. (Although I suppose one general note is worthwhile – the degree to which this episode is hamstrung by having to shoot things on greenscreen is brutal. In particular, the fact that they didn’t manage to film the Doctor’s death on their US filming means that a key scene has to be shot as a flaccid pair of closeups, although the pyramid roof is scarcely better.) On top of that, all momentum stalls once the Doctor gets to the pyramid and the story has to begin bending over backwards to keep from ending. The Silence, so wonderfully terrifying in their first appearance, become generic canon fodder. The whole thing is a damp squib, so that the shaggy dog revelation of the Tesselecta, instead of being a cute joke, ends up in keeping with everything around it.
And yet even this almost works. If The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon was, as we said at the time, a case of opening the season with its finale, The Wedding of River Song neatly inverts that, closing the season with a bit of light froth that feels more like an opener than a closer. One can question the wisdom of this, and it’s a particularly strange decision given the split season that also meant that this part of the season opened with something lighter, making the entire back half feel a bit disposable, but there’s at least a broad sort of sense that’s made with the structure.
But for all of that, there’s still something frustratingly insubstantial here, and knowing everything we know about the nightmare that was the production of this part of the season doesn’t really help. Let’s Kill Hitler was at least a fascinating failure – a story whose reach exceeded its grasp in such an outlandishly oversized way that it’s possible to love the astonishingly feminist story it almost is. The Wedding of River Song, on the other hand, is ultimately slender by design. The season just doesn’t have much more than a few is to cross and ts to dot. All the key revelations about River are in place, and all that’s left to do is the inevitable conclusion, complete with just enough of a cheat on whether they’re married to provide a fig leaf for the fans who also want to pretend that the Doctor wasn’t about to say he loved Rose in Doomsday.
And with that in place it’s time to transition to the next big arc, in which the very title of the show becomes a destabilizing force on the narrative. On the one hand, of course, the question is literal, and harkens back to the original (and as of The Time of the Doctor still unsolved) question about River: how does she know the Doctor’s name? But in reality, especially with the knowledge that the show was ramping up to Day of the Doctor, the question takes on a metafictional heft. The show’s very nature is positioned as a narrative danger to it. Its title, with all its not-entirely-clear promise, is a threat.
But all of that lies ahead of us, and this is perhaps a better time to reflect on the season we’ve just finished. I maintain, in the face of all the heated discussions in comments we’ve had over the season, that there is no period since 1964-65 when the series was maintained a sense of reckless and giddy ambition for a sustained run quite like this. Taken as a whole, this is an extraordinary season. Yes, it goes out with a whimper, but if that’s the price for a season that has as many gems as this, so be it. It’s more than worth it. The ending is in almost every regard the single least important part of the season, and the season itself knows it. Best to go back and look at the rest of it.