|What do you mean it’s not back until next Christmas?|
Not the post you expected to see today? Think about how the River Song posts worked in the past and work it out. Or just wait for me to put the link on Twitter later in the day. Or heck, someone’s probably put it in the comments by now.
It’s May 18th, 2013. Daft Punk and Pharrell are at number one with “Get Lucky,” with Pink, Will I am, Chris Malinchak, and Passenger also charting. In news, Angelina Jolie announces that she has had a double mastectomy, David Beckham announces his retirement, and, three days after this story airs, the House of Commons votes to allow same sex marriage in England and Wales.
While on television, Doctor Who’s seventh season since its triumphant 2005 return concludes with The Name of the Doctor. As a season finale, of course, it is written by Steven Moffat. For the most part the format of a season finale has been consistent since the series returned; a narrative collapse storyline. But in other ways the format has changed dramatically. First and foremost, for two seasons running, due to the split season structure, the season finale has been a one-parter instead of a two-parter. More to the point, there’s been a dramatic shift in the nature of endings over the last few seasons. Davies’s season finales typically focused primarily on wrapping up stories and serving as endings, with a quick tease about the future thrown in at the very end (if at all – c.f. Journey’s End). Moffat’s finales, however, have a much more anticipatory structure. They’re much more directly concerned with pointing towards the future. Even The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang, for all that its ending feels like a Russell T Davies finale, is packed with future teases in a way no Davies finale is. But after that the structure changed to what we have here – a story that ties up a season-long arc as an almost incidental detail of an episode that is primarily about looking forward. The Name of the Doctor resolves the mystery of the multiple Claras and reveals a key detail about Trenzalore, yes, but on the whole its real structure is forward-looking. It is much more about being the first part of Moffat’s Noun of the Doctor trilogy.
Ostensibly, of course, it wraps up not only the Impossible Girl storyline but the Great Intelligence storyline. But what’s telling is how much both of these storylines are feints. The Great Intelligence is, from his first new series appearance, something of a comical villain, best defined by the inept excesses of his schemes. He’s a clever marketing double joke. First he allows for the new series to make an arcanely humorous classic series reference to what was, at the time of The Snowmen, a missing story. The joke is overtly that the Great Intelligence is kind of rubbish—hence Madame Vastra and Jenny making fun of his absurd schemes (which are, of course, the actual schemes he used in his two Troughton appearances). Second, of course, it provides useful marketing for the recovered The Web of Fear by making it so that story features an appearance by a “major” new series villain.
But all of this obscures the fact that the Great Intelligence simply isn’t a serious threat. Yes, he manages an outrageous coup by stepping into the Doctor’s timeline and destroying him at every moment in his existence, but in doing it he admits that he’s just cranky and so desperate for revenge that he’s willing to commit suicide to get it. And his victory lasts all of five minutes before Clara undoes it. He occupies the structural position of the Big Bad without actually being particularly big. All of his magnitude comes from the fact that he’s a recurring character played by a big name guest actor. But Grant is putting no effort into the part, playing him as a cliched bit of leering smugness. Which is, of course, exactly what the part calls for – a big name actor basically phoning it in.
Instead the Great Intelligence is simply a vehicle for causing a revelation about Trenzalore—a revelation that works in the classic sense of raising more questions than it answers. For the second time in two seasons, Moffat nicks from Alien Bodies and has the Doctor encounter the existential threat of his own eventual death. This time, however, the adventure with the Great Intelligence trying to break into his tomb is really there to introduce more fundamental questions, specifically what happened to the Doctor. Conspicuously absent through this entire episode—indeed, through this entire season—are the Silence. (A monster particularly jarring when they are absent.) And, of course, we know that the Silence are inextricable from this mystery. The Great Intelligence may ask the question on Trenzalore, but Silence noticeably does not fall.
And, of course, there’s the final scene, which gestures forwards to The Day of the Doctor by introducing the War Doctor. It’s tempting to treat this as a late reveal in a more traditionally Davies style, but this ignores the fact that the entire episode is structured around it. The decision to open on Gallifrey with Clara advising the Doctor on which TARDIS to take and to do a grand tour of (wonderfully rubbish) episodes for the past Doctors immediately contextualizes the story in the fiftieth anniversary. The moment you see William Hartnell it’s clear that this story is going to lead directly into The Day of the Doctor (even if that story didn’t even have a name when this aired). And so the coda is not, as it might first appear, an extra scene tacked on to tease the finale, but the natural and necessary resolution to the cold open. This too, in other words, is anticipatory storytelling, in which stories exist primarily to tease the existence of future stories.
But this has been the defining nature of Moffat’s storytelling since the prehistory of his era. Even in Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead, a story which coincided with the announcement that Moffat would be taking over, Moffat was as interested in setting up future stories as he was in telling that one. River was, in her first appearance, one giant tease of unseen adventures that were already written but not quite seen. The airing of Forest of the Dead, in fact, coincided with the first tease of what Moffat would be doing as showrunner – on the podcast commentary track (which is one of the best commentary tracks ever) Tennant and Davies beg Moffat for a hint about what’s to come when Moffat admits to having started on his first episode. Moffat gives the clue that “you’ll never be in your house again,” which, in hindsight, is recognizable as an early draft version of the revelation of what’s really meant by “Prisoner Zero will vacate the the human residence or the human residence will be incinerated.” So from the beginning the Moffat era has looked forward, with every story in part being the commencement of the promotional campaign for a later one.
The result of this technique is in some ways a mixed bag—the continual tone of breathless anticipation can at times get frustrating, and requires a steady flow of revelations to balance out the teases. When this balance is off it becomes tremendously unsatisfying—case in point, The Wedding of River Song, in which the only real revelation was the particular mechanic by which the Doctor cheated death, leaving the season finale feeling kind of underwhelming. But The Name of the Doctor manages this well;nts triple revelation of the nature of Clara, the nature of Trenzalore, and the War Doctor is meaty and satisfying, even if two of them raise as many questions as they do answers.
Of these Trenzalore is in many ways the most interesting, even if it is nicked from Alien Bodies. The first time the Doctor encountered his own death was primarily a puzzle box about the nature of the Doctor’s conflict with the Silence and what the future Doctor’s plan was. The second time, however, is more ominous because Trenzalore has already been teased as the site of a major revelation regarding the Silence, and as the “Fall of the Eleventh.” The fact that we see the Doctor’s grave and the wound that is his body further exacerbates the sense that we are seeing the end of the narrative. And this, notably, is the proper end – it’s not something fungible like the regeneration limit, but his death; the immutable endpoint of his story, however far ahead it may actually be. In a narrative that has become based on the anticipation of the next story, this is particularly chilling.
It’s fitting, then, that this is a River Song episode, and, more to the point, one that acutely reminds us of how River Song was introduced, which is to say, in terms of her own death. River appears here as a literal ghost, haunting the narrative both in form and function. She appears after the moment of her own death. On the one hand this hints to the inevitable resolution of the Trenzalore storyline, destroying as it does the idea that death is the end of the story. And, of course, River’s mystery still isn’t quite resolved. We still don’t know the answer to the very first mystery we ever got about her: how does she know the Doctor’s name? However much this may appear the end of River’s story, it’s telling that a story called The Name of the Doctor fails to elaborate on this basic mystery. The narrative is not done with River Song.
And yet on the other hand her haunting of the narrative reiterates the central point, which is the existence of the ending as a property of storytelling. In many ways this is the most brutal form of narrative collapse that can be unleashed on Doctor Who. Given its extreme flexibility and promise of eternal storytelling, the ending is the one thing that can truly threaten it. It can survive any narrative collapse save for the possibility that some day people will simply stop telling new Doctor Who stories. This is the threat River has always posed – she’s a character who entered the narrative with her ending in place. And here she serves both as a reminder of that threat and as an observation that endings too are fungible for a story about time travel.
And yet the real point of the story is Clara, a character who Moffat weaves one of his most elaborate bluffs around. Even before her first appearance Clara was a mystery. So much so that the mystery consumed the character, so that when she appeared her actual character traits were buried beneath the question of who she was. Like the Doctor, the audience ignored every single clue and insistence that Clara was a perfectly ordinary girl and not some vast cosmic mystery and trap. And in the end this is shown to be the wrong approach. Clara’s nature isn’t as some vast cosmic mystery. In the end, Clara’s nature is as a young woman who does the right thing – who steps in and tries to save the universe, at great personal cost, for seemingly no reason other than that it’s the right thing to do. Who continued to look after two children for no reason other than that she had promised to do so.
It is fitting that Clara’s mystery is not even remotely solvable prior to The Name of the Doctor, because the entire point of her story arc in these eight episodes is that treating a person as a mystery is wrong. Clara never was a mystery, but rather a person who, in saving the Doctor, ascended to become one. It is, in many ways, a critique of the epic done on the most Doctor Who-like of terms, taking what appeared to be a vast mystery through time and space and making it the story of an ordinary and therefore extraordinary and impossible girl.
This too reflects back on River, whose status as a mystery is steadily replaced by her status as a character, such that her appearance in this story, where she suddenly takes an almost entirely mystery-based role, is quite jarring. Note also that it is the act of reconciling with her and treating her as a person instead of as a plot function that allows the Doctor to save Clara, which he also does by treating her as a person instead of as a mystery. Because this – not the Great Intelligence’s hair-brained scheme – is what matters. Even when the Great Intelligence is threatening the entire universe, the main consequence we see is Vastra and Strax’s friendship crumbling and being undone as Strax becomes a generic Sontaran. Throughout this story the message is that it is not, in fact, big sci-fi concepts that matter, but people. A point that is hammered home in the final scene, when the Doctor explains that what matters is who he is. The Name of the Doctor refers not to the enduring mystery of his birth name, but to the question of who he is as a person.
And so we come to understand the real nature of River’s knowing his name, and of the oldest question in the universe. What she knows is not some piece of trivia to file alongside “Theta Sigma” and the possibility that his name actually is Who. What she knows is the character of the Doctor. And this is what she has always known. Not so much “Doctor Who,” as “who is the Doctor.” But to fully answer that, it seems, we will have to look at who the Doctor isn’t.
Apparently, he isn’t John Hurt.