Bow ties are cool. They are also legally binding.
Sometimes, the most surprising place we can find ourselves is exactly where we expected to be. “The Wedding of River Song,” the grand finale of the 2011 season of Doctor Who, is long on spectacle, but short on revelation. After four years of speculation about River Song’s relationship to the Doctor, for example, we discover now that their relationship is exactly what it appeared to be way back in “Silence in the Library.” The Doctor’s “death” at Lake Silencio also turns out to be what most of us had supposed, and I don’t imagine there were very many people who hadn’t guessed the two words that would compose “the oldest question in the universe, hidden in plain sight.”
Pity Steven Moffat, who has delivered so many clever twists and hairpin turns that we now expect him to blow our minds at least once in every major episode. Considering that he is dealing with one of the most speculation-happy, spoiler-obsessed fan bases in television, it’s remarkable that he succeeds in delivering such surprises as often as he does—but it also means that we risk being disappointed when the obvious explanations turn out to be the correct ones. Sometimes good writing means that the story goes exactly where we thought it was going to go: because we’ve been paying close attention, because all the elements have been fairly foreshadowed along the way, and because that’s where the story needs to go.
The result, however, is an episode that feels packed but unexciting, thematically coherent but emotionally underwhelming. However, if I personally found “The Wedding of River Song” slightly unsatisfying as a viewing experience, I think it makes up for these failings by where it leaves us: this is the second major watershed in the Moffat Masterplan, and by its conclusion we are well-positioned to move forward towards something very different indeed.
“Can’t we just stay like this?” — Amy Pond
For if “The Wedding of River Song” teaches us anything, it’s that time has to move forward, even for a Time Lord: whether we like it or not, change has got to come. River Song (Alex Kingston) refuses to accept that, however, and tries to stave off the inevitable future. Programmed from birth to kill the Doctor, instructed by the Doctor to follow through on the act, and with full knowledge that her killing of the Doctor is a fixed point in time that can not be avoided—she avoids it all the same. By unfixing the fixed point in history, she propels everything into an alternate bubble universe, where all eras exist at once, and time never moves at all. Though logically questionable, it’s a lovely metaphor for both the Doctor’s experience of life and for our experience of Doctor Who, for this is how we think of the program: we can have Winston Churchill and Roman legions, Silurians and soothsayers, Dickens and Daleks and pterodactyls, all in the same show. We can have everything we love about Doctor Who, always at our fingertips, ever new but never changing.
The Doctor, too, has moments this episode when he wants to believe that things can go on as they’ve been forever: he knows he has an appointment with death, but he feels no obligation to keep it. “I have got a time machine, Dorium,” the Doctor says. “For me it never stops…I can help Rose Tyler with her homework, I can go on all of Jack’s stag parties in one night.” The Doctor can keep running for millenia, packing as much time as he wants into the day before his death. (The Tenth Doctor ran too, in the 2009 specials, flitting around the time stream, having adventures and romances, postponing his imminent regeneration as long as possible. And Amy packed an entire season into the night before her wedding, existing perpetually in indecision and putting off the moment when she’d have to grow up.) Life can be one constant party, and as long as we keep moving we don’t have to pay the check, suffer the hangover, or face the consequences of the morning after.
But, as Dorium reminds us here, “Time catches up with us all.” As Kazran and Abigail discovered in “A Christmas Carol,” we all have a counter that’s clicking towards zero, and we can only enjoy so many Christmas Eves before Christmas morning has to come: we can’t horde happiness, we can’t freeze time.
Fittingly, it is one of the Doctor’s longest-serving companions who teaches him this final lesson. Instead of going off to face his fate, the Doctor decides he’ll go pal around with Brigadier Sir Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart. The Brig—played wonderfully by Nicholas Courtney for over 40 years—first appeared in the 1968 Second Doctor story “The Web of Fear.” He was a regular cast member throughout the Third Doctor’s era, and returned several times throughout the remainder of the classic series. His last meeting with the Doctor was in the Seventh Doctor’s 1989 story “Battlefield,” but in 2008 he returned to the Who universe in an episode of the spin-off series The Sarah Jane Adventures. He was—like Sarah Jane herself (Elisabeth Sladen)—one of the Doctor’s most enduring companions, and a bridge to the long, beloved history of the show. To most of the current generation of Who fans, Sarah Jane and the Brig had always been there, and it seemed—to us, as to the Doctor—as though they always would be.
But of course, tragically, we lost Sladen in April of this year, and just a few months earlier Nicholas Courtney passed away after a long battle with cancer. Now, when he wants more than anything to cling to the past and run from his future, the Doctor discovers that the Brigadier has died, peacefully, of natural causes. It is a beautiful moment, providing a quiet, touching tribute to the Brig, who was perhaps the closest thing the Doctor had to an old friend. But it is also a reminder that—even for a time traveler, with all of history at his disposal—nothing gold can stay. Time never stops moving forward: it has to move forward, and we have to allow for change. And so must Doctor Who.
“If it’s time to go, remember what you’re leaving. Remember the best.” — The Doctor
So what will this change look like? In my review of “The God Complex,” I talked about what I am calling the “Moffat Masterplan”: the not-so-secret agenda to move Doctor Who away from what it had become under previous show-runner Russell T Davies. I do, however, want to be careful about how I discuss this: I have the greatest respect for Davies, and a deep, abiding love for the five years of Doctor Who he delivered. Furthermore, I have every reason to believe that Moffat shares both that respect and that affection: nothing the Moff has said or done suggests otherwise, and I would never want my arguments to be used as a stick in the very fashionable (and extremely unfair) game of RTD-bashing.
Nonetheless, by the end of Davies’ reign the Doctor had become too famous, too cocky, too all-powerful and legendary: he had become a super-hero and messiah figure, capable of turning armies around at the mention of his name. He had become too wholly good, in every sense: it provided too easy an out for any situation, and it severely limited the sorts of stories that could be told.
And so, from the moment he took over Doctor Who, Moffat set in motion a long, slow plan to maneuver the show out of the corners into which it had been painted. Last season, Moffat cleverly erased some of the Doctor’s grander, more public escapades from the universe: without coming right out and dissing the more operatic stories of the Davies years, Moffat created the cracks in time that scrubbed a few key large events from memory. Forgotten, now, is the 2009 Dalek invasion of Earth; forgotten is the giant Cyberman who stomped all over Victorian London. (Forgotten—let us hope—is any memory of the Doctor inspiring billions by running through the streets of London with the Olympic torch.) While the exact parameters of the revised continuity have not been established—and need never be exactly established—we can assume that the Doctor is now a slightly less famous individual, at least on Earth.
And, as we’ve been discussing all season, Moffat has spent most of this year challenging and dismantling the Doctor’s “God complex,” by revealing the darker side of the Doctor’s infamous reputation (most notably in “A Good Man Goes to War”) and by breaking down the hero-worship to reveal the flawed man beneath the myth (in “The Girl Who Waited” and “The God Complex,” in particular). His oversized reputation has perverted the very meaning of the word “doctor,” and inspired fear and hatred throughout the universe. (We get a reminder of that here, as the Doctor appears as “the Devil” to a dying Dalek.). Perhaps more importantly, the terror he evokes has put everyone close to him in constant danger.
And so it had to stop: for the good of the show, for the good of the Doctor’s companions, for the good of the universe, the larger-than-life legend of the Doctor had to die.
“I got too big, Dorium. Too noisy. Time to step back into the shadows.” — The Doctor
The solution to this problem, and the solution to the riddle of “The Impossible Astronaut,” turns out to be for the Doctor to fake his own death. Just as he forced Prisoner Zero to do in “The Eleventh Hour,” the Doctor assumes a perfect disguise of himself, and goes to meet his fate at Lake Silencio safely contained within the Teselecta. (Forget for a moment that our previous encounter with the Teselecta did not suggest the machine was capable of anything near this level of interactive realism: let’s just assume the Doctor whipped up a neural relay or something and leave it at that.)
Whatever convoluted—and not entirely satisfactory—path it took us to get here, where we’ve arrived is delightful: the Doctor has pulled an Elvis, and committed brand suicide. He has put the legend to bed, and gone off incognito. It’s an elegant solution: the Doctor’s enemies will no longer be conspiring to kill him, or endangering his human companions in the process: as far as anyone knows, he’s already dead. Next season, I suspect, we’ll have a Doctor more like the one in the classic series: a man of mystery, not infamy; a man who will constantly be underestimated, not overestimated; a stranger without a name.
Shall we have the pleasure of seeing what preposterous pseudonym the Doctor will come up with for each new adventure? Shall we see the reparation of the TARDIS’s chameleon circuit to aid in the subterfuge? Presumably, he will no longer be able to solve problems with threats and grandstanding, but will be forced to rely on his wits, and his wit. In some ways this development represents a return to the show’s past, but it is also an absolutely necessary change to challenge the writers and keep the show moving towards its future.
“You’ve touched so many lives, saved so many people. Did you think when your time came, you’d really have to do more than just ask? You’ve decided the universe is better off without you, but the universe doesn’t agree.” — River Song
One of the elements that did not work so well for me this episode was the resolution of what I’ve called the Companion Conundrum: the Doctor’s growing understanding of—and guilt about—the negative side-effects he has on the people with whom he travels. (See my reviews of “The Girl Who Waited” and “The God Complex,” in particular.) There are some welcome nods in that direction here—and a hasty counter-argument that turns out to be irrelevant to the plot—but I had hoped for more would be done with this after the mature, emotionally sophisticated groundwork that had been laid all season.
On the other hand, the previous episode “Closing Day” went a long ways towards reminding us that life with the Doctor is not entirely—or even predominantly—doom and gloom. Now more than ever I admire what that episode was able to accomplish in turning the tide of despair that had been rising around the subject of the Doctor and his companions. (If “The Wedding of River Song” had directly followed “The God Complex,” the tonal shift would seem far too abrupt.) Craig’s faith in the Doctor helped to restore ours, but it was disappointing here not to circle back and achieve some resolution between the Doctor and the Ponds—the real Ponds, that is. One of the reasons “The Wedding of River Song” feels slightly unsatisfying is that we spend so little time with the real Amy and Rory, and they spend no time with the Doctor. The scene with the Family Pond drinking wine in the garden is lovely, but it feels wrong that we do not get a final moment between the Doctor and Amy. “You are forgiven, always and completely forgiven,” the Doctor tells River—but after all the guilt and recriminations of this season I wanted someone to say that to the Doctor.
The alternate-universe Amy, however—who both is and isn’t the real Amy—does get some closure, albeit of a dark and perhaps more troubling kind. With Madame Kovarian (Frances Barber) at her mercy, Amy is merciless. “You took my baby from me, and hurt her,” she says. “And now she’s all grown up, and she’s fine, but I’ll never see my baby again.” Big Nurse Eyepatch expresses the hope that Amy will take pity on her anyway, because the Doctor would—but Amy is stronger now than she ever was, and less forgiving than the Doctor could ever be. She replaces Kovarian’s electrifying eyepatch, presumably ensuring her death. “River Song didn’t get it all from you, sweetie,” she says, showing that she can be just as formidable as her daughter.
What I like about this scene—apart from the sheer, kick-ass awesomeness of it—is that it works on a couple of different levels to help resolve the Companion Conundrum. Yes, life with the Doctor does change people, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. He does put people in danger, and he does sometimes turn them into weapons. Amy, almost certainly, would not be capable of such an act if she’d never met the Doctor, and this is both a blessing and a curse. But the other thing this scene reminds us of is that she does not blame him. All season long we’ve been judging the Doctor for his recklessness, and he’s been judging himself for bringing harm to his loved ones, but it’s worth remembering that none of this is his fault in any but the most indirect ways. Here, Amy puts the blame squarely where it belongs—on the villain of the piece—and she also demonstrates her own agency. She’s not the Doctor, and she’s neither a pawn of the Doctor nor is she in thrall to his example. She can make her own decisions, and enact her own revenge.
That the Doctor is, ultimately, a force for good in the universe is reiterated in the scene that immediately follows this one, in which River reveals that the sky is full of voices offering to help the Doctor in his hour of need. This turns out to be utterly irrelevant to the plot—and less effective than it might have been if we’d done more than just heard about it—but it’s a lovely idea. Last year “The Pandorica Opens” really began this Dark Doctor storyline, with all the assembled hordes of the universe joining together to end the threat of the Doctor once and for all. Now we have the mirror scene, in which a presumably louder collective voice sings out to thank the Doctor and offer him help. “You’ve touched so many lives, saved so many people,” River reminds him. “You’ve decided the universe is better off without you, but the universe doesn’t agree.”
(As it turns out, however, the Doctor has already decided to live at this point, which renders the whole thing kind of moot. If the Doctor had only decided to live after hearing about this universal show of support, would it have been a better scene, or would it have been unbearably cheesy? It would have been a very RTD moment for the Doctor’s faith in himself to be restored by the collective prayers of the universe—and I don’t mean that as an insult, since part of me feels it would have been thematically and emotionally more satisfying: after so many dark interpretations of the Doctor all season, I think the emotional cheese would have been earned and welcome here. )
“Now, there you go: River Song, Melody Pond, you’re the woman who married me.” — The Doctor
The other major development to come out of this episode, of course, is the titular event, and again we have to admire the long game Steven Moffat has played to bring about this change. Not very long ago at all, the idea of the Doctor’s getting married would have created a firestorm of controversy, but Moffat has given us four years to get used to the idea. From her first appearance in 2008’s “Silence in the Library,” we’ve all assumed River Song would turn out to be the Doctor’s wife; by the time we arrive at the ceremony itself, the event itself not only doesn’t shock, it seems like an anti-climax.
On the other hand, I have mixed feelings about how it has been executed. Surely that was the least romantic wedding in history. (“I don’t want to marry you,” the Doctor says, just a few moments before he does.) But this absence of romance accurately reflects the current nature of their relationship: a couple of kisses aside, the Doctor and the new Mrs. Doctor have shared a lot of flirting but very little in the way of real emotional connection. (Only in River’s first appearance in “Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead”—which was chronologically her last appearance, of course—does their relationship feel like it could be a genuine, loving partnership of equals.)
But of course, we don’t know yet how seriously to take this alternate-universe wedding that skips any exchanges of promises or declarations of love: even the revelation of the Doctor’s name—which we assume would seal the deal—turns out to be a mislead. Are they really married? Certainly River speaks as though they are, as does Amy, who has a moment of horror in which she realizes that “The Girl Who Waited” has become “the Doctor’s Mother-in-Law.” The Doctor, too, speaks as though he is married, suggesting that River may spend her days in prison but her nights are up for grabs.
Personally, I hope they are married, and that next season we actually get to see what the Doctor in love would look like. Some members of the fan community may think this is blasphemy, but Moffat has spent several seasons patiently moving us towards a different vision of Doctor Who, and this is one of the things for which he has been preparing us. Thematically, it is the ultimate answer to the Companion Conundrum: for the Doctor to not find an “assistant” or a “companion,” but to forge an actual relationship of equals with someone who does not worship him but loves him. We don’t need to dwell on their sex life—heaven forbid—and I don’t care to see the show become a soap opera, but love is a grand adventure that I wouldn’t mind seeing this humbler, more human-sized Doctor embark on.
It will take some work. Matt Smith’s Doctor—though he looks incredibly old this episode—still seems too much the nerdy schoolboy to have a real relationship with a woman. He will need some character development to pull this off, but I have no doubt Smith is up to the task, and one of the extraordinary things Moffat has done this season is to show us a Doctor who is capable of having a real character arc. He can learn, he can grow, he can change: after 48 years, this is a remarkable development for our central character, and it opens up exciting possibilities.
And, for all the time we’ve spent with her, River is not yet a fully rounded character: the more we’ve learned about her, in fact, the less interesting she has become—not because the mysteries of her life have been revealed, but because she seems to have no life apart from the Doctor. She is no longer a mysterious adventurer who crossed paths with the Doctor: now she is just another “girl who waited,” effectively created by the Doctor, and obsessed with him to the exclusion of other interests. (She only became an archaeologist in order to find him, for example, which is disappointing and reductive.)
But if Donna Noble (Catherine Tate) could become a real, fully developed character, so too can River Song. To me, the best thing that could happen to this show would be for Alex Kingston to join the show full-time, and for Moffat to take the time to grow her character and to properly explore and develop the relationship she and the Doctor share. We’ve seen just about every other kind of companion in the TARDIS: it’s time to see a real partnership, a relationship of equals. It is even time, perhaps, to learn more about the Doctor, and to take his character to emotional places we never dreamed he’d go.
Once I would have argued that the Doctor should always remain the same, but we can’t keep things the way they are forever. There are other stories to tell, and other kinds of stories, and new possibilities to explore. Time has to move forward.
What has happened over the course of this amazing season? In the words of another Doctor: change. And it seems not a moment too soon.