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Doctor Who: The Wedding of River Song (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

The Wedding of River Song originally aired in 2011.

“I had to die. I didn’t have to die alone.”

– The Doctor

That was a really crammed 45 minutes. If I’m ever looking for an example of how much plotting Steven Moffat can fit into a single regular-sized episode of Doctor Who, I think I only need to look back at The Wedding of River Song. It’s a piece of very smart science-fiction writing, bristling with ideas and tying up quite a lot of the questions that Moffat raised over the course of the last two years, while raising even more.

It’s something that Moffat’s Doctor Who seems to struggle with, balancing the show’s appeal and accessibility with long-term arc-based story telling. It’s a conflict that’s playing out across a variety of television shows, building off the massive success of Lost, and demonstrating that television shows with serialised plot elements can draw (and, for the most part, keep) large audiences.

It’s still a risky gambit for any television show, particularly one like Moffat’s Doctor Who, where the episodes are so few and so far spaced across the television season. Arcs like this run the risk of extending some of the problems with the season as a whole, rather than playing up the individual strengths of the episodes.

Death of the Doctor…

I have never quite subscribed to the idea of densely-plotted story arcs on Doctor Who. The show is Saturday tea time viewing, and family friendly. This isn’t another of the “dumbing down” arguments that have been oft-repeated over the blogosphere, but a simple acknowledgement that continuity can lock-out casual viewers – the show is situated on the weekend at the early evening, so casual viewers are important. It’s entirely possible that viewers tuning in have no idea who River Song is, let alone any investment in the long-term mystery thing about the Doctor dying. It seems a bit counter-productive to return to that plot point time and time again.

Two- or even three-parters work well, but perhaps it’s telling that the shows which earned the best responses from critics and fans alike this year have been stand-alone adventures – The Doctor’s Wife or The Girl Who Waited or even The God Complex. These episodes played off the core themes of the show in a decidedly accessible manner. The Doctor’s Wife was full of throwbacks to stories like Planet of the Ood or The War Games, and The Girl Who Waited and The God Complex are both important parts of Amy’s story arc, but they are accessible to casual viewers.

Making waves...

Making waves…

Those episodes don’t hinge on specific plot points from past episodes, let alone trying to tie together events of the last season and the season to come as part of some grand sweeping arc. Thematic plotlines tend to work better over the course of a season – with character work or echoing of certain elements rewarding long-term viewers without scaring off those just tuning in for a well-told story. Indeed, I’d argue that even the classic show was capable of this sort of long-form thematic storytelling – perhaps most notably in the “entropy” theme that connected Tom Baker’s final stories.

Watching The Wedding of River Song, with it’s twists and turns predicated on familiarity with the Silence or River Song, it’s hard not to worry that perhaps the show’s decision to lean towards arc-driven storytelling is driving it down the same continuity-loaded dead-end that helped kill televised Star Trek and has terminally infected mainstream comic books – the sense that one has to “keep up” becomes almost a barrier to casual enjoyment.

Another bearded man who was dead and resurrected, eh?

Another bearded man who was dead and resurrected, eh?

A lot of the concerns about this arc-based approach to story-telling are predicated on the hypothetical “casual viewer”, and so there’s a decidedly wishy-washy element to all of this. Of course, given the history of Doctor Who, these concerns about “casual viewers” are legitimately motivated – the show’s cancellation was largely driven by a concerted effort on the part of various script editors, producers and production personal to rive away those who might just like to dip their toes in the proverbial water.

It is very important to stress that The Wedding of River Song is much better written than any of the Doctor Who from that period. It should almost go without saying that Moffat clearly has a much stronger grip on how to use continuity than anybody who ever claimed (or was accused of) any involvement in Attack of the Cybermen. And yet the fear remains, the unease about a show that was once cancelled for being too insular and too niche.

Underwater menace...

Underwater menace…

There’s also difficulty in getting the balance right, weighing those stand-alone tales against the larger story arc. There’s a sense of internal conflict in this half-season of Doctor Who, as the individual episodes and the over-arching plot struggle to reconcile themselves with one another. Night Terrors felt weird following Let’s Kill Hitler, because Amy and Rory didn’t seem too bothered about the idea that their daughter had been kidnapped and weaponised by a deep-space cult.

The God Complex worked because it picked up on thematic hints rather than actual events, portraying the Doctor as something of an arrogant and reckless failure who wasn’t nearly as careful as he should have been with the lives of others. And yet, it feels strange that Melody is never brought up. The Doctor’s inability to find Melody has probably been the biggest of these and worthy of discussion in context. I think the individual episodes were handled well, but the connective tissue between them doesn’t seem to exist.

Thinking outside the box...

Thinking outside the box…

Maybe Rory and Amy had, as has suggested, made their peace with their daughter being used to kill their best friend, and were just happy she got to grow up at all. In The Wedding of River Song, Amy seems to suggest that the fact they’ve interacted with the fully-grown Melody meant they couldn’t change history to prevent it. “You took my baby from me and hurt her,” she tells Kovarian. “And now she’s all grown up and she’s fine, but I’ll never see my baby again.”

It seems to run counter to the season’s theme of “time can be rewritten”, and there’s never any indication that Rory and Amy are anything but accepting of this fact. The smaller character beats seem to be missing. It’s the kind of personal element that Davies could write almost effortlessly, the human element nestled in the surreal larger-than-life science-fiction surroundings. Rose broke time itself to bring her father back. In contrast, it seemed like Rory and Amy just shrugged their shoulders when their daughter was taken.

Pyramids of Earth...

Pyramids of Earth…

To be fair, for all the concerns raised, there are benefits to long-form storytelling. You can tell intelligent and cleverly-constructed narratives using that style of television writing, and it opens more avenues than a strongly episodic approach. There’s more room for nuance and depth, with less time devoted to set-up and exposition because earlier episodes have already done that for you. The Wedding of River Song does take advantage of a lot of what has been established in earlier episodes, and buzzes along at a tremendous pace.

Watching Moffat work, you really long for a bit more space to appreciate his writing. The Wedding of River Song could be quite neatly shorn in half and extended to a reasonably tightly-packed two-part episode. The first half of the episode features the Doctor investigating the Silence, in a whizz-bang montage that takes the character across the cosmos, including shout-outs to Raiders of the Lost Ark (“I hate rats!”) and “live chess.” In a nice little finalé cameo, confirming Moffat’s hypothesis about them as “the most reliably defeated enemies in the universe”, the Daleks pop up already defeated. A stepping stone to a larger villain.

I’m sure they’ll patch it up…

There’s a sense that these concepts and moments could easily be fleshed out, that a lot of the intimate implications of the end of time are glossed over because the end of the episode is so rapidly approaching. The Big Bang was able to delve readily into Moffat’s high concepts because The Pandorica Open had done quite a lot of the material set-up. In contrast, The Wedding of River Song needs to bring us quickly up to speed before the “real” story can begin. So much ground is covered so fast that it’s almost dizzying.

Continuing on from last year’s The Big Bang, Moffat celebrates the end of the year by destroying time itself. Which is a novel twist on the old Russell T. Davies end-of-season cliffhangers. Indeed, Moffat does fall back on the typical “deus ex machina” style last-minute save, but he plays a lot fairer with it than Davies used to . There’s none of that “clap your hands if you believe” nonsense, or a super and magical TARDIS glow, or an antagonist-absorbing void, to hand.

Silence will fall, if they aren't careful up there...

Silence will fall, if they aren’t careful up there…

Instead, Moffat shrewdly gives us all the elements he’d use to pull off his magic trick hidden in plain sight. Whereas the problem with Davies was that he tended to underplay the device he’d eventually use to resolve the plot (why is the Doctor wearing 3D glasses? what’s the deal with the Archangel Network? why do the Ood say “the DoctorDonna”?), Moffat is a bit shrewder. He places the convenient plot resolution front-and-centre, in plain sight. However, he conceals it with lots of distracting red herrings.

The question isn’t “how is the Doctor going to get out of this one?”, it’s “what plot element comes into play to tie all this up?” For example, the almost!Doctor from The Almost People, seems to exist purely so he could serve as a hypothetical resolution to this plot. Moffat gives us all the pieces, and invites the audience to try to piece them together. As such, robot!Doctor ends up a fairly clever way of side-stepping the obvious narrative contrivance with a less-obvious but equal contrived plot-point. Moffat always had a stronger sense of story and plot structure than Davies, and that plays out here.

It's a secret...

It’s a secret…

I do like that notion that  “all of history is happening at once” as a consequence of straying from one of those “fixed points” the show tends to go on about. In particular, there were a wealth of slightly creepy touches that seemed like typical Moffat elements. “It’s always two minutes past five,” Churchill observes. “The clocks have stopped ticking.” Is it wrong that I can’t help but hear hints of the White Guardian in the Doctor’s observation that, “Nothing happened, and it’s going to keep happening.” After all, in The Key to Time, the White Guardian’s ultimate sanction for the Doctor was subjecting him to an eternity of nothing.

Still, even with that gigantic idea looming large, The Wedding of River Song still works on an intimate character level. Moffat’s Doctor is still a very flawed character. Like Davies, Moffat isn’t afraid to critique the character or his methodology. For example, The Wedding of River Song is propelled by the idea that the Doctor doesn’t trust the women in his life enough. He underestimates River and Amy, refusing to let them in on his grand design. His big plan only works if the people around him aren’t smarter than he gives them credit for.

Shocking…

It’s worth noting that the women in the Doctor’s life are actually far smarter and more competent than he thinks. River Song winds up working counter to his purpose and is resourceful enough to undermine the plan he refused to share, accidentally destroying time itself. Moffat seems to see the Doctor as an operator who isn’t nearly as smooth as he likes to think that he is. He frantically pleads with Amy to remember who he is, only to release that she’s done a perfectly fine job of it without his help. “And if you try, if you really, really try, you’ll be able to…” The Doctor stops himself when he realises that she already has.

This is quite similar to Russell T. Davies’ vision of the Doctor as a flawed character. Like Davies, however, Moffat embraces the heroism at the heart of the character. Even as the Silence try to murder him for “the greater good” – to stop a terrible event from occurring – Moffat makes it clear their view is the minority opinion. “You’ve touched so many lives, saved so many people,” River explains as the cosmos comes to offer aid to the Doctor. “Did you think when your time came, you’d really have to do more than just ask? You’ve decided that the universe is better off without you, but the universe doesn’t agree.”

You’ve had some cowboys in here…

Speaking of River Song, there’s a bit more evidence here to suggest that the character is based off the same template as Steven Moffat’s Captain Jack. In Silence in the Library, River was introduced as a confident and sexually aggressive time-travelling trickster who was fond of playfully flirting with everyone around her. In short, she shared quite a few similarities with the version of Captain Jack Harkness introduced in The Empty Child.

However, there’s something interesting about Moffat’s version of Captain Jack, given the writer only ever wrote the character once. In The Empty Child, it was suggested that Jack had memories that had been repressed by the Time Agency, two years of his life that he could not remember at all. It was suggested that this loss had turned him into the devil may care character we know and love. However, those memories were never really alluded to again. In the second season Torchwood, it was revealed that Jack had repressed memories, but those memories couldn’t fit at all with what Moffat had alluded to in The Empty Child and The Doctor Dances.

Hats off to him...

Hats off to him…

Here, it’s revealed that River Song also has lost memories. “Don’t worry,” the Doctor assures her as she prepares to kill him. “You won’t even remember this. Look over there.” When River spots her future self, the Doctor explains, “That’s you from the future, serving time for a murder you probably can’t remember.” This feels like it could loosely fit with Jack’s memory loss. It’s not too difficult to imagine some sort of vague plot like that playing out in Moffat’s head when he wrote Jack’s back story, back story that was never referenced again.

Of course, although he was created by Moffat, Captain Jack belonged to Russell T. Davies and – despite a mention here – the character will always remain associated with that particular era of the show. Which is a shame, because it would be great to hear Moffat write for Jack once again. Still, it draws another strong connection between the character of Jack introduced in The Empty Child and Moffat’s own character River Song.

Boxed off...

Boxed off…

Similarly, the tribute to the Brigadier is also quite heartwarming – he’s a character who has been frequently alluded to on the new show, even if he never actually appeared. (The Poison Sky did confirm that he still existed, apparently in South America.) Nicholas Courtney’s passing was tragic, and the tribute here is quite moving – it helps to convey a sense that time can’t really stop. It’s a shame the show never really had a chance to pay that tribute to Elisabeth Sladen.

That notion of “time passing” is important here. In many ways, it seems like Moffat is offering a defence of his unique approach to the show. The Doctor finds himself fighting for evolution and progression. The Silence are defined as “the Sentinels of History”, implying a role of solemn guardianship. They are about preserving the status quo, about locking the flow of history here. Even when things go wrong, the Doctor finds himself fighting against historical inertia; a world that has no future, that is always the same.

Eye-stalking the Doctor…

“It’s going to be five oh two in the afternoon for all eternity,” he tells Winston Churchill. “A needle stuck on a record.” It sound like Moffat is beginning to seep into the edge of a page, advocating for the evolution of the show itself – rejecting the arguments of those who simply want the show to remain constant, to remain locked in one particular form and reject any attempt to reimagine or rework it. It’s no coincidence that Kovarian seems to be the voice of stereotypical Doctor Who fans, objecting to the modern touches of the episode. “Oh, they’re flirting,” she remarks of River and the Doctor. “Do I have to watch this?” You’d swear she posted on internet message boards.

Similarly, there are a lot of sly nods and shout-outs, references to the writing and construction of Doctor Who. River herself even references the way that fandom has reacted to her relationship with the Doctor. “There are so many theories about you and I, you know,” she teases. Again, you’d swear she browsed the fan sites. Rather pointedly, Charles Dickens appears to talk about “the Christmas Special.” Not his new book, not his new movie – he’s talking about A Christmas Carol, the episode rather than the book.

Moffat patched it all together quite well…

So the season arc was a bit much, to be entirely honest, even if The Wedding of River Song works quite well taken on its own.

“All I can tell you is that it involves ghosts – and the past and the present and the future – all at the same time.”

– screw Neil Gaiman, Dickens is now my dream Doctor Who writer

Check out our reviews of the current season of Doctor Who:

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10 Responses

  1. That was extremely disappointing. Moffat didn’t answer any of the questions he had raised, and chose to raise new ones instead (like Lost!).

    It was a crazy mess, but naturally, I thought too much about it anyway 🙂

    Five Questions raised in the last episode (along with theoretical answers!)
    http://theoncominghope.blogspot.com/2011/10/five-questions-raised-by-doctor-who.html

    • I thought he did okay on the questions to answers ratio, but the ending was a cop out. On the other hand, every season to one extent or another has ended on a copout (last year might be the exception, but it was still more than a little slight of hand). I just don’t like a story arc over thirteen weeks on a show that works best when I can watch an episode with my family or better half who haven’t seen every episode and don’t feel locked out.

  2. First of all, Rivers name is Melody (with a Y)

    the episode was great left me in awe moff was genius w/ the tesselector

    • Thanks Megan. I enjoyed it, but thought it was flawed – but then life would be boring if we agreed on everything!

      And thanks for the correction, I’ve updated the text.

  3. Overall I enjoyed it. The use of the Teselecta did feel like a cop-out but, as they were clearly never really going to kill off the star of the show, I suppose that was always inevitable.

    Still plenty of questions left dangling though. How did River know the Doctor’s name in “Silence in the Library”? Who blew up the TARDIS in “The Pandorica Opens”? Why are the religious order The Silence the good guys in “Time of Angels” and the bad guys in everything else?

    • Was the religious order in Time of Angels the Silence? I thought it was just military priests. After all, they’re managing River’s parole from the storm cage, so they’d hardly have locked her up for doing what they wanted her to do, right?

  4. I, too, was moved by the phone call to The Brigadier. For Nicholas Courtney, aside from being a fine actor, has the distinction of having worked with every previous Doctor (except for Christopher Eccleston). You have to include the Big Finish audios, where he appeared in a story with David Tennant (admittedly, Tennant wasn’t playing The Doctor in that story), and acknowledge that he wasn’t Lethbridge-Stewart when he appeared with William Hartnell, but still…

    With regards to The Oldest Question (i.e. “Doctor Who?”), I’m going to get all metatextual on you. It’s not the oldest question in the universe; it’s the oldest question in the Whoniverse. The first time it was asked was way back in “An Unearthly Child”, when Ian Chesterton was talking with Barbara Wright about the strange old man who lived in a police box in a junkyard. “What do we know about him? Who is he? Doctor Who?” It has been in plain sight all these years, right?

    And answering it would pretty much mean that Silence has fallen. The fundamental question about The Doctor is that we really do not know who or what he is. He’s an important Time Lord, and has even served as their president. He is something of a legend to more than one race. But to find out the specifics of what he is, and his role in the universe, would take away so much of the mystery and wonder of the series that it could potentially prove fatal.

    • Thanks Richard, great points. And it would also have been uttered before the first episode aired as well, even if An Unearthly Child didn’t (as far as I recall) have a title sequence.

  5. Hi! Though I may not agree with everything you say, I must say that you have the most comprehensive and reasonable doctor who review on the net! Keep it up! Looking forward to the next series!

    • Thanks. I am also looking forward to it. And, keep it hush-hush, but I may have a plan for the show’s fiftieth anniversary next year.

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