Thursday, 6 October 2011

Doctor Who - The Wedding of River Song


And so we come to the end of series 6/season 32 of Doctor Who with “The Wedding of River Song” written by showrunner Steven Moffat. The Doctor’s fated death has come and gone, and all has been resolved—well, not really. I initially found it difficult to form a straight opinion on this one. After my initial viewing, I felt rather nonplussed. I definitely enjoyed it, but much like “Let’s Kill Hitler”, I enjoyed the individual moments, but felt disappointed with the total product. I was hoping for a resolution to the ongoing arc storyline, but this episode provides very little actual resolution. The Doctor’s death is resolved, but none of of the other outstanding questions are answered. Indeed, most of them aren’t even referenced. Instead, the episode introduces a couple new questions. From a series finale, I was hoping for something a little more final. However, I’ve watched it a total of three times now, and with each viewing, I’ve grown to appreciate and like it a lot more. I think being aware that the questions I have would not be answered has allowed me, on each subsequent viewing, to view the episode on its own merits, to enjoy it for what it is, instead of disliking it for what it isn’t.

The Wedding of River Song” really is a rather clever episode, set mostly in an alternate reality where time has gone wrong and is disintegrating. It has a lot of similarities to last year’s finale, “The Big Bang”—in some ways, it’s a little too similar, giving a slight feeling of having done all this before. However, it does it quite a bit better than “The Big Bang”, and the resolution (to this story, not the arc) is far preferable to Amelia Pond wishing the Doctor back into existence. The storytelling is tight and engaging, with good doses of both humour and action while still maintaining a strong dramatic and emotional presence. The plot does involve lots of the complex “timey wimey” material that Moffat is so fond of, but nonetheless remains straight-forward and easy to follow. There are no real surprises in the episode, but that’s okay as the episode aims to bring everything that has been foreshadowed to a conclusion (whilst foreshadowing yet more). SPOILERS FOLLOW

Like the “Big Bang” last year (and indeed, many of the previous finales of the last six years), “The Wedding of River Song” contains many cameos and reappearances of old characters and celebrities. Simon Callow returns as Charles Dickens alongside Sian Williams and Bill Turnbull as themselves. Meredith Vieira also appears as herself. Amongst the recurring characters, there’s a brief appearance by Silurian Dr Malokeh (played by Richard Hope), and much more significant roles for Dorium Maldovar (Simon Fisher-Becker) and Winston Churchill (Ian McNeice). Alas, Churchill is still the caricature he was in “Victory of the Daleks”, but I can forgive that in this case, as he’s a version from an alternate reality where he’s Emperor Churchill and isn’t really a major player in the story in any way. He is simply there as a vehicle for the Doctor to explain things through. Dorium is a much more interesting character, even as just a head in a box. (As an aside, I do like that the story never tries to explain how Dorium and the skulls of the Headless Monks’ victims can still be alive without their bodies, much like “A Good Man Goes to War” never tried to explain how the Monks can still move about without heads. It’s simply something the Headless Monks can do. It doesn’t need a technobabble explanation. That said, I would like to learn a little about what the Headless Monks’ beliefs are and what their organization is all about, but I digress...)

Of course, the most prominent returning characters are Amy, Rory, and River. As glad as I was to see Amy’s departure in “The God Complex”, I didn’t mind her presence in this story at all. In fact, she works extremely well in this episode. Part of it is because she’s an alternate version of Amy (alternate Amys always seem to be better than the real one, like the older Amy in “The Girl Who Waited”). Her character doesn’t need to be consistent with previous stories; she only needs to be consistent within the confines of this one episode, and that she is. She fits well into the role of a secret agent style character. Doctor Who fans have long since noticed the similarity of her last name with Bond and have often joked about Amy introducing herself as “Pond. Amelia Pond.” It was a lot of fun to see her actually do that in this episode. Her ruthlessness with Madame Kovarian has caused some controversy, but I thought it made sense. It would have worked even better if in the last few episodes, we had seen a little more angst and trauma from Amy over her baby’s kidnapping, but at least this was finally an acknowledgement that she had lost her baby. The episode doesn’t give Amy’s actions a free pass either. She agonizes over her actions later even though those actions have now been erased.

Rory as a soldier is a great twist on Rory the Centurion. He’s still the Rory we all know—wide-eyed, a bit unsure of himself, but still full of determination and love for Amy. I loved the scene where he refuses to remove his eye-drive so that he can continue to protect Amy, bravely enduring the debilitating pain. It was truly a terrifying moment when the Silents break through and he can no longer endure the pain and collapses, only to be rescued by Amy. Truly, if every episode portrayed Amy and Rory’s relationship the way this one does, I think I might have actually liked Amy. I did like the Silents’ referencing Rory’s repeated deaths and resurrections, although I had hoped that all those deaths were actually leading to something, but apparently not. Oh well.

Then there’s River Song. When River first appeared three years ago in “Silence in the Library”, I loved her character. She was intelligent, strong-willed, full of mystery, and fun to watch. On top of that, she was then a rare example of Doctor Who exploring the implications of time travel. She was someone who meets the Doctor in a different order than he meets her. As such, she was truly new to the show. I continued to like her up until this year, and more specifically up until “Let’s Kill Hitler”. By then, her storyline had become so convoluted and rewritten (such as with the introduction of Mels) that she was no longer interesting, but rather just annoying. The mystery of her relationship with the Doctor has gone from flirtatious “spoilers” to yet another companion emoting her undying love for him. Rose Tyler was willing to tear apart the fabric of the universe just to be with the Doctor, and now River Song is willing to let time disintegrate rather than lose him. Unlike Rose, however, River should be smart enough to know better, to know that those actions will hurt the Doctor more than just letting him go. I do wish Steven Moffat would occasionally write a female character whose story does not end with marriage or raising a family. Even in her first story, we see the final end of River’s story, when after her death, her mind is resurrected in the computer and she settles down to be a mother to the little girl whose mind powers the computer. Honestly, I could write a whole essay on the sexism in Moffat’s Who, but I’ll leave that for another day.

On the opposite side of the heroes, there are the villains of the piece: the religious organization called the Silence, the creatures called the Silents, and Madame Kovarian, their leader, whom the Silents predictably betray. I was hoping this episode would give us a little more insight into Kovarian, who until now has been nothing more than a pantomime villain. If she had one, I could honestly imagine her twirling her moustache. Alas, she seems to have no real motivations. She wants to kill the Doctor because she hates him, but we have never seen why. For a villain to work, that villain needs motivations. We don’t need to see all those motivations right away, but a hint of one or two of them are necessary in order for the character to be believable. However, in Kovarian’s case, right from her first real appearance in “A Good Man Goes to War” (I’m not including the little glimpses seen of her before that), the show has simply expected us to accept that she hates the Doctor. She is the most pantomime villain the show has had since its return in 2005, and ranks with some of the worst villains of the classic series, such as Soldeed in “The Horns of Nimon” or Professor “Nozink in Ze Vorld Can Shtop Me Now!” Zaroff in “The Underwater Menace”. Even the Master, as moustache-twirling as he could be at times, had motivations! Kovarian is played by Frances Barber, who is a well-known and highly respected British actor—she was quite a catch for the programme—but it doesn’t matter how good an actor she is if she’s not given anything to act with beyond stereotyped villainous lines. The Silence, as a whole, suffers from a bit of the same problem. We still know very little of the organization’s motivations, but at least we’ve been given a hint about the “fields of Trenzalore” (not sure about the spelling of that name). But we still can’t even say whether Kovarian’s personal motivations line up exactly with the Silence’s, or whether she has a few of her own separate goals. Perhaps next time she shows up (and I’m sure she will; the episode made a point of reminding us that her death occurred in an alternate reality that has now been erased), we’ll actually learn something about her.

Conversely, the Silents are some of the most imaginative and interesting villains the show has ever created—sinister, spooky, and utterly captivating. The idea of a creature that makes you forget it the moment you look away is pure brilliance. It plays into everyone’s worst nightmares of the creature hiding around the corner, in the closet, or under the bed. They are probably the best new alien species introduced to the show since the Weeping Angels, and luckily, they haven’t had their rules rewritten like the Weeping Angels in “Flesh and Stone”. I can easily see the Silents finding their way onto the list of iconic Doctor Who monsters.

This entire season has centred around the Doctor’s death. We saw his death in the very first episode, “The Impossible Astronaut”, when Amy and Rory encounter the Doctor from 200 years in his personal future. Since then, we’ve learnt that his death is a fixed point in time, meaning that it cannot be changed. We’ve learnt that River Song kills him. In fact, we’ve learnt everything there is to know about his death except how exactly he survives it—since ultimately, we know he must survive, since he is the star of the show and to kill him permanently is to kill the show. In “The Wedding of River Song”, those 200 years have now passed for the Doctor, and we get to see how he survives his death. And that solution is really quite elegant. In fact, we were introduced to the method back in “Let’s Kill Hitler”: the Tessellecta (I’m not sure of the spelling of this either, but it’s clearly based on the word tessellate so that’s the best guess I can come up with), the shape-shifting robot that can look like anyone or anything. The fixed point in time remains unchanged, yet the Doctor survives. It merely turns out that people misinterpreted the events at Lake Silencia. It’s an incredibly simple solution, but that’s really all that was needed. It also makes a great counter to the ridiculously over-complicated plot to kill the Doctor in the first place.

And really, why did the Silence use that plan in the first place? Why kidnap Amy’s baby and raise her as a psychopath to kill the Doctor? Even after her first attempt fails, they re-kidnap her to force her to try again—and this is after she’s already declared that she’s fallen in love with him. Nonetheless, they stick her back in the astronaut suit and send her to Lake Silencia to kill him. Perhaps it’s because of some special skill River has? No, she just shoots him. Plus, we learn that the suit is in control anyway, and will make her shoot whether she wants to or not. Except she then manages to override it and change history anyway. There is absolutely no reason for the Silence to use River as the assassin when they know she’s not reliable in this role. If Madame Kovarian hates the Doctor so much and wants him dead so badly, why doesn’t she just put on the suit and shoot him herself? Why even bother with the suit? She could just take a gun and shoot him. Then, when he starts to regenerate, shoot him again. Done. The Silence’s plot is just so bizarre and nonsensical that it would make even the most over-the-top James Bond villains weep with envy.

There are several other questions that remain unanswered as well. The most notable is, how did the Silence blow up the TARDIS in “The Big Bang”? Whose voice was it inside the TARDIS saying, “Silence will fall”? I’m beginning to worry that some of the early questions raised by this arc have been forgotten in favour of new ideas created since (à la Amy and Rory’s new childhood friend, Mels). Hopefully, the answers will show up eventually, maybe next season.

Of course, this episode also foreshadows some new elements of the plot and introduces a new question. Well, it’s not really new. It’s “the first question, the question that must never be answered, hidden in plain sight.” The Silence wish to avert the question being answered at the Fields of Trenzalore at the “Fall of the Eleventh”. That’s why they want the Doctor dead. The question has been spoken on the show before, many times. However, the show hasn’t paid this much attention to it since the 1988 story, “Silver Nemesis”. “Doctor who?” I love that this is the ultimate question. It’s a nod to the Cartmel Masterplan of the Sylvester McCoy years, a return to the inherent mystery of the central character, and the suggestion that the Doctor is something more than just a Time Lord. However, the way the question is foreshadowed in this story and previously in “Let’s Kill Hitler” is a little too fourth-wall-breaking for me. The “first question, the oldest question in the universe, hidden in plain sight” clearly refers to the title of the show. It was the very first thing viewers saw when the show first aired in 1963. It’s been in “plain sight” in the opening credits of every episode since. This sort of thing can be very clever if it makes in-world sense as well. The “hidden in plain sight” part, I can see. The question is implied any time the Doctor introduces himself. However, “the oldest question in the universe” will take a little more in-world justification before I fully buy it. I do suspect that justification will come along. Indeed, I suspect Moffat is setting things up for the 50th anniversary in 2013. It should be a fun ride getting there! “The Fall of the Eleventh” clearly refers to the end of Matt Smith’s time as the Doctor, so I don’t expect to see the Fields of Trenzalore until Smith decides to leave the show. It also means we’re stuck with this story arc until then.

Overall, even though I spend a lot of this review commenting on the aspects I don’t like, I actually do like this episode. Even on first viewing, I enjoyed it quite a bit despite being disappointed with parts of it. On subsequent viewings I’ve grown to like the episode a lot. I just can’t fully get rid of those nagging doubts about the arc, and I really do wish this episode had finally brought the arc to an end. But we can’t have everything, so I might as well enjoy it for what it is.

----

Postscript:

I want to address the episode’s mention of Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge Stewart separate to the rest of the review. It was a terrible loss to Doctor Who when Nicholas Courtney died earlier this year, and it was utterly heart-warming that the show was able to include an in-episode acknowledgement that not only paid tribute to one of the show’s most iconic characters, but also fit beautifully with the plot at hand. With the Doctor once again trying to run from his responsibility and brazenly declaring that time “has never laid a glove on me!” it was beautifully fitting that the thing which makes him stop running is learning of his old friend’s death, learning that even with a time machine, eventually death must catch up to him. Matt Smith plays the scene so wonderfully. With just a few expressions, he conveys such sadness. It is truly heartbreaking.

Up until Courtney’s death, I had been desperately hoping for the Brigadier to show up on the show one last time, since I knew there couldn’t be much time left, but his failing health pretty much made it impossible. We were lucky to get his one appearance on The Sarah Jane Adventures. This little scene more than made up for his absence from the new series.

In honour of Nicholas Courtney, I link you to this wonderful tribute put together by the incomparable Babelcolour.

No comments:

Post a comment