SEASON FINALE: The Doctor arrives at Lake Silencio in Utah because he needs to keep the universe safe – by going to his own death.
Writer: Steven Moffat
Director: Jeremy Webb
In some ways, “The Wedding of River Song” could be considered a successful conclusion to the latest season of Doctor Who. It wraps up the ‘death of the Doctor’ plot begun in “The Impossible Astronaut”, gives most of the season’s major characters a chance to return for a curtain-call, provides a couple of twists to the story (which, naturally, allow the Doctor to escape his “death” unscathed), and throws out tons of series’ writer and showrunner Steven Moffat’s imaginative ideas so quickly that it’s often difficult to keep up.
The trouble is, it just doesn’t hang together very well as a story.
A good story needs to make sense on the terms of its own internal logic, and “The Wedding of River Song” falls down in so many places that it fast begins to feel as though the episode is less of a story than it is a remix of some Moffat’s favourite characters and story motifs, repurposed in an alternate timeline in which time has ‘stopped’–which apparently means that anything goes.
This allows the writer to play by whatever rules he likes (for example, the Silence-defeating subliminal message the Doctor planted in the Moon landing footage in the series’ opener no longer exists), giving him the chance to build a vast, lavish new continuity in which Amy and Rory are super-spies working with River Song to defeat the Silence from their base in an Egyptian pyramid known as Area 51, in a world that’s ruled over by Emperor Churchill (who naturally, rides a wooly mammoth to work and keeps the Doctor as a sort of pet soothsayer).
If that sounds like a confusing mess of ideas, it is, and one that’s so incoherent that it’s difficult to even get a handle on the real meat of the story until things calm down about halfway through the episode. But by that point, there’s little the story can do to save itself: instead, the audience just has to grin and bear it as the characters lurch from scene to scene with little in the way of causality or purpose. Events seem to occur not because the story demands them to, but because the writer would quite like them to happen (for example, is there any real reason for the Doctor and River to get married, other than to provide the episode’s teasing title?), which is surely an indicator that the overarching season plot hasn’t been thought through very clearly.
And by the time the story gets around to addressing what “really” happened at Lake Silencio in the season opener, it becomes even clearer that Moffat is making it up as he goes along (the fact that the episode’s most crucial scenes between the Doctor and River are shot against a static blue-screen backdrop of the lake, rather than having been shot whilst the production team were shooting the earlier episodes, doesn’t do anything to dispel the notion that the solution has been cobbled together at the last minute rather than planned since the beginning).
This would all be fine if the episode provided a truly satisfying surprise or inspired development in the season storyline. But the twist that allows the Doctor to escape his death is a fairly arbitrary and unimaginative one (albeit one that at least explains why Moffat included the Tesselecta robot plot thread in “Let’s Kill Hitler”), and not one that really makes much sense when you think about it (for example, how did we see the “Doctor” start to regenerate after being shot if he was just a robot?).
Whilst purporting to give viewers all the answers they’ve been promised, the episode at the same time tries to gloss over the fact that lots of the really important questions posed by Moffat still haven’t been addressed. Who was controlling the TARDIS when it blew up at the end of the previous season? How did River/Mels get from 1960s New York to 1990s Leadworth to grow up alongside her parents? Why are Amy and Rory so ready to give up looking for their baby daughter? And when exactly was Amy replaced by her fleshy duplicate, anyway?
I don’t want to sound completely down on the episode, because even the worst Who stories have redeeming elements. Ideas such as “live chess” are enjoyable in their own right, regardless of the context of this story; the effects work is pretty impressive, especially given that the show has famously suffered budget cuts in recent years (I guess that explains those cheaper-looking episodes earlier in the season); and the show’s key players manage to pull off some lovely character moments, especially when it comes to Rory’s lack of knowledge of his relationship with Amy in the regular timeline.
However, without a decent, coherent story on which to hang these elements, it’s difficult to find the episode truly satisfying or particularly enjoyable. And the final scene, in which Moffat sets up yet more ideas (presumably to be explored in the next season) only makes me worried that we’ll see more half-baked plots like the Doctor’s death next season.
Let’s hope that the show instead learns lessons from this year’s batch of episodes, in which the strongest stories were those standalone yarns that married interesting ideas to well-developed character work–rather than those in which the series’ showrunner tried–and failed–to execute a complex sci-fi mystery.
A journalist and sometime comics reviewer, Dave Wallace was raised on a traditional European diet of Beano comics, Asterix collections and Tintin books before growing up and discovering that sequential art could — occasionally — be even better than that. He has an unashamed soft spot for time-travel stories, Spider-Man, and anything by Alan Moore or Grant Morrison, and has been known to spend far too much on luxurious hardcover editions of his favorite books when it’s something he really likes. Maybe one day he’ll get around to writing down his own stories that have been knocking around his head for a while now.