Sunday, October 2, 2011

"The Wedding of River Song"

What a lame title. Seriously. It wasn't really important to the episode. Anyway, this was unusual in that it was a one-part finale instead of a two-parter and I'm not sure if that was a good or bad thing. On the one hand it felt like a lot of quick set pieces were crammed together but alternatively often there seemed to not be too much actually going on. But instead of immediately explaining why this was the case, let's get to grips with things from the start.
One bit that really was a giveaway was the set of rather laborious Tesselecta clips from "Let's Kill Hitler" which made it seem very obvious that the shape-changing ship would feature at some point, although to be fair Moffat made it look like it was only going to feature in that bar scene. Regardless, we're dumped into a reality where "it's always 5:02 PM" and all of history is happening at once - which basically means steam locomotives and some Roman stuff in perfectly contemporary London. We're reintroduced to Ian McNeice's Churchill, who is always good value, and there's even a pointless role for Malokeh the Silurian doctor from last series. What's even more surprising is the tiny cameo given to Simon Callow, reprising his role as Charles Dickens from "The Unquiet Dead" of all things. He must have been a bit short of cash or something.
Anyway Churchill's got this nagging feeling that something's not quite right in this ridiculous yet slightly unambitious bizarro-universe so he summons "the Soothsayer", who from the moment he's mentioned is obviously going to be the Doctor. Nonetheless they feel the need to show us ambiguous shots of him in the few moments between his first appearance and showing his face. It's not like it was a big surprise. Regardless, Churchill's as good a foil as ever for the Doctor and frankly I wish he hadn't been ditched halfway through the episode. The events leading up to the creation of this odd timeline are detailed in a too-frantic fashion for me, however, because I thought they were some of the best parts.
The moment where the Doctor confronted the dying Dalek was excellently played and Matt Smith definitely made the Doctor seem like a kind of malefic entity as he taunted his enemy. Something about the Stetson made it even more unsettling. It was nice to see a Dalek used in this way, and similarly that its severed eyestalk let the bartender on Calisto B know that he meant business. It seems like the Daleks are actually a threat again, and anyone who's a threat to the Daleks is... well, an even bigger threat. Then the Tesselecta, disguised as a monk with a funny accent, sends the Doctor off to some "Live Chess" game with Mark Gatiss in incredibly plastic-looking prostheses as some kind of space viking. I thought all these "space" bits were nicely atmospheric and interesting; Moffat likes to use them for his intros and I wish they'd get more of a whole episode's plot devoted to them.
Anyway Mark Gatiss takes the Doctor to the Headless Monks' catacombs where there are living skulls. The bit where Mister Space Viking gets eaten by skulls looks incredibly fake and I wonder if the bit where the Doctor looks down the pit at it happening with Matt Smith putting on his best "Ooh err" face was meant to be shocking or just funny, because it was it wasn't very shocking to me. Then we're reintroduced to big fat blue man, aka Dorium Maldovar, who I realised I'd actually come to quite like as a character. While he may just be a head now he still has quite an engaging manner and although I'm not too keen on his cryptic comments about the "Fall of the Eleventh" and so on it was good to see him and I even wish he'd been used more.
What did irk me was that after all the rather profound moments in the previous episode the Doctor was being kind of flippant and saying time was not the boss of him and so on. While I can appreciate the sentiment it jarred quite noticeably with the entire mood of his departure at the end of "Closing Time". However when he rings up the Brigadier and discovers that he's died he realises that it's time to stop buggering around. I did enjoy this little tribute to Nicholas Courtney and the Brigadier although I'm not sure how fond I am of him dying in a nursing home and I think it made it clearer than ever that they should have included him in one last episode before he passed away. What I didn't enjoy were the references to some of the lamest elements of the RTD era: eloping with Elizabeth I, mentioning Rose for no necessary reason and mentioning Jack. It was pointless, self-indulgent and trite. Rose already gets over-referenced in Moffat's era without being stated here. There could have been perfectly valid Classic Series references to mention.
Nonetheless, the Doctor zips off to America to get shot by an astronaut. To my surprise it was indeed River in the space suit. I thought last episode's hook was going to be subverted or something. River gets all teary because she "loves" the Doctor for some reason, then drains her weapons systems and buggers up time so that everything's happening at once. Cut back to the Doctor and Churchill noticing a big bunch of Silents hanging from the ceiling and Amy shows up with a bunch of generic soldiers wearing eyepatches and stuns the Doctor.
This is the point at which I started finding the episode a bit annoying. The Doctor wakes up in Amy's "train office" going to the pyramids and she and Rory don't remember each other for some reason. This was a bit repetitive of Moffat and kind of pointless. Amy and Rory's roles were pretty arbitrary in this episode and while I realise that "The God Complex" was kind of their proper sendoff that only makes their presence here seem more silly. There's a lot of pointless stuff about the Doctor trying to get Amy and Rory to remember each other and then River hams it up.
One thing which I imagine a lot of people would find pretty objectionable is this idea that River's a psychopath. Psychopaths, as far as I'm aware, are violent and manipulative people who lack empathy and exploit others for personal aggrandisement. I'm not sure that's really true of River and it might make the whole issue of pathological disorders seem trivialised. There's also this whole issue of her apparently loving the Doctor. Nicely enough the Doctor seems rather dubious about the whole idea and flat out states that he doesn't want to marry her. At least even with this River plot they're prepared to maintain some ambiguity. Nonetheless, much like the situation with Rose, I don't appreciate the notion that the Doctor is having some kind of offscreen romantic life that we're just not being shown for the security of the kiddies and out of limited respect for the rules of the Classic Series. I get the feeling Moffat wants to be cheeky and risqué for its own sake and subvert the tenets which are so integral to the programme's history. Anyway the Silence bust out of their tanks and start killing everyone, Amy guns them down and they just kind of disappear. She kills Madam Kovarian with her own eyepatch too, so I guess that's the end of that. I don't really understand what the point of the Silence was. Apart from mucking about with River they don't seem to actually play any role other than as cannon fodder. Speaking of mucking about with River, we still never really got told why they put young River in the astronaut suit or ditched her in 1969 in an orphanage. What was the point?
Anyway up on the top of Giza it is revealed that River has some distress beacon which reveals that everyone loves the Doctor. However this entire plot point is ditched in about five seconds and the Doctor decides to marry River for some reason, presumably to get her close enough to short out the time differential and restore reality to order. I thought this whole thing was hokey bollocks to be honest and I would have preferred if they'd found another way; that's the whole problem with River's character - she implies too much about the Doctor which is distinctly un-Doctorly by all the original principles of the show.
Now as I've stated time and time again I'm not beyond thinking that the Doctor could be a man with an appetite for romance, but all of the most plausible relationships point towards the fact that it's a bit beyond him these days. Clearly he had a Time Lady wife once upon a time. Why are writers so scared of referencing that? Are they worried that people won't be able to reconcile it with "Lungbarrow"? He tells Dorium that the nights with River are "between her and me" and while that's rather vague it still has unpleasant sexual undertones that I don't enjoy at all. I don't see where the responsibility or moral character lies in having a relationship with a woman who you know in reverse order and who was psycho-conditioned to be obsessed with you. Similarly I think a more overt concept of romance heavily contradicts the alien and eccentric characteristics of the Doctor. Romantic relationships are such a fundamental quality of human existence that they feel too mundane for the Doctor. Even if we do accept this situation, we're left with the question: who does he love? Is it his long lost wife? Sarah Jane? Romana? Rose? Madam de Pompadour? River? Do you see my point? I know he's long lived but if you're not prepared to compromise a character by giving them a plausible romantic life and then they shouldn't have one at all, not just some bizarre pick 'n' mix. I think it actually makes me see Gaiman's episode in a more positive light - if any relationship, no matter how bizarre, is the most consistent and makes the most sense in the entire course of the show, it's that between the Doctor and the TARDIS, although I still refuse to imagine any Doctor before the New Series describing her as "Sexy". I mean c'mon. Can you see Hartnell saying that? No, you can't. I'm glad we're agreed on this.
So to get back to things, the Doctor had to die to save time from collapsing and the universe from extinction for the millionth occasion. Time to lower the stakes, Moffat! Of course the Doctor doesn't really die; I think it was pretty predictable that the Tesselecta stood in for the Doctor on the beach but I still found it funny when it showed him popping back in and asking the Tesselecta for help, although I still feel like it ruined some of the profundity of "Closing Time". I like the Tesselecta captain and feel like those characters should have been used more. I know Moffat is desperate to be experimental and avant-garde with the show but these more traditional sci-fi elements like the ship crews and the future space docks and so on just aren't used enough in the New Series and I think it'd be fun and refreshing to give us a whole episode where they were given centre focus.
However the point I wanted to make is that the conclusion renders the entire scenario redundant. The Doctor was a Tesselecta from the moment he arrived in Utah, all the way through the "5:02 PM reality" and while he was burned on the lake. So how come at the lake the Doctor didn't just tell River that he was a Tesselecta and that she wasn't going to actually kill him? Effectively half the episode is redundant because it was simply a product of the Doctor trying too hard to not give away his secret and let everyone think he was dead. However, River blabs to Amy and Rory later on anyway. What was he worried about? Who would the Ponds be able to tell? What could have been cooler is if it'd been established that it was a Tesselcta straight away, they'd done the whole death in Utah thing and then the Doctor had popped out and dealt with the Silence. The "5:02 PM reality" was just a spectacle and once again Moffat was letting the "Rule of Cool" dictate the plotting of the episode rather than coming up with something truly inventive. He is, as I've said, trying to be all experimental, but the whole dragged-out hype-building switcheroo death thing is pretty samey and old hat when you think about it. Establishing the fakery straight away and building upon that would have been a much better subversion of traditional narrative structures.
Anyway, River, Amy and Rory have a pointless chin wag in the garden which reinforces the sense of them not being properly farewelled but since we know that Amy and Rory are coming back in some capacity next year I guess it's not too surprising. Speaking of which, why does River have to go to prison for a crime she didn't commit? Just to keep the Doctor's secret? Seems a bit unfair. The Doctor returns Dorium to the catacombs and Dorium reveals the Question, which stands up there with River being Amy's daughter and the Doctor not really being dead on the levels of predictability - the question is, of course, "Doctor who?" While this is really corny I found something kind of funny about it and combined with Dorium's rather hammy performance I think it had its own effectiveness, reinforcing the sense of mystery which I suppose was entirely the point. The Doctor has become overexposed and now he's going back to the shadows where he belongs. He's always been best as a mysterious wanderer who shows up a complete stranger wherever he goes yet seriously shakes up the system. Hopefully that will be reflected next series; I wish Moffat could have made the point sooner. It's also kind of silly to have the question as "Doctor who?" because that's something you can't answer without giving away too much. I know Moffat's always had this notion that the reason the Doctor's name is never uttered is because it's some kind of dark and terrible secret but I can't imagine what that could be. It seems a little paradoxical of Moffat to want the Doctor to lose his notoriety yet in doing so maintain the idea that there is some notorious mystery about him. I always preferred the idea that his name wasn't important and that Gallifreyan exiles, particularly self-exiles like the Doctor, the Master, the Rani and the War Chief, tended to eschew their old names in order to separate themselves from the impotent, fusty bureaucracy from which they had escaped. I never was particularly sold on Andrew Cartmel's notion that the Doctor was "more than just another Time Lord" and similarly I'm not sold on Moffat's idea that his true identity is some great universal secret. Indeed I always liked the notion that the Doctor was altogether just another Time Lord, albeit one who'd bucked the system. It made his lifestyle and actions more exceptional. Making him some kind of super-being, a protector of a dark secret or part of some kind of triumvirate with Rassilon and Omega or something always denigrated the theme so integral to the series that an ordinary man, with the right outlook, could be capable of extraordinary things. If the Doctor is made into someone extraordinary by nature rather than by choice, into a champion or saviour in fundamental rather than self-determined ways, he seems less special rather than more.
So another series of Doctor Who has come to an end and it's time for me to give my final thoughts on the overall product. While inevitably the characterisation of the Eleventh Doctor and Matt Smith's performance in particular elevated it above the previous era of the New Series it wasn't nearly as strong as Series Five. It was a bit too aware of itself and while it of course lacked last series' freshness it also lacked its integrity and idealism in some regards. Compared to Series 5, Series 6 relied too heavily on hype and melodrama rather than good storytelling. The arc was too heavy-handed and full of plot holes, serving more to interrupt the stronger stand-alone adventures. Series 5 understood this rather well, and kept to a stronger if more conservative formula. Maybe the split made Moffat feel like he needed two finales and thus the arc had to interrupt the middle of the series and get more screen time than normal but I think it more just showed the weakness of the arc than suggested that the split was potentially damaging to a sense of cohesion. More stand-alones would have made the gap less noticeable. Amy and Rory were desperately underused on numerous occasions and River was completely overused to the point of becoming rather annoying. "The Curse of the Black Spot" and "Let's Kill Hitler" stand out in my mind as two particularly poor episodes, while "The Doctor's Wife" and "A Good Man Goes To War" were strongly suggestive of the notion that sometimes flashy special effects, bombast and spectacle are used to cover up limited plots. The strongest episodes were easily the non-arc related items, "The Rebel Flesh", "The Almost People", "The Girl Who Waited" and "The God Complex", with honorable mentions to the decent but slightly weaker "The Impossible Astronaut", "Day of the Moon", "Night Terrors" and "Closing Time". I can't blame Moffat for doing what he felt worked to keep people interested but the stand alone stories were clearly the best and were needed more over the arc numbers. Nonetheless, with the Doctor back out of the universe's spotlight, maybe we'll see a return to form.

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