As the title suggests, “The Wedding of River Song” finally makes clear the true nature of the relationship between the Doctor and the woman who has variously infuriated, intrigued, and attracted him for the last several years. Showrunner Steven Moffat calls on all his formidable plotting wizardry to conclude the incredibly complex story arc of this season, and both Matt Smith and Alex Kingston deliver superb performances as the entire story comes down to one particular action that has to be made by River. Moffat also provides a satisfying payoff to the threat that has been hanging over the Doctor—the unalterable, “fixed point in time” nature of his death as seen right at the beginning of this year’s very first episode—as he supplies the final links in the intricate chain of cause and effect that stretches back and forth across the entire season.
We begin, though, at a point of maximum confusion, with the linkage between cause and effect completely broken. The pre-titles teaser opens on a scene of total madness—it’s modern-day London, but the sky is filled with cars suspended beneath hot-air balloons, and pterodactyls are attacking people in parks. Charles Dickens (Simon Callow, unexpectedly revisiting his role from 2005’s “The Unquiet Dead”) is appearing on the BBC’s Breakfast news programme to promote his upcoming Christmas special which will have ghosts from the past, present, and future all appearing together. Roman chariot drivers wait at traffic lights, and newspaper headlines announce the second year of the Wars of the Roses. The height of weirdness is reached as a newsreader tells us, “Crowds lined the Mall today as the Holy Roman Emperor, Winston Churchill, returned to the Buckingham Senate on his personal mammoth…” Time has been irreparably fractured, with all of history happening at once. The clocks are stuck at 5:02 p.m. on the 22nd of April, 2011—the date and time of the Doctor’s death at Lake Silencio in Utah. Even more bizarre, almost nobody finds this strange—it’s just the way things have always been.
This also provides the perfect excuse to bring back old faces from previous stories; in addition to the above-mentioned Simon Callow, Ian McNeice returns as Churchill from last season, with a bit part for Richard Hope as the Silurian doctor Malokeh, now serving as the emperor’s personal physician. Churchill’s function in this story has nothing to do with the real, historical Churchill, or even the caricatured version McNeice played in “Victory of the Daleks”; he is solely a device to allow Moffat to employ a technique he’s quite fond of (see “The Girl in the Fireplace” or “Silence in the Library”), whereby he starts the story at a point chosen to grab the audience’s interest, and only then jumps back to the true beginning and lays out how we got to that point. Here, Churchill sends for his imprisoned soothsayer—who is revealed to be the Doctor, bearded and chained. Having apparently only just noticed the strange behavior of the clocks, Churchill demands an explanation. Under his questioning, the Doctor tells his story…
The Doctor: “I was just going to lie down and take it. But you know what, before I go I’d like to know why I have to die.”
At the end of last week’s episode, it seemed like the Doctor had at last wearied of running from his preordained death, and was now ready to make the final journey to Lake Silencio. But now he decides that rather than meekly accept his fate, he wants to know more about the Silence—the mysterious group that has been manipulating events throughout history and is determined to see him dead. His first source of information is a dying Dalek (whose one brief scene is, refreshingly, the only appearance of a Dalek this year). That information leads him to the Tesselecta—the shape-changing justice robot with a miniaturised crew that we saw previously in “Let’s Kill Hitler”—which is itself investigating the Silence, and is currently disguised as a member of that organization. In turn, the Tesselecta’s captain tells him where to find the Silence’s “weakest link.”
That turns out to be a rather oafish character named Gantok, who dresses like some sort of seedy Viking and likes to spend his time in sleazy dives playing deadly games of “Live Chess.” Moffat’s inventiveness with plot and dialogue is on full display in this fun little vignette, as he efficiently sets up a situation where the Doctor gains a hold over Gantok by maneuvring him into a losing position, then conceding the game (thereby saving Gantok’s life). In return, Gantok will lead the Doctor to the man who has the information he seeks. (Amusingly, Gantok’s striking features are not dissimilar to those of famous B-movie actor Rondo Hatton, and although the credits list him as being played by a certain “Rondo Haxton,” it’s actually Mark Gatiss under the prosthetics, making his second contribution to the season after writing “Night Terrors”.)
Gantok leads the Doctor into a crypt packed with skulls—a “transept” of the Headless Monks, the macabre warriors we met in “A Good Man Goes to War”. Director Jeremy Webb does a good job conjuring up an Indiana Jones atmosphere here—even going one better than Indy by having the skulls somehow able to move by themselves, shuffling around on their shelves to keep their eye-sockets on the Doctor. (“I hate rats.” “There are no rats in the transept. The skulls eat them.”) The moment when the hapless Gantok triggers a trap and falls into a pile of the carnivorous skulls which engulf him is memorable, as is the wry touch that these skulls are all the non-wealthy victims of the Headless Monks, left to rot; the rich ones get preserved safely in their own sealed boxes. One of these is Dorium Maldovar (Simon Fisher-Becker), the blue-skinned merchant we saw beheaded by the monks in his last appearance—and it’s Dorium who now tells the Doctor about the Silence. Apparently, the Silence are “a religious order of great power and discretion… The sentinels of history, as they like to call themselves.” They want the Doctor dead, not because of something he has done, but because of something he is fated to do—answer the oldest question in the universe, a question that must never be answered. At last, the refrain of “Silence will fall” that has run through the last two years (seeded by Moffat as far back as “The Eleventh Hour”) is illuminated:
The Doctor: “Suppose there was a man who knew a secret. A terrible, dangerous secret that must never be told. How would you erase that secret from the world—destroy it forever, before it can be spoken?”
Churchill: “If I had to…I’d destroy the man.”
The Doctor: “And silence would fall. All the times I’ve heard those words, I never realized it was my silence. My death.”
As we briefly return to the story’s present time, with the Doctor continuing his exposition to Churchill, the creep factor is increased as the Doctor realizes the hash marks signifying the presence of the memory-wiping Silent creatures (as we saw used in “Day of the Moon”) are appearing on his arm.
Having taken the box containing Dorium’s head on board the TARDIS, the Doctor argues with Dorium about delaying his appointment with destiny. He fully accepts that his death in Utah is an unavoidable fixed point in time, but points out that having a time machine means he can delay going there as long as he likes. His melancholy mood of last week is gone, replaced with his normal ebullience as he defies Dorium’s statement that his death is inescapable, that time catches up with everyone (“Well, it has never laid a glove on me!”). But the turning point comes when he makes a phone call to arrange an evening out with an old friend—and discovers that Brigader Lethbridge-Stewart died some months previously. Nicholas Courtney, who passed away in February of this year, was one of the great, well-loved stalwarts of the classic Who series, notching up appearances with almost all of the Doctors (in fact, if the spin-off audio stories are taken into account, he worked with every one of the pre-new series Doctors). Incorporating a tribute to him actually into the story was unexpected and moving, and it’s very fitting that the Doctor’s bravado is immediately drained away, replaced by a quiet recognition that “It’s time.” As always when he’s given the chance to emphasize the Doctor’s age and weariness, Matt Smith is particularly brilliant. It’s been wonderful to watch his performances this year going from strength to strength, surpassing even his impressive debut season. Even with all his other contributions to Doctor Who over the years, I suspect Steven Moffat’s greatest gift to the series will turn out to be his casting of Matt Smith as the Doctor.
And so the Doctor gives the fateful blue envelopes containing the invitations to the Tesselecta crew to deliver, and heads off to his appointment at Lake Silencio…
Now the events we’ve previously seen right at the beginning of the season in “The Impossible Astronaut” play out, as the Doctor invites Amy, Rory, and River to Utah (“I had to die…I didn’t have to die alone”), where their picnic is interrupted by the spacesuited figure emerging from the lake. After the scene at the end of “Closing Time” last week, it’s no surprise when we finally see a second view of the Doctor’s confrontation with the astronaut which reveals it’s River in the spacesuit. Alex Kingston movingly conveys River’s distress as she tells the Doctor she can’t override the suit’s actions, and he reassures her that this is necessary, that he has to die here. He points out that the later version of herself is observing what’s happening:
The Doctor: “That’s you from the future, serving time for a murder you probably can’t remember. My murder.”
River: “Why would you do that—make me watch?”
The Doctor: “So that you know this is inevitable. And you are forgiven. Always and completely, forgiven.”
I have to admire the neatness of the way Moffat manages to exactly invert their positions from the Doctor’s first encounter with River in “Forest of the Dead”, when she was the one insisting she had to die (“Time can be rewritten.” “Don’t you dare”). It’s also worth rewatching the episode after you’ve seen the reveal at the end, to see how the Doctor’s actions from this point on still make sense even when his motivation is entirely different to what we thought it was. Whether acting with resigned acceptance or working to a cunning plan, he is completely sincere when he tells River she has to kill him. In either case, though, he fails—the divergence arrives as River finds a way to drain the suit’s weapons systems. The unalterable fixed point is altered; time freezes and begins to disintegrate as all of history is mashed together.
With the Doctor’s explanation to Churchill complete, the story at last begins to move forward, starting with a shock as the Doctor discovers there are now a multitude of hash marks on his arm. He and Churchill realize they are defending themselves from a large colony of the Silents, hanging in the ceiling. They are rescued by a squad of troopers bursting in, led by “Pond…Amelia Pond” (Karen Gillan), who stuns the Doctor and takes him with her. In another entertaining historical mash-up, we see that Amy has an office on a train travelling to her base in an Egyptian pyramid labelled with an American flag and “Area 52.” The base contains dozens of the Silent creatures that have been captured by Amy’s forces.
The Doctor initially assumes that Amy doesn’t know who he is, but he soon learns otherwise (“Time’s gone wrong. Some of us notice. We’ve got a whole team working on it”). Amy has had dreams of the adventures she’s never had in this reality, and made sketches of them in order to capture the scattered memories of her life with the Doctor. However, she entirely fails to recognize her husband Rory (Arthur Darvill) in the form of “Captain Williams,” her trusted, dependable troop commander, as her sketch of Rory is of a generic handsome hunk—a clever twist on her own words in “The Girl Who Waited” about how Rory became to her “the most beautiful man I’ve ever known.”
It was very satisfying that Amy and Rory were brought back for the season finale (as they had to be, given their relationship to River and how central a part they have played in this season) without diminishing the sense of a fitting conclusion achieved by their departure scene just two episodes ago at the end of “The God Complex”. Gillan and Darvill are playing variations on their usual characters—albeit variations close enough that we can see the essential Amy and Rory we know start to emerge over the course of the episode. The process starts with the Doctor’s amusing attempts to play matchmaker, telling Captain Williams that his boss “would like to go out with you, for…texting and scones.” (“You really haven’t done this before, have you?”) By the time Rory is reacting with deadpan acceptance to Amy telling him they should get married, and later when she informs him that River is their child, we can see that even in this mixed-up reality, they are well on the way to recreating their happy ending from the genuine timeline.
These moments provide a lighthearted contrast to the episode’s central confrontation, which arrives when the Doctor is led into the base control room to find River in charge, with her former tormentor Madame Kovarian (Frances Barber) held prisoner. (In a nice touch, Kovarian is tied to a chair in the same way as the Doctor was in “Day of the Moon,” complete with the same “Do Not Interact With The Prisoner” sign.) The reprise of a gag from last year’s finale (“Hi honey, I’m home!” “And what sort of time do you call this?”) is about the only bit of fun as the Doctor faces up to River. In a clever twist, the Doctor is actually in agreement with Kovarian here:
Kovarian: “Oh, why couldn’t you just die?”
The Doctor: “Did my best, dear—I showed up. You just can’t get the psychopaths these days.”
River: “It was such a basic mistake, wasn’t it Madame Kovarian? Take a child, raise her into a perfect psychopath, introduce her to the Doctor…Who else was I going to fall in love with?”
The Doctor tries to set time back on its proper course by making contact with River, which will “short out the differential” (a nice callback to the classic series story “Mawdryn Undead”), but she has him handcuffed. They engage in the same sort of bantering we’ve seen them enjoying before, but here Smith and Kingston create an extraordinary coldness as River and the Doctor realize they are fundamentally opposed (“I don’t want to marry you.” “I don’t want to murder you.” “This is no fun at all.” “It isn’t, is it?”).
In a clever moment of explanation, the eye patches sported by Kovarian throughout the season—and in this episode also worn by the agents of the Silence and by Amy, River and all of their troops—are revealed to be “eye-drives” (or should that be “iDrives”?), external memory storage devices that work to counteract the Silents’ memory-wiping powers. It makes sense that anyone working with or against the creatures would need a mechanism to allow them to retain their memories, and it also provides some jeopardy as all the supposedly “captured” Silents in the base execute a planned breakout. Kovarian reveals the eye-drives (all based on her original one) were a trap, able to be used by the Silents to incapacitate or kill their wearers. The Doctor, Amy and River evacuate as the Silents attack the control room, but they are held back by Captain Williams, despite his eye-drive injuring him. In a very satisfying moment for Amy, even though she still doesn’t yet properly know him, she returns with a machine gun and rescues him as the Silents break in. We saw in “The Girl Who Waited” the potential for ruthlessness in Amy’s character, and she is given a climactic scene where she finally exacts revenge on Kovarian for what happened to her child, putting the woman’s eye patch back in place so she will be killed by the Silents. (“River Song didn’t get it all from you, sweetie.”)
On the roof of the pyramid, the Doctor finds that River has been working on sending a distress signal to the rest of the universe, outside the bubble of fractured and disintegrating time. The Doctor can’t convince River that she has to kill him, and is shocked to find that the universe appears to agree with her, since millions of spaceships have arrived to answer her report that the Doctor is dying—all those whose lives the Doctor has touched over the eons. Smith and Kingston are both compelling in this deeply emotional climax (“I can’t let you die, without knowing you are loved! And by no one more than me…”). When River declares she would choose to let the expanding disintegration consume the universe rather than kill him, the Doctor finally understands her, and realizes what he has to do.
He improvises a marriage ceremony (“In the middle of a combat zone, so we’ll have to do the quick version”) which amusingly uses his bow tie as a vital part of the ritual. Amy and Rory give their bemused consent as the parents of the bride. Then he whispers something crucial into River’s ear (“I just told you my name”). River finally understands him, and realizes what she has to do.
They kiss, and their touch allows time to resume its proper course. The overlapping eras separate, and the chain of cause and effect is repaired as the Doctor dies on the lakeside, killed by River Song, as was always supposed to happen. The end.
One of the most intriguing features of the season’s arc story has been its playing with the idea that we had indeed seen the literal, irrevocable death of the Doctor. The clever ploy of making the Doctor who died supposedly two hundred years older than our “current” Doctor gave the necessary plausibility to this idea, and I must admit that on my first viewing of this episode, I did feel a slight twinge of letdown as the time finally arrived for the answers and we learned that the Doctor had in fact simply cunningly faked his own death. On reflection, this was probably more to do with the string of occasions over the last few seasons when a prophecy of the Doctor’s or a companion’s death turned out to be easily circumvented. (Remember Rose Tyler’s “This is the story of how I died”?) Even if the Doctor had really died at Lake Silencio, it would have to be somehow undone (and thereby lose its force anyway) whenever the time comes for Matt Smith to finally hand over the role to someone else. Doctor Who is hardly renowned for watertight continuity, but that really would be too large a hole to leave open! So, as the story had done an admirable job of driving home the fact that the event itself had to take place, the only remaining option was for the Doctor to arrange things so that, despite appearances, he was not actually there to take the bullet.
In any case, there is still a very satisfying payoff in the epilogue-like scene involving River paying a visit to Amy. It’s lovely to see these two simply sitting and conversing, at last comfortable with each other and fully understanding their strange, complex history. River has just escaped from the Byzantium (in last year’s “Flesh and Stone”—where she encountered a much earlier version of Amy, and had to pretend not to know her), while Amy is brooding over her memory of killing Kovarian, and wishing she could talk to the Doctor, but she knows he’s dead. And so River finally reveals to Amy—though not yet to the audience—the Doctor’s last secret, what he whispered to her in the marriage ceremony. It wasn’t his name after all; Rule One (“the Doctor lies”) comes into operation once again.
Rory arrives, and is let in on the secret. It’s wonderfully fitting that what could be our final sight of this family group, which has come together in such a strange way over the last couple of years, involves them laughing with a shared delight. And it leads to the episode’s single most hilarious moment—Karen Gillan’s expression as a certain realization strikes Amy:
Rory: “Are you sure, River? Are you really, properly sure?”
River: “Of course I’m sure. I’m his wife!”
Amy: “And I’m his…mother-in-law…”
River: “Father dear, I think mummy might need another drink.”
As for the actual reveal, Moffat manages to delay it for as long as possible. We’re down to the last two minutes of the season, as the box containing Dorium’s head is returned to its resting place by the Doctor, who is delighted to finally tell how he escaped: “The Tesselecta. A Doctor, in a Doctor-suit. Time said I had to be on that beach, so I dressed for the occasion.” What he whispered to River was simply “Look into my eye”—which showed her the real Doctor, miniaturized inside the robot. The fixed point in time which the Silence had gone to such trouble to set up turned out—unbeknown to them—to actually involve a replica of the Doctor being shot by their controlled assassin.
It’s an ingenious resolution, although it was made slightly easier to guess than Moffat perhaps would have preferred by the prominence given to the Tesselecta in the “Previously…” montage at the top of the episode. While it was certainly necessary to play fair with any viewers who hadn’t seen “Let’s Kill Hitler,” the emphasis given to the robot made it fairly obvious it would play an important role in the story. Nevertheless, it’s still a great moment when Murray Gold’s Eleventh Doctor theme starts up and the Doctor finally unveils the secret of his escape. And in retrospect, the Doctor’s line over the beginning of the Utah sequences (“Everything was in place. I only had to do one more thing…I had to die”) becomes a piece of misdirection worthy of Agatha Christie, distracting the audience’s attention from the small gap in the narrative that contains the solution.
And so what is undoubtedly Doctor Who’s most intricately plotted season ever reaches a satisfying conclusion. Despite Moffat’s occasional tendency toward overcomplication for its own sake, I can only applaud both his ambition in conceiving the idea and his skill in carrying it out and maintaining control over the scripting of the whole season. Nine of the thirteen episodes dealt wholly or partially with the season arc story. Of the remaining four, “The Girl Who Waited” was a great character piece for Amy, which gives her scenes in the finale added resonance, while “The Doctor’s Wife” is simply a brilliant episode in its own right. Only “The Curse of the Black Spot” and “Night Terrors” could be considered dispensable this year, being neither particularly striking stories in their own right nor of importance to the arc. I think it was an experiment that paid off and was well worth doing, although anyone who lost patience with the season-long wait for a resolution will be relieved to hear that Moffat’s declared intention next season is to move back to more stand-alone stories, cutting down on the overarching complexity.
Dorium: “So you’re going to do this? Let them all think you’re dead.”
The Doctor: “It’s the only way—then they can all forget me. I got too big, Dorium. Too noisy. Time to step back into the shadows.”
Moffat has also indicated that one of the objectives of this season was to enable the series to move away from the “lonely god” depiction of the Doctor that has dominated the past few years—the entity of enormous power, who is known, feared, and loved throughout the universe. The story of this season, where the Doctor found himself raising up enemies against him he never even knew he had, simply by virtue of his very existence, takes that depiction to its logical conclusion. Having evaded this carefully laid trap in a way that leaves the universe thinking him dead, he has secured his chance to become obscure again. A turn back towards smaller-scale adventures where the Doctor can’t just intimidate villains with the power of his reputation should be a refreshing change for the series.
Not that the Doctor is likely to enjoy his obscurity forever—as Dorium warns him, the prophecies that the Silence were worried about in the first place are still waiting for him. “On the Fields of Trenzalore, at the Fall of the Eleventh, where no living creature can speak falsely or fail to answer, a question will be asked. A question that must never, ever be answered.”
The “Fall of the Eleventh” is a suitably ominous phrase to leave hanging over our hero, although it’s already been confirmed that Matt Smith will be staying with the series at least into 2013—the year that will see Doctor Who reach (incredibly) its fiftieth anniversary. As the fatal question is finally revealed (to no one’s surprise, I’m sure—I mean, what else could it possibly have been?), and the season ends with the enjoyably hammy spectacle of Dorium booming “Doctor Who? Doctor Who? DOC-TOR WHO?!” I wonder if Steven Moffat is already laying long-range plans for such a historic occasion to be the moment when the oldest mystery in the series will finally be answered.
Classic Who DVD Recommendation of the Week: Given the significance attached in this episode to the Doctor’s encounter with the death of his old friend Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, it seems appropriate to recommend the Brigadier’s final appearance in classic Who (which at one point was intended to see the character killed off). “Battlefield,” starring Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred, kicked off the twenty-sixth and final season of the classic series, and also features a kind of prototype Moffat-style plot that sees the Doctor interacting with his own future, while the legends of King Arthur collide with modern-day Britain.