Doctor Who Series 6 Episode 13 review: The Wedding of River Song

Posted: 19 November 2011 in television
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Tick tock goes the clock”, as the old song says. But they don’t do they? The clocks never tick. “Something has happened to time”. That’s what you say, what you never stop saying. “All of history is happening at once.” But what does that mean? What happened? Explain to me in terms I can understand. What happened to time?

Doctor Who - The Wedding of River Song (wallpaper)

Charles Dickens promoted his next Christmas special on BBC Breakfast News. Pterodactyls circled above picnickers. Cars tethered to balloons floated above the streets of London. And, tended to by his Silurian personal physician, Holy Roman Emperor Winston Churchill was one of the few people to have noticed that all was not well with time, perpetually fixed 5.02pm, 22 April 2011. Only the mysterious Soothsayer imprisoned in the Tower of London could solve the mystery of the confusion in time…

How close did Steven Moffat come to being carted off to the Tower of London himself when the production team first read the script for The Wedding of River Song? Even by the usual kaleidoscopic and phantasmagorical timey-wimey, wibbly-wobbly, mindy-bendy standards of the Grand Moff this was a completely bonkers tale. It was also bloody brilliant and hugely entertaining fun. There were also many parallels with the previous series’ final episode The Big Bang, including alternate timelines, time and space dying, and the Doctor and River’s exchange of “Hi honey, I’m home” / “And what sort of time do you call this?”

For the first time a series of 21st century Doctor Who concluded with a one-off story instead of a two-parter but in many respects The Wedding of River Song can be taken as the fifth act of a pentaology comprised of The Impossible Astronaut, Day of the Moon, A Good Man Goes To War, and Let’s Kill Hitler. Once viewed this episode shed new light on many aspects of the twelve episodes that preceded it. Never before has Doctor Who been so serialised and intricate but that can be done in an age of digital downloads and instant repeat viewings. With Classic Who such intricacy would have backfired (and did when attempted with The Trial of a Time Lord). In the midst of this new-found confidence of narrative the production team took a few minutes out to pay homage and respects to one of the most beloved elements of the near five decade old series. A moving acknowledgement that without the old the new could not have existed.

I’m afraid Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart passed away a few months ago. It was very peaceful. Talked a lot about you, if that’s any comfort. Always made us pour an extra brandy in case you came round one of these days.

The Brigadier - Battlefield

On 22 February 2011, mere weeks before The Wedding of River Song went into production, the much-loved Nicholas Courtney, who had portrayed Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart since 1968, passed away at the age of 81. Throughout fandom there was much debate about how the series should pay tribute to the legendary actor and character. Rather than a simple title card acknowledgement at the beginning or end of an episode as had been the case with deceased producers Verity Lambert and Barry Letts, Steven Moffat took the unusual step of incorporating the passing of Courtney into the narrative itself by having the Brigadier pass away peacefully in a nursing home. Upon learning of the death of his oldest friend, all the bravado and fight drained out of the Doctor as he realised, possibly for the first time in his long existence, that time could in fact catch up with him.

“In a story about the Doctor going to his death, it seemed right and proper to acknowledge one of the greatest losses Doctor Who has endured.” (Steve Moffat).

It was a masterstroke on Moffat’s part to make the loss of the Brigadier’s and Courtney simultaneously heartbreaking for the Doctor and the audience respectively. It’s unknown what the original motivation was for the Doctor to surrender to the inevitable but it seems impossible for anything to have affected him in quite the same way as the passing of Lethbridge-Stewart. It’s even intimated that the envelope that ended up with Canton Everett Delaware III was originally intended for Lethbridge-Stewart. After all who more fitting than Earth’s Defender to have joined The Girl Who Waited and The Lone Centurion at Lake Silencio to witness the final death of the Doctor. Though the Brigadier is gone from the television series he can live on via the printed word. From the dialogue used there was a clear implication that the 11th Doctor had met him on numerous occasions. So how about for the 50th anniversary there’s a novel featuring the Brigadier, the Doctor, and Mr & Mrs Pond – possibly involving that Peruvian mission that was constantly calling Brigadier Sir Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart away.

Rule One: the Doctor lies.

Doctor Who - The Wedding of River Song (Area 52)Watch The Impossible Astronaut again and bear in mind that the future Doctor seen in Utah was the Teselecta and Amy was a Ganger. Did Matt Smith and Karen Gillan have any idea they were not playing their “regular” characters? Probably not. The Grand Moff plays his cards very close to his chest in order to make everything as much as a surprise as he can for the production team and audience alike. Alex Kingston only learnt the true identity of River Song before A Good Man Goes To War went into production so that she could use the knowledge to inform her performance.

A more apt title for this episode would have been The Wedding of River Song to the Teselecta time-travelling shape-changing robot powered by miniaturised people. However, that would have slightly given away the twist of how the Doctor escaped from his pre-destined death. Like River Song, Steven Moffat safeguards spoilers jealously and quite rightly glowers menacingly when the media attempt to blow the fun for the millions who love the show. Knowing the Teselecta was the Doctor at Lake Silencio would have ruined the moment when the scheme to escape struck the Time Lord and everyone at home. Yet, like many of Doctor Who’s best moments, the solution to the inescapable conundrum had been dangled in front of everyone for weeks. After all how did history know it was the actual Doctor who had died? After the Viking-style funeral no body remained to examine – and the watching Silents, the Sentinels of History, had seen the Time Lord struck down. Whilst the Doctor deceived time and manipulated perceptions to escape the “fixed point” of events at Lake Silencio, River Song took it upon herself to defy the natural order of history so as to save the Time Lord she loved so dearly. But what a royal cock-up she made of it all in all as her actions lead to the creation of multiple alternate realities as time collapsed in upon itself. Wouldn’t anyone take on the universe and destiny itself to try and save the person they loved the most?

The Seventh Transept. Where the Headless Monks keep the leftovers.

Doctor Who - The Wedding of River Song (Seventh Transept)Steven Moffat’s final writing assignment before taking on the stewardship of Doctor Who was the screenplay for Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn. Given the hotchpotch that served as the basis for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Spielberg should have used him for that project instead as Moffat clearly has a mighty grasp of how to combine action and drama, humour and horror in a rewarding recipe. Want an epic sweep of locations? Well here they are. The catacombs of the Seventh Transept with resident talking carnivorous skulls, Thunderdome-style chess matches (is Mark Gatiss contractually obliged to appear in a certain number of Moffat scripts?), seedy bars on alien worlds, secret bases beneath the deserts of Egypt. Indiana Jones may have faced Russians at Area 51 in Nevada but the Doctor had a legion of Silents loose in Area 52 beneath the Great Pyramid at Giza. In the space of 45 minutes there are more varied locations in this modest episode of television that Indy encountered in his 4th cinematic outing. The Silents hanging from the ceiling of the Senate Room and gazing down upon the Doctor and Churchill must rank as one of the premier images of modern Doctor Who. The Doctor/River Song relationship has an odd parallel to the Indiana Jones/Marion Ravenwood relationship. Constantly bickering and baiting each other in the manner of a screwball comedy but underneath it all they’re devoted to each other.

Thankfully the Doctor has Rory to be a father/mentor figure to and not Mutt. No matter how many times he might die or which reality he ends up in, Rory always finds Amy – who in this instance was manifested as a very hot kick-arse secret agent chick. Growing up with a time rift in her bedroom wall meant that Amy was able to retain memories of the original timeline even if she didn’t realise the significance of Captain Williams right off. Often the most important people in life are right in front of us and no matter how fucked-up time and space become those destined to be together will always overcome the odds and be united.

Doctor Who - The Wedding of River Song (The Silents)

Madam Kovorian was certainly a far more sinister and effective villain than Irina Spalko. Not entirely surprising that she met her demise at the hands(?) of her associates the Silents but for Amy to have played quite so a cold-blooded role in events was an eyepatch opener. Perhaps River’s psychopathic tendencies aren’t entirely engineered. Let’s remember that the queen bitch isn’t dead in the correct version of history and a return in 2012 isn’t beyond the realm of possibility.

Hands up who wants a severed sentient blue head complete with implanted WiFi chip in the TARDIS on a full-time basis. From a spit-and-cough scene in The Pandorica Opens to his beheading in A Good Man Goes To War, Dorium Maldovar has quickly endeared himself to fandom as one of the best characters created for the series. And he certainly knows a fair few facts about the challenges that lie ahead for the Doctor…

On the fields of Trenzalore, at the fall of the Eleventh, when no living creature can speak falsely or fail to answer, a question will be asked. A question that must never, ever be answered.

Doctor Who - The Wedding of River Song (Doctor Who?)Since Steven Moffat took over the reins of Doctor Who he has made concerted efforts to reel in the expansive legend that the Doctor has become (“too big, too noisy”) and return him to the shadows. Much of the mystery of the Doctor was lost when his background as a Time Lord was revealed in Patrick Troughton’s finale The War Games. Elements are clearly being laid to come to fruition in 2013 as part of the series’ 50th anniversary celebrations and truly return the Doctor to being “a mad man with a box”. Not since the Hinchcliffe/Holmes era that encompassed Tom Baker’s first 3 seasons has Doctor Who been this good.

The first question. The question that must never be answered. Hidden in plain sight. The question you’ve been running from all your life! Doctor Who? Doctor Who? Doctor Who?

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