Saturday, October 1, 2011

"Doctor Who" Finale Review - "The Wedding of River Song" (Series Six Episode 13)

We’ve finally reached the end of another season of “Doctor Who.”  Is “The Wedding of River Song” the finale we’ve all been hoping for?  Did it answer all our questions, capture our imaginations, and most importantly, provide a satisfying conclusion to what has been a very good season of television?  One thing’s for sure…Christmas can’t come soon enough…

My SPOILER-FILLED review of “The Wedding of River Song” coming up after the jump…

“I had to die.  I didn’t have to die alone…If it’s time to go, remember what you’re leaving.  Remember the best.  My friends have always been the best of me.” 
I suspect reaction will be sharply divided over “The Wedding of River Song.”  Some will love it, some will hate it, and some will be completely indifferent about it.  Me, I’m falling on the side of “love it,” and the line quoted above is the reason why.  This monologue by the Doctor is the dénouement of the entire season, encapsulating the two major themes of the past thirteen episodes: the self-loathing the Doctor has developed – leading to his belief that he must die for the good of the Universe – and his pride/love for the friends he’s made throughout his journey.  With the possible exception of throwaway hours like “Curse of the Black Spot” or “Night Terrors,” every episode this season has explored those themes in one way or another. 

“Wedding” was the ultimate, climactic exploration of these themes, and that’s what makes it an effective ending.  Though the Doctor had already secured his safety thanks to the Teselecta ship, it’s the faith the Doctor’s friends – particularly River – put in him that finally pulled the Doctor out of his depressive funk and allowed to him to really start living again.  In that way, Steven Moffat resolved both the central story arc of the season and, more importantly, the core thematic arc.  That’s what we call an ending, and it was a thumping good one in my book.

Still, I suspect it left many unsatisfied, and I think that’s because it wasn’t necessarily the kind of ending anyone expected.  After all, this was a radically different kind of finale than anything that’s come before.  Limiting the discussion to the revived Doctor Who, the first five seasons all culminated with massive two-part finales, epic affairs filled with apocalyptic scenarios and big puzzles that took two whole hours to solve.  “The Wedding of River Song,” on the other hand, is a fairly straightforward forty-five minute affair: the Doctor marches to his death, something goes wrong, time goes wonky, and the Doctor has to set things right.  Especially in contrast to last year’s finale, “The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang” – which, for my money, is still the absolute pinnacle of modern Doctor Who – “Wedding” feels decidedly less ambitious.

But if this wasn’t the ending we’ve come to expect, I’d still argue it’s the ending this season needed.  Thinking back, prior finales have been two hours long because Davies or Moffat had to spend the first hour establishing the story, the stakes, etc.  But heading into “Wedding,” that had already been done.  This season had a far more serialized story than prior years, so Moffat put all the pieces in place for this finale weeks ago: the threat of the Silence, the death of the Doctor, the concept of the “question,” etc.  Other elements, like River’s love for the Doctor, have been gestating for years.  This isn’t a story that needed two hours, nor is it really a story that needed to be “epic.”  After all, the central conflict this year wasn’t apocalyptic, but personal: the mystery of how the Doctor was going to cheat his own death is inherently smaller scale than the end of the Universe.  “Wedding” had the freezing of time, but this wasn’t treated as a major end-of-all-things threat like a Dalek invasion would be; it was instead a plot device that allowed the Doctor to realize how much he is loved, and to in turn profess his love for another.  This was simply a smaller-scale story, so a smaller-scale finale was in order, and I have no problem with that.

Moffat certainly left some mysteries unresolved, which I’ve already seen upset some commenters online, but let’s first take a look at what story points Moffat did bring to a close: the big one, obviously, is the death of the Doctor.  Turns out he didn’t die at all, but instead used the Teselecta ship to fake his own death (perhaps with onboard CGI to fake regeneration symptoms?); the eyepatches worn by Madame Kovarian and others were actually memory banks that allow people to remember the Silence; River Song is indeed the Doctor’s wife, as has been long hinted, and now most of the gaps in their timeline have been filled in – she served as his full-time companion while in prison, escaping away with him every night.  We also learned why she was in prison in the first place, which was indeed for killing the Doctor; even though she didn’t actually do it, she’s there to keep the Doctor’s cover-story in tact.

Then there’s the ‘answer’ that is also a ‘question.’  We’ve been wondering for a while now why the Silence were gunning for the Doctor in the first place.  It’s because he knows the answer to “the question,” and if the answer were ever given, something very, very bad would happen.  That’s a satisfying explanation for the Silence’s motives, but it’s also where we start seeing the big mysteries of the episode.  We have no idea what terrible scenario will occur should the question be answered, but it’s enough for the Doctor to agree with the Silence that he must die (or convince the Universe he’s dead so no one will think to ever ask him the question).  This is probably the mystery that will frustrate the most viewers, as the unknown danger of answering the question served as the impetus for everything that happened this season.       

But it’s not like that’s unprecedented.  Series Five, Smith and Moffat’s first year, worked exactly the same way.  The main plot of series five involved cracks in space and time caused by the explosion of the TARDIS.  The Doctor learned what the cracks were and wound up saving the Universe, tying off the central story of the season, but we never found out why the TARDIS exploded in the first place (and we still don’t know, for that matter).  The story concluded, but the event that kicked off the story remained a mystery.  That’s also what happened here: the tale of the Doctor’s death came to a (mostly) satisfying conclusion, but we haven’t yet learned the full details behind why he had to die. 

And I’m perfectly okay with that.  Moffat has crafted two seasons with satisfying beginnings, middles, and ends, and left one major mystery left over both times.  If “The Wedding of River Song” was the final Doctor Who ever, I would be furious.  But it’s not.  There’s more story to come, and does anyone honestly expect Moffat to abandon the mysteries he’s so carefully put in place?  We’ll get back to these mysteries at some point.  Moffat and Smith will produce, at a minimum, twenty-eight more episodes together (two seasons of 13 plus two Christmas specials have been confirmed), and that’s plenty of time for Moffat’s grand plan to become clear.  For now, the main story of series six was resolved, the ending was satisfying, and most importantly, it gave us a fantastic set-up for series seven.

Since the Doctor is dead in the eyes of the Universe, he’ll have to live in the shadows, but he can also enjoy a life of anonymity.  Modern Doctor Who has always portrayed the character as a bit of a celebrity, which wasn’t necessarily the case in the classic series, and now Moffat has rather ingeniously cleared the way for the Doctor’s fame to recede.  That will undoubtedly produce a different dynamic when we return for the next series, one closer to classic episodes where the Doctor would drop in on a new location, meet a foreign species, and still be a total stranger; it’s a flavor of modern Who that I’m very excited to see.  That’s why even though the Teselecta deus-ex-machina felt like a cheat to me – the hype behind the Doctor’s death warranted a far more imaginative explanation: the Doctor using a double was just flat out disappointing – it doesn’t bother me in the long run; there are so many new narrative possibilities for Moffat and company to explore now, and if it took a moment of cheap trickery to get us there, so be it. 

After all, even though I loved this season, I’ve been fairly vocal about its structural problems.  I think these last few episodes have redeemed some of the clunky transitions between “Moffat-arc-based-episodes” and “standalones-written-by-everyone-else,” but as the season aired, those transitions still felt messy.  The biggest problem in telling such an ambitious story was that Moffat ultimately had to reserve all his own hours for massive plot dumps, and I think that limited the man’s imagination and ability to tell emotionally-charged stories.  Moffat’s episodes this year had moments like that – the Doctor surveying the horrific results of Demons Run, the Doctor fighting desperately to redeem River in “Let’s Kill Hitler,” the marriage in this episode – but nothing that quite matched the emotional and imaginative highs of “The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang” or “A Christmas Carol.”  Those are Moffat episodes big on complex plotting, but even bigger on imagination and heart. 

The problem with Moffat’s work in series six is that his complex stories sometimes limited the heart and imagination of his scripts.  Other writers picked up that slack this year, like Neil Gaiman, Toby Whithouse, and Gareth Roberts, but I want to see Moffat delivering those sorts of moments again, because when he’s at his best, nobody can come close.  With “The Wedding of River Song,” he’s cleared the slate, and set us up for a year where there can be an underlying story – the Doctor trying to maintain his anonymity, perhaps – but it won’t overwhelm the series.  That way, Moffat may have time to write another “Blink” or “Girl in the Fireplace” rather than focus all his energies on a major narrative.  That’s how Moffat works best, and that’s how Doctor Who works best as well.

I’ve mostly focused on the ending of tonight’s episode up until this point, but I don’t want to shortchange the rest of the hour, because while this episode was certainly imperfect, I really quite liked it on the whole.  As with many Moffat hours this year, I thought it was a bit too busy; I don’t think the story merited two parts, but giving it room to breathe over a full 60 minutes, instead of 45, might have done the trick.  Still, I liked the creativity on display as we saw how the universe has changed with all of time compressed into one moment, and the triumphant return of Amy and Rory was handled wonderfully.  I don’t know how much we’ll be seeing the two moving forward, but this felt like a nice coda to their story.  There were many big emotional beats scattered throughout that connected very well, two of which I wish to highlight here: the titular wedding was just a perfectly executed sequence, first with River expressing her love for the Doctor in her traditionally theatrical way, and then with the Doctor reciprocating in his emotionally reserved manner.  And doesn’t it just warm the heart to think that the Doctor used his bowtie for the wedding?  Bowties are indeed cool.

But for me, the best moment came early in the episode.  As the Doctor continues to evade his death, travelling the Universe on his ‘goodbye’ tour, he calls a nursing home, only to hear that Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart has passed away.  I think it might be safe to say that the Brigadier remains the most significant companion in the history of Doctor Who, adventuring with all Doctors save the first in the classic series.  The Brigadier never appeared on the revived series, and actor Nicholas Courtney passed away earlier this year, making it impossible for the character to ever appear again.  Thus, this moment was both a nod to the passing of a Doctor Who icon, and an acknowledgement of how important the Brigadier was to the Doctor; It’s his death that gives the Doctor the strength to face his own, and this moment of brilliance put a very big smile on my face. 

I’ll be sharing my overall thoughts on the Sixth Series in a later post – more on that at the end of this article – but here are my brief impressions of the season now that it’s over: first and foremost, this was another great year for Doctor Who.  I don’t want to undercut that with any of my other comments.  This was an excellent season.  That being said, I think this season was a marked step-down from last year; I believe that series five of Doctor Who is one of the all-time great seasons of television, so it’s a bit unsurprising that the show couldn’t live up to that standard.  The overall flow of the season was messy at times, as I explained above, and we had two throwaway episodes (“Black Spot” and “Night Terrors”), problems that kept this season from reaching the same heights as its predecessor.

But it was still a remarkable year.  The effects and direction were big and cinematic, more impressive than ever before.  I’d have to hear a soundtrack to confirm this, but I’m also inclined to say that Murray Gold really outdid himself this time, delivering his best Doctor Who score to date – and that’s saying something.  More than anything else, though, it’s the stunning character work that I will forever remember from this season.  Every member of the cast was asked to up their game in major ways, and they all rose to the occasion.  The writers discovered new levels of depth for Amy Pond, allowing Karen Gillan to find a much broader range of emotional and dramatic expression than before.  Arthur Darvill was added to the main cast and, assisted by some smashing writing, he transformed the character into a companion for the ages.  Alex Kingston perfected the flirty, fun nature of River Song in “Good Man Goes to War” just as she was asked to completely reinvent the character in the subsequence hour, “Let’s Kill Hitler,” and throughout it all, she somehow made this chronologically confused mess of an individual feel like one coherent creation.

And finally, there’s Matt Smith.  Did anybody think he could possibly improve upon his landmark performance from series five?  I sure didn’t, but every single week the writers threw a massive challenge at him, and every week, he hit that challenge out of the park while asking for more.  His defeated and sobered expression during the crucial death scene from “The Impossible Astronaut,” his teary goodbye to the TARDIS spirit in “The Doctor’s Wife,” playing dual Doctors in “The Almost People,” raging at Colonel Runaway or surveying the horror of battle in “A Good Man Goes to War,” fighting to the death to save River in “Let’s Kill Hitler,” helping a stranger become a better father in “Night Terrors,” breaking Amy’s faith in “The God Complex,” his brilliantly comedic turn in “Closing Time,” or even his simple, haunting delivery of the words “It’s Time” in tonight’s episode.  Damn.  Smith was given some of the best material ever gifted to an actor playing the Doctor, and he elevated it all far beyond what was on the page.  He gave what has been the best performance on TV in 2011, and he made it all look perfectly natural.  If any actor in this role has ever earned the title of Doctor so completely, it’s Smith.

And given the final revelation of tonight’s finale, I would bet we haven’t even come close to seeing the entirety of what Smith can do.  Moffat gave us one last answer in tonight’s episode, revealing the mysterious “question.”  It was indeed right in front of us all along, and if we are to discover the answer, it means we’re going to wind up learning a lot more about out favorite Time Lord.  It’s a question viewers have been asking for a long time, the question that keeps us interested in this most spectacular of characters:



--I believe tonight’s episode was the first appearance of a Dalek this season; still, it was only a cameo appearance, making this the first season of the revived series without a Dalek-centric episode (a good choice in my mind).
--A nice full-circle touch: River’s speech to the Doctor about how much the Universe loves him was pretty much the exact opposite of her speech at the end of “A Good Man Goes to War.”  One has to wonder if she gave that speech in the earlier episode – later in her timeline, mind you – to ensure that he would get into a depressive funk so she could pull him out of it and then marry him.  If so, that’s one hell of a proposal.
--In the teaser, we saw Charles Dickens giving an interview about “A Christmas Carol.”  In a neat bit of continuity, Dickens was played by Simon Callow, who earlier portrayed the character in the season one episode “The Unquiet Dead.” 
--Anybody else get a “Raiders of the Lost Ark” vibe from the Headless’ Monks cave?  ‘Cause I did, and it was awesome.
--Another funny nod to Who continuity: on the top of the pyramid, Amy brings Rory up to speed by saying “we got married and had a kid and that’s her.”  Mostly due to Gillan’s delivery, that was simply a hilarious recap of the first half of the season.
--Very nice to see Ian McNeice reprise his portrayal of Winston Churchill.  In proper British fashion, Moffat asserts that were all of Earth’s history scrunched together in one moment, the greatest of Britons would rule over all.
--I laughed very, very hard at what the Silence said to ‘Captain’ Rory as they tortured him, calling Rory “the one who dies and dies again.”  A nice shout-out to how many times Rory has kicked the bucket, or almost kicked the bucket, since first introduced.
--Like a Lost finale, “Wedding” raised a lot of new questions even as it dished out answers.  Case in point: Dorium twice mentioned the “fields of Trenzelor” and “the fall of the eleventh.”  Since Smith is the eleventh Doctor, I think it’s safe to assume Moffat is hinting at the ultimate regeneration of this Doctor, on these mysterious fields of Trenzelor.  Hmm.  Moffat has hinted that big things will be coming in 2013, the show’s fiftieth anniversary.  That year will be Smith’s fourth with the show, making him the longest running Doctor of the modern age.  I wonder if Moffat is planning to boot him at the end of that season.  All good things must come to an end, I know, but can’t we let Smith go for Tom Baker’s record of seven years?  Just for fun?

One week from today, my friend Sean Chapman and I will be wrapping up a season of “Doctor Who” blogging by hosting a special “Farewell Series Six Extravaganza” edition of the “Monthly Ten” podcast, sharing our thoughts on each episode, our overall impressions of the season, and more!  Look for it next Saturday, October 8th

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