Co-written with the lovely Suzanne Walker. You can find her over at Cognitive Recalibration.
SPOILER ALERT for Doctor Who, series 6.
Following this finale, it’s really funny to go back and re-read our Let’s Kill Hitler reaction post, from what seems like so long ago already. In that, our biggest concern with the second half of Series Six was that Moffat had built too large of a house of cards this time around. That, as io9 recently put it, he wouldn’t catch all the balls he was juggling in the finale. He was doing so many wonderful, fascinating, unique things to the show, to the Doctor’s, the Ponds’, and River’s plotlines--but would it all come together in a way that both made sense and was satisfying?
In that sense, this finale did not disappoint in the slightest. Some things felt a bit rushed, yes, but that seemed mostly to be a consequence of the fact that the finale was only one episode long (which we’ll deal with later). And in the end--in those last ten minutes especially--everything felt complete. It made sense. The Doctor evading death was not a hand-waving, timey-wimey thing this time, as it was in The Big Bang last year. His emotional journey--at least for this season--has been completed in a way that actually brings us closure. River’s biggest mysteries were solved in a way that did not feel ret-conned. Sure, there are still some questions, but we were not left with the burning, gaping holes we were left with at the end of Series Five. And after all the doubts we had about Moffat’s ability to pull this off, seeing it all play out in this way was so incredibly satisfying.
Not only did everything make sense, there were so many parts of this episode that were just so delightful. To start with, “Holy Roman Emperor Winston Churchill returned to the Buckingham Senate on his personal mammoth.” The whole “all of history happening at once” made no sense when you really stopped to think of it, but wasn’t it amazing anyway? War of the Roses, Charles Dickens, Cleopatra, offices on trains, cars flying from balloons, and transmitters on top of pyramids. A crazy hodgepodge of things, but wonderful because of it. And something only Moffat could get away with.
It wasn’t just quirky crazyness that made this episode, though. It was the emotional moments. The Doctor trying to run from his death, really his death this time, like his previous incarnation did after Waters of Mars. “I have got a time machine, Dorium. It's all still going on. For me it never stops. Liz the First is still waiting in a glade to elope with me. I could help Rose Tyler with her homework. I could go on all Jack's stag parties in one night.” I’m a sucker for connections to past Doctors and companions, and so this statement was brilliantly written and delivered, followed by the heatbreaking news that the Brigadier is dead. Even not as an Old Who fan, I loved that they found a way to work in Nicholas Courtney’s death, and I hope they do as much for Lis Sladen. And it is this small piece of news that breaks the Doctor’s resolve, his desperation, that brings him to acceptance.
I did wonder, throughout the course of the series, about the Doctor inviting his friends to his death. Why? “I had to die. I didn’t have to die alone.” Too right, Doctor. I’m glad to see that he may think he endangers his companions, but he still knows the value of his friends. And none more so than River. For the conversation that he has with her earlier self in the suit was beautiful, with its mirror to the conversation in Forest of the Dead:
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.
River: Please, my love. Please please, just run.
The Doctor: Can't.
River: Time can be rewritten.
The Doctor: Don't you dare. Goodbye, River.
The Doctor: Let me do this!
River: If you die here it'll mean I've never met you.
The Doctor: Time can be rewritten!
River: Not those times, not one line. Don't you dare!
There were badass moments, too. Amy’s killing of Madame Kovarian comes to mind. While some people might argue its morality, I couldn’t give a damn. All I know was I was glad to see that smug smile wiped off her face. And it was a least a little nod to the fact that Amy does regret not being able to raise her child. And in that vein, the scene in the garden at the end of the episode was the most adorable scene ever. Though I don’t know how or where it happened, I somehow don’t care. All I care is that the Ponds, that adorable time-warped, misnamed, little family, gets some quiet, happy moments to spend together.
Yet, for all these great small moments, there was one small moment that rubbed us wrong in a big way. The small moment that, ironically, gave us the title of this episode. The Wedding of River Song.
I’ve made it no secret that River Song’s story is one of my favorite things Moffat has done since taking over the show. It has made me so impossibly happy on so many levels. I love her character, I love the trajectory of her story. Again, as we articulated in our Let’s Kill Hitler post, she is a badass of epic proportions. But we come to what should be the climax of her character-arc, and...it didn’t feel like the River we know and love. It felt cheesy. Over-the-top. Unbelievable. And we’re left to think...this is what we’ve been waiting for?
It wasn’t the concept, or her rationale for what she was doing. That made sense, and is still sort of lovely as an idea. The idea that someone will move mountains and universes for the one they love is hardly a new one. But the way it was done? “I can't let you without knowing you are loved. By so many and so much. And by no one more than me.” C’mon, guys. You can do better than that. I don’t know whether to blame the writing or the direction for the way this played out. Certainly not Alex Kingston, who has proven so many times before that she can give incredibly emotional, heart-breaking performances (Forest of the Dead, anyone?). Whatever the problem was, the fact remains that this scene did not pack nearly the emotional punch that it was meant to. And that was rather disappointing.
And this, in turn, leads to our one major problem with this finale. There were so many things that we loved, and from an intellectual standpoint it was a great episode and finale. But from an emotional standpoint? We are so used to the season finales of Who packing big great emotional punches. Whether it’s heartbreak (Doomsday, Journey’s End), euphoria (Big Bang), or a combination of the two (Parting of the Ways, Last of the Time Lords), we are used to feeling more than this. To feeling drained after watching a finale that we have screamed and cackled our way through. But this...I hate to use the word anti-climactic, but that’s really the best way to describe it. Particularly so soon after The Girl Who Waited and The God Complex, which were two of the most emotional episodes we’ve had in a long time. This episode was not big with the emotions, even after the joy of the Ponds at finding out the Doctor was alive after all. Which doesn’t take away from it being a great episode, but...it’s definitely not something that we’re used to.
And yet, this episode wrapped up, at least for the moment, a theme that’s been running through New Who, both under Moffat and RTD. The Doctor’s reputation. In the days of the Ninth Doctor, the only people who knew about him, bar his companions and UNIT were conspiracy theorists like Clive, who spent years pouring over their research. Aliens made a resurgence and London emptied at Christmas, but no one was quite sure what happened, or why. The Doctor was a secret, a dangerous secret, and even those who didn’t really know him, like Elton, were endangered due to the information they had. In The Year That Never Was, that changed, and Martha told the entire planet about the Doctor, the man who had saved their lives so many times, that they never knew. And when time was reversed, they all forgot. In a way, sad. But Ten was firm that “it’s better this way.”
The first time we met River, in the Library, was the first glimpse of the legend the Doctor would become. And then, Eleven, in the first hour of being himself, not only chased the Atraxi away, but called them back for a scolding. “Hello, I’m the Doctor. Basically -- run.” He reveled in saving the world, the universe, enough to stick around and dance at Amy’s wedding, to take them gallivanting all over time and space later. He took satisfaction, immense satisfaction, in telling the human race to kill the Silence.
And that led us, and him, inevitably, to A Good Man Goes to War. When his enemies kidnapped the child of his best friends, to turn her into a killing machine, because they feared him so much. He became “the man who can turn an army around at the mention of his name.” Spectacular, yet frightening, even to his friends. Almost ruthless. Reminds me of his conversation with Wilf, about how the Master started. Has he gone down that path? This accusation by River echoes powerfully with him, causing him not only to declare that he screwed up his past companions, but that he’s a vain old man who screws up anyone he comes across.
The Doctor is right, in a way. He needs to “die,” to become less big, to have the universe forget him for awhile. But he’s also wrong “You've touched so many lives, saved so many people... You've decided that the universe is better off without you. But the universe doesn't agree. Even if he’s lost faith in his own self, and thinks that faith in him kills people, people still have faith in him. And thus the power of his friends. And indeed the galaxy, all those who have heard his name.
With this theme completed for the time being, it gives a really great perspective on the series and how it connects with the rest of the show. Every time I think of this series, I can’t help but think that it had a few good episodes, and some crappy ones. And so I shelve it to the back of my mind. But then I remember that out of 13 episodes, only 3 or 4 were bad. Which is about the normal record for a series. So why I do have this overall negative impression? There’s only one culprit that I can find, and it’s that controversial decision to split up the series, with a 10-week summer break. It worked with a cliffhanger, yea. But I don’t think it did this series any favors. It wasn’t necessary, and reactions were mixed. And for me personally, it gave the impression that the series was much worse than it actually was.