Thursday, 31 May 2018

The Wedding of River Song

Chapter The 89th, is a bit like Elton John's current plans: a long farewell tour by someone you suspect ain't going anywhere anytime soon.

The Doctor, approaching the point where he has to face his predestined fate of getting shot by Lake Silencio in Utah by someone in a damp spacesuit, investigates exactly who the Silence are, and why they believe he needs to die there in such a convoluted and silly manner. After interrogating some rum coves, the trail leads him to the severed - but still talking - head of his old mucker Dorium Maldovar. Dorium explains that the Silence are trying to stop him from answering a specific question in a place called Trenzalore which he'll one day be predestined to visit despite the fact that he's predestined to die by a lake in Utah first (they really should have seen his escape coming, the silly Silence).

The Doctor goes to Utah, but fakes his own death - he's really inside the Teselecta shape-changing robot from Let's Kill Hitler, so doesn't get zapped nor burnt up. In between, a weird time glitch allows River (for it is she in the spacesuit emerging from the lake) to simultaneously refrain from shooting the Doctor, as well as actually shooting him. For a while this causes an alternate reality where all of history is happening at once, and there's a big battle with the Silence and Madame Kovarian in a pyramid. But none of that really happens, so it's nothing to get too worried about. River goes to visit Amy and Rory on Earth after the Doctor has left them behind. Because of their general timey-wimeyness from growing up near a time crack and being conceived in the TARDIS respectively, Amy and River can remember the events of the aborted reality, and River is able to reassure Amy that the Doctor isn't dead.

Another Bank Holiday weekend in the UK, more record-breaking sunshine, the roots since bathed in showers sweet as liquor are parched again, and the harts and rams and small fowls yearn to be cooled by zephyrs' breath;  it is at this time that folk like me like to hide inside and watch archive television. On a sultry night that later crackled with lightning, when everyone else in the house had gone to bed, I watched the story from the series 6 Blu-ray. 

First-time round:
On the evening of its debut BBC1 broadcast in October 2011. No special memories of this one, except that I can remember being disappointed. I had enjoyed all the season finales from 2005 up to Matt Smith's first one the previous year (The Pandorica Opens / The Big Bang) but everything changed with The Wedding of River Song, and I don't think I've ever whole-heartedly enjoyed one since, though things picked up a bit with Capaldi's ones. I like big, fun extravaganzas, for a start off, and Steven Moffat doesn't seem to share my taste; also, because of Moffat's playing the long game, planning out a lot of Matt Smith's era in advance, each finale asks more questions than it answers, which isn't very satisfying. It is clever, though, for whatever that's worth: for example, there's a mention early on about Elizabeth the First waiting in a glade to elope with the Doctor - the punchline to that joke would only follow in The Day of the Doctor, two years after The Wedding of River Song. 

Imagine you saw an alternative universe version of a Doctor Who story; Pyramids of Mars, say, but it's set in a 1911 with Trump and dubstep and mammoths and flying cars. Would you care what happened? Probably not. But this is what happens for most of the running time of The Wedding of River Song. It's one big loop scene (a term that classic series maestro Terrance Dicks has used to describe bits of business he occasionally had to employ to fill up time in an under-running narrative, sequences that eventually just loop back round to leave the characters where they started). Nothing amounts to anything in a loop scene, it's just treading water; and nothing can have any relevance or resonance in The Wedding of River Song, because it's not happening in the real world of the protagonists; nothing's going to move on until we get back to that lake in Utah (and we've been waiting a whole season to get past this point, so yet another episode not getting anywhere, just when we thought things were going to be resolved, is adding insult to injury).

It's not that there aren't some nice bits in the big loop scene. The funny bits setting the scene at the start, of a jumbled world with things from different time zones rubbing up against each other (but it doesn't matter as it's not real), the thrilling sequences of the Doctor and Churchill realising they're surrounded by Silence (but it doesn't matter as it's not real), the romantic parts where Amy suddenly finds her Rory has been under her nose the whole time (but it doesn't matter as it's not real), the dramatic parts where River shows the Doctor how much he means to the universe (but it doesn't matter as it's not real), the exciting parts where the battle between human and Silence is joined (but it doesn't matter as it's not real). It's a waste of all those nice scenes, in a way: it might have been better for them to have been saved until they could be played for real somehow; they are undermined by taking place in a world without consequences.

Before we get to the big loop scene, there's all the Doctor's farewell tour material: all the bravery talking smack to a Dalek (but it doesn't matter as he isn't really going to die), all the funnies playing futuristic chess with heavily latexed guest stars, and hanging around in seedy space bars reading "Knitting for Girls" (but it doesn't matter as he isn't really going to die), the touching reference to the Brigadier's death and other nice continuity kisses, including a very nicely set up in-joke where everyone in the alternative reality has to wear eye-patches, like the Brigadier's alter-ego in Inferno  (but it doesn't matter as he isn't really going to die). When we finally get the curtain pulled aside on the conjuring trick of how the Doctor has escaped being killed - and we've been waiting a whole season, lest we forget, and we seem to have been shown the lakeside scenes in Utah a dozen times from different angles in all that time - it's just not that clever or earth-shattering a reveal. It's just a lookalike, not the real Doctor - thunderingly disappointing after all that build up, and an implicit promise from the beginning of the season ("That most certainly is the Doctor, and he is most certainly dead") has been broken.

What's left of the 45 minutes if the farewell tour material and the alternate reality material are stripped away? What actually happens that we haven't seen happen, albeit with some information withheld, before? I like to think of this as the story of the Doctor getting a library book out, then reading it, then returning it. In this instance, the library book is his old friend's decapitated but sentient head in a box, and the library is a weird catacomb filled with carnivorous skulls; but, in essence, that's all we're seeing. The Doctor consumes some information, some exposition, and that's that. It will come to have meaning to him, and we'll understand what it all means too, in a couple more years' time, and we'll probably be underwhelmed then too. Anyone wanting answers - anyone just wanting to see a nice wedding! - is going to be disappointed.

Both The Wedding of River Song and Resurrection of the Daleks have terminally misleading titles (there's no real wedding, and not much of a resurrection), both contain destroyed Daleks, and both pick up from a lead-in from the previous episode.

Deeper Thoughts:
A TV theory of everything.  I have already mused here on some of the questions that the whole 2011 Silence arc, and Matt Smith's era in general, have left unanswered or unclear, but I keep thinking of new ones. (If all history is happening at once in the aborted reality, and Neil Armstrong's first step onto the moon is part of that history, why aren't the Silence still being shot on sight by humans? The Doctor's video insert into that historic footage has definitely happened before Lake Silencio both in terms of Earth history and the Doctor's personal timeline. So, there should be no threat from the Silence at all, even in an alternative reality, and just adding a line to cover this discrepancy isn't much of a help. And, what happens to Madame Kovarian in the real universe? The Silence turn on her in her aborted reality using the booby-trapped eye-drive; but, given that nobody ever reverse engineered the eye-drives in the real universe, would they ever need to booby trap them? Perhaps they offed Madame Kovarian a different way, but maybe this ruthless villain got off scot free and lived happily ever after - her plan did appear to work in our real universe, after all.)

Anyway, as complicated as these plots can be, they could always be worse. There's a six-degrees of separation style theory out there in the geekoverse, which - through various coincidences, homages or cross-overs - can demonstrate that pretty much all TV happens in the same unified fictional universe, and that universe is all in the imagination of one teenage boy. This is the Tommy Westphall Universe hypothesis, which I've been vaguely aware of for a few years, but for some reason I was intrigued enough lately to read into a bit more (maybe because The Wedding of River Song is too thin and superficial to prompt any deeper thoughts? Yes, when in doubt, blame Moffat!). Tommy Westphall was a fairly minor character in 1980s hospital precinct comedy-drama St. Elsewhere, which I liked a lot back in the day. I probably saw the finale first time round - memory's a bit hazy but it rang bells when I read about it. The final scene of the final episode suggests that the entire series has been a part of autistic Tommy's internal imaginary space, inspired by a snowglobe he owns, which has a model hospital inside it.

So far, so so: better than Lost's finale, anyway. But the thing is here, and here's the thing: characters from St. Elsewhere appeared in Homicide: Life on the Street (both programmes shared production team members) so that show must be a figment of Tommy's imagination too. And characters from Homicide appeared in The X Files and Law and Order. It rolls on and on. Google it, and you'll see how far all those large and small cross-references that have been unwittingly added to shows here and there build up to an all-encompassing web. People have even pointed out that some of these shows have featured real-life personages playing themselves. So, does that mean the real world is part of Tommy's mental landscape too? Pinch yourself.

Here's one way to link Doctor Who in: doctors from St. Elsewhere once appeared in Cheers, Frasier Crane stopped hanging out in that Boston bar, and started his own radio show (within the fictional world of the show Frasier within Tommy's head) and in one episode, John Hemingway - main character of something I've never seen called The John Larroquette Show - called in to Frasier's radio show. At another time, Hemingway mentioned on his show a law firm called Wolfram and Hart who are also mentioned in a few other fictional franchises. In Angel (so the Buffy universe is all sucked into Tommy's ever-growing pulsating brain) the same law firm is confirmed to represent a firm called Weyland Yetani (and the Alien and Predator films therefore all belong to Tommy). A Weyland Yetani ship is seen in Red Dwarf in the episode Psirens, and a similar Easter Egg in the Dwarf story Demons and Angels is a blink-and-you'll-miss it glimpse of the TARDIS in a model shot. Bingo!

In recognition of all this, director Ben Wheatley, who helmed Peter Capldi's first two stories, snuck in an Easter Egg of his own: a replica of Tommy's snowglobe was created by the art department and added to the many knick-knacks dressing the TARDIS control room. Maybe it's still there! Anyway, the moral of the tale is appreciate what you've got: as convoluted as his plots could sometimes be, Steven Moffat was restrained in comparison to the sprawling, tangled genius of Tommy Westphall: only Tommy knows what happened to the real Madame Kovarian.

In Summary:
The finale of St. Elsewhere was better.


  1. Right, I've caught up with you now ....

    1. Wow! Hope you enjoyed some of it, and violently disagreed with some too (or else where would the fun be?!)

    2. Thoroughly enjoyed reading them, and disagreed with much less than in thought I would to be honest. Most interesting was Silence in the Library was in your top five of episodes of all time and not just the modern era.
      I agree that all his pre-showrunner stories are in a class of their own.
      The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances
      The Girl in the Fireplace
      Silence in the Library / Forest of the Dead

      I'm always torn between which of these is my favourite and swerve between The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances and Blink; I do tend more toward The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances simply due to "Everybody lives"! The joy on Ecclestone's face as he says those lines, for me, sums up in a very few words, what The Doctor stands for.
      But then, Blink is just so awesome .... Grr, I give up, all five are just great story telling .... :)

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  3. It's interesting: when you list them out like that, I would be hard pressed to say that the Library story is the *best*, but it's one I keep coming back to most, a favourite. They're all so very good, though, I agree.

  4. Will, possibly, be coming down to London for a day or so next month if you fancy meeting up for a chat and drinks and/orfood?

  5. Sounds good, Whatsapp me when you have dates confirmed.