Doctor Who has always been about escaping from inescapable traps, and winning miraculous victories against overwhelming odds. But seldom have the odds been more impossible than the ones the Doctor faced throughout the latest season — and yet, the season finale wasn't so much about how the Doctor wins, but the consequences of that victory, for himself and his friends. The hard part isn't winning, it's accepting the price.
With "The Wedding of River Song," Steven Moffat managed to catch all the balls he'd tossed in the air throughout the year, and answer all of the questions he'd been asking. The result was a pretty smashing episode — with a couple of major, huge flaws.
The other day, when I posted my spoiler-free preview of this episode, I was tempted to use the headline: "The 'soap opera' era of Doctor Who hits its highest and lowest notes." Which seemed a bit too fancy and meta. But it's kind of true — this episode was Steven Moffat's big, serialized storytelling at its best, and worst. The best was almost everything about the Doctor's journey. The worst was some of how the episode handled River Song, and to some extent Amy Pond as well.
In a lot of ways, "The Wedding of River Song" was pretty similar to last year's finale, "The Big Bang." There's a new alternate universe, in which Everything Is Wrong. Only Amy Pond (and River Song) fully remember the original universe. Amy and Rory find each other all over again. The Doctor meekly surrenders himself to oblivion to save the universe — except that he figures out a last-minute loophole. And there's a wedding.
Except that "The Wedding of River Song" was a much stronger episode than "The Big Bang," in at least a few major ways:
1) We got answers. "The Big Bang" dodged answering most of the big questions that had been posed in previous episodes, including just why the TARDIS blew up, and what this was all about. (Some of those questions remain unanswered, and may never be answered.) This time around, there were loads of answers. Does River Song really marry the Doctor? Yes. Does she kill him? Not really. Why do the Silence want the Doctor dead? Because otherwise, at some point in the future, at a time when nobody can lie or refuse to answer, he'll face "the Question." What is the Question? "Doctor Who." (And yes, that's cheeky. More on that in a moment.)
2) No cheating. I'm still a bit annoyed at how the Doctor escaped from the Pandorica in last year's finale. It was a silly cheat that the Doctor could be using, in theory, to escape from any danger from now on. (And no, I don't buy the argument that because the universe was dying, the laws of time no longer applied. Still a cheat.) This time, the Doctor faces an inescapable deathtrap — he has to be at that lakeside, and he has to face the deadly astronaut suit — and he finds a cunning way out that actually makes sense.
3) More fun. We had pterodactyls in the park, Winston Churchill as the Holy Roman Emperor, Gantok playing live chess and nearly paying with his life, killer skulls, the decapitated and sassy Dorium Maldovar, an office on a train, the cool/weird pyramid, knitting for girls, and so much more. For an episode that was basically about the Doctor going to his death, this episode managed to pack in an awful lot of gloriously silly bits.
4) A very clear thematic resolution. Season five contained some very powerful storytelling, but I was never entirely sure what the crack in the universe "meant," thematically. It had something to do with memory, and the fact that Amy Pond couldn't remember Rory after the crack ate him, but then she could remember the Doctor, at her wedding. It was lovely, but what did it all mean? Still not sure. Meanwhile, the themes leading up to "The Wedding of River Song" couldn't be clearer, and they do get an intensely satisfying resolution in the finale.
Perhaps it's because these themes are all about the Doctor, who's the show's main character when all's said and done. Let's talk a bit more about that.
The Season's Theme
Season six starts out by introducing the idea that the Doctor is destined to be killed, and meanwhile the Doctor's myth is getting bigger and bigger. Moffat first had the Doctor tell the Vashta Nerada to "look me up" in "Forest of the Dead," but in the Matt Smith era, the Doctor's self-puffery gets more and more extreme. Telling people that he's the "one thing you never want to put in a trap" is a good way of tempting them to put him in a trap.
For most of the Russell T. Davies era, the Doctor was still largely unknown outside of his circle of friends, and those few Earthlings who'd noticed that the planet got saved from aliens on a suspiciously regular basis. Even people who knew about the Time Lords were frequently surprised to encounter one who was still alive. But in the past few years, the Doctor's "dark legend" has become bigger and more widely known, and Moffat's version of the universe is more like a reflection of celebrity culture, with the Doctor as the ultimate celebrity.
But in "A Good Man Goes to War," this storyline takes a surprising turn — suddenly, we're not just talking about the Doctor's shameless self-promotion and his tendency to believe his own hype. Instead, we're talking about the Doctor's ruthlessness, and whether he's becoming known as a warrior instead of a savior. By overreaching and encouraging people to follow him into danger, the Doctor has caused carnage and suffering. (And now his enemies have been driven to kidnap a child to turn into a weapon against him.) And then in "Let's Kill Hitler," the Doctor gazes upon all his recent companions and declares that he's screwed them all up.