Seriously, you know what would have been awesome on last night's Doctor Who? If Sarah Connor had popped up, preferably the Lena Headey version, and told the Doctor and his friends there's "no fate but what we make." And then blown up the Great Intelligence with a pipe bomb or something. That's not what happened, though.
Last night's Doctor Who was very much about fate — as, in some sense, all of Steven Moffat's finales have been. There is something about inevitability and predestination and death that Moffat keeps worrying away at. Maybe just because when you deal with time travel, one of the obvious places to go is to show a terrible future waiting for your characters, who then have to cope with it. (See Heroes season one, Doctor Who's own "Space Museum," etc. etc.) Or maybe it's because Moffat has some theme about the inevitability of real-life death and being forgotten, that he's dealing with through science fiction. Hard to say.
So every one of Moffat's Doctor Who season enders has been about a terrible fate for the Doctor — in the first one, it's the TARDIS blowing up, which we know is doomed to happen as soon as the Doctor pulls a piece of the police box out of the crack. In the second one, it's the Doctor getting shot by River Song in a classic 1960s astronaut suit. In both cases, the fate is not averted, but altered somehow. The TARDIS does explode, but is restored. The Doctor who gets shot is actually a shape-changing robot with a tiny Doctor inside.
This time around, though, it's a fate the Doctor actually cannot escape — his real, final death, on the planet Trenzalore. There's going to be some awful final battle, big enough that there are massive rows of graves, and the Doctor will die and become a Na'vi tree of lights thingy.
And meanwhile, Clara is absolutely destined to jog inside the Na'vi tree of lights, which is actually the Doctor's timestream, and become his most constant companion ever, saving every single incarnation of the Doctor from every possible danger. His guardian angel, if you will. She knows she has to do this because "I've already done it" — hence the Dalek Oswin who saved the Doctor in the Asylum, and then the barmaid/governess Clara who helped to fight the Victorian ice lady.
So now that the Doctor has actually danced on his own grave, does this mean he can't be killed, permanently, until he reaches Trenzalore? Can he literally do anything without fear of death? Could the Doctor throw himself into a sun and emerge unscathed? The next time someone points a gun at the Doctor, will he just laugh, because he's not on Trenzalore? (Similar to how the Doctor dismisses the threats in "Waters of Mars" because nobody's managed to knock four times consecutively?) Is the Doctor immortal until the battle of Trenzalore?
"Time Can Be Rewritten"
These are the sort of questions that Moffat's Who has brought up all along — when we first meet River Song, the Doctor wants to sacrifice his life to save her and the other people on the library. But she says if he does that, then all of the adventures they've shared together will be erased and her memories will all change. To which the Doctor responds that time can be rewritten. And River says, "Not those times. Not one line."
Of course, if the Doctor does die permanently in "Silence in the Library," then River Song will never even have been born. Plus River already knows that a key moment in her history with the Doctor is a "fixed point" — the business at the lake in Utah. And possibly also the stuff with Amy and Rory getting sent back to Depression-era New York, too. So why does River have to sacrifice her life in the Library? She could just fold her arms and say, "Actually, sweetie, neither of us has to die, and some other random coincidence will have to happen to save us in a moment. Just trust me." Right?
In any case, "Time can be rewritten" is sort of Moffat's version of "No fate but what we make" — you still have free will, even in the face of possible futures. Of course, Sarah Connor herself knows that John Connor is fated to send Kyle Reese back in time to become his father, or else someone else will have to step up and become John's daddy, causing John to suddenly get a foot shorter or something. But moving on.
In any case, despite the "time can be rewritten" thing, fate in the Moffat universe is actually often inescapable — although you can trick it, as the Doctor sort of does in "Big Bang" and "Wedding of River Song."
Of course, prophecy is a staple of epic heroic stories, including the prophecy of the hero's downfall. (Like John Connor's heroic destiny.) And in such cases, the suspense isn't how the hero thwarts his or her destiny, but how he or she fulfills it. Usually, anyway.
So this is a story in which the Doctor and Clara basically have almost no choice about anything — Clara's fate is long since sealed, which means the Doctor has to play his part in making that happen. And the Doctor's future death at Trenzalore is apparently certain, since we've seen a "body." Sort of.
But speaking of prophecies, how does this square with what Dorium predicted back in "Wedding" — the event that would happen if the Doctor survived to go to Trenzalore? He said:
On the fields of Trenzalore, at the fall of the Eleventh, when no living creature could speak falsely, or fail to answer, a question will be asked. A question that must never, ever be answered.
And the Doctor added that he had a secret that must never be told, one that would apparently shatter the universe.
So were the events of this episode what the Silence was seeking to prevent from happening, by blowing up the TARDIS and turning River into a psycho astronaut killer? Apparently so — even though the Doctor never actually speaks his name, and that was a bit of a misdirect. (It turns out River Song only knows his name because she pestered him a lot, not because he speaks it at Trenzalore, in her hearing. And all that stuff about "there's only one time I ever could" was just the Doctor being pompous.)
Rather, the "dangerous secret" is the thing we see at the end of the episode. I think. But first, I guess we should talk about what actually happens in the episode.
In a lot of ways, this was a replay of Moffat's first two season finales, minus the wedding. Once again, the Doctor sacrifices himself for his friends, the universe is borked, the stars go out, the Doctor's entire history is erased or polluted, and the Doctor's friend or companion restores or preserves his memory. There's something about that story, including the Doctor's past being erased or corrupted, or the Doctor's legend being tarnished, that Moffat keeps coming back to because it's the centerpiece of his Who.
In the episode, the Great Intelligence figures out where the Doctor's buried and teams up with the Gentlemen from Buffy to kidnap the Doctor's Victorian friends and bring them there. (Oh, also there's a serial killer, and dream tea.) The Doctor is forced to go inside his own tomb, which is a supersized TARDIS — lovely creepy image — and watch as the disembodied Great Intelligence stomps into the Doctor's timeline, getting muddy footprints all over it.
What is the actual threat in this episode? I watched it twice, and I'm still not sure. Is the Great Intelligence lurking around in the background of all the Doctor's past and future adventures, and picking the right moment to kill him over and over? You can only kill him twelve times, right? Or do all the Doctor's past adventures now consist of him laying on the ground in a fetal position because his every moment is racked with agony? How exactly does he even survive long enough to become Patrick Troughton?
Probably best not to think about it too much. This is sort of the ultimate realization of Moffat's "dark fairytale" ethos — it's not that the Great Intelligence is wandering around slapping the Doctor in the past over and over. It's more that a curse has been put on the Doctor, a curse which follows him backwards and forwards, throughout all his lives.
And then Clara Oswald, who has gotten addicted to saying things like, "I am the Impossible Girl" and "I am Souffle Girl," breaks the curse by jumping into the Na'vi tree after the Great Intelligence and getting splintered through time, so there are a million Claras being born and living their lives and saving the Doctor, over and over. Yes, this means there are Claras being born on Gallifrey and Androzani Major and Spiridon and stuff. Stop asking questions! Again — there's a curse, and it's broken.
What is it about being erased or having your timeline corrupted that Moffat finds so compelling? It's probably tied up, in some inchoate way, with the notion of monsters that only have power if you don't see them (or in the case of the Whispermen, if you hear them?) And the notion of people being turned into stories. And the aforementioned obsession with predestination — it's all one big knot of thematic stuff about the Doctor being a legend, and legends being fragile, and monsters thriving outside your field of vision.
Oh, and speaking of the Doctor's legend — all of this is his fault. In "Wedding of River Song," the Doctor realizes that the Silence have gone to absurd lengths to wipe him out, and people have gotten obsessed with his mojo. So he decides he's "gotten too big," and he has to fake his own death, including making River Song spend years in prison. Then he goes around erasing info about himself from the universe, with an assist from one of the versions of Clara. Right?
So when the Doctor first meets Dr. Simeon and the entity that will become the Great Intelligence, what does he do? Basically, show off how clever he is in front of it. (First he pretends to be a dimwitted Sherlock Holmes, then he shows off.) And the next time, after it's already become the Great Intelligence and made some Yeti, he sends a message saying that Clara is under his protection, and he signs it "the Doctor." He can't resist being cocky, even after he's made this huge effort to become small again.
And we're told in no uncertain terms that the Doctor's efforts to keep from getting "too big" are futile — he's going to have oceans of blood on his hands before Trenzalore, and he's going to be known as the Beast. And the Valeyard — who is the evil version of the Doctor between his twelfth and thirteenth regenerations, whom we met in the regrettable but still tantalizing "Trial of a Time Lord" back in 1986. (I have to say, the hint that the horrible Valeyard storyline could actually pay off in some non-mortifying fashion is the best thing about this episode for me.)
River Song and the Doctor's secret
This episode isn't just concerned with the Doctor's future, including his inevitable death — it's also dealing with two huge issues from the Doctor's past.
First, there's the fact that he took the dead River Song and saved a "backup" of her in the library, and that archived version of River Song has gotten loose and is hanging out with the Doctor's friends in dreamland. (Instead of being stuck in a virtual world taking care of a child who's never going to get any older.)
In fact, it turns out the Doctor never intended for the virtual version of River Song to be permanent — he thought she would have faded away, after a while. (Which isn't what we were told at the time, but never mind.) And the episode sort of acknowledges the weird dickishness of the Doctor sentencing River to cyber-immortality, and then never seeing her again.
It's all for the same reason that the Doctor can see a ghostly River throughout most of this episode, but never shows any sign that he hears her talking, or acknowledges her — he can't deal with the pain of confronting her death. He believes that speaking to his dead wife will be too painful for him, so he plays a charade of not being able to see her, instead.
And at long last, this episode shows conclusively that the Doctor does, in some sense, have feelings for River beyond what he's had for all his various companions. He seems genuinely broken up and devastated when Clara mentions she's met River. And at the end of the episode, it really hurts him to say goodbye to her, and he actually kisses her, of his own volition, and it's a sweet, romantic kiss. He doesn't actually ever say he loves her, but at least she's no longer just the woman whom he married out of convenience in a pocket universe and then consigned to a space prison for years.
(I always think about how disdainful Jorah Mormont is towards River in "Flesh and Stone" because he thinks she killed a great hero — that's how everybody treated her, for years.)
And it looks as though we're closing the book on River Song, once and for all — the fact that the Doctor immediately knows that Clara hasn't met the living River Song means that the Doctor has apparently filled in every single gap in their shared adventures, and there's nothing left of their life together to go through. And now the virtual version, too, has faded. Of course, you never know.
Meanwhile, in the midst of the wacky CG Past Doctors — including poor fuzzy Patrick Troughton, running in his fur pimp coat on a summer day — there's the Doctor's huge terrible secret. A past incarnation we've never met, who apparently committed crimes so heinous, he was unworthy to be called the Doctor. Presumably something to do with the Time War. (And I'm guessing this would have been Christopher Eccleston, if he hadn't bowed out of the anniversary special. Genuinely sad about that now.)
So in the end we'll never actually learn the Doctor's name, at least probably not — and instead, the thing about his name is actually sort of metaphorical. His biggest secret is actually the time he didn't live up to his name, meaning that this is another way of getting at the idea of the Doctor's legend. And whatever terrible thing the not-Doctor did, beyond destroying the Time Lords and the Daleks, it's so awful the Silence was willing to risk breaking the universe to keep it secret. I guess we'll find out in November!
Oh but back to fate...
But one last point about fate and predestination — the notion of "fixed points" in time has always made a certain amount of sense, because certain historical events are so important they always have to happen. Like the assassination of Kennedy or something. But when it comes to people seeing their own futures, I think Heroes actually had the right idea. A vision of your own future, to be interesting, has to be something you can act on and change.
And I think that if Sarah Connor turned up and heard the Doctor talking about visiting his own tomb and knowing exactly when and where he'll die, she'd tell him to go raise some hell right here and now and maybe make a brand new future for himself, one that isn't set in stone. And then she and Strax would go out and get drunk and compare battle tactics. (And that's an episode I'm dying to watch.)