* Hello, sweetie. River Song comes crashing into Doctor Who, dressed as an ambassador of death. Looking back, what a wonderful thing it was to have such a complex and unconventional love story unfold so slowly, in occasional installments over a period of seven years. Revisiting the first chapter now that the tale is complete gives it a completely different complexion. I remember it initially took me a few appearances to warm to River, but now that I have it means I’m on her side from the start, and I found myself getting frustrated with The Doctor’s attitude towards her.
I’m not sure how much of this would have been intentional in 2008, but the consequence of this is an episode that can be interpreted and enjoyed in two completely different ways, depending on which of the protagonists’ perspectives you take. It’s either the start of a new relationship or the end of an old one; neither is the definitive experience on its own, rather they complement each other and your second viewing is truly rewarded. Now that all the gaps have been filled and all the questions answered, it feels like an already brilliant episode now has extra layers of brilliance on top.
* Was people saying “spoilers!” already a thing when this episode was aired, or did it originate here and has since disseminated into the public consciousness? The release of said spoilers about The Doctor’s future started off small with little hints like her having her own Sonic, and the fact that she’d never met Donna implying that she won’t be around for much longer, thankfully.
Then by the end, River’s numerous speeches about “her” Doctor were effectively a big advert for how brilliant the forthcoming Moffat era was going to be. By this point in Tennant’s tenure, some of the attention-grabbing magic of his early appearances was wearing off, and I do remember thinking it was about time to mix things up. But by the end of this episode, this one encounter with River had given The Doctor his swagger back, to the extent that he’s confident enough to try opening the TARDIS doors by clicking his fingers, and it works. You can almost see him starting to become the next Doctor, and we’ve just been told how amazing he’s going to be. Thankfully, he was.
(The order of events in this blog post is becoming terribly jumbled, but that seems apt. Go with it.)
* Moffat just loves to make kids scared of everyday things, doesn’t he? This time: the dark. The Doctor literally says at one point that fear of the dark is “not irrational”. The notion of shadows and the dust in sunbeams actually being tiny flesh-eating monsters is quite a memorable one, and the Vashta Nerada are an absolutely perfect foe for this episode – they do exactly what’s required to play their small part in a much bigger story.
* Mind you, they’re not safe from the mandatory repetitive catchphrase trend. The concept of ghosting is amazing and truly creepy – one of the best moments in the whole thing is the realisation that Other Dave is repeating the same phrases over and over again in the background. But the cliffhanger kind of exploited the concept to provide a more playground-oriented kind of monster. Between “who turned out the lights?” and “Donna Noble has been saved”, it become more of a cacophony than a climax, but meanwhile you had all the stuff with Dr Moon and the little girl, and that was just brilliant.
* Speaking of those segments: Mark Dexter! Now there’s an actor who I definitely wouldn’t have known at the time, but in the intervening years, thanks to his role as Rimmer’s brother in an episode of Red Dwarf, he’s someone who I’ve become a fan of, been to the pub with, and directed to pull stupid faces as part of the opening ceremony for a convention. Elsewhere in the guest cast, Steve Pemberton easily wins the competition for which member of The League of Gentlemen got to appear in the best episode of Doctor Who.
* It’s in the second half, when the focus switches more to the alternative world, that this story leaps from great to one of the greats. There are so many ideas here, each more twisted than the last – Donna is basically trapped in a little girl’s TV, experiencing her life as a series of hard cuts between scenes, gaining a husband and two kids in around four blinks of an eye, and then Miss Evangelista turns up dressed as the Grim Reaper, then Donna finds out that her kids aren’t real, then there’s that face, then the apocalypse happens around her, then her kids disappear from right under her nose – layers upon layers of really weird shit. It’s incredible.
* And then the kicker – the genuine heartbreak of Donna’s VR husband seeing her as she walks away, unable to call her name. It’s gut-wrenching, and along with River dying and then being saved, it’s a really emotional last few minutes. I don’t remember being particularly affected the first time round, but then wibbley wobbley timey wimey, River means more to me now. I’m mourning her death, even though she gets sort of resurrected, and even though I’ve got loads more of her stuff still to watch. That’s how good River Song is.
* At one point, The Doctor persuades the Vashta Nerada to back off him by telling them to look him up. Capaldi’s Doctor did exactly this on the telly last week, in Extremis. Moffat steals from the best – himself. Which reminds me, I’d forgotten what happened to River’s diary in The Library, so I now understand why people were so annoyed about Nardole having it, and yet I still don’t give a shit myself.