The Wedding of River Song

Prequel: That bloody nursery rhyme is playing again, as a pair of eyepatch-wearing soldiers inspect some Silence in a water tank. Then we see River, also wearing an eyepatch, lurking menacingly near an Egyptian sarcophagus. It’s all very atmospheric but a little bit dull; it’s more of a mood piece than a preview of the plot.

After a series like no other, with its various long-running storylines and the bloody great gap in the middle, comes a series finale like no other. For a start, it’s only one episode long, but at the same time it feels like the final chapter of a story that’s been going on for ages, finally tying up threads that have been dangling since the premiere. It’s a different way of telling The Doctor’s story, and one that’s not universally popular, but of which I am a big fan.

Besides, it’s not all heavy complicated stuff – this alternate universe where all of history is happening at once looks like great fun. Steam trains coming out of The Gherkin, Charles Dickens on BBC News, and even the pterodactyls from Torchwood having their render files dusted off. Churchill’s back again, he’s got a Silurian doctor and he’s keeping a bearded Doctor locked in the Tower of London. What’s not to love?

There’s also one of those big, varied, expensive-looking montages that Moffat likes to wheel out for the important episodes, which includes a tiny Dalek cameo and a heavily made-up Mark Gatiss as some sort of alien viking. It feels epic and exciting, but then the mood is punctured by news of the Brigadier. It’s a fair indication of Courtney’s standing that he’s the only actor whose off-screen passing has directly impacted the plot of a Doctor Who episode. I’m glad that Sarah Jane is still out there saving the world, even if Elisabeth Sladen isn’t, but with the Brigadier, being that much older and having lived a full life, it feels right to give his story a full stop. It’s so heartbreaking that the Doctor wanted to see him one more time after all these years, but couldn’t.

This moment also provides the impetus for the story to kick up a notch, leading to a glorious return for the Ponds, or at least alternate, eyepatch-wearing versions of the Ponds. The fact that those eyepatches turn out not to be a straightforward evil-person-indicator is a clever twist, as is Amy remembering far more than The Doctor expected her to, causing him to cut short his big timey-wimey speech. It’s a reunion that’s played for laughs rather than high drama, and it works – those two are such good friends that they’re just happier when they’re together, regardless of the circumstances, or the fact that they’ve never actually met in this universe.

The Rory stuff is cute too. I was all poised to update the Rory Williams Death Counter – even The Silence comment on the fact that he’s always dying – until Amy realised who he was in the nick of time. She then kills Madame Kovarian in cold blood, which she’s later somewhat tortured about, but I reckon it was probably fair enough. She did steal her baby and turn her into a psychopathic killing machine. That’s not cricket.

Then the eponymous wedding happens and time is put right and The Doctor dies. He’s careful to point out to us that River won’t remember killing him, which is mightily convenient but does help to sort out any confusion I had as to her timeline. Her later chat with Amy clarifies that she often has to lie in order to avoid giving spoilers to people from her relative past – again, convenient for storytelling purposes, but I buy it.

In retrospect, including the Teselecter in the ‘Previously’ recap rather gives the game away. I can’t remember whether or not I figured it out in advance originally, but either way it’s a good, satisfying conclusion. It leaves the series at an intriguing crossroads, with The Doctor’s vow to stay in the shadows coming across as very McCoy, as does the notion that he planned this whole thing for his own mysterious purposes.

Like I say, not your normal finale – it’s more like a victory lap for the series, the magician revealing how he pulled off the trick. Luckily, I really like the series, and the wrapping-up this story provides is meticulous. It’s a shame it doesn’t end with Amy and Rory back on the TARDIS, but having previously moaned about too many questions being left unanswered, we’re left with just one. A big blue head in a box shouting “DOCTOR WHO” over and over again should be the final image of every series.

RATING: 9

HALF-SERIES AVERAGE RATING: 7.5

SERIES AVERAGE RATING: 8.18

  • Seasons/Series watched: 32 of 36
  • Stories watched: 224 of 275
  • Individual episodes watched: 783 of 839

So yeah, the second half is not quite as good as the first, but not by as big a margin as I remembered. I think it’s improved by watching the two parts in much closer proximity; it’s a shame I had to sit through Torchwood in the middle, but the momentum still carried far better with a two-week gap than a two-and-a-half month one. Even so, this portion of the project seems very stop-start, veering wildly between various spin-offs and specials, without the stability of a big block of proper episodes for comfort. I’d best get used to it.

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A Good Man Goes to War

Prequel: That big blue wheeler-dealer chap sells a Judoon’s brain to some hooded figures, before attempting to verify the rumours that they’d kidnapped the child of someone connected to the Doctor. That’s about it, so they pad it out with some very slow captions trailing the TX date.

Really, the only preview that you need is the cliffhanger from the previous episode, and the sense of urgency and epicness that runs throughout this story does not disappoint. I’m vehemently opposed to the notion of chopping a season in half – the eventual workload solution they found of simply dropping an episode a year yields much more satisfying results – but at least they made the format work to their advantage by having such a huge, gobsmacking episode to provide the mini-finale.

I’d forgotten entirely about the pre-titles encounter with the Cybermen, now thankfully rid of their Cybus branding, which is a step in the right direction. I love the fact that Rory got to be the big hero we see confronting them – his story across the last season and a half is that of someone stepping out of the background to fulfil his true potential, and that’s often driven by the desire to protect his wife and/or newly-discovered child. It’s corny, but it really works.

Meanwhile, the Doctor is raising an army by taking us to as many different locations as the budget will allow, and Moffat is careful to make the build-up in this episode as comedic as possible, to balance the heavy stuff to come. River’s punchline to the Stevie Wonder story is one of my favourite gags the show has ever done, and the concept of a Sontaran nurse is just brilliant. It will never not be funny to see Strax politely inform people of his intention to kill them, and he’s by far the most promising of all the new allies this episode introduces.

When the Doctor’s finally ready to sort this shit out, his supposed triumph is a joy to watch unfold. Moffat pulls off a trick that I more readily associate with RTD, of throwing as many returning characters or species on screen as possible – he did it in his first finale, of course, but I don’t think he ever quite did it in the same way as this again. Here we get fuckloads of Silurians and Judoon (thus answering my question from the other day about whether it was rare for Moff to bring back RTD creations), as well as unexpected and possibly unwarranted cameos from “Danny Boy” and Captain Avery, characters from two of the least good episodes of the Moffat era thus far.

Then the episode’s third phase – the Doctor’s fall – kicks in, and bloody hell, things get intense towards the end. I was surprised to see Strax as one of the casualties, given that he’s about to become a recurring character, but then I guess death isn’t much of a barrier when you’re talking about a race of clones in a time travel show. More expected was that the sweet and brave Doctor fangirl didn’t survive the encounter, and the realisation of what his name means to her people hits the Doctor – and us – hard.

I’m not sure I quite agree with River’s wider assessment that the Doctor is on dangerous ground and needs to mend his ways. It rang true when the Tenth Doctor went through a similar identity crisis, but the Eleventh Doctor so far has been firmly committed to non-violence wherever possible, and has largely resisted abusing his powers. But then, dramatically speaking, you need to drag him down before you pick him up again, and the revelation about River/Melody – as well as being very cleverly done – ended this rollercoaster on a high.

It’s hard to relive the impact that it had at the time; the promise that the mystery will be resolved is always in the background of this episode, which means it loses a certain something when you know full well what’s coming. But it still managed to make me a little emotional, due to the Doctor’s joy of learning that Melody would eventually be just fine, and the knowledge that he dedicates so much of his life to keeping her safe and happy. Although it must be a bit weird to be shagging your best friends’ daughter, especially if you’ve held her (and indeed spoken to her) as a baby.

Nevertheless, it’s a stunning and shocking episode, and well worth revisiting regardless of the lessened impact of the big reveal. My lack of memory of the finer details of these episodes is really paying off now, as they’re able to surprise me all over again. For example, I still don’t quite remember who Madame Kovarian is and what her motives are; you don’t find out very much here, and instead it’s nicely set up to be the mystery that runs through the second half of the season.

One thing that I did remember though, and that still remains as funny as ever, is the huge high-stakes drama ending with the next episode’s title being revealed, in huge impactful letters, as “LET’S KILL HITLER”. After all that the episode had put me through the first time I watched it, I ended up unable to process any of the emotional connotations due to five minutes of solid laughter.

RATING: 9

It feels wrong to be doing the milestone stuff at this juncture, but nevertheless:

HALF-SERIES AVERAGE RATING: 9

  • Seasons/Series watched: 31.54 of 36
  • Stories watched: 218 of 275
  • Individual episodes watched: 777 of 839

I hadn’t realised how good the first half of this series was. I mean, I knew I liked it, but wow, just look at that average rating. My memory is that the second half doesn’t quite live up to it, and will most likely bring the overall score down, but unfortunately I’m going to have to wait to find out. It’s as galling now as it is then – just when you’re ramped up to maximum excitement about Doctor Who, it disappears for a while. Worse still, the filling of this Series 6 sandwich is not particularly appetising.

The Pandorica Opens / The Big Bang

* That’s a hell of an opening sequence, bringing together pretty much every major guest character from the series so far. Well, almost – if you were James Cordon or Meera Syal, you’d have to take it personally. It’s a new twist on the way the finale sits with the rest of the series – as well as there being seeds of the finale dotted throughout the preceeding episodes, bits of preceeding episodes are dotted throughout the finale. It makes the whole thing feel like it’s all been one big story – Series 5 is one long and varied chapter in The Doctor’s life, rather than several smaller ones.

* River Song Timeline Watch: The Weeping Angels story hasn’t happened to River yet. Is the implication that we’re following River’s story in exact reverse chronological order? That would be the easiest interpretation to follow, but hold on – she doesn’t seem to know who Rory is, so this can’t take place after any of her Series 6 or 7 stories. Unless she’s just pretending to not know Rory, in order to avoid any spoiler-related faux pas. Oh, I’m only three River stories in and I’ve gone cross-eyed.

* I really like the way the Cybermen are used here, like creatures in a horror flick. There’s the disembodied head scuttling about on spidery tentacles, then the skull falling out of the helmet, then the headless ghost coming to attack. Despite how unusual a Cyberman appearance this is, it’s the most effective they’ve been in the revival so far, and the skull is the closest they’ll come to nailing the body horror until they give up and bring back the Mondasians.

* Rory’s back. Hooray! I couldn’t quite remember all the details of how it happens, and considered the possibility that he’d remain an Auton for the rest of his life. That would have been great – The Doctor having a companion that’s ostensibly human in pretty much all respects, except that his hand can turn into a gun. And he might accidentally kill his wife when stressed.

* Quick status check at the end of the first part: The Doctor has been imprisoned by every monster he’s ever met, Amy has been reunited with Rory only for him to shoot her dead, River is trapped in an exploding TARDIS, and every star in every universe in every reality is going out, one-by-one. Yeah, that’s a pretty high-stakes cliffhanger.

* When things are this extreme, it makes me nervous, as it’s a big challenge to get out of situations like this in a satisfying way. Moffat handles this by once again tinkering with the format of a finale. It’s often the case that the first ep is largely one long set-up for the second ep, but here it feels more like two distinct stories. By not starting The Big Bang in the same time and place as The Pandorica Opens ended, it’s an indication that the answer to “how do they get out of that one?” is going to take the whole episode.

* It’s an answer that involves the return of young Amelia Pond, and she’s up against stone Daleks, which look a hell of a lot better than the New Paradigm bastards elsewhere in this series. We’re also introduced to The Doctor’s penchant for a fez, as part of a timey-wimey jigsaw puzzle of a plot, which sees the show once more channeling Bill & Ted-style time travel humour. This use of time travel as a story-telling device is something that would become a trademark of Moffat’s era, so it’s easy to forget how fresh, unusual and exciting it felt at the time.

* Inevitably, the ultimate conclusion to the story requires a little bit of what people like to refer to as a “reset button”, but there’s so much more it than that, and it avoids all the pitfalls that often make this term a pejorative one. Firstly, the show acknowledges exactly what it is – The Doctor is rebooting the universe, simple as that. Secondly, it’s not without its cost – The Doctor has to sacrifice his existence in order to make it happen, cleverly linking up with the rest of the series once more as he goes.

But mostly, the crucial part is that by the time everything’s worked itself out, the characters still remember everything that happened. Amy piecing everything together was a thing of joy, and it meant that all the things that the reboot erased were still “real” to her, Rory, River and The Doctor, even if that’s not what the history books will say. As far as they’re concerned, Rory spent the best part of 2,000 years guarding Amy, while she managed to bring both the men in her life back from the dead, and all the character development that goes along with these things will still apply.

So yeah, call it a “reset button” if you like, but it’s not a cheat – it’s our heroes fixing a problem and winning the day like they always do, even if nobody but them will know they did it.

RATING: 9

SERIES AVERAGE RATING: 8.2

  • Seasons/Series watched: 31 of 36
  • Stories watched: 212 of 275
  • Individual episodes watched: 769 of 839

What a fine series that was. One thing I’ve noticed is that when I was rewatching Series 1-4, seeing Eccleston and Tennant was like revisiting old friends, as I had been for Doctors 1-8. But with Smith, despite the fact that I adore Capaldi, I’ve been kind of forgetting that he’s not the current Doctor – he’s still so exciting to watch, and I’ve always thought he could have easily stuck around for longer.

Coming up next, I’m about to go on holiday for a week and a bit, which might rather dent my hopes of finishing this thing before Christmas. However, I’m taking my laptop and my Sarah Jane DVDs with me, just in case it rains…