A dramatic reappraisal of the finale to Doctor Who Series 6/32.
|'Have you tried download?' The Soothsayer and Holy Roman|
Emperor Winston Churchill. (Image: BBC)
‘If it’s time to go, remember what you’re leaving.’
I hated this episode the first time around. No, hate’s too strong a word. I was so underwhelmed by it that I had no feelings about it at all, except a rather dull disappointment. Admittedly I was a bit tired and fed up when I first watched it, but after such an epic ride through Series 6/32, was this what we’d waited twelve weeks for? I thought ‘The Wedding of River Song’ was a meaningless, surrealistic jumble.
Watching it again, I suddenly realised I’d dismissed one of the best episodes made during Doctor Who’s 21st century reboot. Possibly one of the best in the history of the series.
Without listening to the words, of course it’s a meaningless surrealistic jumble. Fittingly for a series that started with the emphasis on dialogue over action, you have to pay close attention to what the characters are saying. The complex story is very skilfully, and not confusingly, woven through the discourse.
The Doctor is now The Soothsayer, so he tells Holy Roman Emperor Winston Churchill (Ian McNeice) a story, and that story is the story of Series 6 in flashback. Cleverly, there are new scenes showing how Earth-time went into meltdown that keeps the audience engaged, as they’re learning something new and having series-long enigmas explained. What could have come across as an indigestible info dump is presented as a series of important revelations through Smith’s remarkably assured and subtle performance, and it’s amazing, watching him here, to think that he’d only been around for two years. He should have kept his hair long too.
When Special Agent Pond arrives, the storytelling changes gear and moves rapidly towards its climax. Crucially, even with the narrative gymnastics going on, the emotional character of the protagonists has been considered in some depth. Amy is the same but different, as is Rory. Most shockingly, in a moment of pure malice, little Amelia kills Madam Kovarian (Frances Barber) in cold blood. It’s a sign of the maturity in Steven Moffat’s writing that she feels awful about it and later talks it through with her daughter. (It’s a bit of a shame that the implication that Amy could be just as dangerous as River was never followed up). Equally grown-up is the idea that however much you can cheat death through time travel, one day there’ll be a fatal reckoning. Here it’s touchingly conveyed through the passing of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart and would be further developed in ‘The Name of the Doctor’.
Now I can recognise the context that the wildly bizarre imagery has, it’s extremely powerful. A steam train powering into a pyramid designated Area 52, a horde of the Silence hanging from the ceiling of Emperor Winston Churchill’s palace, carnivorous skulls, the screaming Edvard Munch faces of the Silence themselves… I can only marvel at the imagination that’s able to dream this stuff up. Moffat’s steampunk mash-up is one of the most stunning visual landscapes the series has ever come up with. Add to that the oddly powerful scene of the Doctor, dressed like some apocalyptic Western gunslinger, wearing ‘the face of the Devil’ while looting a crushed Dalek for its memory core and you have a truly extraordinary piece of storytelling.
The only caveat is that I’m still not entirely sure why River needed an Apollo spacesuit to kill the Doctor, apart from the fact that it conveniently hides her identity from her other self… Ah.
That aside, ‘The Wedding of River Song’ is what Doctor Who always should be: like nothing else on television.