What do we know about the Lake Silencio incident?

[A revised and improved version of this essay appears in my book The Eleventh Doctor: a critical ramble through Matt Smith’s tenure in Doctor Who.]

Warning: Doctor Who spoilers from the start.

Read on after the break only if you’ve seen all the episodes of Doctor Who Series 6 apart from the last.

So tomorrow night sees the final episode in Series 6.  We know from the end of Closing Time that the Doctor is off to Lake Silencio to enact the events of The Impossible Astronaut.  He even has his Stetson.  He has the TARDIS-blue envelopes in which he is going to send the invitations to Amy and Rory, River, Canton Everett Delaware III and his two-hundred-year younger self.

We know, from having seen TIA before the Doctor has, how things are going to happen.  So let’s review what we know, and see if we can put it all together into a credible hypothesis.  Having seen episodes 2-12, I am now going to go back and watch the first part of episode 1, The Impossible Astronaut again, and note the relevant clues.  Off we go.

@1:38 — Amy: “He said he’d be in touch.” / Rory: “Two months ago.” / Amy: “Two months is nothing, he’s up to something, I know he is.”  This exchange suggests that from Amy and Rory’s perspective, The Impossible Astronaut takes place after the Doctor drops them off at their house at the end of The God Complex.  But I don’t think that can be right, as we have followed Amy and Rory’s timeline pretty constantly through the series.  They were travelling with the Doctor right up to the time of the drop-off, so I think this must be a red herring.

@3:13 — just after “I wear a Stetson now; Stetsons are cool.”  River shoots the hat right off the Doctor’s head.  We can’t tell exactly how far away she was, but far enough that the others didn’t notice her approaching.  What does this tell us?  River is a good shot; so good that she’s confident enough to shoot the hat off the man she loves without worrying about hitting him.  This will be important later.

@3:50 “I’ve been running.  Faster than I’ve ever run.  And I’ve been running my whole life.  Now it’s time for me to stop.  And tonight I’m going to need you all with me.”  The Doctor’s line, and the downbeat delivery, are very much of a piece with the latter parts of Closing Time.  Likewise @5:54 “Human beings.  I thought I’d never get done saving you.”

@5:22 Amy sees a Silent, and of course immediately forgets about it.  The presence of a Silent at the scene of the Doctor’s death indicates their involvement (or it’s a very odd coincidence).  Of course we know that the Silents are associated with Madame Kovarian, because there are two of them with her at the end of Closing Time when the newly Ph.D’d River is put into the spacesuit.

[Which reminds me: all the time we’ve known River, she’s been Doctor River Song, which means that all those adventures happened after the sequence in which the was put in the suit and left in the lake.  In particular, I think we can conclude that the River at the picnic is from later in her own timestream than the River in the lake.]

@6:00 Canton Everett Delaware III turns up, and the Doctor acknowledges him.  He’s obviously expecting him.  No-one talks to him at this point.  He’s arrived just in time to see …

@6:20 The astronaut standing in the lake.  Doctor: “You all need to stay back.  Whatever happens now you do not interfere.  Clear?”  He’s not surprised to see the astronaut.  Why not?  He knows when and where he is scheduled to die from the screen in Let’s Kill Hitler, but I don’t remember that saying anything about how.  Has he been finding out more?

Why is the astronaut in the lake?  Of all the ways that Madame Kovarian and the Silents could arrange to have the Doctor killed, why this bizarre way?  I have no ideas on this.  I think by now we pretty much have to assume that it is younger River in the suit (although at this point in Series 5 we all assumed it was the Doctor in the Pandorica, and look how that turned out.)

@6:50 a decidedly careworn Doctor speaks to the astronaut.  “Hello.  It’s OK, I know it’s you.  Well then …”  They continue to speak for another fifteen seconds but we don’t hear the rest.

@7:15 the astronaut shoots the Doctor.  Amy runs towards him.  River restrains her: “Amy, stay back.  We have to stay back.”  She gives the impression of having more idea what is happening than the other two.

@7:20 the astronaut shoots the Doctor again.  He starts to regenerate, but @7:50 the astronaut shoots a third time, mid-regeneration, interrupting the process.  The others run towards the Doctor.

@8:10, River shoots at the astronaut.  (As she stands up to do so, she looks resigned more than sad or angry.)  She fires five shots, all from pretty close range, and misses every time.  The pulls the trigger a sixth time but there is no shot — presumably because she used a bullet earlier shooting the Doctor’s Stetson off.  Why does River miss?  We have already seen that she is an excellent shot, able to safely shoot the Doctor’s hat off from similar range, yet she fails to his a much larger target even once from a much shorter range.  My best guess?  The Doctor replaced her bullets with blanks.  (After all, we’ve seen him pull similar tricks on immediately-post-regeneration assassin!River in Let’s Kill Hitler.)

@8:22, River says “Of course not.”  This could be construed as “of course there isn’t a sixth bullet” but it’s much more reasonable to read it as “of course I missed”.  Does that mean she knows it’s her in the suit, and of course she wasn’t killed otherwise she wouldn’t be there now?

@8:33, River says “Whatever that was, it killed him in the middle of his regeneration cycle.”  The “whatever that was” is strange if she knows it’s her.

@8:45 we have the escape routes cut off.  Amy: “Maybe he’s clone or a duplicate or something”.  But her thoughts are immediately shown to be incorrect by Canton’s first words: “I believe I can save you some time.  That most certainly is the Doctor.  And he is most certainly dead.  He said you’d need this.”  (A can of petrol for burning the body.)

@10:01 they cremate the Doctor’s body.  More ensuring that we know there is no way back.  It was the real Doctor, he is dead, and his body is destroyed.

@12:30 “This is cold.  Even by your standards this is cold.”  River was not expecting to see the younger Doctor.  However much she knew in advance of these events, she didn’t know this part.

What does all this mean?  The key questions are:

  • Who is in the spacesuit?  Let’s assume it’s River, from the part of her timeline when she’s just obtained her doctorate.
  • Does present-day River remember the events now happening from her earlier perspective in the suit?  The evidence is equivocal.
  • Why does present-day River miss the astronaut with all five of her close-range shots?
  • Why does the Doctor go willingly to his death?
  • What are the Doctor and the astronaut talking about for those fifteen seconds?

And most important of all …

  • How can the Doctor be saved when we know (A) that it is really him, not a clone or a duplicate; (B) that he really is dead, with no chance to regenerate; (C) that his body has been burned.

And, not obviously related, but worth throwing in:

  • What is the “first question” which, when asked, will (the Silence believe) cause the universe to end?  And how is it relevant to Kovarian’s anti-Doctor crusade?  Does she believe that he is going to ask that question, should he survive?

Well, I’d hoped that laying all the evidence out here would guide me to a flash of insight, but I’m afraid it’s not happened.  I am just as mystified as when I started.  But you good folks out there — I bet one of you can figure out what’s going to happen.  Leave a comment — let us know!

31 responses to “What do we know about the Lake Silencio incident?

  1. Oliver Townshend

    Well we don’t actually know if it is the Doctor’s body, despite what Canton says. After all he could have been lied to by the Doctor (Rule 1). So it could be a Ganger. And you’d want to burn a Ganger’s body to disguise that fact wouldn’t you?

    But if it was a Ganger would it dissolve into a puddle? No – that happens when the controller dies/loses control/has a sonic screwdriver on setting 34591254 aimed at it.

    And if it was a Ganger, how could it regenerate? Hmm. Difficult. I suppose you could somehow fake it.

    If a Ganger can eat Apple, why can’t it drink Wine? Very difficult, some lets call that a Red Herring.

    As to River saying “Of Course not”. Maybe she has a bad memory? Or a muddled one when she’s brainwashed? Maybe that’s why she has to keep reading her diary? (not least because she doesn’t know what the order is).

  2. This is one loaded post, with no way for me to respond to every excellent point made (and oh, how I could, if it weren’t for that drasted posting limit), so I’m going to go with the one that sticks out to me the most. It seemed to me that River began firing at herself in the suit because she simply didn’t remember that she did it. The River in the suit was probably exposed to the Silence very recently (either before or after the Doctor’s death), so that could have muddled her memory of the event. And we’ve seen that people regain their memories once they come into contact with the Silence again, so when she said “of course not”, so maybe reliving her past actions from the outside looking in helped her remember.

    And Oliver makes an excellent point about the diary–it never occurred to me that the reason River has to keep checking her diary is because her memories are so muddled by the Silence. That gives it a lot more significance than just being used as a record of all the times she spent with the Doctor–as if that’s the only thing that helps her undo her brainwashing by the Silence.

  3. More Doctor Who posts!! Yay!! :-)

    Now back to actually read the post…

  4. Ok, I changed my mind, here I am. :-)
    As to River missing: Who said she missed? Back in the day, the UNIT guys would hit their targets all the time, but often there was no effect. Of course this is because, in reality, the actors’ guns actually were firing blanks, but we’re supposed to pretend the reason is that the bad guy was “impervious to bullets”. So, considering all the armoring they’ve put on the Impossible Astronaut, I’d figured River had hit with all her shots, but that there was simply no effect on the souped up astronaut suit.

    I think the Doctor body that was burned is probably not a fake, but I agree with Oliver that it still could be. Also, I like the idea of River having to re-read her diary to remember what she and the Doctor have been up to.

    I have a crazy theory that what the Doctor and Astronaut person do is have that conversation in which the Question is asked. Because, the thing is, we’ve already seen The Silents’ prophesied result come true. We both saw and heard silence fall upon the Universe (the Pandorica Opens) and it worked. The whole Universe got ended. And then it got rebooted.
    My problem is the time loop-y part with Amy and Rory. I’m having trouble getting my head around that.

    Furry cows moo and decompress.

  5. I think we have to consider the possibility that there is no trick. The Doctor has spent a lot of time saying goodby this season. And we know from the old story arc with The Master that a Timelord isn’t supposed to regenerate 12 times. The show has had a good run, and I wouldn’t mind seeing it end on its own terms.

  6. Having read the post….

    I agree that the Grand Moff set up an almost impossible scenario to wiggle out of. He must have something really big planned.

    On the existence of the Ganger Doctor. The gangers existed in this season to show that Amy had been replaced. However, the Doctor Ganger is a possible out for the Doctor dying. But I hate that idea. There has to be more to it. But if it is the explanation, I suppose I could accept it if its framed well.

    Perhaps burning the doctor doesn’t do what is intended, or perhaps there’s more timey/wimey stuff yet to happen.

    I do want to put out there the idea that the eyepatch allows the wearer to remember the silence. In promo pics we see River, Rory, and Amy with an eyepatch on.

    More rambling. What is unseen…… We do not see how Canton gets his information from the Doctor, does he know what the trick is here?

    I’d have to agree that the “of course” refers to River knowing the gun’s not loaded because the Doctor unloaded it. Of course she also knows she has to miss to avoid a paradox.

    Speaking of paradoxes…… There have been two Amy’s this season, why couldn’t there end up two Doctors somehow? Of note: The paradox would be fixed by the death of the extra Doctor.

    Another unanswered question. Where is the older Doctor’s TARDIS?

    Is Moffat crazy enough to keep the Doctor dead and retreat to the 200 missing years for the rest of his story? I’ll throw out a No worthy of Lord Vader if this is the case.

    Just thought of this, but Matt Smith’s back for the Christmas Special so it’s highly unlikely… If the flashing lights and “regeneration” were just for show, wouldn’t the Doctor dying in a fire cause him to regenerate, assuming the fire was put out in time…..?

    Does the universe end or does “the silence fall” when the question is asked? The silence falling can be literally interpreted as the actual Silence losing in their fight with the Doctor.

    I have no idea what the question itself is. It can’t be as simple as the Doctor’s name. Although the name of the episode leaves the possibility of a marriage proposal on the table…..

    Dang, haven’t been this excited about a season finale since the end of Lost, maybe even the since the final episode of Babylon 5….

    I think its gonna be good……

  7. I’ve seen speculation that the Doctor on the beach is the Tessalector. I doubt it somehow but Moffat’s given us lots of options.

    Maybe the “fixed point” of the Doctor’s death will be cancelled out by a “fixed point” that happens later in his timeline (ie. he gets married and has an important kid or something). Therefore, a paradox ensues and both “fixed points” are cancelled.

    In other words, I don’t have clue. :-)

  8. I agree that this is a pretty enormous problem for Moff to get out of. So I have a few aspirations towards some ideas:

    * If Moffat has pulled a Pandorica on us, and it’s somebody else in the astronaut suit, then it’s an _older_ version of the Doctor. As in, older than the one who gets killed. Why? Because having three Doctors is like him, and his Schrödinger’s future might cause the timey-wimey-ness/messed-up time/Silence.

    * I don’t think TIA follows TGC; if so, wouldn’t Amy and Rory know about the Doctor’s death? She asked his Ganger clone about it, and we can presume TGC follows those episodes, so she’s already seen his death. Or am I getting in a twist?

    * If River knew what was going to happen, wouldn’t she have realised when they were syncing diaries in the diner, and quipping about Jim the Fish? Going one step further, is it possible the Doctor met his younger self in the diner before anybody else, and explained what was going to happen.

    Finally, one thing I haven’t seen mentioned above [potentially minor spoilers]: on _Confidential_ last week, Moffat said something like, “Everything you thought is probably right.” i.e., River in suit, she kills Doctor, etc. etc. That seems like such a blatant piece of misdirection as to be ridiculous.

    But basically, I don’t have a clue. (And I’ll miss it! Thank the gods for iPlayer)

  9. There was also that little teaser after the end credits of A good man goes to war with the skeletal hand holding a sonic screwdriver so i think there may be a possibility that we will see a Ganger Doctor.

  10. Michael L Perry, I have wondered about that — whether this really could be it. It would make story sense, and it would be an admirably brave thing to do. But extratextual reasons surely rule it out: we know that fourteen more episodes have been commissioned for 2012-2013, and that Smith, Gillan and Darvill have all been retained. And more than that, we know that Who is the BBC’s flagship programme. I don’t believe they would voluntarily give it up.

  11. Lots of interesting thought here, thanks to everyone who’s speculating!

    Oliver Townshend, it’s true that the Doctor could have lied to Canton about it really being him. But I don’t think so: I think that that would constitute the programme itself lying to the audience, which is Just Not On. So I don’t believe it was a ganger, and I don’t believe it was a teselecta as Kezzie suggested. Moffat has to play by the rule that he himself has laid down.

    That said … Interesting that the Doctor didn’t know what wine tastes like, when we know that he has drunk wine before — in fact, IIRC, the 3rd Doctor was something of a connoisseur. So could that be a hint that, after all, this is not the Doctor we know? It’s tenuous, I know.

    anneris31, it makes sense that River would shoot at herself because she doesn’t remember being that younger self; but then it would make no sense for her to say “of course not”. Does she remember or not? Surely she can’t have it both ways. I don’t think I buy the idea that witnessing the event happening caused her to remember it. It feels cheaty.

    WyrdestGeek, good point that maybe River didn’t miss and the astronaut was just invulnerable. I hadn’t though of that. But I think that both She Missed and They Were Blanks are more interesting explanations.

    On your idea that the Question was asked in that unheard fifteen-second conversation — I don’t think so. Silence didn’t fall. Here is what we were told in Let’s Kill Hitler

    Doctor: Who wants me dead?
    Teselecta: The Silence
    Doctor: What is the Silence? Why is it called that? What does it mean?
    Teselecta: The Silence is not a species; it is a religious order or movement. Their core belief is that silence will fall when the question is asked.
    Doctor: What question?
    Teselecta: The first question; the oldest question in the universe. Hidden in plain sight.
    Doctor: Yes, but what is the question?
    Teselecta: … Unknown …

    I don’t honestly see how the Question plays into all this at all, beyond the observation that one reason the Silence might want the Doctor dead is that they think he is fated to ask the Question. On the other hand, if what the fear is that “silence will fall”, why do they call themselves The Silence? I wonder whether much will hang on the silence/silents homophone.

    Jason, I’ve not seen the promo pictures that you allude to. I always avoid them, and the Next Week segment, wanting to come in completely unspoiled (so it’s a shame you told me about the eyepatches :-)) Interesting idea about their function, nonetheless. Likewise, I am going to ignore Steve Moody’s suggestion, since it’s based on something I’ve not seen.

    I assumed Canton got his information from the Doctor inside the invitation.

    “Is Moffat crazy enough to keep the Doctor dead and retreat to the 200 missing years for the rest of his story?” Surely not. You could do more Matt Smith season that way, but once he left the role you couldn’t have a regeneration.

    alexwichan, you are of course right that The Impossible Astronaut can’t come after The God Complex in Amy and Rory’s timestream. They would indeed then have known in advance about his impending death. Also, wouldn’t it mean that they were stuck in a loop?

    I think that’s all for now. Thanks again to you all. Fascinating stuff.

  12. I had the same thought about the eyepatches thing – it explains why Kovarian has one – if she is the only human explicitly working with them I imagine the idea will be that the eyepatch let’s you see them and remember seeing them. As for the rest – I have no idea.

    Presumably, the missing 200 years came in between the previous 2 episodes.

    (the Master did come back from being dead and burnt but there was something about that which felt like late period Dracula films)

    I’m still wondering if he’s going to tie things back to the first series – or if there is an even longer arc we’re not seeing yet. We’ve already seen A Universe fall – and be replaced by one constructed from Amy and exploding Tardis energy – so arguably very much tied to the creation of the Universe where we have met the Silents.

  13. At one point I had the perverse notion that Kovarian might be a later regeneration of River Song, building a further time-loop layer on top of the story. Obviously the implication in Hitler was that she lost the ability to regenerate, but there is a certain likeness between the two that struck me at the end of the last episode.

    Not that that contributes anything to an explanation for the end of this season, but it’d be an awesome (and Moffatt-like) teaser to what might happen next season.

  14. Oliver Townshend

    We’ve already seen a duplicate Doctor this season. Who knows if we haven’t had a Ganger since episode 5?

  15. But, Jerry, we’ve already seen the final and irrevocable death of River Song, right back in her first appearing in Series 4’s Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead. I don’t think Moffat would go back on that. It would be too Marvel Comics.

    And, Oliver, I just don’t see that it would be fair for the Grand Moff to give us a Ganger!Doctor when we were told so explicitly back in The Impossible Astronaut that “That most certainly is the Doctor. And he is most certainly dead.”

  16. Oliver Townshend

    End of episode 5 “Your molecular memory can survive this, you know. It may not be the end”.

    But assuming this is a Red Herring, assume he is dead. River serves a lot of time for killing him. She doesn’t seem terribly guilty about killing him, while the rest of the Universe is convinced she has. So either she knows she hasn’t really killed him, she did kill him but knows he survives, or she really is a psychopath.

    The energy for regeneration comes from the Tardis. Both the Doctor and River have it. River loses it in “Let’s kill Hitler” or in “Silence in the Library” (note the name). Maybe he rematerializes in the Tardis? Or somewhere else? I think we’re all out of speculation on this because he’ll suddenly re-appear somewhere. What if he changes into a dress suit and walks out of the Tardis in “Let’s kill Hitler?”. What if the one who dies is the one who was poisoned. Can’t quite making it fit together though…

  17. @Mike, ah, that’s right… so long ago that I’d completely forgotten! I really need to re-watch some of the earlier new seasons to refresh my memory.

    Almost a shame, because I’d love for Moffatt to one-up himself. Although I have the feeling he is the kind of writer that needs to push himself further regardless. I hold good hopes for remaining baffled until the end for many more seasons to come.

  18. I only got through about half the comments, so maybe someone already pointed this out. The Doctor learns about his death, from Amy. Amy tells who she thinks is the Ganger Doctor, about it, but it’s the real doctor. At the end of The Almost People, the real Doctor even mentions about how he is not invited to this death. I don’t remember if the entire conversation is onscreen or not.

  19. I’m just going to throw this out there, but I think that TIA takes place two months after A Christmas Carol, after their honeymoon, not after TGC, that the house in TIA that we see is maybe just a flat and the doctor gets them a new house in TGC

  20. I think you’re right, Evan.

    Ninety-seven minutes to go!

  21. Well. That was … unexpected.

  22. Unexpected yes. Not sure if it was clever or a cop out. Think i may have to watch it again before i make up my mind

  23. Well, this sucks… (not being able to see the show in real time, I mean). I’ll see the final episode as soon as I can.

    Not coming back to your blog until then!

  24. Interesting episode. I fully expected the ganger Doctor to perish by the lake.

  25. So how did the universe not know that the doctor didn’t actually die? Is it just because every observer of the incident had thought that he was dead in a sort of quantum physics sense? But that doesn’t make sense even if you take quantum physics that far, because River was an observer and she knew otherwise; so did the men in the tesselector for that matter. Ack! It doesn’t make a lick of sense. Whatever, I really enjoyed the episode, and that’s all that really matters with the amount of continuity black holes in the franchise.

    Kind of saw the question coming; I wasn’t that sure of it, but it was my best guess. “The fall of the eleventh,” either that refers to this last half season or the end of Matt Smith’s tenure. Well, we’ve got one more season with him, plus I’m glad we’re not holding onto him for 7 years or anything. Three years is a good amount of time for any Doctor.

  26. Some lovely touches – the mention of the Brigadier, the brief Indiana Jones musical motif, and I was wondering if the live chess was a nod to Blake’s Seven – the speed chess episode. And looking that up turned up an image of Travis in an eyepatch and Stetson.

    As for the episode, I think it suffered from the typical end of series need to create a situation so dramatic, that it could only be undone by undoing that timeline, etc. But really that whole portion was another bit of misdirection, almost time-filling, to put off what was in the end as simple an answer as it was always going to be (like any good mystery, the clues were all there).

    I’m still wondering if the Silents existed before the events at the end of the first Amy series.

  27. Oliver Townshend

    Did Moff lie? It was and wasn’t the Doctor.

  28. big spoilers in this post …..


    The problem wasn’t that River did and then didn’t kill the Doctor, it was that River did and didn’t kill the Tesselecta. That’s why when they kissed in the alternate reality it folded in the real event. That’s why the stuck time was, “a woman’s fault.” The Doctor had the problem solved before he showed up at the Lake, River just made things way more complicated then they needed to be.

    The Tesselecta WAS a big cheat, but we all wanted Moffat to come up with a cheat anyway. Also the ganger Doctor was the perfect red herring and I think, provided cover for the idea of the Tesselecta Doctor. However, as soon as the previously part started playing the Tesselecta’s involvement was assured.

    All in all, it wasn’t my favorite episode of this season, but it did put a big bow on what has been the best season of Who ever.

    And the question being what it was was fantastic.

  29. Jason,

    I noticed this Season provided atleast 3 ways for the doctor to get out of it. The Gangers from the Rebel Flesh, the Time Duplicate in The Girl who Waited, and the Teselector from Let’s Kill Hitler. I do agree, that the recap part, that as soon as they described the Teselector, that was obviously the way out. I dunno about favorite episode, I think The Wedding of River Song might be, but yes I think definately best season.

  30. Jason,

    I actually did figure this out on my own shortly after writing the post in the comment here. I was just over thinking it.

    As far as endings to series of New Who go, this might be the best. I’ll wait for a while before absolutely deciding that. It deals with some interesting ideas that separates it from the other really good endings, and the overall plot kind of seems to have more of a point to it as well as being more substantial than the plots of the first and fifth series. There’s a lot of growth and development that helps build to the ending throughout most of the second half of this series that hasn’t been seen in the show before, which really functions well. It’s cool that even some of the episodes that are pretty much completely standalone, like The Girl Who Waited, still tie in with the overall plot through character development.

  31. Pingback: The Wedding of River Song (Doctor Who series 6, episode 13) | The Reinvigorated Programmer

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