More thoughts on The Wedding of River Song

[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.]

24 hours on from writing my review of The Wedding of River Song, I’m still a bit shocked at how negative it turned out.  And I still don’t really understand why I liked it so very much less than, say, The Big Bang.  But I did have two more thoughts I wanted to share; plus a lot of interesting points have been made in the comments, some of them deserving a public response.

Needless to say, lots of spoilers follow.

1. How did the Doctor cheat death?

In one sense, I have no problem at all about this.  We’ve been told repeatedly that the events at Lake Silencio are one of those Fixed Points In Time that David Tennant pulled out of thin air in The Fires of Pompeii, and so that those events have to happen.  But, as Douglas Adams pointed out in one of the very brief prefaces to Mostly Harmless: whatever happens, happens.  The events at Lake Silencio are whatever happened, and we now know that the fixed point was never that the Doctor had to die, but that the Teselecta robot had to be shot and burned.  By arranging for the Teselecta to stand in for his 1100-year-old self, the Doctor had already solved the problem of his own death before the end of The Impossible Astronaut.  It was never him.

So why did the Doctor not just tell everyone that?  Because the Silence wanted him dead, and the only way to bring their sequence of plots to an end was by letting them believe they had succeeded.  (Remember, there was a Silent at the lake, witnessing the events.)  For this to work, Amy and Rory, and River and for that matter Canton, had to absolutely believe that they were seeing what they thought they were seeing.

That would have been fine, if emotionally tough on the Doctor’s friends.  But Old River badgered it all up with her unwanted compassion.  By refusing to go through with her part in the pre-ordained Fixed Point events, by discharging her weapon harmlessly instead of shooting Teselecta!Doctor, River created the paradox that caused time to collapse on itself.  The purpose of the rest of the episode was to get to the point where River could be persuaded to do her job.  And it’s for that reason that the Doctor presumably initiated the very hurried wedding.

All of which would have been fine — rather clever, in fact — were it not for Canton Everett Delaware III turning up with his can of petrol gasoline and telling us these words “I believe I can save you some time.  That most certainly is the Doctor.  And he is most certainly dead.”  Which was not true.

Note: telling us these words.  You can easily come up with the in-story dramatic explanation for the lie: the Doctor lied to Canton, which is after all Rule Number One, “The Doctor lies”.  But, dammit no, Moffat, it won’t do.  The way that scene was set up, Canton’s words were not just spoken to Amy-Rory-and-River, they were spoken directly to the audience.  They were the words of the Grand Moff himself, raising the stakes and telling us that this wasn’t going to be easy.  The Doctor we were looking at was not “a clone or a duplicate or something“, as Amy had it.  We had Moffat’s word.  But it wasn’t true.

You know what?  Cut that line of Canton’s, and the whole episode would work much, much better.

2. The River/Doctor relationship

I hadn’t noticed it until my wife pointed it out, but the River/Doctor relationship is strangely passionless.  We don’t at any point have the sense that these are two people in love, beyond River’s generic the-Doctor-is-the-most-wonderful-man-in-the-universe love, which everyone has.  And there is certainly nothing passionate in his attitude to her.  In fact, the whole relationship is based on nothing more intimate than very stylised flirting, not wholly dissimilar to what you might find in a Jane Austen novel.

So when the wedding comes, it lacks emotional punch, and the kiss doesn’t carry any weight.  Yet when Ross and Rachel got together on Friends, or Niles and Daphne in Frasier, or indeed Veronica and [SPOILER REDACTED] in Veronica Mars, there was a tension, an intensity that was wholly lacking between the Doctor and River.  (Come to that, that intensity was present between the Doctor and Rose, though the nature of that relationship was hugely more interesting.)

So what is going on here?

Well, it could be that Smith and Kingston are just not selling it.  It’s a possibility: I think Smith is a sensational Doctor, but he’s strong in all the traditionally asexual aspects of the Doctor’s persona — curiosity, intelligence, compassion, volatility — and not necessarily as a romantic lead.  And I think Alex Kingston’s performances as River Song have been uniformly horrible: mannered, arch, perpetually smirking.  Mocking us.  Like Gimli.  So her inability to convince as someone in love is not a surprise.

But I like to think it’s part of a broader plan.  That by design, the Doctor is not really into the relationship, and that he’s going along with it essentially because he needs to in order for his plan to work.  Hence (going back to my earlier point) he initiates the wedding basically in order to persuade River that, yes, he knows he’s loved, and can he now please go back to getting shot?

But the wedding fails to persuade River, maybe because she subconsciously knows his heart is not in it.  Which is why he reveals to her that his body is in fact the Teleselecta.  And that revelation is the crack in the Doctor’s otherwise perfect plan for disappearing without trace.  Because River knows he’s alive, and she tells Amy, and they tell Rory, and …  At some point, it’s going to get back to the Silence, isn’t it?

There’s more that I’d like to say, especially in response to some of the very insightful comments on the previous post, but once again it’s 1:30am, and I really need to stop writing.  I’ll either go back and reply to comments tomorrow, or maybe make yet another post.

… and finally

Totally irrelevant to Doctor Who, but I just wanted to note that at last Sunday’s Forest Folk Club gig (Barron Brady, and very good they were too) I sang my third floor-spot, this time performing versions of Deep Purple’s atypical ballad Soldier of Fortune and James Taylor’s You’ve Got a Friend.  (Yes, I know Carole King wrote it, but my version’s based on Taylor’s.)  This is turning out to be a lot of fun.

32 responses to “More thoughts on The Wedding of River Song

  1. Oliver Townshend

    Because revealing you are alive to the skulls and heads of the headless monks will never get back to the silence will it? No they can keep secrets…

  2. And now for some completely mad speculation. The wedding itself was the sticking point for me. I couldn’t work out why Moffat went to that extreme to get River to agree to the shooting. Couldn’t the Doctor have just told her to look him in the eye? It seemed unnecessary; until I started thinking about how Moffat’s stories tend to be more plot-driven than character-driven (that’s not a criticism or a compliment). Then I started to worry. One of the consequences of Amy’s and Rory’s wedding was that River was conceived in the TARDIS. So far, the marriage of River and the Doctor has been used for a mother-in-law gag. The fact that they are married means what I’m going to speculate about isn’t completely out of the blue.
    1. River felt sick in the Impossible Astronaut, shortly after Amy had a bout of morning sickness (despite being in Ganger form). The sick feeling could however have just been due to River’s proximity to the Silence. Or something. She was married at this point in her timestream.
    2, The Doctor says something to the effect of “[River’s] nights [during imprisonment], that’s between her and me” at the end of Wedding of River Song. It might be nothing.
    3. River says of the Doctor’s cot “I haven’t seen that in a while” in A Good Man Goes to War. Since she can’t have remembered it from babyhood, has she seen it before? Why?
    4. All of this still requires a leap of logic, but I don’t think Moffat could have been blatant, because he doesn’t know from one season to the next which actors are going to stick around. At least, he said something to that effect about why clues that River was Amy’s daughter were scarce.
    Anyway. I hope someone will tell me I’m mad, but at the moment in NuNuWho, it feels like anything is possible. Is Moffat setting the series up for Daddy Who?

  3. @Kezzie: Ooh, that’s interesting. And I think you’re spot on. Excellent attention to detail!

  4. Kezzie, very interesting. And what if River’s baby is … Rory? We don’t know anything about his parents, after all. Of course, that would make Rory (A) at least half Time Lord, which I think we’d have seen some hint of; and (B) Amy’s grandson, which is a bit icky. Still. All that spare timey-wimey lying around, it’s got to be used for something.

  5. Or Amy herself. Doctor Who was always going to explore the Grandfather Paradox in some form, eventually. I’ll start to be nervous if the TARDIS materialising in front of Amy and Rory’s house at the end of the Christmas special, and Amy is carrying her “granddaughter”. Christmas Carol undid the Blinovitch Limitation already. Amy looks nothing like her parents, and she did continue to exist when they were erased (although that might be timey-wimey rather than adoption). Anyway, Moffat said to expect a cliffhanger at the end of the Christmas special, so we’ll see.

  6. That was my first guess. But since we’ve actually been shown Amy’s parents (at the end of The Big Bang) and since her mother was nothing like River (who, remember, has no more regenerations to play with), I don’t think so. The only way to do that would be to re-rewrite history in such a way to replace Amy’s rediscovered parents, which would (A) be cold, even for Who; (B) retroactively undermine the emotional punch of the Series 5 finale; and (C) raise all the questions of Amy can be the same person when she has different parents.

  7. “And what if River’s baby is …Rory?” Oh please god no, Moffat.
    *ahem* anyway, despite my love for this episode, I pretty much agree on this article. If Canton never delivered that “that most definitely is the Doctor” line then it wouldn’t make Moffat look like such an ass for lying to us. Not misleading, LYING. Even if it was just “That most certainly is the Doctor you’re looking at” and not mention anything about being dead, then even that would be fine.

    About Alex Kingston. I didn’t actually think her performance in this episode was bad. TOO bad, at least. Certainly, it’s not particularly anything you’d promote Doctor Who with: “it’s got Alex freakin Kingston!!” but at least it wasn’t like in “Let’s Kill Hitler”. A great line “I was on my way to this gay gypsy bar mitzvah…” made terrible by her “acting”.
    I didn’t actually mind her in Series 5 though.
    Overall, since we have the essential information on her life (who she is to the Doctor, why she was imprisoned, etc) I hope that we don’t really see her again.

    Looking forward to the Christmas special, mind you. And I’m split on whether or not I’d like to series to back to it’s anthology setting. I like how much he experimented with a running series arc. Maybe he’ll go a bit more anthology but still have the threat of the arc there…. so Series 5… I’m basically asking for Series 5, aren’t I?

  8. Gareth Jones

    I seem to remember nausea being stated as a side-effect of too much exposure to the Silence in the first episodes. If it is, it’s another thing that got left by the wayside in later episodes, unless you can develop a Silence tolerance with repeated exposure.

    Anyway, I’m not too worried by the lack of proper answers to the bigger questions of this series (or the last few from the last series for that matter). A surprising amount of stuff from this series was foreshadowed last series, so I get the impression that there is an at least partially planned super-arc across Moffat’s work, including some of his episodes under RTD’s watch.

    The only realistic options for Wedding were ever what would ultimately appear to be a cop-out, or an inter-series cliff-hanger (which I’d be fine with, except that it would make the Christmas episode difficult unless it was inserted into the missing 200 years).

    Gareth

  9. mrfitzonic wrote:

    “And what if River’s baby is …Rory?” Oh please god no, Moffat.

    LLOL!

    Actually, I do agree — it would be just too much, timey-wimey for the sake of timey-wimey. It was just a passing thought, and it would not be a good way to go with the series really.

    I’m split on whether or not I’d like to series to back to it’s anthology setting. I like how much he experimented with a running series arc.

    I know what you mean. At the beginning of Series 6, I was very enthusiastic about the Big Arc: “it’s better to err on the side of asking too much of an audience than too little. I like it that Doctor Who is throwing so very much at the wall and seeing what sticks, and I love it that it trusts us enough to make sense of it all.” I suppose my sadness with Wedding is that this series was set up to be so much more than any of the earlier ones, but didn’t follow through. One response to that is to think they shouldn’t be so ambitious next time; another is to say they should be more ambitious, try for the same level of complexity but invest more effort into coherence and co-ordination, so that in the end it all makes complete sense.

    Eight years ago, in his review of the Ang Lee Hulk movie, Andrew Rilstone wrote something that has stayed with me (and which in fact I’ve quoted here before): “The whole thing doesn’t quite work, but it’s the sort of failure one would like to see rather more of.” That’s pretty much how I feel about Series 6. Its failing come about by trying to achieve too much and not quite managing; that’s easy to forgive.

  10. One thing I’d like to point out is that Fixed Points are nothing new to Doctor Who, they’ve actualy been around since the first doctor, William Hartnell

    Second, I loved this episode for nothing more then the reference to the Brigadier, I found it very touching

    Third, I don’t know about anyone else, but I would personally love another episode written by Neil Gaimen in a future season

  11. I think was we have here was a no win situation that Moffat put himself in. You give people this big mystery and then you have them speculate for MONTHS about how the Doctor will get out of it (sorry I don’t buy the Canton’s line was mean bit. C’mon would you rather he’d have said “no, that’s not the Doctor, everything will be fine.” He had to say what he said for the season to work out the way it did). What we have here is what I’d like to call the Matrix effect. The setup is so cool that everyone wonders where it is going. Given enough time they come to conclusions about where they WANT it to go. Then when it doesn’t go there people are disappointed, because it wasn’t their way. So we need to ask ourselves, were we so scared of the Doctor being really dead that we can’t accept him not being dead? Did we want his death solved to a certain level of emotional satisfaction and it missed the mark, because its impossible to feel bad that you lost something that it turns out you didn’t lose? But the question to follow that is, could anything have hit the mark to meet our expectations? I say, for some at least, no. That was Moff’s mistake, making the Doctor’s death too big. But you also have to ask yourself, would you want it any other way (ties in to the Ang Lee Hulk quote above).

    What’s being missed here in the reflection of the saving of the Doctor is what this season was REALLY about. The meat of the season was about the Doctor figuring out who he is and what he wants to live for. This required everyone (including the Doctor) thinking that he was going to die. It led to so many of the great character moments throughout the whole season. That emotional conundrum made season 6 the best so far in my opinion.

    In all this thinking about Doctor Who, I have come up with something I want from season 7, and its kind of a shocking realization. I want Amy and Rory to stop being the Doctor’s companions, I think its time for them to move on. I really liked the feeling of the Doctor letting them go in the “The God Complex.” I think their story may be told. Time for a new companion(s).

  12. on the elderly Canton Everet III and his pronouncement: While I have previously said that having the Doctor be a fake after all that certainty that he was not a fake was lame, I do not have a problem with Canton saying “that most certainly is the Doctor” then finding out that it wasn’t the Doctor. You could’ve had 50 people there all saying, “yup it’s the Doctor. Absolutely no way it could be a fake,” and it still wouldn’t bug me. Because it’s a show. And no matter how certain you are, it is always possible for the author to write his way out of it. That’s just how it works.

    Anyway, Canton was only incorrect about the being dead part.

    If the Doctor was still inside the Tessalecta at the moment that Canton looked down and made his pronouncement, “That most certainly is the Doctor,” then that part of statement was correct. Sure, the dead part was either unintentionally incorrect or else it was a lie, but remember the Silence were likely still hanging around. Also remember that in Impossible Astronaut, Amy and Rory also faked their own deaths with Canton as accomplice. So you could say that was foreshadowed too.

    See? That’s why I will forever love the moment when the Doctor bows from inside his eyeball to River! It is the ultimate conundrum! It reminds me of Red Dwarf when Holly revealed he was Queeg: “We are talking jape of the decade. We are talking April, May, June, July and August fool. That’s right. I am Queeg.”

    Jason wrote:

    What’s being missed here in the reflection of the saving of the Doctor is what this season was REALLY about.

    That’s a good observation.

    Jason

    In all this thinking about Doctor Who, I have come up with something I want from season 7, and its kind of a shocking realization. I want Amy and Rory to stop being the Doctor’s companions,

    Erm. Well, yeah. Actually, as near as I could tell, we did see them stop being his companions at the end of God Complex. They showed up for the briefest of cameos in Closing Time because, generally, when you’re name is in the opening credits, you’re pretty much in for the whole series.
    They showed up in the Wedding because some of the events there took place outside of all of normal space-time and/or took place at the start of series 6.

    I’ll actually be a bit non-plused if they show up in the Christmas special. I mean, I’ll miss them as companions but they’re supposed to be gone now. The only reason why we saw them leave then saw them twice more is because it’s the same series and, of course, the timey-wimey spacey-wacey nature of the storytelling. :-)


    Furry cows moo and decompress.

  13. Wyrd wrote:

    I do not have a problem with Canton saying “that most certainly is the Doctor” then finding out that it wasn’t the Doctor. You could’ve had 50 people there all saying, “yup it’s the Doctor. Absolutely no way it could be a fake,” and it still wouldn’t bug me. Because it’s a show. And no matter how certain you are, it is always possible for the author to write his way out of it. That’s just how it works.

    No. Because the issue wasn’t Canton telling Amy and Rory what the Doctor needed them to believe (which is fine); it’s that Canton’s line, its structure and its delivery, was Moffat directly addressing the audience. It’s the closest thing to “And a merry Christmas to all of you at home”. It’s fine for characters to lie; it’s not fine for authors to lie. Your earlier point about Harry Potter is pertinent here: Rowling never lied to the readers, because she really did have it all planned out in her head. (Of course Doctor Who is better than the Potter books in many, many ways; but in this particular way, Rowling has surpassed Moffat.)

    I’ll actually be a bit non-plused if they show up in the Christmas special. I mean, I’ll miss them as companions but they’re supposed to be gone now.

    It’s well documented that both Amy and Rory will appear in the Series 7. But it seems to me that the implication is they won’t be regulars.

    You know what I’d really like (though I don’t believe it will happen): Amy dies — I mean really, irrevocably dies — and Rory remains as a lone companion while he deals with his grief. Probably too dark for what is still (we must keep reminding ourselves) a kids’ programme. But I can dream. (This is the kind of thing Torchwood could do, of course, if it really had any interest in mature themes.)

  14. Christopher Brown

    If Amy died, I would be crushed. After everything Amy and Rory went through, they deserve to be together.

    I’m fine with the Big Arc, but I still just can’t believe that they didn’t tie everything together. Did they not plan to? Are they really going to wait an entire year to answer these questions which may or may not even play a role next year?

    The questions from The Impossible Astronaut weren’t even the only ones. For example, what was the Flesh? If it was alien, where did it come from, how and why did it end up used as a factory product and what was its connection to Madame Korvarian and the Silence? How and when was Amy Pond kidnapped from under the Doctor and Rory’s noses? What were the Silence doing to Amy when she was captured in Day of the Moon? And what the heck was up with the disappearing pirate?

    So many questions. Then again, in Sylvester McCoy’s time, there was one story arc that had a pay-off two seasons later, but there was never any hint from the beginning that it or elements were part of an arc; the arc developed naturally, and with each passing story rather than being sign-posted from the beginning, meaning that viewers weren’t necessarily expecting things to be followed up upon.

    By the way Mike, if you haven’t already then I would definitely check out Sylvester McCoy’s stories as the last two years of the original Doctor Who run are two of its best ever. While I haven’t seen all of his stories yet, I highly recommend watching them in order, starting with Dragonfire. That story is just okay, but immediately after that things really get rolling. McCoy’s run is very much a forerunner to modern Doctor Who under both its head writers, from the camp feel and modern elements of RTD’s run, to the dense and impenetrable but lyrical and brilliant stories, to the stronger emphasis on companions as important to the show, and even to the development of the Doctor’s character….

    On a side-note, I’m not a fan of the Colin Baker era and was shocked to find that Revelation of the Daleks was really quite good! That one I recommend to those looking for a good Colin Baker story. Vengeance on Varos is also worth a look, if only for the character of Sil and for the interesting subject-matter.

  15. I’m left wondering how River convinces the (David Tennant) Doctor that they are married in Silence in the Library. She was supposed to whisper his name to him. But he never whispered his name to her during their wedding. Instead he told her to look in his eye.

    If he had revealed his name, he would have been answering the first question, and thus brought upon the fall of the Silence.

    One solution was conveniently discarded to make way for a solution to a different problem.

  16. Aren’t we led to believe he tells her his name in ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’?

  17. That’s how I read that scene in LKH, but general fan opinion seems to be that it was something less specific, such as “tell her I love her”. In any case, it would be strange for the Doctor to tell River in Wedding that he is about to tell her his name if he’d already done so. So I think probably not.

  18. IIRR though, he doesn’t! He says afterwards “I just told you my name.” After he’s told whispered to her to play along.

  19. Pingback: The new new frontier | The Reinvigorated Programmer

  20. A couple of quick thoughts:

    Where point 1. is concerned, I believe that the fixed point was the Doctor’s death. I’ll stand by my belief that it was a masterstroke on Moffat’s part that simply by believing that the Doctor was dead then all the problems with time could be fixed. It certainly has been a key point of Moffat’s tenure that the Doctor has been written as having a special relationship with time, rather than just possessing the intelligence and technology to manipulate time.

    And with point 2. We really have had far too much River Song. Almost to the point where Moffat appears to believe that the Doctor is incapable of dealing with any kind of serious threat without her by his side. For emotion, I think the last/first kiss has to be the high point.

    And for season 7? I know Moffat has drawn a line under the Daleks for the time being, but let’s face it, he also appears to have drawn a line under every other kind of regular monster-enemy. None of the others have done much more than play what amount to cameo-roles. (the disasterous Silurian two-parter aside).

    And finally: none of the outstanding questions or queries from this season will be answered in the future… And that is the most annoying thing of all.

  21. I think “disastrous” is very strong. Those episodes had some fine moments, most notably the Doctor’s conversation with the captive Silurian warrior.

    “And finally: none of the outstanding questions or queries from this season will be answered in the future… And that is the most annoying thing of all.” Well, let’s not be too quick to leap to that conclusion. Most of the time Moffat’s been very good on that. Series 6 could be the start of a decline, or it could be a blip; or indeed part of a masterplan. Time will tell.

  22. I have no idea why anyone should think there is a romantic attachment between the Doctor and River Song, apart from the script says so. There is no chemistry between them, she is so annoyingly arch and knowing and the actress is queening it up like nobody’s business.

    Take a look at the Christopher Eccleston Dr Who meeting Rose and see how their relationship develops – remember the truly touching scene on the beach as they are parted. Has all that memory been wiped to allow for this awful woman (Time Lord) to come barging in?

    Imho the actress looks like someone’s mum – and that’s not her age, but her demeanour. You could have had Helena B-C play that role and make it real – playful and exciting. You could have had Sandra Bulloch – sharp and wacky. My heart sinks every time River appears and it’s ruining the whole thing for me.

  23. Although I wouldn’t go as far as “ruining the whole thing or for me”, Barbara, I do agree with the substance of your comment. With a few months’ perspective now on the whole Doctor/River storyline, I still find it unconvincing. It works as a story, despite my reservations, but the actual relationship never takes flight. And, yes, I put that down almost entirely to Alex Kingston’s mannered performances.

  24. Before we go blaming everything on Alex Kingston’s performance, let’s remember that there was another key area where emotional content was missing – Amy missing her baby after the kidnap. I think it’s more a feature of the rushed pacing, that we’re told everything rather than get a chance to feel it.

    I actually prefer Kingston’s performance to Matt Smith’s, but I recognise that puts me in a minority.

  25. You’re right that Amy’s (and Rory’s) lack of emotional response after losing Melody remains a real problem. But I find it much easier to forgive those characters, and their respective actors, because there is so much else about them that I love; indeed, they are firmly established as my two favourite companions.

    I actually prefer Kingston’s performance to Matt Smith’s, but I recognise that puts me in a minority.

    Now you’re just trying to wind me up.

  26. But I never even mentioned Richie Blackmore!

  27. I’ve been watching the Christopher Ecclestone series again. What a brilliant set of stories and plenty of real emotion as well as good plots and action. And so much flirting!

  28. I agree, the sole Eccleston series stands up very well six years on. I loved his portrayal at the time, and still do: that he achieves such an essential core of Doctorishness when nearly every specific aspect of his performance is exactly what one would not have expected from The Doctor.

    I wonder too whether Eccleston benefits from having had only a single series, though I was very disappointed by that at the time. His arc is clear and well-defined and fully resolved, and he never had time to wear out his welcome or lapse into self-parody.

    Gavin, I am afraid I am completely bewildered by your Richie Blackmore comment. Please explain?

  29. It probably was ages ago but on my blog I said something was as cliched as a Richie Blackmore guitar solo, and you posted a comment to defend him!

    Regarding Ecclestone only having one season, I have sometimes suspected Davies planned everything around two seasons for him, and everything else was padding and extemporisation.

  30. I very much agree. One of the great untold stories in Doctor Who is: what was RTD’s original ending to the first season? Mind you, having read The Writer’s Tale, I suspect that he hadn’t actually gotten around to writing the ending when Ecclestone announced that he was leaving.

  31. Pingback: Mike’s bang-up-to-date review of The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe | The Reinvigorated Programmer

  32. Some or all of you may have already seen this video. I just saw it today. It is awesome:

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