[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.