Some spoilers for the unwary
“The Wedding of River Song” turned out to be a fun, entertaining episode to round out the sixth season of Doctor Who. But strangely, what it wasn’t was a resounding season finale spectacular, or a sufficiently satisfying pay-off to a complex and at times maddeningly twisty multi-season story arc.
Perhaps the problem is that the episode brings in so many characters and storylines from the past that it had the overall feeling of being ‘a little bit of admin’, there mainly to wrap up the loose ends. It feels like the end of the mystery novel, the chapter just after the murderer has been unmasked and then taken care of in an exciting fight/chase sequence: the one where everyone sits down in the drawing room sipping a cup of tea, and someone asks the main character “So, just how did you figure it all out?” and there then follows ten pages of exposition.
Writer Steven Moffat certainly tries to inject the ‘epic’ into the story, but he does so by the maddeningly now-familiar route of taking a fabulous concept (fractured time) that should be given room to power an entire episode or two, and instead jamming it into a corner of the story and painting it in such broad strokes that it ends up coming across like a cartoon in primary colours. RTD could do this sort of thing and pull it off, but such pop culture feints jar with Moffat’s more intellectual tendencies. As in previous Moffat episodes it’s a tragic waste of a great idea when other episodes in the run (“The Curse of the Black Spot” for example) have been constructed on over-extending much weaker ideas. Even the foreboding looming sense that the Doctor is about to die is lost ineffectively in the mix this week, and was much better played in last week’s “Closing Time”.
That’s not to say there aren’t some great moments in the episode of course: Kickass Amy (with a desk! in an office! on a train!) is a delight, along with the steam train entering the Area 52 pyramid and the way that true love transcends even alternate realities and the death of time (“After this we should get a drink.” “Okay.” “And get married.” “Fine.”) There was a lovely grace note to the character of the Brigadier in the wake of the passing of the fabulous Nicholas Courtney, which not only made for a poignant moment but actually made an important contribution to the plot. Plus there’s a lovely garden scene which for the first time establishes the Pond/Williams domestic unit properly; the great idea about the media-chipped head enjoying the superior WiFi in a crypt; and some wonderfully creepy Indiana Jones-esque scenes in that crypt with the living dead skulls (but then I do like having my spine lightly tingled).
But for all its diversions, one can’t get around the central dramatic problem – that if the Doctor had been left to just get on with it, the episode would have been wrapped up in ten minutes flat without all the running around nonsense. He did, in the end, have it all well in hand, and his get-out-of-death-free card was indeed a solution much-predicted by fandom (and which required quite a major volte face in the motivations of one returning character to achieve.) It was the others getting in his way that caused all the problems. Sometimes you wonder whether the Doctor doesn’t have the right idea in thinking companions are more trouble than they are worth after all.
All of this leaves us in a very interesting place. I’ve been saying for a while that the Doctor has got “too big for his boots”, too large and mythic, and needs to be reverted to the cosmic hobo for whom the small little local difficulties are as big and dangerous and important as the universe-ending epics; and so I was delighted to see that this episode seemed to hit exactly that reset button.
But that reset must by definition go hand-in-hand with resting the huge series-spanning arcs, and there’s no sign of that; indeed, the final scenes establish another mythical riddle of the ages about the “fall of the eleventh” which suggests we’re not done with the multi-strand epic arc after all. In fact the final episode leaves a huge amount hanging as a whole: there’s not any hint of who was behind season 5’s destruction of the Tardis or the voice proclaiming “Silence must fall,” for example, or what everyone’s up to other than trying to kill the Doctor for some unspoken reason. We’re not even sure whether “the question in plain sight that must never be asked” is indeed the one Dorium is left shouting at the end (and which was my guess from early on in the episode: what other question has been in the show from the very start in 1963, and which is in plain sight at the start of every episode?) or what will happen when it’s finally asked and answered.
It all leaves the show on a very odd cliffhanger: not an in-story cliffhanger, but a moment of genuine tension for the viewers. We have no idea what the show will do next or where it will go. What sort of show will season 7 be? Who will be in it (other than the Doctor, obviously)? Will it be light and fun, exciting, dramatic, touch-feely or complex? It could go off in any number of directions, and that sort of world of opportunities alone is a thrilling prospect. But with opportunity also comes threat, and there’s a sense here that Doctor Who could go very badly off the rails if they take the wrong step in 2012.
Strangely, I find that I’m more anxious than if the episode had faded to black on the Doctor and his pals merely facing off against a massive Dalek invasion fleet …