TARDIS Talk: “The Wedding of River Song” (Series 6.13)

October 4, 2011

Caveat lector: “TARDIS Talk” treats everything officially aired through the most recent episode as fair game, so here there be spoilers!

Domo Arigato, Doctor Roboto

Last week, I declared that “wherever Steven Moffat takes us… and however we get there, I’m confident I’ll like it.” My faith in the Doctor Who head writer’s ability to tie up all the loose ends of his extra-timey-wimey story of the Doctor’s death could have given that minotaur from “The God Complex” several days’ breakfasts, lunches, and dinners. But was my faith well-placed? Moffat recently claimed the series six finale would answer “pretty much all the questions about what we saw in ‘The Impossible Astronaut.’” I suppose it does. I just don’t find all of those answers satisfactory.

My biggest complaint is that Moffat didn’t avail himself of the one firmly established way out of the corner he’d written himself into: the Flesh or “Ganger” Doctor. In “The Rebel Flesh”/“The Almost People,” we heard several times that the Doctor and his double were really the same person. That’s a pretty counterintuitive proposition, but the story asked to accept it as a fact, and fair-minded viewers did. The explicit statement that the Ganger Doctor could, despite his self-sacrifice at the story’s end, somehow reconstitute himself seemed to signal the eventual reveal that the Doctor who died at Lake Silencio was the Ganger Doctor, leaving “our” Doctor alive and well for ongoing adventures. As it turns out, the “dead” Doctor was never really alive! The “Doctor” River Song shot in Utah was “the Doctor in a Doctor suit”: the Doctor inside the Teselecta, the shape-shifting, time-traveling robot crewed by “tiny cross people” from “Let’s Kill Hitler.”

Surprising? Yes. But logical? No. The finale establishes that the restoration of time’s integrity depends upon physical contact between River and the Doctor. But, in touching and kissing the Teselecta, is River actually touching and kissing the Doctor inside it? Mediating actual physical contact is not, as far as we know, one of the robot’s properties. Its operators interact with the environment indirectly. And, as a friend with whom I watched the episode pointed out, why did the Teselecta act so robotically—stiff movements, halting speech—in “Let’s Kill Hitler” but so natural and life-like here, to the point that no one could tell it was anyone other than the Doctor himself?

Some fans have said a swap of “our” Doctor for the Ganger Doctor would have been too obvious. I can’t deny they’re right. But the obvious story is sometimes the most satisfying one. Red herrings and misdirection are fine; that’s part of the game. But the solution, once revealed must hang together and make sense; the audience must say to itself, “Oh, of course! How could it have been otherwise?” I don’t think Moffat gave us a plausible, self-consistent resolution. He made a bold move when the season began, but failed to follow through when it ended. Remember old Canton’s emphatic line in the season premiere, “That is most definitely the Doctor, and he is most definitely dead”? A substitution of the Ganger Doctor for “our” Doctor would have made Canton’s words true, but the Teselecta gambit makes them either a lie, a mistake, or utterly irrelevant (perhaps the latter, given how Canton was relegated to one brief background appearance in this week’s episode—why the Doctor even invited Canton to Lake Silencio is a question left entirely unresolved.) Making the Teselecta the victim changes too many rules too late in the game.

On the Other Hand…

I realize I sound like a case of “sour grapes:” I thought I’d figured out Moffat’s puzzle, but I didn’t. So let me also say I still found this episode entertaining. The “all of history happening at once” concept also doesn’t hold up under logical scrutiny, but who can resist Holy Roman Emperor Winston Churchill presiding over a London where pterodactyls share the skies with balloon-powered automobiles? Dorium Maldovar continues to be a wonderful character (even if he is now only a head in a box), and “Live Chess” is a brilliantly wicked idea. The climactic fight against the Silence creatures was exciting, and Karen Gillan shines as “Pond, Amelia Pond.” (Although I don’t expect we’ll ever hear more about her decision, in the now-non-existent timeline, to kill Madame Kovarian. Kovarian’s death was poetic justice if ever there was, but, as Amy’s later comments confirm, it provides further substantiation for the accusation Davros leveled against the Doctor in “Journey’s End,” that the Time Lord turns all his Companions into weapons. Still, I appreciated the on-screen acknowledgment, however brief, of the moment’s moral complexity. I wish the recollection of the Doctor’s turning all of post-1969 humanity into a weapon in “Day of the Moon” had given the characters similar pause.)

Cheers also to the reprise of Rory’s “faithful soldier, waiting to be noticed” motif. Time can be rewritten, it seems, but, as so many recent episodes have illustrated, true love can’t. Suffering the pain of his activated eye drive in order to give Amy, River, and the Doctor a last chance to set the universe right, Rory, “the man who dies and dies again,” continues to embody self-sacrificial love. How refreshing to see, on a major television program, a character who demonstrates love that “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things,” and—in a literal timey-wimey way that the apostle Paul could never have anticipated—really does “never end” (1 Cor. 13.7-8)! Some fans have complained that this season’s emphasis on love as a “trump card” that saves the day has grown repetitive and trite. If we’re going to hear a message time after time from a TV show, however, there are certainly far worse ones on the air already.

“The Universe Doesn’t Agree”

I also appreciate the way the finale gives the necessary counterweight to the Doctor’s recent decision to face his death. When he, River, and Amy are standing atop the “Area 52” pyramid, I noticed immediately the beautiful, star-filled skies of the cosmos overhead. They reminded me of the scene the Doctor projected onto the ceiling of Alfie’s nursery the week before. At that point, the Doctor indicated that he no longer believed those star-filled skies had any place for him: “I lived my dream. I owned the stage. Gave it a hundred and ten percent. I hope you have as much fun as I did.” 

Now, however, River implores the Doctor to look at the skies in a different way. “You’ve decided that the universe is better off without you,” she tells him, “but the universe doesn’t agree… I can’t let you die without knowing you are loved by so many, and so much.” Over the last few weeks the Doctor has concluded that he does more harm for the universe than good. He has put people in danger; he has failed people; he has let people down. Matt Smith’s moving work in those episodes didn’t lead me to consider, until River’s words to him in this one, that the Doctor had fallen into the sin of despair.

Novelist Joyce Carol Oates explains why the Roman Catholic Church has counted despair among the Seven Deadly Sins: it is “the conviction that one is damned absolutely, [and] thus a repudiation of the Christian Saviour.” You don’t have to be Catholic to see despair’s dangers. Despair denies God’s sovereignty over human life. It forecloses God’s power to create new possibilities, to give birth to new beginnings. It is the arrogant claim, masquerading as humility or self-deprecation, that God’s hand is too short to save one miserable sinner.

In the face of despair, Christian faith proclaims hope! Yes, we have sinned. Yes, we have hurt people, directly and indirectly. Yes, we have failed our neighbors; yes, we have failed God. But God “does not agree” that God’s universe would therefore be better off without us. God still claims us; God still gives us purpose; God still loves us. “If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins, and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1.9). Our confession does not earn God’s forgiveness, but it tells the truth about where we stand and upon whom we depend. It frees us to hear the Gospel and to experience its liberating power: “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Rom. 5.8).

And so perhaps this episode, and series six as a whole, leaves us to ponder a question—not The Question That Must Never Be Answered, but one that matters to us, in our daily living. When we look at the beautiful, star-filled skies of the universe, what do we see? A vast stretch of possibility and promise for others, but not for us? Or do we see them, clearly and correctly, as an arena into which we can still shine our light—reflected from Jesus Christ, who alone is the Light of the World (John 1.8-9; 8.12), but no less really and truly ours? No one else can reflect Jesus’ light in just the ways we can; why else would the apostle Paul call on us to “shine like stars” in a dark world (Phil. 2.15)? If Moffat’s Doctor Who is about learning to see the universe and our place in it properly, then we, like the Doctor, can confess our sin, experience forgiveness, and “step back into the shadows”—not to be consumed by darkness, but to shine light into it, as we have been called to do by our gracious God.

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version.

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14 comments on “TARDIS Talk: “The Wedding of River Song” (Series 6.13)

  1. I was worried that they weren’t going to be able to pull off anything plausible. The contact question came up with me also. not bad, I guess. It seems that this version of the doctor is tied completely to Pond. The lead in talking about how she waited, the child, almost everything. She is much more than just a companion. The show almost seems to be about her with the Doctor as comic relief.

    • Michael Oct 4, 2011

      I have heard that criticism re: Amy before, Budd, and while I don’t share it, I can see why other fans feel that way. That said, Amy was really pretty peripheral to the resolution of this series (in stark contrast to last year, where her memory pulled the Doctor back into existence). As you say, though, she is more than a companion — she’s the Doctor’s mother-in-law. (Great laugh line! — although given that the Doctor married River in a timeline/reality that now longer exists, is that actually the case? OK, thinking too hard now…!) And I think the “comic relief” treatment of the Doctor has been definitely less the last three weeks.

      I can’t wait to see what happens next year, with the Doctor slinking back into the shadows. I know Moffat has said more stand-alone stories, and I have to confess that could feel nice! Thanks for reading and commenting, as always!

    • Palindrome Oct 4, 2011

      I am a little irked by the focus on Amy, and I ‘m glad that the last episode was actually about the Doctor. I sometimes feel that they’re using the Amy lead-in to explain the show to new viewers, but it’s time for it to stop. If poeple can’t understand the show by watching it, I doubt that the unbelievably irritating Amy-intro will help them.

      • Michael Oct 4, 2011

        I agree with you about the Amy voiceover at the beginning, Palindrome. My understanding is that is unique to BBC America (lucky us); viewers in the UK and elsewhere don’t have to sit through that each week. I can’t really imagine it helping bring in new viewers, either (but a series of more or less standalone stories, starting with the Christmas special, just might).

        Want to say more about your objections to Amy? She seems to be a character folks either really like or really don’t.

        • Palindrome Oct 5, 2011

          I started out disliking Amy, but over this past season I have grown to like her. Her opening storyline where she runs away from her then unknown husband-to-be to travel with the Doctor prejudiced me against her. I thought that Steven Moffat might have been continuing the RTD tradition that every companion falls in love with the Doctor. I was especially irritated when she made advances on the Doctor at the end of the ‘Flesh and Stone’.

          I feel like when the Doctor reset the universe in the ‘Big Bang’, there was a slight shift in her character. In her first season she was very much a girl who had been abandoned and was bitter about it, but in the reset timeline she grew up with her parents and she just seemed more whole, and less rebellious and abrasive.

          • Michael Oct 5, 2011

            Interesting, Palindrome. I have to say, series five was the first time I’d ever seriously watched “Doctor Who,” and absolutely everything about it enchanted me, including Amy. So I am biased, but I could see why you were wary and initially disliked her. (As I’m sure you know, you weren’t the only one; I thought the “Die, Amy, Die” graffiti in “The Doctor’s Wife” was perhaps, at a metatextual level, a jab at some of the anti-Amy sentiment in fandom). I found her faith in her “raggedy doctor” really endearing, and her struggle to reclaim it in “The Eleventh Hour” (“believe in me for twenty minutes”) very well portrayed. I also appreciated her humor and quick wits (e.g., the way she figured out the problem in “The Beast Below” and was able to “talk down” Bracewell from blowing up in “VIctory of the Daleks.”)

            I think you’re right about the shift in her character; I still wonder what more is in store for her, unless it will only be “pop in” visits like the end of the finale. I hope it will be more, but it does seem as though her story may be at an end — unless she will only really be ready and “grown up” enough to leave the TARDIS when she decides to, not when the Doctor tells her to.

  2. Monica Oct 5, 2011

    Mike, you said: “The finale establishes that the restoration of time’s integrity depends upon physical contact between River and the Doctor.”

    But no, it did NOT. The fixed point was that what happened, happened. And what ALWAYS happened was the tesselecta doctor was the one at Lake Silencio. The tesselecta doctor was the one whom if River touched would restore the timeline. The doctor we saw in The Impossible Astronaut was the tesselecta doctor- just no one knew it (except the doctor in the suit).

    If the doctor had de-miniaturized and popped out of the suit, and River touched him- NOTHING would happen. Because he was not part of the fixed point, ever. The Silence just thought he was. They arranged that this still time and place would be manipulated into a fixed point- and it was. But what happened, then forever frozen as a fixed point, was never the doctor’s death.

    • Michael Oct 5, 2011

      Welcome, Monica! I think your point is a good one, actually, and I had not looked at the situation like that to me. Ok. I buy it. Point for Moffat (and you)!

      I am still disappointed by how the Doctor’s plan to save himself undercuts (maybe) the character development of the previous few weeks (if we choose to read it not as despair — even though I argued that above — but as coming to grips with mortality, which waits for all, including, I would expect, Time Lords, eventually). Did the Doctor meet up with the Teselecta before or after he met up with Dorium Maldovar’s head? If after, I guess it could be seen as consistent: he decided (and who among us wouldn’t) to grab one last chance at life. If before, then all the stuff about realizing he can’t run any more (and the very nice homage to the actor who played the Brigadier) are essentially meaningless.

      Thanks for the comment (and restoring a bit of my faith in Moffat)!

  3. 7- 18 Ace Oct 5, 2011

    This episode was sadisfying. No matter how big hole Steven Moffat seems to be in he always has a answer to are questions. The oldest question in the universe was literally right in front of are eyes.

    • Michael Oct 5, 2011

      7-18 — Yes, I am very excited by the fact that The Big Question turns out to be “Doctor who?” I suspected as much when it was called “the first question,” but only because I’d recently watched “An Unearthly Child” for the first time and was delighted to discover that none other than William Hartnell was the first person to ask those words! My emotional dissatisfaction with this year’s finale aside, I can’t wait to see what Moffat does with this question (and find out exactly what’s going to happen “at the fields of Trenzalore!”). Thanks for the comment!

  4. Amy grew on me as well. I didn’t really care for her, but grew to like her. Rory was huge in that, I think. He has great chemistry with her and you can’t help pulling for her just for Rory’s sake.

    I toyed with the Idea that Amy was the doctor’s daughter (or jenny who as she is called in my household). That would involve her regenerating at some point into a child, but it would explain River being able to regenerate.

    • Michael Oct 5, 2011

      Budd — I wouldn’t mind “Jenny Who” (love that!) showing up again sometime, too. Apparently, it was Moffat’s idea at the time that she survive the events of “The Doctor’s Daughter,” but I don’t know if her actually making a return appearance is anything other than wishful thinking. I hope so, though!

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