Saturday, October 01, 2011

The Wedding Of River Song: I Knew The Bride (When She Used To Rock And Roll)

'On the fields of Trenzalore, at the fall of The Eleventh, when no living creature can speak falsely or fail to answer. A question will be asked. A question that must never, ever, be answered.'

Were you watching the Doctor Who series finale, dear blog reader? Or were you watching Tess Daly's bloke with the long-face on the other side? I mean, I don't mind really. They're both valid lifestyle choices in their own way. Personally, I made my lifestyle choice years ago. Many years ago. One cold dark Saturday afternoon in February 1968 when I watched some mutant seaweed menacing poor little Debbie Watling through a ventilator grill and decided that me being in a permanent state of bowel-shattering terror was, broadly speaking, a healthy way to go through life. In the years since then, I've had periods - not infrequently either - of wondering whether I should give up this daft little show with its space monster fixations and regular genre cliches. Whether it was time to put aside such childish things and, you know, grow the fuck up. But, as a wise man once said, 'what's the point of being grown up if you can't act like a child every now and then?' Plus, what else am I going to do with my time if I do stop watching? Go out, get a skinful of lager and cause mayhem in the High Street? You don't want that, dear blog reader. Society doesn't want that. To be honest, I think society is probably better off with me where I am, in my gaff, with a nice chicken omelette and a rather cheeky little glass of chilled Merlot, watching Doctor Who. 'Everything,' as Annie Lambert says in Picnic At Hanging Rock, 'begins and ends at exactly the right time. And place.' Damn straight it does.

The Wedding of River Song. As soon as the title of the thirteenth episode of this year's series of the popular family SF drama was announced, it was inevitable that there would be feverish speculation among fandom (from the relatively 'normal' parts all the way to The Special People) as to what that was all about. With the Doctor aware that only his death can keep the universe safe, we return to where the season began, Lake Silencio as the Time Lord prepares for a, quite literal, date with destiny at the appointed time. But, of course, it's not that simple. Old friends return - a collection of Ponds in Melody, Amy and Rory - along with Churchill, Charles Dickens and Dorium Maldovar. But enemies from The Doctor's past also feature. It's a Doctor Who series finale, after all, so what did you expect? There's a bit of Dalek action and The Silence and Madam Kovarian and her eyepatches of bad-naughtiness, they're back with a-vengeance for The Final Countdown.
'We all have to die, Doctor, but you more than most. You do see that, don't you?' Of course, this being a Doctor Who series finale, it's yet another one of those 'everything but the kitchen sink and the only reason that's not here is because it wouldn't fit in the TARDIS' conceits of the kind we've grown used to over the last six years. Some people hate them. Hate them. And they're not shy of saying so, either. Loudly, to anyone that will listen (and, frankly, anyone that won't) on an Internet Forum near you. Me? I rather like them. Maybe I'm just easily pleased. It's possible. Maybe my critical faculties have become so dulled with a constant diet of the trash which manifests itself as 'television entertainment' these days that I can't see beyond Steven Moffat's 'empty crowd-pleasing gestures' and 'crass fanwank'? Maybe. Or, maybe I just like the damn thing. Maybe a part of me is still that five year old in Newcastle in 1968 being thrilled by Fury From The Deep and is happy that we're in 2011 and I'm nearing fifty and Doctor Who is still a living, breathing, popular and successful entity. Anything's possible. So, anyway, we start in a London in what it, clearly, an alternate time-stream. We know this, because of a really clever little sequence which references the War of the Roses and the Holy Roman Empire and throws in a splash Dickens (previewing A Christmas Carol on BBC Breakfast!), Churchill, pterodactyls, Silurians and all sorts of others bits and pieces of series lore as window dressing to a superb pre-title sequence. It's great stuff. But, there's a problem. 'It's always two minutes past five in the afternoon.' Yes, Winston, I have days like that as well. The bonus, from his point of view I guess, is that he doesn't get chucked out of office by the British people in favour of Clement Attlee and co for five years because he was against the introduction of the National Health Service. So, what does he do? In best Frankie Howerd-style(e) he sends for the Soothsayer. Titter ye not, dear blog reader. Ney, ney and thrice ney. And, here endeth The Prologue. 'The clocks never tick. Something is happening to time.' Just as in last year's finale, The Big Bang, some bold-to-the-point-of-being-bloody-outrageous intertextual conceits effectively allow for the getting out of an apparently un-get-out-of-able corner and back into the swell of the action. 'What happened to time?' asks Churchill. 'A woman,' replies The Doctor. Ah, isn't that always the way? Chechez la femme, you know? So, inevitably, The Doctor does. And, he finds two of them. Mother and daughter. On the way, he plays chess with a curiously made-up Mark Gatiss (why the long-face, Mark?), pulls a Dalek's sucker off (ooo, nasty!), takes part in a terrific space cantina scene with The Teselecta and boasts that he could 'invent a new colour, save the Dodo or join The Beatles.' Good point. They could've used a 'champion of law and order' at times in place of the alcoholic wife-beating Scouse junkie, I reckon. His presence would've improved the mood of the Get Back sessions immeasurably. His speech to the Dalek-in-distress is wonderful - the stuff of quotation in The Generations. 'Just when you thought the day couldn't get any worse, you looked up and saw the face of The Devil himself.'
Death imagery peppers the episode - notably in the scene in the headless monk's catacombs. The chess, the living skulls, et cetera. But The Doctor must keep coming back to his bottom line. 'Silence will fall when The Question is asked.' It gnaws at him like a rat in his guts. 'They want me dead,' he says, horrified, to Dorium. 'No, not really,' comes the reply from his blue-faced, bodiless friend. 'They just don't want you to remain alive.' 'That's okay then,' notes The Doctor, 'I was a bit worried there for a moment.' 'You're a man with a long and dangerous past. But your future is infinitely more terrifying.' It's a subtle difference, perhaps, but it's key to the way in which the episode develops thereafter and provides a get-out clause for the production from the finality of a pre-arranged date with destiny. This is, possibly, my favourite part of the episode. A necessary quiet before the oncoming storm complete with some really touching continuity references - to Queen Liz, to Rose, to Jack and, especially, the phone call about The Brigadier's death. You know, people wonder why this programme continues to have the hold that it does over many of those who once fell deeply in love with it as children. Possibly it's because it takes the time to include a scene in which a character who last appeared in the drama twenty two years ago is quietly, but beautifully, mourned. Like the famous 'Doctor's Reward' sequences from The End of Time these are moments which transcend sentimentality and mawkishness and articulate, figuratively and emotionally, the vulnerability of mortality even in the Telefantasy arena of the Doctor Who universe. Along with the subsequent layering on of redemption and forgiveness as concepts to be played with, this is Doctor Who doing the 'Just today, everybody lives!' thing again. From that Picnic at Hanging Rock quote, to George Harrison's wisest ever lyrics ('it's not always gonna be this grey/all thing must pass away') to simple banal home-spun philosophy - 'treat every day as your last ... and then one day, you'll be right' - we have a piece of TV drama which acknowledges the finality of death. But one which, in a kind of roundabout way, looks forward to it and yet still loves the sheer cheek of the idea of cheating it out of its inevitable victory. For just another day. Or maybe two. 'If it's time to go, remember what you're leaving.'

A still point in time, Dorium calls Lake Silencio. The problem is that River Song manages to fatally compromise reality: 'Everything happened at once and it won't stop.' Fixed points 'can be rewritten,' River argues at one point. And, ultimately, she's correct, even if she herself is a bit non-plussed as to, exactly, how that's achieved. 'That's you from the future serving time for a murder you probably didn't even remember. My murder.' And then he turned around and they were all wearing eyepatches. Ha, and indeed, ha. 'You look rubbish' Amelia Pond tells The Doctor in the plushness of her office-on-a-train (which, yes, I'm with The Doctor on that score. It is really cool. I want an office on a train, dear blog reader. Do you think that could be arranged?) Having explained how there can be two different versions of the same event - it's all about perspective, of course - we see how Amy, in another lifetime, has become a quasi-Doctor herself. 'River Song didn't get it all from you, Sweetie,' she tells Madam Kovarian bitchily before committing an act that she will only undertake directly because The Doctor has other - bigger - things on his mind. Later, she will feel awful about this. Rightly. About taking a life even though, as her daughter wisely assures her, it was 'in an aborted timeline in a world that never was.' That's the inherent decency which The Doctor instils in his companions. As he says earlier, to Winston, 'Amy and Rory. The Last Centurion and The Girl Who Waited. However dark it got I'd turn around and there they'd be. If it's time to go, remember what you're leaving. Remember the best. My friends have always been the best.'

'Time catches up with us all, Doctor.' 'Well it has never laid a glove on me.' We also see that Rory's heroics aren't confined to one world either. The Silence acknowledge the humour of the 'they keep killing Rory' shenanigans and prepare do the deed for a final time. And he's prepared to self-sacrifice himself for a woman he adores but barely knows (but, feels that, perhaps, he should know better). That she saves him is key to why the two of them belong together. The Doctor tries a bit of matchmaking. 'She would like to go out with you. For texting and scones.' Kovorian asks The Doctor 'why didn't you just die?' as it would, undoubtedly, have saved a lot of people an awful lot of trouble. 'I did my best, dear,' he confesses. 'I turned up! You just can't get the psychopaths these days.' Indeed he did. He, she, he and, indeed, she, to the appointed place. In the case of the second she, twice. And that's where it all starts to go pear-shaped for causality. Because, poor old River, despite a lifetime of brainwashing and a big nasty suit overriding her complex emotions, just can't do the dirty deed. Good on her. Even if it will destroy the universe. 'Every explosion has an epicentre,' The Doctor tells her. 'And you are forgiven. Always and completely forgiven.' There's a needle stuck on a record. Or a download if you prefer, Winston. 'What's wrong with you?' 'I'm still alive!' Thence, we get to 'special-agent-boss-lady' Amelia and her chaps with Big Guns, and Captain Williams, 'the best of the best.' Which is all jolly nice and rattles along at a fair old lick. The dialogue in this section is great. 'What does it matter, can't we just stay like this?'

The climax is, perhaps inevitably, something of a curve-ball. As with several previous episodes this year, it's about emotional complexity and searching for necessary loopholes in universal constants. 'That man. Always one step ahead of everyone. Always a plan.' The Doctor and River must fool the universe (well, most of them anyway). 'I just told you my name,' appears to be another, stunning bit of continuity linking all the way back to Silence in the Library but, actually it's yet another example of this season's glorious truism, 'The Doctor lies.' And so does River, it would seem. 'Am I the woman that marries you, or the woman that murders you?' Both. Neither. Simultaneously. 'You may kiss the bride.' 'I'll make it a good one.' 'You better!' It's time for The Doctor to learn an important truism himself. 'The sky is full of a million-million voices saying "yes, of course, we'll help." You've touched so many lives, saved so many people did you really think that when your time came you'd have to do more than ask? You've decided that the universe is better off without you but the universe doesn't agree.' He feigns embarrassment, of course, at having his worst moments broadcast to the entire universe. But, actually, you sense he's proud, really. Proud that River has proved to him that he matters.

So time rights itself. In - again - a roundabout way. And River keeps a secret. A necessary secret. From all but her parents. Well, it's probably important that the in-laws know the truth.
'Father, dear, I think mummy might need another drink,' notes River. The look on Rory's face suggests daddy's going to be joining her. I love the little dance Amy and River do when River reveals that The Doctor is still alive. Wine, family and thoughts of good friends, alive and well and far away. Great. Meanwhile in a galaxy far, far away, The Doctor returns Dorium's head to his rightful resting place. 'So you're going to do this? Let them all think you're dead?' 'It's the only way, let them all forget me,' The Doctor confesses. 'I got too big, Dorium, too noisy. Time to step back into the shadows.' One gets the impression that where Doctor Who goes next - literally and metaphorically - will be to a very different place. A return to mystery and enigma. A return to a Doctor on the run. Not from the Time Lords, this time, or the Daleks, or The Cybermen or The Silence but from a simple, ordinary, almost banal question. One that Ian Chesterton asked Barbara Wright forty eight years ago give or take a few weeks in a squalid junkyard in South London and one which he never received an answer to. 'Who is he? Doctor who?'
Is it nearly Christmas yet?

For today's Keith Telly Topping's 45 of the Day after a piece of drama like that, I think we need a bedtime story from Rockpile to calm us down. Sing, David!


TonyKenealy said...

Great review. Jane and I have just watched it and loved it. Loved the London imagery with the steam trains and the Pterodactyls. Wonderful end to a great season. Can't wait for Christmas.

Wedding Favors said...

I have really enjoyed your interesting reviews. Great Job !!!

darry1966 said...

As an original series fan I fine the writing of this new show lately to be very silly.

What was once a plausable, watchable series is turning into a send up of the original, which was well written with the odd turkey episode and was first up a well written drama with humour when appropriate.

It had great writers like Robert Holmes - The Talons of Weng Chiang an example. New series writers take heed.

Yer actual Keith Telly Topping said...

> What was once a plausable, watchable series

... About an alien with two hearts and the ability to physically regenerate who travels through time and space in a machine disguised as a 1950s police telephone box? I think you need to use the dictionary and find out what the word 'plausible' actually means.

And, you know, how to spell it.

I've heard some risible fandom crap in my time but stuff like this ... is pretty much standard. And very boring.