Just as this season began back at Easter with a dedication to the late Elisabeth Sladen, so it concludes with a homage to that other giant of Doctor Who who died this year – Nicholas Courtney.
A long way into the story, and completely out of the blue, the Doctor gets a phone call informing him that “Brigadier Lethbridge Stewart has passed away”. The reference will be lost on many viewers – the Brig having been shamefully neglected by 21st-century Who – but it’s piercingly moving for long-term fans who, like me, have adored that character since the 1960s.
As CO of the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce, he became the Time Lord’s staunchest ally, and the 11th Doctor absorbs the news of his death in glum silence, just as he’s preparing for his own demise. It’s a beautifully judged moment from Steven Moffat – and surely it’s no coincidence either that almost everyone in this finale ends up wearing an eye-patch (or “eye-drive”, which enables humans to remember any contact with the Silence). One of Courtney’s well-worn anecdotes from his time on Doctor Who was all about eye-patches!
You might feel you needed two eye-drives while watching The Wedding of River Song. Were you swept along by the dizzying pace and storytelling gall or left behind, frustrated, gasping for logical explanations? The notion of “all of history happening at once” sets up a lot of fun: pterodactyls attacking swotty kids, Dickens on BBC Breakfast… But why then, you may wonder, isn’t Winston Churchill competing for power alongside William the Conqueror, Elizabeth I and, erm, David Cameron?
More importantly, is the conclusion to the Doctor/River/Silence saga truly satisfying or just rather cleverly behaving as though it is? Any rational mind must question why the Silence hatched such a preposterous scheme to dispose of the Time Lord – grooming Amy’s child…bunging her in an astronaut suit…in a lake in the middle of nowhere…
Although I enjoyed Frances Barber’s juicy performance – almost as much as she did – I’m none the wiser as to who Madame Kovarian was. And how did she, the Silence and River flit so freely between 1969, 2011 and the 52nd century, where River attained her doctorate? At last we’ve witnessed River becoming the Doctor’s wife – or, at least, a Doctor’s wife – but when does she find out his real name (as suggested in her 2008 debut story)?
Of course, no one really believed that the Doctor was going to die. In a season packed with duplicates, many viewers might have guessed that a Flesh Doctor or the Teselecta (from Let’s Kill Hitler) could come into play. But if you go back and study The Impossible Astronaut, the impostor we’re now told was at Lake Silencio was far too convincingly in character as the 11th Doctor. After being zapped, he even started to exude that familiar regenerative aura. How the hell could a robotic Teselecta accomplish that? In truth, it’s a bit of a con.
It also seems an act of immense cruelty that the Doctor invited his friends to witness his “death”, but then he does want the world, the universe, to believe that he has been eliminated: “I got too big, too noisy.” And the finale’s punchline is spine-tingling.
Blue-faced Dorium Maldovar reveals that “the oldest question in the universe, hidden in plain sight” is all about our hero. It’s “the question you’ve been running from all your life” – a mystery as old as the series itself. “Doctor who?” booms Dorium at the very end, as the Time Lord vanishes into obscurity. “DOCTOR WHO!?”
And thus Steven Moffat is pressing a reset button. He said in April, “We’re putting the Who? back in the Doctor.” If this promises less Last Gallifreyan grandstanding, the Doctor playing on a smaller stage like it was in the old days, I’ll be delighted.
So where does he go from here? I’m happy to see many more years of Matt Smith’s Doctor – up to the 50th anniversary in 2013 and beyond. But, much as I like Amy, Rory and River (and the actors who play them), I reckon their work is done. It’s time for some new playmates.
What did you think of The Wedding of River Song? Post a comment below.