Saturday, 1 October 2011

In Another Reality: Doctor Who review


DOCTOR WHO: 'The Wedding Of River Song'

In last week's review, I mentioned my hope that this episode would make sense of an increasingly convoluted plot arc and bring everything together in a manner justifying Steven Moffat's assertions that he has known what he has been doing all along. Unfortunately, the opposite proved to be true: 'The Wedding Of River Song' was an aimless and misjudged ending to a season unique in new Who for having standalone episodes provide all the most satisfying moments. Many will argue that there is still a chance that Moffat will explain away the countless plot holes in later episodes, as he did with the superb twist involving the Doctor's on again/off again jacket in 'Flesh And Stone', yet even on the off chance he does so - and given how much 'Wedding' seemed to gloss over, I'm doubtful - it won't rectify what was a deeply unsatisfying season finale to sit through at the first time of watching.

Of course, this is Doctor Who, so there's an extent to which glossing over inconsistencies is par for course. It's a programme first and foremost about being on a bonkers adventure through time and space with an eccentric professor man-child for company. That's why, when we're told early on that all of history is happening at once, the images are sufficiently entertaining that logistics are not really an issue. Unfortunately, 'The Wedding Of River Song' failed for much the same reason as many of Russell T. Davies' Who finales: enjoyable imagery is in the end just window dressing, which doesn't count for much if the foundations of the house around that window are on the verge of collapse. The pictures may have been big, but the story behind this episode and the season arc turned out to be small, meaningless and incoherent.
After all the timey-wimey back-and-forth, it turned out that this entire season has hinged on The Doctor trying to make his mind up whether or not to go to get shot on that beach in Utah. (You know, in exactly the same way he delayed reaching his prophesied death in 'The End Of Time'). I have been calling for a more personal finale than the 'end of the universe' stuff which has dominated the series since its revival, yet 'Wedding' both failed to feel sincerely personal, echoing story beats already used up by Davies (as well as 'End Of Time', the same emotional ground about loneliness was covered as in 'Journey's End') while throwing out the same old collapsing reality/time gubbins that has lost all impact through excessive repetition. Even the eponymous wedding happened without a twist or even the slightest relevance to the story.

I would like to be able to say that, as with Impossible Astronaut/Day Of The Moon, Moffat was too busy tying up loose ends to concentrate on a satisfying plot in the present. At least that would suggest a sincere effort to pay off the innumerable set-ups that have been being laid out since the Smith era began. Unfortunately, there were neither satisfying answers provided for any of those questions, nor was there anything worth watching as a stand-alone hour of television.

As happened with the 'Time Of Angels' two-parter, Moffat took some of his most interesting monsters - The Silents (how I will refer to them to differentiate them from what the 'silence' turned out to be) - and turned them into henchmen with a gimmick, whose only purpose was zapping soldiers with electric beams. Any role they might have had in the storyline was ditched with the lame justification that the 'Silence will fall' tag was referring to The Doctor going silent, rather than the creatures, even though we had already been told that the creatures were actually called Silents, making it at best a dishonest piece of misdirection.

If 'Wedding Of River Song' proved anything, it is that Steven Moffat has been writing a lot of cheques his talent can't cash. Why did the Silents go to the effort of putting River Song in a spacesuit, underwater, at Lake Silencio? Ignored. How they got the Doctor to go there in the first place? Ignored. River Song's relation to the Doctor? Easiest option taken. Same goes for his 'death', which turns out to have instead happened to a shape-shifting Tesselecta (apologies for a possible misspelling) robot. Maybe that last one will be revisited, justifying the otherwise nonsensical regeneration effects that followed. Even if it is another little lie told by The Doctor and River, though, it's one which killed the big reveal that has been teased all season by reducing the solution to something that could have been sorted out in the final act of a single episode. If Moffat doesn't revisit the decision, he needs to learn not to write himself into situations that he cannot write himself out of without holding the intelligence of his audience in contempt.

If that weren't bad enough - yes, it gets worse - the episode's plot had almost nothing to do with anything that had been occurring over the season, turning out to be more of a standalone with a season-arc 'resolution' pasted on top. The episode started with time disintegrating, providing some amusing images (and the line 'Holy Roman Emperor Winston Churchill arrived today at the Buckingham Senate on his personal mammoth') but coming out of nowhere.

Nothing we had seen in any previous episode hinted that this situation might be on the cards and it all turned out to be because River inexplicably managed to drain the weapons systems from her astronaut suit - if there was any part of that scene which held even the slightest bit of logical coherence, I have yet to find it - and thus saved The Doctor when he should have died. The season arc questions revolved around how The Doctor would escape his apparent death on the beach, which was answered by the Tesselecta. Everything else, involving River, alternate timelines, eyepatches/drives etc., came out of nowhere and returned to nothing by the end. Criticise Russell Davies' empty spectacle and farcical resolutions all you like, but nothing in 'Wedding Of River Song' had any greater substance to it.

Even Moffat's beloved Ponds had no place in the story and were given positions of power for no other evident reason than Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill had presumably been paid to partake in thirteen episodes. Their banter about not recognising each other was a repetition of last year's 'The Pandorica Opens' (when Rory was an Auton) and didn't have any purpose in the story - given The Doctor and River's impending wedlock, there were surely some dramatic echoes waiting to be used. As for the question about their feelings at having their baby taken away from them, that reduced to a justification for taking out Mme Kovarian. Except that, since the timeline changed, she's not actually dead any more.

By the time next season's big question was revealed, something which virtually everyone who has seen the series' title screen will have been able to work out, Moffat had either ignored or taken the laziest possible way out of so many earlier set-ups that what should have been the biggest question possible to ask on the programme rang out as more empty pomp. Moffat has written some exceptional episodes in the past and even since he took over ('Eleventh Hour' was a wonderful introduction to a new Doctor; 'Christmas Carol' by far the best yuletide special since the revival) but everything in 'The Wedding Of River Song' suggested a writer engorged on his own hype, trying to look as clever as possible without making the effort to answer his own questions. Compare this rubbish to Neil Gaiman's simple and touching The Doctor's Wife, or Moffat's own 'Eleventh Hour', to witness the enormity of the gulf in quality.



Tom said...

I agree with pretty much everything you say here. Both Moffat's finales have been too seperated from the episode before them to be anything more than frantically rushing around "solving" problems. We could have done with an hour of the Doctor and Winston in the Senate, being manipulated by the Silence whilst the Doctor told Winston why all this was happening and genuinely explained the situation. Follow that up with 45 minutes of actually being threatened by the Silence, and the eyepatches being built up a bit more, as well as giving it all a bit of emotional weight, and you'd have a cracking finale.

theoncominghope said...

Tom, I take great issue with the idea that if time were indeed smashing together, Winston Churchill would be running England, so I am glad on that point that they don't have an episode of that.

But your point is still correct. An episode of the Doctor's machinations would have been much better, as well as an episode to properly build the "flattened time Earth"

theoncominghope said...

You're right about Moff vs. RTD. The finales are equally self-indulgent, just in different ways.

Anonymous said...

Didn't the Silents get the Doctor to go to Lake Silencio because his death there was a fixed point in time and thus he had to go there to stop time from unravelling exactly like it did after River refused to kill him? That doesn't look like a plot hole to me. Unless you're talking about something else and I'm being dense.

theoncominghope said...

::Taye Diggs enters, styled as announcer in Chicago::

"The Oncoming Hope, in an act of self-promotion, brings you 5 questions and three crackpot theories about the latest season of Doctor Who."

Nicola said...

I measure Doctor Who episodes in squee. Do they cause joy, sadness, terror, a dizzying mix of all three? If so, excellent! This episode, sadly, did not.

There were a few moments: the cars being carried by personal hot air balloons, the Winston Churchill line you mentioned and Amy's face as she ponders being the Doctor's mother-in-law, but they didn't really compensate for a confused finale which raised more questions than it answered.

Matt Smith continues to be fantastic and I'm not going to stop watching, but it was a disappointment.