Doctor Who: The Wedding of River Song (Review 2)Bookmark and Share

Sunday, 2 October 2011 - Reviewed by Matt Hills

Doctor Who: Series Six - The Wedding of River Song
Written by Steven Moffat
Directed by Jeremy Webb
Broadcast on BBC One - 1 October 2011
This review contains plot spoilers and is based on the UK broadcast of the episode.

Including series six's punctuation this is the third finale from Steven Moffat, and strong patterns can be seen to emerge. Firstly, the showrunner revels in misdirection – setting up loyal, fan audiences to interpret details in a particular way, e.g. expecting that the Doctor will tell River his name as part of a Time Lord wedding ceremony, only to find we've been well and truly hoodwinked. Advance rumours and spoilers also indicated that the Daleks would turn up, and they do. Sort of. But rather than the ultimate evil (or even the ultimate wedding party gatecrasher), this Dalek is just a stepping stone to information about the Silence, again misdirecting audiences. Dorium Maldovar's involvement offers yet more sleight of hand; how on earth can a previously beheaded character return? Easily enough, of course, if it's accepted that talking heads can make for fun rather than dull TV.

An undoubted master in misdirection, Moffat also delights in opposing audience expectations. Having set up crucial puzzles and questions he immediately undercuts them. Last year we were all wondering how the Doctor could escape from the perfect prison, only to find he'd managed it before the episode 13 title sequence rolled. This year, we're primed to expect mysteries over how the Doctor can avoid a fixed point in time... and what we get instead looks like the opposite; a tale in which that very fixed point has to be safely restored.

Some fan knowledge is rewarded rather than opposed, though; it's hard not to view all the eyepatches as part of a Nicholas Courtney tribute, with one of Doctor Who's most infamous behind-the-scenes anecdotes finally getting in front of the camera. Such a feeling is reinforced by the Doctor's forlorn phone call to the Brig; even time travellers are sometimes too late. Moffat allows his fandom to shine through, creating a moment of media-pro fan fiction. This is a brand of fan fiction aimed at professionally commemorating the programme's long history, its own fixed points of reference, and its own markers of painful loss. In an episode where time is frozen, its real world passing is most certainly not forgotten.

The ultimate enemy here isn't the Doctor's death, though, or even the Brigadier's heartbreaking absence; it's the end of storytelling itself. Cheating a fixed point means all of time happening at once, stuck in the same day and time, over and over. It's a world which sustains surreal special effects and wonderful juxtapositions, making for some eyecatching, unusual TV drama. But it's also a world in which no more stories can be lived out: cause and effect, sequences of events – what we usually call plots and narratives – no longer seem possible. In part, this is a story-arc finale threatening a finale to all storytelling.

Only the Soothsayer can bring back the pleasures of a tale properly told. Fittingly enough, given that this is the culmination of an arc, The Wedding of River Song is fixated on acts of storytelling and stories. While the Doctor battles against history's cancellation, Steven Moffat plays games with the audience by exploiting our desire to find out all the answers: the Doctor begins to tell Emperor Winston Churchill his tale, while Dorium also promises an account of great import. These yarn-spinners, and their insistent delays and deferrals, deliberately tease the audience. And the false ending before River visits Amy does more of the same, playing a further game with our desire to find out what really happened.

Despite its focus on acts of storytelling, I'd argue that The Wedding of River Song isn't really that interested in answers. It gives some, sure, but almost resentfully, and because it has to. The Teselecta's use is somewhat anticlimactic, if not eminently guessable as soon as it appears. It's not really the point – the point is how we get there, and what new questions can be posed, because as a showrunner Steven Moffat seems far more interested in the transformation of Doctor Who's possibilities. Series five's finale combined the Doctor's opponents in a monster mash; series six part one concluded by combining characters and races in the Doctor's army, and now six part two combines all of Earth's history. Or rather, Earth history largely as depicted in the Moffat era. It's Victory of the Daleks meets Cold Blood meets The Impossible Astronaut; a demented mash-up of episodes previously overseen by this production team, with just a (Dickensian) dash of the old regime. Each of Moffat's finales has sought to mix up and transform usual ways of thinking about Doctor Who – what if all the monsters decided to team up? What if the Doctor brought together a team of fighters? And this time, what if different episodes teamed up? Like a fan remixing Who, Moffat performs transformative work on the show, but by doing so, he transforms his own prior labours as showrunner. This is Doctor Who as a full-on game of self-referencing and self-sampling.

Truth be told, though, The Wedding of River Song is pretty useless as a whodunnit. It's really an anti-whodunnit, a skilled exercise in suspense when we know all along who dies and who the killer is. It's pure storytelling: constant interruptions and colourful incidents that happen to get in the way of an ending for 45 minutes or so. And as with The Big Bang and A Good Man Goes To War, this finale again offers a breakneck blend of misdirection, opposition, fan fiction, and transformation. To coin a playful acronym, these things are a finale's m.o.f.f.a.t. quotient.