‘Doctor Who’ Recap (Series 6 Finale): Facing Death or Faking Death?
Like most great science fiction and fantasy stories, Doctor Who is about real human issues. “The Wedding of River Song” is a story about the struggle of one man against the inevitability of his own death, a struggle that we all must face in our own time. And like the Doctor we can face it only by accepting our mortality, going to our fate with quiet dignity, and shrinking down to minuscule size to pilot robots versions of ourselves.
Last year’s finale showed us a world without stars. This year it’s one without time, where all time “happens at once.” The actual scientific and philosophical implications of the statement “all of time is happening at once,” are fascinating, but we instead get a twenty-first century world with Winston Churchill and pterosaurs, and I guess that’s pretty cool too. Much of the early part of the episode is spent with a bearded Doctor explaining to a befuddled Churchill the events between the end of “Closing Time” and the beginning of “The Impossible Astronaut”.
The Doctor spends that time tracking down information about the Silence to satisfy his own curiosity about why they want him dead, and he runs across the Tesselecta, the human-sized robot piloted by a miniaturized crew last seen in “Let’s Kill Hitler.” They lead him to Gantok, a rather unpleasant alien viking played by the show’s favorite writer/actor Mark Gatiss, who in turn leads him to Dorium, the black market tycoon with a blue face, last seen in “A Good Man Goes to War.” Dorium, who has been reduced to a head in a box after having been beheaded in that episode, explains to the Doctor that the Silence is a religious order that wants the Doctor dead to avert his future participation in an event “on the fields of Trenzalore, at the fall of the Eleventh” at which “the question” will be answered. The Doctor asks Dorium what the question is, and he’s told off-screen.
In denial, The Doctor attempts to postpone death by visiting his old friend Brigadier Lethbridge Stewart, but upon being told that he has passed away (a reference to the real-life passing of actor Nicholas Courtney earlier this year) he is sobered by the news and decides to accept his mortality. He visits the Tesselecta crew once again, asking them to deliver his invitations for him, and then he goes to meet his fate. But when he finally gets to Lake Silencio, River refuses to shoot him, which fractures time. And so we ended up with this whole mess.
After the Doctor finishes narrating these events to Churchill, he realizes that all the while the two of them have been fighting off Silence. There’s a whole nest of them in the senate room, but the two are rescued by this timeline’s Amy Pond. She has partial memories of the original timeline, because she grew up near a crack in time and can therefore remember negated timelines (something that was conveniently forgotten in “The Girl Who Waited”). She remembers the Doctor but doesn’t remember Rory. Well, she remembers Rory but can’t recognize him and is constantly trying to find him, despite the fact that he’s a captain working for her.
Anyway, she and River are leading a resistance that’s attempting to devise a way to keep the Doctor alive without destroying the universe. They’ve captured Madame Kovarian and a bunch of Silence, And they all war the “eye-drive” that Madame Kovarian has, which counteracts the Silence’s memory powers. Amy leads the Doctor to their headquarters in Cairo, where the Doctor attempts to touch River and thereby negate this alternate timeline (and his own survival), but she won’t let him. The Silence break free and attack everyone (including Madame Kovarian) through their eye-drives. Rory heroically stands against the Silence and nearly dies, until Amy remembers who he is and guns down the Silence.
Before Amy and Rory escape, Madame Kovarian begs Amy to save her, but Amy coldly refuses, taking revenge for Kovarian stealing her daughter’s childhood. The Doctor, River, Rory and Amy escape to the top of the pyramid, where the Doctor insists that River must kill him. River refuses to do so, telling the Doctor that she has built a distress beacon and the entire universe is offering to help save the Doctor. The Doctor becomes angry in response to this, and decides that his only course of action now is to perform a Gallifreyan wedding and marry River. He whispers something in River’s ear, and then tells her that it is his name. River looks into the Doctor’s eyes and accepts the inevitability of her killing the Doctor. The two kiss and the timeline is set right again.
Some time later, Amy shares drink with River. River is fresh from the events of “Flesh and Stone”, while for Amy this is apparently some time after she parted company with the Doctor in “The God Complex.” Somehow, at some point, she must have regained her memories of the negated timeline, because she recalls killing Madame Kovarian, and the Doctor whispering his name in River’s ear, but River reveals that the Doctor whispered something else: “look into my eye.” We then learn that at the Doctor’s last meeting with the Tesselecta, he asked it to take on his form so that he could fake his own death.
Rory, Amy, and River celebrate the good news, while the Doctor returns Dorium’s head to its proper place. He explains to Dorium that he knew he had to fake his own death, because his legend had become too powerful and the only way to solve that problem would be to die. Dorium is glad to see the Doctor survived, but warns him that the fields of Tenzelore and the Fall of the Eleventh still await, and with them the asking of the question: “Doctor Who?”
Many of Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who episodes require multiple viewings to really wrap your head around what’s going on. That’s especially necessary in “The Wedding of River Song,” which seems to be a two-part finale condensed down to 44 minutes. It’s certainly not the story I was expecting, as the conclusion of “Closing Time” saw the Doctor ready and resolute in the face of death, whereas this episode picks up with both the Doctor trying to delay the inevitable (and then River, in turn, doing the same). I suppose I expected that we’d see the Doctor die in the opening moments of the episode and spend the rest of the hour navigating our way out of the situation, but we actually spent half the episode getting to Lake Silencio, and then the other half trying to get back there.
When it was finally revealed that the Doctor had never been in mortal peril to begin with, I was actually angry. Early in the season the reality of the Doctor’s death had been emphasized, and while it was obvious that there would be a way out I had hoped for something a bit more complex and dramatic than the far-too-easy Tesselecta solution. But on second viewing I came to think otherwise. The Tesselecta provides him with an easy answer to his own death, yes, but what I said in the opening paragraph of this recap was a lie: this isn’t a story about the Doctor facing the inevitability of his own death. It’s a story about the Doctor faking the inevitability of his own death. It’s about his plan to quietly slip out of the limelight for the good of the universe, and his realization on the top of that pyramid that he need not do it alone–and in fact, he can’t.
In essence, the episode really is about the Wedding of River Song. That scene made very little sense to me on first viewing, so little sense that when I set out to write a recap of the episode I realized that I had no idea what was going on. Why does the Doctor suddenly decide to marry River? Where does that come from, and what does that have to do with River’s decision to go ahead and kill the Doctor? I knew I would have to watch the episode again, and on second viewing it’s much clearer. The Doctor realizes that he can’t use River as a pawn in his plan to fake his own death. Her refusal to play her part necessitates that she be an equal partner: more than just a companion, a wife. It’s the moment when the Doctor finally realizes that he has to trust River, and the two are bonded together not just by love but also by complicity in the Lake Silencio lie.
So the Doctor’s death may not be real, but it is significant, because it marks a new chapter in his life and the event which cements the bond between him and River. It will be interesting to see how the Doctor’s decision to lay low will affect the show going forward, and what role (if any) in-laws will play in his life now that they’re in on the secret.
And despite Moffat’s insistence in interviews that next season will tone down the show’s serialization, we’re left with quite a few open questions to mull over while we wait for the show to return (which probably won’t happen until autumn of next year). The exact motivation of the Silence and their human servants is still a bit murky, and this will probably need to be addressed in the next series. As for the “Fall of the Eleventh,” we seem to be setting up an end date for the Eleventh Doctor, and the question “Doctor Who?” implies that going forward we’ll spend a bit more time contemplating the show’s core mystery. Both are fitting topics given the show’s impending fiftieth anniversary, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it culminates in a massive epic finale for Matt Smith and Steven Moffatt in November of 2013.
For now, though, “The Wedding of River Song” is a fitting conclusion to Series Six. The plot is a bit messy, but in the end a lot of loose ends get tied together. The results weren’t exactly unpredictable, as the episodes confirmed most of the fandom’s assumptions about River, but they did so in a way that seemed fitting, satisfying, and above all, tantalizing for the show’s future. There are a lot of questions remaining, the most pressing of which is the same question I ask at the end of every series: how many days ’til Christmas?
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