Oh, that Steven Moffat can write a Doctor Who season finale, can’t he? A weird vision of Earth – all familiar elements but jumbled up in delightful ways, a storyline which jumps back and forth in time, revisiting events from earlier episodes and seeing them from a new angle, set ups from the very first episode of the season now being paid off, old friends and enemies popping back for a visit, a quick appearance of a Dalek just for fun, Rory nobly in uniform bravely protecting Amy who has forgotten who he is. Some of it was a bit of cheat, sure, and I’m not quite sure I understood what the Doctor did at the end there, but it came with such a huge emotional wallop I really didn’t care. Four stars.
Unfortunately, that’s last year’s season finale I’m talking about. And this year’s slavish emulation of last year’s is the least of its problems.
Let’s get the good stuff out of the way. As irrelevant and idiotic as it was, the vision of the 5:02 universe was bracing and superbly well-realised – what a pleasure to see Simon Callow back as Charles Dickens. The Doctor with a beard is a fun image and the Silents are as effective as ever, albeit rather under-used. Amy’s office-on-a-train is all sorts of awesome and her execution of Madame Kovarian finally gives some heft to the baby-kidnapping plot which has been treated in such an off-hand manner since the series returned. The punch-line with The Doctor (like James Bond at the beginning of You Only Live Twice) believed dead by his enemies is a good way of modestly rebooting a series which was rapidly disappearing up its own probic vent. The tribute to Nicholas Courtney is touching and appropriate.
Okay, now the minor niggles.
The whole story requires the Doctor to be constantly talking to other people about how clever he is being, which is dramatically weak, despite Moffat’s best efforts to ramp up the tension by having Churchill’s palace progressively invaded by Silents. When Churchill is abandoned, a not-very-convincingly decapitated Dorium Maldovar takes over the role. The last thing we need at the end of this Moebius Pretzel of a series is the set-up for another arc, let alone one derived from Silver Nemesis of all things. Could we not have even a little bit of closure for once?
My need for a good, hissable villain and some genuinely malevolent monsters is fed by the reappearance of Madame Kovarian and her army of Silents, but her reappearance doesn’t achieve anything (except her satisfying death at Amy’s hands, as noted) and it’s not at all clear to me what, if any, role the Silents played in her plan to turn Rory and Amy’s offspring into a custom-made Doctor-killer, nor really how the events of The Impossible Astronaut and A Good Man Goes To War are even remotely connected.
Simon Fisher-Becker needed to keep his head a lot stiller in that box to avoid looking like he was wearing it on his shoulders (which of course, he was). And on the subject of dodgy effects, the sight of Mark Gattiss (for it was he) being chewed up by those skulls was just embarrassing.
Since 23 April 2011 – 161 days ago, 23 weeks, over five months – we’ve been told that the Doctor dies at Lake Silencio. Canton Everett Delaware III intones “that most certainly is the Doctor and he most certainly is dead.” Now, shortly before the series finale, news reached us that filming on the Christmas Special with Matt Smith had begun, so if even a scintilla of doubt remained that the Doctor would in fact survive this encounter, those doubts were swept away. We all knew, sitting down on 1 October – as in fact we know every week – that this was not the end of Our Hero. The question was not “whether?” but “how?”
And after this much build-up, after cranking up the stakes this high, after making us wait nearly half a year and then making the Doctor increasingly pessimistic, resigned, fatalistic and gloomy as his certain death approaches, the answer that was provided needed to clear a pretty high bar. To be clear, it needed to be…
- Surprising. If it’s predictable, what’s the point?
- Set up. The solution needs to be hiding in plain sight (to coin a phrase), not some magic new whoosit we’ve never seen before. Note that these first two are in apparent conflict, and yet Moffat has proved himself a master at this kind of sleight-of-narrative in the past.
- Not a cheat. It must not contradict anything we’ve already heard, or rely on anything brand new. Agatha Christie rules. It’s only satisfying if we have enough information to work it out ourselves. It must be consistent.
- Come at a cost. If it’s too glib, too easy, then who cares? The apotheosis of this is the Doctor’s despatch of the Daleks into the Void in Doomsday. The solution is apparently a little too easy, but the cost of carrying out this plan, turns out to be heartbreakingly mighty. As noted in paragraph one, The Big Bang rescues the glib nonsense of its ending with the emotional punch of the Doctor’s goodbyes and Amy’s resurrection of the TARDIS using the wedding rhyme – something old, something new…
In my view, the resolution of the death of the Doctor in The Wedding of River Song fails in every one these. Let’s take them in order.
Was it surprising? No, not really. As I noted in my review of Let’s Kill Hitler, we now have not one but two sources of Doctor-Dopplegangers to take that supposedly fatal blast by the shore of Lake Silencio. This in itself is poor plotting. Just as The Rebel Flesh / The Almost People ought not to have needed two different crucibles of magic goo serving different purposes, Series Six ought not to have need two different magic people-copying technologies. If the surprise is just a matter of guessing which of them is needed to accomplish the switch, then it’s hardly a surprise at all. In fact, the heavy favouring of the Tesselecta in the “previously” gives the game away almost completely.
Now actually, for me this is the least important of the four. It will never be a total surprise anyway, because we know the Doctor won’t die, but making the resolution so totally predictable puts even more pressure on the other elements. Unfortunately, they all fail too.
Set up. Well, insofar as we have seen the Tesselecta before, I suppose this is set up – at the cost of surprise as noted above. But when we consider point three – is it a cheat? – we begin to see just how poorly set up it is. Almost nothing about what the Tesselecta is required to do is set up in its earlier appearance in Let’s Kill Hitler. Although able to mimic humans, clothing and even motorbikes (although not glasses, bizarrely), it nevertheless renders them rather stiffly and bloodlessly. It carries a human(oid) crew which can react, albeit not very quickly, to fresh stimuli and all of whom are apparently necessary for its operation.
However, the Doctor we see at Lake Silencio is not stiff and awkward, he’s not slow to react, he’s just as quicksilver, lithe and supple as ever. When the astronaut zaps him (with what weaponry, by the way?) he then appears to regenerate, despite the Tesselecta having shown no ability to regenerate and no known ability to simulate the appearance of such a thing. Steven Moffat’s slightly grumpy Twitter reply to a fan who raised this – very fair – point is as follows: “If it can simulate a human being to the last detail, a light show is nothing. We can do that NOW – ask the Mill.” Sadly, all three of these points are wrong. It has been set up as being unable to simulate a human being to the last detail, it’s simulations have always been depicted as flawed and imperfect up till now. But even if it had been depicted as able to replicate humans perfectly, it does not follow that it perforce has the ability to simulate a uniquely Time Lord attribute. It’s like rebutting a complaint that a hero had shown no previous ability to hold his breath for ten minutes by pointing out that he is very good at skiing, so holding his breath for a superhuman length of time would probably be easy – no? Finally, The Mill may be able to overlay a flat image of a regeneration effect on a flat image on a TV screen, at a modest resolution and given sufficient rendering time. Neither they nor anyone else can make such a thing appear, in three dimensions, visible from all angles, in real-time, around a moving human.
Finally, the Tesseledoctor “dies” and is burned. So all the exquisite machinery which drives this phenomenal robot is burned up and at no time is anything resembling a mechanism revealed. Everyone who witnesses the pyre continues to see burning flesh and bones, and not the charred remains of circuits, gantries control panels – oh, and while I’m at it – the burned and useless remains of the machinery required to return the Doctor back to his regular size. And presumably the rest of the crew, all willingly risking their lives too. Or does the ship only require one operator now?
Now, no doubt it’s possible to invent explanations for all of these apparent contradictions, but that’s not my fucking job. It’s the writer’s job, and when the writer fails, it’s the show-runners.
Finally, what’s the cost of all of this? Absolutely nothing! And who is it for exactly? Either time – all-powerful, all-knowing TIME – requires and insists that the Doctor meet his death at Lake Silencio or it will be 5:02 forever, or the universe will end, or some fucking thing. OR time merely requires that four random individuals witness something which looks a bit like the Doctor being murdered and the Doctor knows that and so can cheerfully stage a fraudulent version of the supposed event whenever he wishes with a minimum of soul-searching and companion-torturing. But not fucking both. If he could have sent a Flesh avatar or a robot double in his place at any time, why didn’t he just do that and get on with it? Quite how these four eye-witnesses turn into the entire universe knowing of the Doctor’s death is also not remotely apparent.
By the time River was switching between “I can’t stop myself” and “hello sweetie” for no apparent reason at all, I was ready to abandon the whole enterprise. Consider what we are being asked to swallow here – a robot double of the Doctor from 200 years in the future, controlled by a miniaturised Doctor, summons Rory, Canton, a Flesh avatar of Amy and one version of River Song to watch another version of River Song dressed in a spacesuit for no reason, hiding in a lake for no reason, to pretend to execute him and then burn the robot body because a nursery rhyme told him to. For fuck’s sake.
So, that was Series Six. I can’t give the finale more than one star. It’s worth at least two, maybe even two-and-a-half. Technical standards are high, performances are faultless, lots of good jokes. But the one thing it had to accomplish was to pay off all the set-ups and after this much waiting, it just wasn’t good enough. This is a particular shame, since Series Six has been in general a huge improvement over the vertiginously variable Series Five. Whereas last year gave me disappointment after disappointment in the form of mis-fires like Victory of the Daleks, Vampires of Venice and Vincent and the Doctor (yes I know you liked it, fair enough), and a competent but unremarkable piece like the Silurian two-parter seemed magical in comparison, this year we’ve had a much higher average, with even minor disappointments like The God Complex and Closing Time still seeming fresher and more confident than much of the previous year, and the best this year was some of the best the series has ever done. I suppose what I’m saying is that a creative team that can come up with The Doctor’s Wife, A Good Man Goes To War and The Girl Who Waited is surely capable of a better season finale than this. Apparently not.
- The Impossible Astronaut / Day of the Moon – The Silents are a brilliant creation, and this is vibrant, funny, challenging stuff. Four stars.
- Curse of the Black Spot – Soggy. Two stars.
- The Doctor’s Wife – perfection. Five stars.
- The Rebel Flesh / The Almost People – didn’t quite deliver everything it promised. Just scrapes four stars, largely for the Doctor/Doctor double act and the shattering ending.
- A Good Man Goes To War – propulsive, kinetic stuff. Some of Moffat’s very best writing with Strax and Colonel Runaway. Five stars.
- Let’s Kill Hitler – Again, this is so structurally awkward that I want to downgrade it to three stars but it’s just so winning. I think the finale has tarnished it a little. Three-and-a-half stars.
- Night Terrors – not the very best of the best, but everyone involved knows what they’re doing. Especially if you ignore the series arc, four stars.
- The Girl Who Waited – outstanding stuff. Proper science-fiction, proper acting and proper tear-jerking. Five stars.
- The God Complex – a better start than Curse of the Black Spot, but exactly the same damned low-stakes, who cares, ending. Three stars.
- Closing Time – amusing but uneventful. Two-and-a-half stars.
- The Wedding of River Song – colourful but entirely vacuous. I feel rather betrayed. One star.