Series six came to a head with The Wedding of River Song, which was an episode that pretty much does what it says on the tin as well as having everything else happen and nothing. While I love this story to bits there are many others – a majority even, as best as I can tell – that dislike it, some that hate it, and many that genuinely loathe it with a passion. The most recent DWM survey that polled readers to determine a ranking order for the first 241 stories (An Unearthly Child – The Time of the Doctor) ranked The Wedding of River Song as #129 overall. That’s not a particularly bad result but it’s placed firmly in the bottom half and it will likely only go down lower in future polls when Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor is considered after Listen, Mummy on the Orient Express, Flatline and the rest. Is The Wedding of River Song really, and I mean REALLY, the worst season finale of “NewWho”? Because that’s what this poll result says. Even now, four years on from the original transmission, it STILL has the power to rip apart message boards as the fans that love it and the fans that hate it continue to clash and fall out with each other over it. I think it’s due a reevaluation from its many detractors and so now I shall try, possibly in vain, to convince you that it really is better than you remember.
I love The Wedding of River Song. It’s Moffat at his most, to borrow his own phrase, “timey wimey”. He throws in everything and the kitchen sink. It opens with all of history happening at once. How about Pterodactyls flying over London, Dickens promoting A Christmas Carol (not the Matt Smith episode!) on BBC Breakfast, Romans in chariots waiting at a red traffic signal and Holy Roman Emperor Winston Churchill returning to the Buckingham Senate atop his personal mammoth? Did I mention the flying cars attached to hot air balloons? This is Doctor Who at its most bonkers and there’s nothing not to love about that! As things go on we see the Doctor playing Live Chess against a psychopath who will kill anyone who beats him at it. We’ll see someone eaten alive by skulls. We meet a blue head in a box bemoaning the lack of Wi-‐Fi. And did I mention that the Doctor escapes his death by hiding inside a shape-‐shifting robot piloted by tiny cross people? Anything goes in this story!
It’s not all fun and games though. There are a few scenes that have an emotional edge to them that hit home hard. Most notably is the (off-‐screen) death of my personal favourite Doctor Who supporting character Brigadier Lethbridge-‐Stewart. I have to hand it to Moffat for writing into his script this beautiful tribute to the late Nick Courtney; even more so for making it relevant to the plot as it’s this death that finally convinces the Doctor to accept his fate. The scene is well written and it’s an emotional hard-‐hitter, especially for longer-‐term fans of the series. Can anyone honestly say it isn’t moving?
NURSE: Doctor, I'm so sorry. We didn't know how to contact you. I'm afraid Brigadier Lethbridge Stewart passed away a few months ago. Doctor?Everything up until about halfway through this story is told through a series of flashbacks by the Doctor to Churchill and we get intermittent scenes of the two walking down a corridor (It wouldn’t be Doctor Who if they didn’t!), and as they go Moffat crafts a slow-‐burner of a reveal that the two are defending themselves (building upon similar scenes from Day of the Moon) when the Silent Priests are slowly revealed to be in the room with them – and they’re attacking. Thankfully the monsters are stopped by the arrival of Pond, Amelia Pond, who then proceeds to shoot the Doctor and take him away by train to Area 52. Turns out she remembers everything from the alternate timeline (she’s making a habit of this) and that too is a standout scene…
DOCTOR: Yes. Yes, I…
NURSE: It was very peaceful. He talked a lot about you, if that's any comfort. Always made us pour an extra brandy in case you came round one of these days.
DORIUM: Doctor? What's wrong?
DOCTOR: Nothing. Nothing. It's just…
(He puts the phone down and takes the TARDIS blue envelopes from his pocket.)
DOCTOR: It's time. It's time.
DOCTOR: Amy?Soon we get another great moment when they’re at Area 52, which is inside a pyramid. River Song is there waiting and her response upon seeing the Doctor arrive is legendary: “And what sort of time do you call this?” Brilliant writing! Moffat nails it with his scripts week in week out, but when it comes down to individual lines of dialogue he’s even better. This is one such example. There’s another even better one later on when Alternate!Amy proposes to Alternate!Rory…
AMY: Those stun guns aren't fun. I'm sorry. I wanted to avoid a long conversation. You need to get up, though. We'll be in Cairo shortly.
DOCTOR: Amy Pond. Amelia Pond from Leadworth, please listen to me. I know it seems impossible, but you know me. In another version of reality you and I were best friends. We, we travelled together. We had adventures. Amelia Pond, you grew up with a time rift in the wall of your bedroom. You can see what others can't. You can remember things that never happened. And if you try, if you really, really try, you'll be able to (He is gesturing with a model TARDIS.) Oh. (And on the far wall are her sketches -‐ Dalek, Silurian, vampire, pirate, Weeping Angel.) Oh.
AMY: You look rubbish.
DOCTOR: You look wonderful.
AMY: So do you. But don't worry; we'll soon fix that. (She holds up a tweed jacket.)
DOCTOR: Oh, Geronimo.
AMY: So, you and me, we should get a drink some time.The episode then gets scary as the Silents, trapped in the pyramid, begin to break free from their imprisonments and launch an attack, and on Kovarian’s instruction everyone’s eyedrives begin to electrocute their users. This is a very dark moment for Amy as we finally see the one thing lacking from the season thus far, as she gets revenge on Kovarian by sticking her eyedrive over her and letting her die, killing her in cold blood. It’s dark. Really really dark. [It makes me think of Davros’s guilt trip in Journey’s End: “But this is the truth Doctor. You take ordinary people and you fashion them into weapons. Behold your Children of Time, transformed into murderers. I made the Daleks, Doctor. You made this.” Seems like some things carry over across regeneration into different incarnations!] However if it’s scary you want from this episode then I won’t point you towards that scene. Instead I’ll direct you towards Gantok being eaten alive in a pit of carnivorous skulls. That’s much scarier than anything you’ll stare at in Blink; at least Weeping Angels are usually humane when they kill you.
AMY: And married.
The final few scenes are all about fulfilling the promise of the title: The Wedding of River Song. The ceremony is a quick one, over in a minute, as the Doctor marries River there and then atop the pyramid. It’s fast-paced dialogue between the Doctor and River and the chemistry between Smith & Kingston has never been more electric than it is here. Also it’s about time the Eleventh’s signature neckwear had some use besides being subjectively cool?
DOCTOR: River, take one end of this. Wrap it around your hand, and hold it out to me.That’s it, time is restored and the Doctor is dead. Nobody thought Moffat would actually do it but he jolly well did! The Doctor is dead, cremated, gone forever; he’s never coming back to life. Oh wait, he is. How on Earth did he do that??? Turns out that not only did Moffat give us the solution over a month in advance but he also featured it prominently within the episode itself. Hidden in plain sight. So simple, yet so subtle, yet so effective and that’s what makes it all so good, so clever and proof that when it comes down to it Moffat really is a genius. And it’s not cheating as it was always the Teselecta that got shot on the beach. The fixed point was unchanged but our understanding of it was radically wrong before now.
RIVER: What am I doing?
DOCTOR: As you're told. Now, we're in the middle of a combat zone, so we'll have to do the quick version. Captain Williams, say I consent and gladly give.
RORY: To what?
DOCTOR: Just say it. Please.
RORY: I consent and gladly give.
DOCTOR: Need you to say it too, mother of the bride.
AMY: I consent and gladly give.
DOCTOR: Now River, I'm about to whisper something in your ear, and you have to remember it very, very carefully, and tell no one what I said.
(He whispers something very short.)
DOCTOR: I just told you my name. Now, there you go, River Song. Melody Pond. You're the woman who married me. And wife, I have a request. This world is dying and it's my fault, and I can't bear it another day. Please, help me. There isn't another way.
RIVER: Then you may kiss the bride.
DOCTOR: I'll make it a good one.
RIVER: You'd better.
DOCTOR: And you are forgiven. Always and completely forgiven.
DOCTOR: The Teselecta. A Doctor in a Doctor suit. Time said I had to be on that beach, so I dressed for the occasion. Barely got singed in that boat.Well, it wouldn’t be a River Song story without some innuendo, would it? I’d say Moffat was “Captain of the Innuendo Squad” – seriously watch the two-part minisodes First Night/Last Night – but that title’s been taken.
DORIUM: So you're going to do this? Let them all think you're dead?
DOCTOR: It's the only way, then they can all forget me. I got too big, Dorium, too noisy. Time to step back into the shadows.
DORIUM: And Doctor Song, in prison all her days?
DOCTOR: Her days, yes. Her nights? Well, that's between her and me, eh?
Of course the Eleventh Doctor is far from finished. He’s still got 17 additional stories to get through yet! This episode is great in many ways, as I hope I have described, but the greatest success here is how it closes the book on the mysteries of series five and six and opens up just as many questions for what’s to come. The Fields Of Trenzalore, the fall of the Eleventh and the question “Doctor who?” which will all come to a head in 2013’s The Name/Day/Time of the Doctor trilogy that finishes off Matt Smith’s time as the Doctor. Therefore I suggest to you that The Wedding of River Song is a story that is best appreciated within its wider context in the Smith era as part of the bigger picture, the great tapestry of events taking the Eleventh Doctor from Leadworth to Christmas Town and everywhere in between. I think that people remember The Wedding Of River Song so poorly because there’s so many unanswered questions it raises that we had to wait for the answers to, but now that we know these things I suggest you give it another go. This is a story filled to bursting point with clever sci-‐fi concepts, witty quotable dialogue and visuals that are a sight to behold, but never once does any of this get in the way of some top quality non-linear storytelling. More than any of this though, on a fundamental level, it’s a compelling character-driven drama. And isn’t that last sentence what makes Doctor Who?
When he's not obsessing about Doctor Who whilst having I Am The Doctor play in his head, Dr. Moo can usually be found reading up on the latest in Quantum Physics. As you do when you're a physicist.