Tuesday, 4 October 2011

DOCTOR WHO: ‘THE WEDDING OF RIVER SONG’


“You could have told me all this the last time we met.”

As you’ll know if you made it through my review of ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’, I haven’t found it easy to write about Moffat’s recent episodes. That’s partly because I don’t find them very coherent, which makes them hard to respond to coherently. Those pre-credit sequences where we jump about all over the place, staying just long enough to take in one wild set-up before being whisked off to the next, I’m starting to think they’ve become the show in microcosm.

In fact quite a few things in the show are starting to remind me of the show. The finale of the last season, when there were no stars in the sky, I took that as a metaphor for life without wonder or imagination. Get to the finale this time (let’s forget it being chopped in two), and all I could think was “it’s not just in this episode that time never progresses.”

Because things aren’t even consistently inconsistent. It’s a strange mixture of stuff flying off in a thousand directions and a feeling we’ve all been here before. Take that oft-repeated lake in Utah and picture it on a windy day. The surface is an almost feverish succession of ideas, mad details sometimes on the screen only for a few seconds. (Pterodactyls! Dickens! Balloons!) But beneath that disturbed surface there’s no tides. We’re just cycling round the same stuff. Time is collapsing – again. The Doctor is imprisoned in a straggly beard – again. “All of history is happening at once.” Or at least the last two seasons are.

Some of this seems to be working to a purpose. Whatever reality they end up in, Rory still has to hang around hoping Amy will notice him. Some of it... well, it just feels like time’s stopped ticking.

You could of course get all zeigeisty about it. In the Hartnell era, time was one fixed point. You stood in its way at your peril. Now time is all in flux, except for the fixed points ... except they aren’t even really fixed in themselves. And inhabiting this flux is a postmodern landscape of quotes and quips. And quoted quips.

Let’s be clear, I don’t care at all about being asked to accept a poetic, squinty type of truth. If “all history is happening at once”, London would be ruled not just by Romans but by Normans, and the Daleks of 2150, all in one big logjam of order-giving. Except that wouldn’t have many practical consequences because without time no-one would be able to move. That matters not one whit. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – if that sort of thing bothers you, then this sort of thing will bother you.

But on a bigger level - this plotline we’ve been following since ‘Silence in the Library’ hoping for resolution, did it really make much sense? Some of the answers were precisely what we guessed all along, while others were... well, what exactly? We’re told (and have it repeated here) “the Silence is not a species. It is a religious order.” But then why do they look so much like a species? We’re told Madame Kovarian is one of their “human servants”, and she’s offed in the classic Who tradition of collaborators who outlive their usefulness, so she’s presumably not in on the order. The Headless Monks look pretty much like a religious order, but what’s their connection to all this anyway? Are they all acting from their own idea of high motives, trying to defend reality by stopping the question being asked? If it was all about the Doctor, why were they hanging about the whole of Earth for so long anyway?

I suspect we’re supposed to be distracted from those unanswered questions by the raising of new ones, “the fields of Trenzelor” or whatever it was. I worried before about the show being “lost in Lostness.” I don’t have to worry any more about that coming. It’s already happened. Its rules are hasty rush and perpetual deferment. Watching it is like a donkey charging after a carrot.

Of course if you look long and deep enough you’ll find nice themes in there, as is almost always the case with Moffat. It looks like I was right about the Easter motif. (Good Friday was the date played prominently up on the screen.) The underlying plotline is reminiscent of ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’, trying to step away from your destined sacrifice to just live your life, and ultimately being unable to.

Except the one doing the dodging isn’t the victim but the would-be assassin. The Doctor and River are the star-crossed lovers who cannot be apart but can never touch. He calls her the other pole and I started to think of them as the twin poles of existence, wanting to unite yet with the whole of creation being predicated on their staying apart. (I was probably getting carried away by that point.) You could have taken that core and built an episode around it, just as you could the core of ’Let’s Kill Hitler’. But it all just gets crowded out by so much other stuff. Sometimes quite cool stuff, like a room of chattering skulls. But stuff, nonetheless.


Even within all that we have problems, though. River is of course the ultimate femme fatale - only she can save the Doctor, but at the same time only she can kill him. She’s been appearing to consistently upend the Doctor’s life, most seriously not when she poisons him but when she demolishes his self-image in ‘A Good Man Goes To War.’ Yet here it’s all reversed, her role is now to big up that self-image by telling him how much the universe loves him, and her ambition is to tie the knot with the handsome hero. It’s like the dark side of her role has been hived off and handed over to Madame Kovarian, the anti-River who arches her black eyebrows and scoffs as they flirt.

Admittedly this tends to be the way of things with femme fatales. Like pirates, they’re cool figures to introduce but no-one knows much what to do with them once they’re there. And if they do go anywhere, that’s where they go – back into the dutiful spouse. (Think of the risible ending tacked onto the marvelous ‘Gilda.’)

But that criticism pales to nothing when compared to the Doctor’s death dodge, a misdirection and copout that would make Chris Claremont cringe. Robot duplicates are like something from a Fifties Superman comic. Maybe there’s some lawyer’s defence, that when we’re firmly told “that is the Doctor”, he is technically aboard the Tesselactor. (And somehow avoiding getting first zapped and then burnt.) Someone somewhere will be posting to a message board how a robot could start to regenerate.

But it makes a nonsense of the pathos of what has gone on before. “I died to save you all. But don’t worry, as it happens I slipped out the back door.” That fixed point turned out to be timey-wimey after all. And wasn’t the point that reality couldn’t cope with a fixed point being altered, not that Madame Kovarian had kitted River out in an obedient suit?

And the final question turns into a kind of metafictional gag that underlines how much this show has become about itself. It’s not the ultimate question of our universe, but it’s universe, the one implied by the title. Doctor... who? I doubt we’re supposed to care what the Doctor’s actual name is, or even imagine we might get told. It’s a signifier of the central character’s mystery.

The Doctor “stepping back into the shadows” is more interesting, however. It would have made more sense if he’d been reincarnated at the end; people still know what he looks like, don’t they? (Though the “fall of the Ninth” stuff suggests that’s all to come.) But it does suggest they intend to do more with the ‘legendary Doctor’ stuff than just raise it and return to business as usual. I’m not sure they are going anywhere with this. But it’ll be nice to have the incognito stranger replace the celebrated galactic hero for a bit. Jaded of cracks and Silence and time ending, it’s good to have one element that seems genuinely intriguing.

Moffat wasn’t always this way. ’Girl in the Fireplace’, ‘Blink’ even as recently as ’Beast Below’, all were fairly coherent, self-explanatory and self-contained single episodes. (In fact the point all this started to change was the day River showed up.) Those simple, happy days when we thought the show was some sort of modern fairy story, when horses showed up on spaceships and Amy floated from the Tardis in her nightie, where did they go?

You can almost see him taking the road of the old show, only in accelerated fashion for our broadband-speed times. Remember how that went? At first everything was stand-alone, stories only joined at the edges. Only monsters and aliens recurred, so only monsters and aliens recognised the Doctor, and that rarely counted for anything. Then we got a few through-lines thrown in. An extra inducement to keep watching, they seemed a good idea. But it’s like introducing ivy to a garden, pretty soon its erupted and tangled together and is choking everything else. It was around then that the show got cancelled.

There was a distinct jump from last season to this. Nerds of a certain age will remember scouring cheap shops for science fiction paperbacks. These would often be cheaper if they had a hole punched through them. (An accident of shipping, according to legend.) The previous season was like a science fiction anthology from such a shop, cobbled together from quite different authors. The crack was like the hole, you’d be reading one story then another and it would appear at regular intervals. But it was just an intrusion on everything around it, breaking into separate realities.

However, this season wasn’t cut from whole cloth either. Particularly in its second half, it was more like a Cubist painting; the same themes, tropes and concepts seen from a succession of new angles. I’m not quite sure why that should be. Was Moffat imposing more of a remit on his writers? Or were they becoming more accustomed to what he was after, like workers trying to second-guess and appease the boss?

So a through-line which I liked less the more dominant it became, which cast its shadow more on the incidental episodes. And yet the irony is that they came to be the episodes I liked! Last season, I favoured precisely one non-Moffat episode (‘Amy’s Choice’) and regarded the rest of them pretty much as filler. This season I only found two episodes to be filler (‘Pirates of the Hollywood Ripoff’ and ‘Son of the Lodger’, though admittedly ‘Night Terrors’; avoided the label only through judiciously applying aplomb.) This season it was non-Moffat episodes which I found the twin highlights, ‘The Doctor’s Wife’ and ‘The Girl Who Waited’.

What they had in common was a deployment of SF tropes and tricks in order to see a known character from an unexpected direction. As such, you’d get more out of them the more of the show you’d watched. But you didn’t have to have watched the rest of the show to get them at all, the episodes were explicable within themselves. Moffat and the Ninth, I would guess, will give us one more season of all of this before ending everything again except for not really. But it’s those two episodes which signpost where the series now needs to go.

3 comments:

  1. Lots of good stuff here, Gavin. Whatever other criticisms we may both have of Who, it certainly never leaves us short of food for thought.

    I could reply in detail, but this time I'm not going to because I plan to write a followup post on TRP and I don't want to repeat myself.

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  2. On re-reading this, it's astonishing (A) how much I forget, and (B) how much genuinely interesting discussion Doctor Who consistently generates. It's obviously doing something right, if only in doing things wrong in such an interesting way.

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