Being overly concerned with clarity and consistency is probably not the best outlook for a fan of science fiction television, particularly if that show is Doctor Who. As with a lot of sci-fi TV, there’s a generally a style-over-substance mentality pervading the writing of Who. Often there’s not a good thematic reason for having a funny alien, a time paradox, or a convoluted mystery on Doctor Who other than the fact that it’s simply that kind of show. Normally, this aesthetic is so charming that it compensates for any sneaking suspicion a viewer might have that the show is just manipulating them to watch more Doctor Who. But, when the story itself doesn’t make reasonable sense, then the charming aesthetic can’t protect the audience from coming to the realization that all they are watching is a space/time soap opera.
SPOILERS for “The Wedding of River Song”
In my view, Moffat’s writing on Doctor Who has become like a spoiled child: we’ve overly praised it and now it’s misbehaving. I LOVE Moffat’s other show, Sherlock, but the ending of “A Study in Pink” doesn’t actually make any sense. No one would actually be swayed in to taking those pills. Like Doctor Who, Sherlock gets away with stuff like that because the aesethic is awesome. But that doesn’t mean the bad writing isn’t still there, lurking below the surface, waiting to act out. Which is what it’s doing in “The Wedding of River Song.”
Steven Moffat’s writing has two major reoccurring problems. First, the eventual reveal of a major plot detail ends up not making logical sense. Second, the emotional themes of the stories are trivialized because of this illogical structure is “supported” by a reliance upon prophecies or paradoxes.
At the beginning of the season, I wondered (with optimism) if Steven Moffat was tearing apart the fabric of fiction and now it seems the answer is a solid yes. Which is bad. Having a story conclude in a way that was foretold at the beginning of the season because things happen out of order is not inherently satisfying. We need to actually understand why things happened that way, other that to be shown the linear moment in which they actually do happen. The best example of this occurs with the spacesuit of the impossible astronaut.
Why did the Silence engineer a 1960s NASA spacesuit into a super-control robot suit to make River kill the Doctor? Is it because they couldn’t get ahold of River after she turned good in “Let’s Kill Hitler”? In “Day of the Moon” and “The Impossible Astronaut” we’re lead to believe the Silence are using a spacesuit for a specific reason. And it mostly seems to have to do with them being in 1969. However, at the end of “Closing Time” when River gets strapped back into the spacesuit (she escaped from it before as a little kid) the Silence seem to just throw it on her. This might make the plot work technically and visually, but it doesn’t make sense because the spacesuit is literally and figuratively a clunky device.
While we’re on this, why use River to kill the Doctor in the first place? It seems like a pretty convoluted plan to kill just one guy. Say you’ve got an army of really powerful aliens who are effectively invisible and have no problem shooting Palpatine-style lightning out of their fingers and blowing people up. Why not have 90 of these guys sneak onto the TARDIS (which we’ve seen happen) and shoot lightning bolts over and over and over until the Doctor is dead? Well, the audience has to infer that they can’t do that because River is DESTINED to kill the Doctor. The Silence buy in to prophecies and silly nursery rhymes which dictate all their actions. So the Silence is like, “Oh shit! the nursery rhyme says an impossible astronaut will rise and shoot the Time Lord in the face, repeatedly. Well guys, we better get to work on making the astronaut as impossible as possible. Let’s high tail it to 1969 and start grabbing some gear!”
If we accept the Silence can’t kill the Doctor because of the nursery rhyme (a sequence of events the Silence PUT into motion by their actions) then River has to kill him while wearing the spacesuit. Well, that’s not true at all because in “Let’s Kill Hitler” the newly regenerated and totally brainwashed River tries to kill the Doctor with a gun. That’s no impossible astronaut! Was the plan to just have River kill the Doctor whenever was easiest then? If so, why do they need a souped up spacesuit? And why do they need River at all? There aren’t any good answers to these questions, so when it “all comes together” at the end of “Closing Time” and throughout “The Wedding of River Song” it isn’t satisfying because the logic inherent to the Silence’s plan is deeply flawed.
Another justification we’re given as to why the astronaut has to shoot the Doctor is the notion of this being a “fixed point in time.” The biggest narrative problem I have with this particular “fixed point in time” is that Doctor Who has created conflicting precedents for what happens when fixed points are “rewritten.” In a show about time travel, the idea that there are fixed points in time that “can’t be rewritten” is like telling someone not to think about an elephant. It’s obviously designed to get you to think about rewriting said fixed points. Previoulsy “fixed points” in the Tennant or Eccelston episodes were dealt with differently. Both in “Father’s Day” and “The Waters of Mars” the real dramatic tension wasn’t necessarily around the consequences of changing the fixed points, but how those characters were dealing with that power and what it meant to be selfish about wanting to rewrite the past.
In “The Wedding of River Song” violating a fixed point in time not only creates a whole new eventuality (that is inconsistent with both “Father’s Day” and “The Waters of Mars”) but also serves no real narrative purpose. I understand that we’re supposed to feel like River Song is willing to sacrifice lots of people and the collapsing universe because she loves the Doctor, but that selfishness/sacrifice thing never really gets dealt with because everything turns out fine. In “Father’s Day,” Rose still has to lose her dad, and now experience it as an adult. In “The Waters of Mars” the Doctor has to deal with the fact that he drives Captain Brooke to shoot herself just to stop him. In “The Fires of Pompeii,” the notion of that famous eruption being a “fixed point” causes a lot of horrific grief for Donna and the Doctor. Fixed points in time are dark because they have consequences. But not in the in “The Wedding of River Song” because there are no consequences. Dramatically, thematically, and in keeping with the prior spirit of the show, this falls flat.
We’re told (not convinced. Just told) that the Doctor’s death is a fixed point at Lake Silenco. The rupture of this causes the birth of the bizarro universe with Winston Churchill in charge of a modern day world, and pterodactyls, and everything. Pretty neat visually, but needless in terms of narrative structure. It’s also a little too similar to last year’s season finale in which little-kid Amelia exists in a strange star-less world. In “The Big Bang” this was at least a new idea, but the conflict in “The Wedding of River Song” was essentially the same. How will the Doctor be able fix this totally wacky version of Earth in just 45 minutes? Well, it turns out he’s able to do it with the POWER OF LOVE. In the previous episode “Closing Time,” Craig beat the Cybermen with the power of love, and you know what? That actually worked. Because the episode was sweet, focused, and the stakes were clear. In “The Wedding of River Song” the stakes are simply to return time to a previous status quo, stakes so large and so vague that we can’t really invest any emotion in them. We knew everything was going to be fine.
But there was a moment in “Closing Time” when it seemed like Craig might die. There’s never a moment like this in “The Wedding of River Song” because the relationship between the Doctor and River comes across as fake. Part of this is because Matt Smith and Alex Kingston don’t have the same chemistry as Tennant and Kingston, but it’s also because there are no thematic stakes relating to River Song and the Doctor’s romance.
Why does River Song love the Doctor and why does he have more feeling for her than other people he’s hung out with? At least with Rose Tyler we saw an onscreen romance depicted over several episodes. With River Song, we don’t. We’re just told over several episode they love each other, or will love each other. So now, they kind of do? Sort of? Last year we had a bizzaro universe and a wedding at the end that fixed everything. This year, same thing. But this time with two characters who we’re not convinced really love each other.
This isn’t solid narrative storytelling. This is similar to having a nursery rhyme or a prophecy validate your plot choices. River Song and the Doctor are together because we’ve been told they have to be together because of time travel stuff. Self-fullfilling prophecies are not the same as actual storytelling. This nonsense is happening again with “the fall of the eleventh” prophecy sputtered by the headless blue guy. A science fiction show in which all the fun science fiction stuff ends up turning into prophecies being fulfilled in uninteresting ways is exactly the kind of stuff that didn’t work on Battlestar Galactica. Also, those singing kids doing the nursery rhymes are really annoying. I miss the Ood already.
The best thing about this episode was the way in which the Doctor avoided his death. This was very, very cool and set up well by the “Let’s Kill Hitler” episode. I, too, cannot get enough of the assassin robot with miniaturized people driving it around. It’s great that the Doctor took his TARDIS inside of a simulacrum of himself and the simulacrum was the thing we saw killed. This is a perfect way for him to cheat his death. Bravo! However, it didn’t warrant the entire episode. Who exactly needed to be convinced of his death? River? The Silence? Wait. I thought this was a fixed point in time? THE DOCTOR’S DEATH was a fixed point in time, right? Nope. It turns out the fixed point in time was the Doctor’s robot simulacrum’s death. Were the Silence actually fooled by this? And what about time itself? Was time itself fooled by the simulacrum Doctor? Or was that how time was “supposed to happen?” If so, then we didn’t need the entire episode.
The whole bizzaro stopped-time universe was needless. The Doctor could have been like “Hey, I’m okay, it was that robot thingy!” And Amy, Rory and River would have been like “Phew. Shit. You had us worried.” Then they could have gone and done something else. The notion of River splitting time and the Doctor fooling the Silence with the Robot thing was only designed to confuse the viewers for an entire episode. It didn’t actually serve a narrative purpose, develop these characters, or tell an interesting story.
All it did was show us a lot of shiny objects and re-tread themes and plot devices with the same characters who’s biographies we don’t understand or relate to because time has been rewritten too many times and the development of relationships has been swapped out in favor of “wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey.” The reveal of how and why the astronaut had to kill the Doctor was to simply depict the astronaut doing it. This wasn’t satsifying and didn’t conclude a story. Instead, “The Wedding of River Song” created another, seperate story inside a bubble universe.
In this way, the current season finale was the ultimate plot beytrayal. The entire year, we’ve been wondering where this story is headed, and instead a different story, which takes place in an aborted universe is told in its place.
Wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey might have worked for awhile, but now that’s given way to silly-willy plotty-wotty and it feels like the universe is collapsing.
Ryan Britt is the staff writer for Tor.com. He likes Doctor Who. Really.