5 December 2018: It Takes You Away review added.
26 November 2018: The Witchfinders review added.
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THE WEDDING OF RIVER SONG
Aw, no. We’re dreaming, right? Please tell us that isn’t actually what happened.
We’re suckers for a good arc. (That’s good arc, mind you. What’s Bad Wolf?/What’s Bad Wolf?/What’s Bad Wolf?/Bad Wolf is something really stupid! doesn’t count.) But, like we said in our review of When A Good Man Goes To War/Let’s Kill Hitler, if you’re going to embark on an arc, especially one spanning seasons, you’ve got to get it right. Alas, Steven Moffat stuffed up the partial arc resolution in When A Good Man Goes To War/Let’s Kill Hitler in spectacular fashion. Now The Wedding Of River Song comes along to finish the arc off. (See what we did there?) So is the arc redeemed?
Not even slightly. All the same things are wrong with it, and Moffat shovels on a few more for good measure.
There are so many problems with it that it’s hard to know where to start. It’s even difficult to pick the worst bits. So throwing a dart at random, why don’t we start with this: the utter, utter obviousness of it all.
Name the most glaringly obvious answers to these questions. Who is River to the Doctor? His wife. Who’s the best man she’s ever known? The Doctor. Who’s the most likely candidate for the spacesuit? River. (We can feel our brains shrinking as we write these down.) Most of all, what’s the most obvious question you could possibly ask? All together now: Doctor Who! (That last one in particular elicited a response from us that would have made a trucker blush.)
Yes. In every single case, the most obvious answer is the one Moffat plumps for. Not much of a reward to have waited so long for, is it? Especially after the hammer blow of River actually being Melody Pond despite this being more obvious than a charging herd of rhinos painted pink. This is scarcely a satisfying conclusion to an arc which has been trailed, teased and hinted about for years. In fact, it made us throw the remote at the screen.
But wait, it’s not as if everything’s dead obvious. We didn’t see the Teselecta coming, that’s for sure. It never would have occurred to us for a minute, because it’s monumentally stupid.
Let’s back up a bit, because in fact the whole Teselecta thing’s mired in a moronic morass. The Doctor’s going to die - boo hoo etc, except that it’s not like that at all, because if Doctor Who had been cancelled we would have heard. Given that the “death”, therefore, has got about as much pathos as Carry On Camping, what we’re left with is a vague curiosity about how the Doctor’s going to escape the fine mess he’s gotten himself into. He has to die; it’s a fixed point in time, right? And if he doesn’t, all manner of terrible things will happen.
Whoa there. Back up a few more steps, because the sucking bog of idiocy goes clear to the horizon. First of all, if the Doctor always dies, how does the mysterious entity (which is never explained) who makes the prediction know about the Plains of Trenzalore and all that guff? Why doesn’t anyone, the Doctor most of all, ever inquire who this mysterious predicting personage is? It could be from a fortune cookie for all we know.
And the fixed point in time. Which apparently the Silence are able to create. Huh. Weird. We've never heard of even the Doctor being able to do that, and isn't he a you know, Time Lord? Whatevs. But who or what is the judge ensuring that what’s supposed to happen during the fixed point really does happen? We don’t think we’re being too wild and crazy if we assume that it’s some sort of laws-of-physics thing, rather than someone leaning down off a cloud and giving you a score out of ten, right?
And here we’re back to the Teselecta again. Which never occurred to us as a solution for the Doctor’s problem, any more than the irritatingly red-herring ganger Doctor did, because you can’t cheat the laws of physics. You can dress up as a feather, but you’ll still weigh the same. The Doctor was supposed to die at Lake Silencio. He didn’t. And all the horrified onlookers and roboDoctors in the world don’t change that. Fooling the Silence might get them off the Doctor's back, but what about the woe, doom and despair?
And while we’re chatting about the laws of physics: what about the sheer, mind-numbing stupidity of all of history happening at once? Great idea, absolutely. It even looks quite nice, with the pterodactyls and the steam trains and all. But if all of history really is happening at once, how come everyone’s managing to have perfectly linear conversations? Day and night are still happening as usual: Winston Churchill confirms this. It seems that all that’s actually happening is some things from different eras mixed together and the clocks refusing to move. Now, we know this is Doctor Who, not Horizon. But if you’re going to pin everything on an idea, wouldn’t you try even a tiny bit not to stuff it up completely? Or why use it at all?
Also horrendously stupid? Steven Moffat’s reliance on the weak-beyond-belief device of saying that characters lie. Touched by River’s shock in The Impossible Astronaut? Oh, she was lying. Intrigued by the Doctor whispering his name in River’s shell-like? Lying. (Why the hell would he lie about that anyway? There’s absolutely no reason for him to turn round and announce what he’s just told her.) That’s not plotting, it’s pulling something unsavoury from your nether regions. Worse, it breaks faith with the audience. Mislead us, sure. In fact, you should. But not only to cheat us.
Not only is this stuff inept, it also manages to neatly gut all of the arc’s emotion. If you're tearing up over the Doctor’s having to face his mortality or sniffly over River having to kill the love of her life, well, ha ha! Gotcha! None of that stuff actually happened! What a waste of tissues. Fool me twice, won’t get fooled again. And if you rip the emotion out of it, what’s actually left? Just some poor plotting based on dodgy concepts and an audience sitting wondering what the hell just hit them.
And speaking of dodgy concepts: The Wedding Of River Song, alas, can’t escape the all-too-frequent curse of Moffat episodes, the Shifting Sands. Remember when the Stone Angels were incredibly good? And how that all fell apart when the rules that governed them were swapped and changed around to suit Moffat’s convenience, diluting and defanging the Angels beyond redemption? Well, that’s what happens here too. In spades.
The Silence are here to invade Earth. In fact, they invaded it long ago. Terrifying concept, yeah? Gives you the shivers and no mistake. In fact, they made some incredibly powerful television out of it. Well, forget all about it, because that never amounts to anything. Instead, the Silence are now merely a religious order bent on killing the Doctor (boringly like, religion apart, all the Doctor’s other enemies).
Because silence will fall when the question is asked. No, that’s not right. Mysteriously, this now morphs into silence falling when the question is answered. Call us pernickety, but it seems to us that there’s just an eensy-teensy difference between these two. Given that this part of the arc is still unresolved (sigh), God only knows what it will end up as. Silence falling when the Doctor plays Pictionary? Whatever, it’s pretty hard to get worked up about when the rules keep changing.
Then there’s the Doctor being evil, with the entire universe at his throat. Which was never explained or justified. Good thing, really, because suddenly he’s acquired a halo and a million million people ready to help him. Come on, that’s not enough. You can’t just say something’s the case without ever saying why, then turn on your heel and march off in the other direction with precisely the same level of unjustification. Unjustifyingness. Unjustifyification. You know what we mean. Anyway, it just doesn’t work: you can’t take the audience along with you just by saying things. Why would we believe it? And then do a one-eighty and believe the opposite for no reason? Do enough of this, and all you’re going to extract out of the audience is one giant shrug. Because they’re not going to buy in if you persist in sneakily changing the rules all the time.
Even the small things shift. River’s suit is automatic and she can’t control it - until she can. There’s so much wrong with this. Why in God’s name did the Silence put all that effort into training her when the suit’s going to kill the Doctor whatever she does? And why should we invest in it when it turns out to be mutable?
On top of all of that are the leftovers from the previous arc episodes. So much in them we all assumed would turn out to be important later seems actually to be totally random. The Doctor dressing for death? We’ve got nothin’ for ya, meaning he really did spend some of his supposed last half an hour of life inexplicably putting on the Ritz. Canton, the fourth most important person in the Doctor’s life? Dunno. The relationship between the Clerics and the Silence? Um… And who the hell blew up the TARDIS? Moffat probably counts these as immensely cunning red herrings, but in fact they’re just annoying.
What we find the saddest about all the arc mistakes is that Moffat thinks he’s getting away with it. Either he doesn’t care about arc consistency or he thinks we won’t notice when he chucks important things away or scrambles them to suit his purpose. Sadly, that isn’t the case. As a result, we doubt we’re the only ones who are becoming progressively less emotionally involved the further the arc goes. And, that, especially given that it involves the greatest Doctor ever, is a crying shame.
Also a shame is how Moffat massacres character here. Given his one-note obsession with River, you’d think she would come out of this a deeper character. Something, at least. Instead she remains less an enigma and more a collection of characteristics that simply don’t add up. She has a warm, cordial relationship with her parents once they all know who they are. (That’s the idea, anyway: in actual fact, we’re hard put to detect any kind of bond between them. They’re about as stiff and awkward together, both before and after her “revelation”, as a bunch of cardboard penguins.) She’s a psychopath. The Doctor marries her and hints about nights of connubial bliss. She’s a psychopath. Try stitching these things together into one cohesive character. Go on, we dare you. (Also, can we say again, that’s not what a psychopath is? You can’t make one, and River doesn’t act like one. We winced every time they said it.)
Then there’s Amy and Rory. Rudely pitched out of the TARDIS when the Doctor decides that he doesn’t want to watch Amy die (never mind all the companions who’ve actually left of their own accord, still breathing), with not even a goodbye for Rory. Then we see them again in the department store. Rory And Amy Have A Life After The TARDIS Shock! Well, that was somewhat less than unexpected. And here, in a story as important as the Doctor avoiding his certain death, they’re innocent bystanders. Did you think, after all the stories involving fathers in this season, that that was going to pay off in the finale? April Fool! Yet again, Rory is sidelined, doomed only to repeat his usual notice-me shtick.
There is one exception, of course, to Amy’s pointlessness in this story: what’s obviously meant to be the answer to those of us who’ve been moaning nonstop about the lack of emotional followup to the loss of her baby. Amy finally expresses her feelings about this - by murdering Madam Kovarian. Wow. So we’re now supposed to believe, in the face of everything else we’ve seen about Amy, that the tiger mother within is a maneater. Not to save her child, but out of cold-blooded revenge. We do hope the kids in the audience are taking notes on how a hero behaves. (And of course they’re learning at the same time from the Doctor how OK it is to lie.)
Ladled on top of all of this is the WTF factor. As well as things being thrown away, they also seem to happen for no reason whatsoever. Why does the Doctor marry River? Why? He just said he didn’t want to. We can’t see it has anything to do with anything, and it comes from absolutely nowhere. Nor is it meant to be a marriage of convenience, given the Doctor’s comment about how she spends her nights. Yet again, the important parts of their relationship are offstage, leaving us wondering (yet again) what the hell’s going on and, more and more, why we’re supposed to care about it.
Also in the WTF category: River, as we all know, is in Stormcage for the Doctor’s murder. But she didn’t kill him. So why is the Doctor happy to leave her in there? Yes, she seems to be able to get out pretty often, but still, it’s a prison and she’s in it. Why is he OK with that?
WTF number three: the Doctor is going to die at Lake Silencio because the Silence arranged it. Afterwards, he says his reputation’s got too big and it’s time for him to be small for a while. Easier said than done when it comes to fame: you can’t put that cat back in the box (unless it’s Maru). Leaving that aside, though: given that he’s going to keep zipping round the universe doing what he does, doesn’t he think the Silence might get to hear about that?
We have to stop this. We could pick at it all day, but there’s no point. They don’t care, so why should we?
It’s obvious the arc’s not over, either. Maybe they’ll fix all this stuff in future episodes, maybe they won’t. We know which way we’re betting. Either way, meh. If they’re going to feck about with us to this extent, there’s no point in attempting to summon up any anticipation. On current showing, that’s going to be a wasted investment.
Is there anything in here on the positive side of the balance sheet? Well, like we said, some of the alt-universe stuff is fun to look at, even if it doesn’t make any sense. If you like that sort of thing (we don’t) we’re sure all the cameos were lovely. Simon Fisher-Becker gives a delicious performance as Dorium. And there’s some great dialogue, like ”She said you were a Mr Hottieness and she would like to go out with you for texting and scones.”
And needless to say, Matt Smith’s performance saves a lot of stuff that otherwise would be going under for the third time. The bar, for example, is rather too Cantina, but Matt is so good we don’t care. Even the live chess, with the clunking “That’s why they call it live chess” is redeemed by Matt’s remarkable ability to threaten someone while beaming with innocence and goodness. And the astonishingly effective scene of the Doctor’s reaction to the news of the Brigadier’s death strikes one of the few really genuine emotional notes. Let’s not underestimate the impact of this: the Doctor is so pivotal, and Matt Smith so gobsmackingly amazing, that his influence punches way above its weight. Despite all of the crap stuff in this episode, we’d watch it willingly just to see Matt do his thang.
So how does the season look as a whole? As ever, there are highs and lows, but the highs have been really spectacular. The Doctor’s Wife’s up there with the very best of episodes, and while not perfect, episodes like Day of The Moon and The Girl Who Waited are marked by a sparkling originality that in the main has been missing from Doctor Who for a while. Those things are wonderful to see. There are episodes, like The God Complex, in which the good is so good it definitively outweights all the faults. There’s also more than one episode that’s dull, clichéd, misconceived or all three. Par for the course, then; although it's worth pointing out that the highs this season are very, very high.
Overall, however, given the dominance of the arc in the season and the very many serious problems in implementing that, what we get most from the season is a sense of wasted potential. The Silence: such incredible adversaries, whose full chilling potential is thrown away. River: a character who could be intriguing in her own right and who also could illuminate the Doctor’s character in a whole new way, yet whose development has been so mishandled we’ve ended up with no coherent idea of who she is. An overarching event, the Doctor’s impending death, which was a waste of time from the start since none of the audience believed in it. Given the potential, and given the fact that the greatest Doctor ever is on board for all this, it's truly, truly disappointing.
MORAL: When in doubt, lie, cheat and steal.
“The past, present and future all at the same time.” Could this be… a Clue?
The Silence can say what they want about the Doctor and his inherent evil: we say it’s the beard that’s the real evil here.
It isn’t often we don’t love every single thing Matt Smith does on screen, but we have to say that his delivery of “A woman” made us snort helplessly with mirth.
THE CHATTERING CLASSES
Remember the X-Files episode Teso Dos Bichos? In it, someone thought it would be a peachy idea to make cats the evil monsters. Yes, kittehs. Cyoot kittehs. This works about as well as you’d think it would. Recognising the essential problem with this scenario, the crew set about trying to fix it, covering the kittehs with dirt and ruffling them up. They then proceeded to set up the shot, during which time the kittehs washed all that yucky stuff off themselves, looking perfectly groomed again by the time they were ready to roll on set. Yeah, that was gonna work. We were irresistibly reminded of Teso Dos Bichos when we watched the director’s frantic stretching and fuzzing efforts to make skulls in a pit hilariously chattering their jaws scary.
I SAY HELLO HELLO HELLO
Does River have to say “Hello sweetie” again just after she fails to shoot the Doctor? Good God, give it a rest!
WORLD WAR IITUNES
‘“Have you never heard of downloads?” “Said Winston Churchill.”’ Why didn’t they add “who in real history died long before downloads were invented”, just to skewer it completely?
THANKS FOR NOTHING
A million million people all ready to help the Doctor. And that goes…precisely nowhere. Dear God.