The wedding with Steven Moffat

“All of history is happening at once!”

I’ve had a bit of a love-hate relationship with Doctor Who season 32.  I was intrigued by the decision to abandon the highly-structured season-long arc format of the Russell T Davies era, and I think ultimately the season benefited from that, developing a freewheeling narrative feel that recaptured a part of 60s and 70s Who that had eluded the revived series at least since Christopher Eccleston left.

It also allowed far more cliffhangers than we had during the RTD years–by my count, seven of the season’s thirteen episodes ended with cliffhangers.

But as far as the individual stories themselves?  I’d been unimpressed.  Apart from the gem of “The Doctor’s Wife“, the first seven-episode half-season, transmitted in the spring, was deeply average, with a couple of competent stories and a couple of sub-par but not horrible ones.  That’s not a condemnation–it means, of course, that the season could have been far worse.  But it could also have been far better.

(Even “The Doctor’s Wife” relied for its gem-ness on the viewer already having a familiarity and an emotional investment in the programme; in that respect, it was far more of a “Remembrance of the Daleks” or “School Reunion”–though better than both those–than a “Caves of Androzani”, “The Empty Child” or “Blink”, whose brilliance I’d expect to shine through even to the casual viewer.  I don’t know how the not-we reacted to “The Doctor’s Wife”, but I’d be curious to find out.)

And then the second half-season picked up at the end of August with “Let’s Kill Hitler”, which was, in this reporter’s opinion, the single worst story Doctor Who has ever done in the 48 years since it first began transmission.  Really, just absolutely horrible.  Every creative choice made in the writing, direction and editing of that episode made a bad situation worse.  We’re still in 1967 with our Doctor Who rewatch, and already I’m dreading the day when we get up to “Let’s Kill Hitler” and I have to watch it again.

After that nadir, though, the second half-season picked up for me, with four stories that were all solid and enjoyable (one of which was outright excellent).  Only with the last, “Closing Time”, did I really find anything to spoil it for me, borne out of an inability really to successfully marry the episode’s dark menace (Cybermen really are at their best when they’re a desperate, final remnant of their race) with the attempt to recapture the happy-chappy bromance atmosphere of the Doctor’s relationship with Craig (James Corden) from “The Lodger”, to which this episode serves as a sequel.

(Ironically, I thought the dynamic between the Doctor and Craig in “Closing Time” was far more successful than it had been in “The Lodger”.  All this time I’d been thinking “The Lodger” failed because of the way it contorted itself to serve as a vehicle for its celebrity guest star, but now I’m having to conclude that its problem is one of execution rather than conception.)

But even as I was enjoying those four successive stories–and even as someone who was sympathetic to the abandonment of the RTD narrative-arc-by-rote format*–I confess that that succession of standalone episodes making up the body of the second half-season caught me by surprise.  This is exactly the period when we’d normally expect the buildup to the season finale to be ratcheting up, but what we instead got were four entirely self-contained episodes that moved away from that completely (apart from the last five minutes of “Closing Time”).

That’s a choice that’s going to take some thinking about before I can evaluate whether it’s a choice I would have made.  On the one hand, I think Peter David’s quite right when he observes that a consequence of this approach has been the absence of the I-need-to-see-next-week’s-episode-now tension that the programme often achieved at the tail end of the Davies seasons.  (Though it’s important not to overstate that; even during much of the Davies era, that feeling was only achieved following episode twelve of the thirteen-episode season; only two of New Who’s six series have had a cliffhanger leading from episode eleven to episode twelve, turning the finale into a three-episode event rather than a two-episode one.)

On the other hand, I once read Lawrence Miles make the excellent point that the problem with arc storytelling is that it places all the focus on what might happen in future episodes rather than on what’s currently happening in the episode that’s on right now.  That’s bad for a number of reasons, and happily, for the first time since Christopher Eccleston was playing the Doctor, it managed to be largely absent from this second half-season.  That was both refreshing in and of itself, and also–yes–gave the half-season a strong Classic Who feel (which was only helped along by all the classic-era callbacks and thematic links in “The God Complex” and “Closing Time”.)

All of which is a very long preamble to say–I was trepidatious going into “The Wedding of River Song”.  I’d been simultaneously impressed and nonplussed by the four stories since “Let’s Kill Hitler”.  And I knew that status of “The Wedding of River Song” as the Big Finale Episode would herald a return to all the things that were responsible for the depths that “Let’s Kill Hitler” plumbed, the very things that the ensuing four episodes had been able to move away from: the poor handling of a complicated (and in places, frankly, uninteresting) arc storyline, and the need for supposed Grand Spectacle to justify all the hype surrounding the episode as a Big Event.

So I was gratified to spend an hour watching an engaging and entertaining piece of television.  Really, it was pretty decent.  Not a timeless addition to the pantheon of great Who by any means, but nevertheless fun, and smart enough for the kids, and dumb enough for the grownups–which is, in the end, all I think we should ever be asking of Doctor Who.

It’s worth noting that it was exceptionally uncreative, basically a mishmash of formulae from Moffat’s previous big episodes.  It opens on a peaceful alternate Earth filled with storybook oddities, brought on by a paradox surrounding the Doctor’s death; as opposed to Moffat’s other season finale, “The Big Bang”, which opened on a peaceful alternate Earth filled with storybook oddities, brought on by a paradox surrounding the TARDIS’s death.  Like the mid-season finale, “A Good Man Goes to War”, it spends its opening third showing the Doctor popping up in a progression of seedy science-fictional settings, seeking out a series of ruffians and ne’er-do-wells.  (I must say, I love how Farscape the programme looks when it does that.)  And like “Let’s Get Hitler”, it’s built around a succession of “Ooh, now look at this cool bit!” set pieces, but critically, it strings them together to form a plot, rather than using them in lieu of a plot like “Hitler” did.

Of course, formula is not stranger to New Who finales.  In RTD’s four finales, three of his opening episodes (“Bad Wolf”, “Army of Ghosts” and “The Sound of Drums”) were all constructed to a single formula, and three of his part twos (“The Parting of the Ways”, “Doomsday” and “Journey’s End”) were all constructed to a single formula.  Which didn’t stop any of them from being enjoyable stories.

But really, there were two moments in “The Wedding of River Song” that turned me from “Yeah, it was fairly good,” to having an outright great time.  The first was the lovely, sweet farewell to Nicholas Courtney, a moment made all the more poignant by it being thematically integral to the storyline.  It’s something I want to devote a few paragraphs to in a post of its own tomorrow, because it’s resonant with my own family situation right now.

And the second was that ending.  “The oldest question, hidden in plain sight.”  Goodness me.  You know how much I love post modernism, right?  Well, I’m telling you that right now we can pretty much stop post modernism from this moment forward.  There’s no point to it anymore.  With “The Wedding of River Song” it reached its moment of sublimity, and any further instance of post modernism won’t be able to measure up to what’s come before.

(As some fans of message boards seem to have failed to notice, it works so well because it’s just as legitimately “the first question” in-universe as it is to us, watching the programme–Who am I? is the most basic of philosophical questions.)

So, yeah.  “Let’s Kill Hitler” was still awful, so for me “The Wedding of River Song” wasn’t good enough to redeem the season as a whole.  But it was a lovely cap to the sequence of solid episodes we’ve had throughout September.

I

*I want to state for the record that I don’t think the RTD formula for a season-arc is a bad thing, just that after doing it five series in succession, it was time for a change.  The one constant of Doctor Who is change, in every aspect of its storytelling, and I think it would have been no more advisable for Moffat to stick to the RTD format once a new era of the programme began than it would have been for RTD to pick up in 2005 with the Cartmel Master Plan (or, egads, to have pursued the idea of the Doctor being half-human) and have had episodes be 25 minutes long.  And for that matter, of course, there’s the obvious point that Moffat didn’t want to replicate what RTD had been doing any more than RTD wanted to replicate what JNT and Andrew Cartmel had been doing during their own tenure.

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