Five months after watching the Doctor killed by a space-suited assailant at Lake Silencio on the Plain of Sighs, we finally learned how the Time Lord cheated his destiny. The Wedding of River Song answered all (well, most) of our questions, set up new ones for next year and also managed to reset the series to move the Doctor away from being a feared God-like Time Lord Victorious, perhaps moving back to being the quiet adventurer he was in the Hartnell era.
How did we get here?
The first half of season six mixed soaring sci-fi and horror tales with moments of plodding mediocrity.
The Curse of the Black Spot (or, as a friend put it, Pirates of the Gallifreyan) was the low point, a cliché-riddled yarn with a central conceit – an emergency medical hologram – lifted from Star Trek: Voyager. The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People two-parter was not bad but was padded and poorly paced, with too many heavy-handed scenes of characters pontificating while their lives were in jeopardy.
The remaining four episodes, however, made for thrilling TV. The opening two-parter - The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon – set the chilling tone for what was to follow. From the Doctor’s death, to the introduction of the Silence, to the creepy use of tally marks, to the final revelation of a regenerating girl (who we later discover to be Melody Pond), Steven Moffat‘s script is full of visceral punches.
Neil Gaiman‘s The Doctor’s Wife brings the TARDIS matrix to life in the form of Idris (Suranne Jones). It also casually throws the series’ established continuity in a new light, establishing that the TARDIS stole the Doctor as much as he stole it, and that she hasn’t always taken him to where he wanted but always to where he needed to go. Oh, and Gaiman forces Rory to wait 2,000 years for Amy again. The bastard.
Last but by no means least the mid-season finale A Good Man Goes To War chronicles the Doctor’s attempt to save Amy and baby Melody. However, he is outwitted by Madame Kovarian (Frances Barber), who escapes with Melody, and we finally discover that River Song is in fact an older version of the kidnapped child.
Hitler the Doctor
Returning after the summer hiatus, the five episodes preceding the season finale are all effectively standalones, with the overarching plot hanging like a dark cloud on the horizon.
Let’s Kill Hitler picks up three months after Rory and Amy have returned home, during which time the Doctor has been searching for Melody, only to unwittingly find her in the form of ‘Mels’, Amy’s long-standing best friend. After a quick jaunt to 1938 Berlin results in Mels being shot, she regenerates into the familiar form of River Song.
Or, as the Doctor explains to Rory and Amy, untangling the timey-wimeyness of it all:
You named your daughter … after your daughter.
Melody kisses the Doctor, administering a lethal poison which also negates his ability to regenerate. Unable to counteract the toxin, he spends his final moments trying to convince a conflicted River to save her parents, who are trapped inside the shape-shifting robotic Teselecta. Amy convinces Melody the Doctor is worth saving, and taking a leap of faith she uses her regeneration energy to save the Time Lord. (As an aside, how many regenerations does this now mean the Doctor has available to him?)
Things that go bump in the night
Mark Gatiss‘ Night Terrors instills genuine chills in the form of the Peg Dolls, who can convert those trapped inside a doll-house in a young boy’s wardrobe into one of them by touch.
The boy in question, George, is actually a Tenza, a life-form able to sense what its foster parents want and adapt itself to match. The nightmares begin when George’s fears of parental rejection lead him to transport anyone he feels threatened by into the doll-house. Only when the Doctor forces the boy to face his fears and persuades his father to show his unconditional love for his not-quite-human son is the cycle broken. Gatiss’ script captures the nature of childhood fear superbly, although Who has ventured into similar territory before with (the vastly inferior) Fear Her.
Flying through time and space on whimsy
Having been transformed into a Peg Doll in the previous episode, in The Girl Who Waited Amy is left to fend for herself in an alien ‘kindness facility’ after accidentally stepping into an accelerated time-stream. By the time the Doctor and Rory reach her 36 years have elapsed, and they find an older, embittered Amy who now despises the Time Lord “more than I’ve ever hated anyone in my life”. As she tells the Doctor:
Don’t you lecture me, blue-box-man-flying-through-time-and-space-on-whimsy. All I’ve got, all I’ve had for 36 years, is cold hard reality. I call my life what it is. Hell.
Having set up the episode with a heavy sci-fi concept, Tom MacRae‘s script is actually an intimate character piece. It examines the relationship between Rory and Amy in detail, while fleshing out a back-story which had rarely been touched upon before, as we finally understand why Amy loves Rory so much:
You know when sometimes you meet someone so beautiful, and then you actually talk with them, and five minutes later they’re as dull as a brick? But then there’s other people, and you meet them and you think: “Not bad, they’re okay,” and then you get to know them, and their face sort of becomes them, like their personality’s written all over it. And they just, and they turn into something so beautiful. Rory is the most beautiful man I’ve ever met.
Karen Gillan‘s subtle performance as the older Amy convincingly conveys the changes that 36 years of waiting have made to her, while occasionally allowing glimpses of her younger self to show. But it is Arthur Darvill who takes the ultimate plaudits here as the Doctor offers Rory a stark choice: save one Amy, but not both. The final exchange between Rory and the older Amy on opposite sides of the TARDIS door is harrowing and heart-breaking, as she allows herself to be wiped from existence – just as Rory was at the end of Cold Blood. And it is Rory’s reaction to being forced into an impossible choice – telling the Doctor “you’re turning me into you” – which spells the beginning of the end for the trio’s time together.
Finally, the conceit of having the Doctor effectively quarantined in the TARDIS – which gives this Amy/Rory-centric story the room it needs to breathe – simultaneously ticks off this year’s Doctor-lite instalment with such style that it goes practically unnoticed. Kudos.
The Girl Who Waited is the perfect answer to those who think Doctor Who is a silly sci-fi show for kids. Just as The Doctor’s Wife was effectively a love letter between the Doctor and his TARDIS, this serves the same purpose for Amy and Rory. It is contemporary sci-fi at its finest – MacRae effectively out-Gaimans Gaiman – and one of the best episodes of Who ever.
Losing my religion
The Doctor’s ability to convince Amy to forego her unwavering belief in him is pivotal to saving her in The God Complex, penned by Being Human creator Toby Whithouse.
Trapped in a facsimile of a 1980s hotel and pursued by a Minotaur, the Doctor mistakenly tells the current residents and his companions they need to cling on to their faith to defeat the monster, which seems to be preying on their deepest fears. However the Minotaur turns out to be a God-like creature which feeds on faith. The Doctor realises his error just in time to save Amy by convincing her he is just a sham:
Look at you, the glorious Pond. The girl who waited for me. I’m not a hero. I really am just a madman in a box. And it’s time we saw each other as we really are. Amy Williams – it’s time to stop waiting.
Of course he is saying this just to save her, but he also realises the truth in his own words. The ease with which Amy lets go of her faith here jars somewhat, but on reflection it is amazing her faith has stayed so strong for so long. The Doctor has continually let her down: twice leaving her to wait for him for years, allowing Rory to die multiple times, her abduction by Kovarian, losing Melody and failing to prevent her from being turned into a Peg Doll. She may be in awe of him, but why should she have unflinching faith in him?
The Doctor is shaken. He notices Rory’s desire to put the TARDIS behind him, and realises he will always be endangering his friends’ lives. As Amy realises when the Doctor dumps them unceremoniously back on Earth: “He’s saving us.”
And the countdown to the finale begins in earnest as the Minotaur’s dying words refer not to itself, but to the Time Lord:
An ancient creature, drenched in the blood of innocents, drifting in space through an endless shifting maze. For such a creature, death would be a gift.
We never found out what – actually, who – was in the Doctor’s room though, representing his deepest personal fear. Maybe one for next year?
Last stop on the farewell tour
Last year, The Lodger served as both the ‘companion-lite’ episode and a moment of levity before the finale. In Closing Time, James Corden reprises his role as Craig Owens as he and his baby son Stormageddon, Dark Lord of All (aka Alfie) join the Doctor in a light-hearted romp with the Cybermen. It’s funny and silly and turns on the sound of Alfie’s crying creating a surge of emotion in Craig – who is in the process of being turned into the new Cyber-Controller – which overrides their programming.
Craig again makes a fun temporary companion who believes unequivocally in the Doctor, just as the Doctor touchingly reveals his faith in humans. Is this the answer to Amy’s unanswered question in The God Complex about what Time Lords believe in?
It’s going to be 5:02 in the afternoon for all eternity
And so to the teasingly titled The Wedding of River Song. Moffat has a habit of playfulness and misdirection with his episode titles, but not this time. As he did last year he really does end the season with a wedding, playing a massive double bluff by actually giving us the marriage of the Doctor and River Song which, as Amy eventually realises, makes her the Doctor’s mother-in-law.
Time itself is dying as all of history happens simultaneously. Winston Churchill commands the Holy Roman Empire from London (he has his own personal mammoth, you know). Pterodactyls scavenge for scraps of food like pigeons. And Charles Dickens – a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it reprise by Simon Callow – appears on BBC Breakfast discussing his new tale, A Christmas Carol.
The cause of this chaos? River Song – who else?
The finale is a story of two halves. The first chronicles the Doctor’s attempts to understand why his death needs to occur, bringing him back into contact with Dorium Landovar and the Teselecta. At first, he appears defiant he can hold the inevitable at bay indefinitely, until a phone call informs him his old friend Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart has died. (It’s a lovely tribute to Nicholas Courtney, the actor behind the Brigadier, who died from cancer earlier this year. I also suspect the presence of the pterodactyls was a nod to Invasion of the Dinosaurs, one of the most famous stories featuring the character, and the use of Cairo as the final location may also have been a tip of the hat to Courtney, who was born in the Egyptian capital.)
The Doctor realises it is time, and travels to Lake Silencio so he can die at River’s hand. However, through her own force of will, she breaks the fixed point in time, splintering time itself. (It must run in the family, as Amy had already defied pre-destiny in The Girl Who Waited.) Back in London, an assault team led by Amy saves the Doctor from the attacking Silence. They whisk him off to their secret pyramid base in Cairo, kicking off the second half of the story.
The Silence attack again and River hurries the Doctor to the top of the pyramid, but not before Amy returns to save Captain Williams (having realised he is in fact her forgotten Rory) and condemn Madame Kovarian to death – an act she knows the absent Doctor would not sanction but one which she proved she is capable of back in The Impossible Astronaut, when she was also willing to kill to protect the Time Lord. River shows the Doctor that she has reached out across the universe and received countless pledges of support to help save him, showing him all the good he has done. (This serves as a counterpoint to The Pandorica Opens, when the Doctor’s enemies united to fight against him.)
The Doctor relents and, recognising River’s love for him, quickly marries her. Their kiss mends the schism, allowing history to resolve itself and time to start flowing again. But in doing so, the Doctor reveals his true plan to her: the ‘Doctor’ we see is in fact the Teselecta, and the real Doctor is inside pulling the strings. The fixed point in time at Lake Silencio plays out as it should, but it is the Teselecta that River ‘kills’, and the Doctor is safe.
Only later does River tell a still grieving Amy the Doctor is alive, as we finally see the Pond/Williams family reunited in one final joyous moment. Meanwhile the Doctor returns Dorium to his resting place, explaining that it is better the universe continues to think he is dead and that for him it is “time to step back into the shadows”. But Dorium leaves him with a doom-laden prophecy about the Fields of Trenzalore, the fall of the Eleventh and the First Question – the oldest question in the universe, hidden in plain sight: Doctor Who? And so we have next season’s arc set up for us – once we’ve romped our way through the Christmas special, of course.
Putting the First Question to one side the most important question is, of course, was Wedding a fitting finale? It depends. Viewers will be polarised: they will either love it or loathe it, with few in between.
Steven Moffat set us two puzzles this season: the identity of River Song and the Doctor’s avoidance of his own death. Many fans guessed the former, but speculation leading up to the finale mostly focussed on the Doctor’s Ganger duplicate rather than the Teselecta. In that respect, Moffat’s plotting machinations were entirely successful.
There was also a simplicity to the mystery’s resolution – a basic switch-and-bait rather than convoluted timey-wimeyness – which appealed to me. The journey which took us there was fantastic – ‘live’ chess and the Chamber of Skulls were fantastic concepts, beautifully realised. But the final resolution lacked the emotional resonance of last year’s finale, where the Doctor wipes himself from existence to save the universe and is then brought back by the subliminal ‘something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue’ triggering Amy’s memories of the TARDIS. Here it is River rather than an external agent who triggers the ultimate crisis, and the Doctor himself was always in control of the situation anyway, having already substituted the Teselecta for himself at Lake Silencio. It was brilliant plotting nonetheless, but not quite the masterpiece of last year’s finale.
Most intriguing now is where the series goes from here. The closing scene suggests that Moffat, wisely, has chosen to reboot the series to be less dependent on massive alliances knowing about and conspiring against the Doctor. If reports of next season containing more standalone stories are true, we could see a return to more character-driven pieces rather than universe-in-peril arcs. This would address this season’s greatest shortcoming – a lack of progressive character development for the Doctor’s companions, who too often had little to do in the various jam-packed plots other than get caught up in events. They rarely had the space to respond to them and grow, such are the demands of delivering an action-driven tale in 43 minutes of TV. If the changes mean we get more contained and intimate stories driven by characters rather than plot such as The Doctor’s Wife and The Girl Who Waited, that’s fine by me.
Season six’s key themes
More so than any previous season of Who, there have been a number of overarching themes threaded throughout the 13 episodes.
In my mid-season review, I noted that:
Children have always been at the heart of Who. Moffat himself often talks about his writing in reference to his own children, or what terrified him as a child, and there has always been a direct relationship between his characters and stories and children. Amy first met the Doctor as a seven-year old and, of course, has now given birth to her own baby. The Impossible Astronaut is the child Melody/River. The Curse of the Black Spot hinges on the importance of Captain Avery wanting to be a positive role model for his son. And the Gangers are effectively ‘born’ from their human masters. Everywhere you look, Moffat is writing directly to and for child viewers.
Children and a child’s eye view remain central to the second half of the season. In Let’s Kill Hitler Amy plays the admonishing parent to Mels after her various escapades, without realising she is in fact her daughter. Closing Time revolves around the emotional bond between father and son – as does Night Terrors, which also delves into the nature of childhood fear.
At the mid-season break, I also noted the increased use of creating scares through psychological and emotional horror rather than simple monsters and aliens, and this continued in the second half of the run. From Night Terrors’ childhood fears to the horror of abandonment and having to condemn a loved one to death (The Girl Who Waited) to individuals’ deepest, darkest fears being used against them (The God Complex), there was much more to think about and be terrified by than a standard monster-of-the-week.
There was also a strong focus on the power of love and faith. Time and again we are shown that Rory and Amy’s love transcends all, as Rory experiences a millenia-long wait for Amy again (The Doctor’s Wife) while Amy gets her dose of solitude in The Girl Who Waited before her older self is convinced their love is worth the ultimate sacrifice. In the finale Amy finally recognises her lost Rory in the shape of Captain Williams and returns to save him. Elsewhere, the Peg Dolls in Night Terrors are only banished once George and his adopted father have reaffirmed their love and faith in each other, while conversely it is faith which lands everyone in trouble in The God Complex.
Throughout, the Doctor has become increasingly aware of the not always positive impact he has had on both his companions and the universe. Some of this has been the result of others – Kovarian, the Minotaur, Rory and Amy – holding a mirror up to him. But it has also been coupled to a growing self-awareness. For instance, take the following exchange from Hitler with the TARDIS as he seeks a visual representation for the voice interface:
[On seeing a hologram of himself]: Oh no, no, no. Give me someone I like. [A holographic Rose appears.] Thanks! Give me guilt. [Martha appears.] Also guilt. [Donna appears.] More guilt. Come on. There must be someone left in the universe I haven’t screwed up yet.
Ultimately, it is this self-awareness that compels him to leave Amy and Rory to live their own lives together, and what leads him to retreat into the shadows at the end of Wedding.
Finally, this season has also explored duality in various guises. The Doctor’s Wife portrays the TARDIS as a willing accomplice and not merely a ship, underlining a symbiotic relationship which is on some level emotional as well as functional. The Rebel Flesh brings duality to human existence, with both humans and Gangers showing equal capacity for good and evil. Hitler shows the younger Melody as Amy’s friend, but plays the relationship as mother/daughter. George in Night Terrors is both alien and child. The Girl Who Waited gives us two versions of Amy. And, of course, the Doctor has to deal with two alternate versions of events at Lake Silencio and his own duality in the eyes of the universe – to some he is a hero, to others the most dangerous man in the universe and a bringer of death.
Most importantly though, was season six actually any good? It was certainly more ambitious, scary and arc-heavy than any season since the series’ rebirth. And despite a couple of clunkers early on, the quality has been consistently high. Fan opinion on some of the big showpiece episodes – most notably A Good Man Goes To War and Let’s Kill Hitler – has been divided, and reaction to the finale is likely to be equally so. Many loved Night Terrors (which I considered to be merely decent) and loathed Closing Time (which I rather liked).
But most importantly people continue to talk about Doctor Who. Opinions may be split, but the series provokes fevered discussion and speculation like few others can. As a certain Time Lord might say: sci-fi is cool, and Who remains about as cool as sci-fi gets.
Doctor Who: season 6 ratings (out of 10)
6.01/6.02 The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon – 9
6.03 The Curse of the Black Spot – 4
6.04 The Doctor’s Wife – 10
6.05/6.06 The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People – 6
6.07 A Good Man Goes To War – 10
6.08 Let’s Kill Hitler – 8
6.09 Night Terrors – 7
6.10 The Girl Who Waited – 10
6.11 The God Complex – 9
6.12 Closing Time – 8
6.13 The Wedding of River Song – 9
Overall – 8/10
- Doctor Who: The Wedding of River Song – series 32, episode 13 (guardian.co.uk)
- Doctor Who: The Wedding of River Song (Review) (them0vieblog.com)