Doctor Who: The Wedding of River Song
(1 episode, s06e13, 2011)
A wedding, two funerals, and a question.
A digital clock flickers on a computer screen, bouncing between 05:02:57 PM and 05:02:58 PM. Two soldiers patrol the corridors in Area 52, looking into supposedly empty tanks on their rounds. The tanks are not empty, however, but instead each contain a Silent. Behind a barricaded wooden door in a room containing an ancient Egyptian sarcophagus, a familiar woman stands in a black suit. She is River Song, wearing an eyepatch over her right eye. She smiles as the ominous nursery rhyme ushers out the scene.
Tick tock, goes the clock,
Tick tock, goes the clock,
Tick tock, goes the clock…
Doctor, brave and good.
He turned away from violence.
When he understood
The falling of the Silence.
The Wedding of River Song
It’s a weird timeline. Cars are flying on hot air balloons, the War of the Roses enters its second year as London picnickers are warned not to feed the pterodactyls, and Charles Dickens is interviewed on television about his new Christmas ghost special. Holy Roman Emperor Winston Churchill returns to Buckingham Senate on his personal mammoth.
The Emperor is not pleased about his conference with Cleopatra and he asks his Silurian physician, Malokeh, for the time. It’s 5:02pm on April 22, 2011. Emperor Churchill is troubled by this news, despite the fact that it has always been the same date, so he summons his soothsayer from the Tower. He demands an explanation about what has happened to time. The Doctor raises his head and replies, “A woman.”
Some time before, the Doctor addresses a video receptor in a dark and damaged room.
“Imagine you were dying. Imagine you were afraid and a long way from home and in terrible pain. Just when you thought it couldn’t get worse, you looked up and saw the face of the devil himself… Hello, Dalek.”
The Dalek Supreme is damaged beyond repair, so the Doctor takes it apart and scans its memory banks for any information regarding the Silence.
At a different time, now on the docks of Calisto B, the Doctor arrives at a bar and asks for Father Gideon Vandaleur. He offers the eyestalk from the Dalek Supreme as a calling card. Once he meets Father Vandaleur, once an envoy of the Silence, he uses his sonic screwdriver to reveal the Teselecta. The Father has been dead for six months, and he wants to speak to the shapeshifting ship’s captain. He wants to know about the Silence’s weakest link.
Using that information, he tracks down Gantok and challenges him to a game of live chess. The next move will kill Gantok, but the Doctor is willing to trade the victory for information. He wants to know why he has to die, and apparently Dorium Maldovar has the answer. Dorium was beheaded at Demon’s Run, but the Headless Monks have stored the leftovers in the Seventh Transept.
Dorium’s head is kept in a box, a luxury for the richest victims of the Monks. Gantok tries to kill the Doctor but instead falls into a trap with ravenous skulls. After the Doctor seals the trap, he addresses Dorium. The beheaded head explains that it was easier to create a fixed point in time to ensure that the Doctor would die without fail. If the Doctor lives, then…
“On the fields of Trenzalore, at the fall of the Eleventh, when no living creature can speak falsely or fail to answer, a question will be asked. A question that must be never, ever be answered.”
The Silence must fall when the question is asked. It is the first question, hidden in plain sight, but the Doctor doesn’t know it. Dorium asks if he wants to, and the Doctor nervously agrees. After he hears it, the Doctor takes Dorium’s head to the TARDIS and sets a course.
All of this is the tale that the Doctor tells Emperor Churchill. He talks to the emperor about it as they stroll through the Roman Senate. The emperor produces a revolver, claiming that the Soothsayer is dangerous company. The Doctor, noting a mark on his arm, agrees.
Back to the story, the Doctor continues his farewell tour. However, once he finds out that the Brigadier has died, he finally accepts that his time has come. He produces the invitations in the blue envelopes and asks the Teselecta to deliver them. He’d do it himself, except that it would mean crossing his own timestream.
He goes to Lake Silencio. He meets Amy Pond, Rory Williams, and River Song. They drink a bottle of wine that Napoleon threw at him. The impossible astronaut rises from the lake. He goes to meet it after ordering his companions to stay back. This time we see that River Song is in the suit, unable to fight the plan in motion.
He explains that she won’t remember murdering him, but she will serve time for this crime that she can’t remember and committed against her will. He forgives her unconditionally and closes his eyes as his destiny arrives.
Except that it doesn’t. Instead of three blasts, there are five as River drains the suit’s power. The fixed point in time is subverted, resulting in the time track being derailed. In the future(?), Emperor Churchill and Doctor Soothsayer appear to be defending themselves with the revolver and a spear. While they can’t remember the Silence, they are surrounded by them.
They are saved by Amelia Pond, now wearing an eyepatch and in command of a platoon of soldiers. She shoots the Doctor point-blank. Luckily, it was only a stun bolt, and when the Doctor awakens on a train, he finds that Amy is only playing along. She returns the Doctor’s suit to him and start to plan.
Thanks to the crack in time, Amy has memories of alternate timelines but cannot recall that Captain Williams is really her husband. Amy wonders if things can stay like they are, but the Doctor tells her that this mess, currently confined to Earth, will spread into the universe until all of reality disintegrates. Through it all, the Doctor continues to age because he is the focal point.
The train arrives at Area 52, housed within the Great Pyramid of Giza. The Doctor is given an eyepatch – an Eye Drive to remember the Silence when spotted – and walk past tanks of Silents that are uncharacteristically fixated on the Doctor. They arrive in the King’s Chamber and meet River Song and a captive Madame Kovarian.
After a bit of taunting, the Doctor grabs River’s arm, forcing time to start moving forward again. They appear back on the shores of Lake Silencio, but it all vanishes again when River pulls away and orders the Doctor to be restrained.
This is the moment when the Silents spring their trap. They’ve been waiting for the Doctor to arrive so they could break free and kill him. Kovarian reveals that the Eye Drives are designed to kill their users, though the Silence turns on her as well. Rory stays to hold off the Silents while River, Amy, and the Doctor ascend the pyramid to see what River has built as a contingency plan. The Silents descend on Rory, taunting him until Amy remembers who he is and destroys the Silents with a machine gun.
Amy then reveals that she remembers what Kovarian did to her and her daughter Melody. She ensures that Kovarian’s Eye Drive is properly affixed, then leaves her to die.
At the top of the pyramid, River reveals a distress beacon that she built with her knowledge as a child of the TARDIS. The message – “The Doctor is dying. Please help.” – is being broadcast to the universe in the past, present, and the future. The universe has been replying, despite the Doctor’s desire to close himself off from all of it, offering to help because he has helped them so many times.
River wants the Doctor to survive more than anything else in the universe. The Doctor, realizing that there is only one way to pacify River, uses his bow tie to marry her in a rushed ceremony. He whispers a secret into his bride’s ear and tells her she must never tell anyone what he has just told her.
As she looks at him in wonder, the Doctor asks for her help. They kiss and time is reset. River shoots the Doctor three times on the shore of Lake Silencio, preventing his regeneration, and the alternate timeline vanishes.
Later, River joins Amy for a bottle of wine. River has just come from the Byzantium mission and Amy is in the relative present. Amy is wracked with guilt and would love to talk to the Doctor about it, but she cannot. River, however, reveals the Doctor’s final secret, which they also tell Rory when he arrives home. They dance with joy until Amy realizes one fundamental truth: She is now the Doctor’s mother-in-law.
In the Seventh Transept, a monk returns Dorium’s head (and box) to its proper pedestal. The monk reveals himself as the Doctor, having hidden himself in the Teselecta. That was the secret he told River. The Doctor realizes that he’s become too big and noisy, so it’s time to step back into the shadows. While River serves her days in Stormcage, the Doctor admits that her nights are between him and her.
Dorium will keep the Doctor’s secrets, but warns that Trenzalore still awaits him. As does the question.
The first question.
The question that must never be answered.
The question that the Doctor has been running from his entire life.
So, it is possible to bypass a fixed point in time because they did it twice here.
I will say, though, that the idea was a clever way to tie all the various pieces together and, like Father’s Day, an avenue to explore the fragility of time. The solution is a literal deus ex machina and a bit of a cheat, exchanging one fixed point subversion for another. The second one is okay though, I guess, because it’s in the screenplay. Or the way things were supposed to roll out?
The very nature of this story demands callbacks, many of which have already been mentioned above. As if those weren’t enough, the alternate Amy’s drawings served as a moment of rapid-fire nods from her temporal travels to date. They included the Krafayis, the Weeping Angels, the Saturnyns, the Daleks, the Minotaur, the Cybermen, the Smilers, and a self-portrait of her time in pirate garb. The major callback, of course, Amy’s partial protection from temporal fluctuations based on her long-term exposure to the crack from last season.
The Question is a running gag in the franchise, recently highlighted in Silver Nemesis and The Girl in the Fireplace, and has been in play since An Unearthly Child. I feel like the big gag here defuses a bit of the victory by sticking its tongue out at the audience. Here we are, basking in the glow of a major win that sidestepped the Doctor’s death and the destruction of the universe, and our closing thought is a corny meta joke.
As we’ve seen before, the question works as the occasional gag, but making it a major fixture of the franchise’s mythology feels like a bit of shark-jumping. It’s easily fixed, too. The point is the Doctor’s real name, so instead of “Doctor who?”, how about “Who is the Last of the Time Lords?” or something similar?
One last note on the first funeral of two: The Doctor’s new hair takes some getting used to.
Finally, I really loved the farewell for Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart and the actor who brought him to life, Nicholas Courtney, who died eight months before this tale originally aired. Part of the episode was set in Cairo, the city of Courtney’s birth. Eyepatches were prevalent all around, referring to a favorite anecdote of his from Inferno. The Doctor was told that the Brigadier died peacefully in his sleep, which was directly from the Seventh Doctor’s prophecy in Battlefield.
That last one was a tearjerker, particularly with the news that the Brig waited patiently for the Doctor’s return with a spare glass of brandy at the ready. They may have sparred quite a bit since the day that they met, but both characters had a deep respect for each other.
Rating: 4/5 – “Would you care for a jelly baby?”
UP NEXT – Doctor Who: Night and the Doctor
The Timestamps Project is an adventure through the televised universe of Doctor Who, story by story, from the beginning of the franchise. For more reviews like this one, please visit the project’s page at Creative Criticality.