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October 31, 2014

'Doctor Who's' Wild Wedding; Is It Time to Slow the TARDIS Down?

by Maureen Ryan, posted Oct 2nd 2011 1:45PM
The season finale of 'Doctor Who' had quite a few fun bells and whistles and enjoyable moments.

But executive producer/head honcho Steven Moffat's inability to stop adding bells and whistles sometimes gets in the way of emotionally resonant moments on this show. By the time the finale rolled around, there was so much business that had be dealt with that much of the running time of 'The Wedding of River Song' consisted of extremely clever but nonetheless exposition-y exposition.

As for the wedding of the title? Well, that was emblematic of what didn't quite work.

Though the scene was very well acted by all parties, it didn't really work because the Doctor getting married -- to anyone -- should be a very big deal. But this was, as I said to my husband, one more ornament on an already crowded Christmas tree.

The entire time that the Doctor and River were getting married, I thought, "This is a strategem, part of some plan to save the Doctor." And indeed it was. If you think about it, at that moment, the Doctor and River didn't even kiss, it was River and the justice vessel kissing, with the Doctor hidden somewhere inside.

It was all about getting the Doctor out of time jail (or him getting the Earth out of time jail) on a technicality. It wasn't romantic, it wasn't epic, and for the Doctor to get married, that should be mega-epic. For him to kiss a woman who has followed him through time and space to save him -- that should be a moment. But even after River told the Doctor about all she had done to try to save him, I never really thought he was in love with her.

Of course she's been in love with him for years and years, but can you honestly ever think of a moment in which you looked at him and said, "The Doctor is besotted with this woman"? For this ancient being to wed, it must be a love that is written in the stars, and though of course River and the Doctor have met many times and have a deep bond, I've never thought he was in love with her. They've always had a playful flirtation, but there's always been some kind of distance between the Doctor and everyone around him.

Of course, that distance itself is tragic, and Matt Smith is spectacular at communicating how lonely this old, old soul is at times (his brief scene of mourning Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, one of my favorite-ever 'Doctor Who' characters, was a lovely grace note and a welcome tribute to actor Nicholas Courtney). But him marrying River wasn't really him letting down his guard. He cares about her a lot, but he wasn't truly letting her in. The whole thing was just one more trick he had up his sleeve.

No doubt he was moved by the fact that she could not kill him and by the fact that she had assembled an armada of beings who wanted to help him. Of course it had to be moving for him to realize, thanks to her efforts, that he was a force for good in the universe. But there's a difference between gratitude and love, and who or what in this episode had time for love? Certainly the Doctor didn't appear to be a man who was marrying for love. If the story of the season was that he can be a feared presence in the galaxy but that ultimately he's a force for good, then OK, that worked.

If one of the goals of the season was to convince us that the Doctor (who allegedly already has a "wife" in the form of the TARDIS) was in love with and wanted to marry River Song, then it didn't work.

In that moment, I think he wanted to marry River because that would be the only way she would kiss him. The moment felt like it was mostly about a ploy, and that's more than a little .... unromantic.

Having said that, I enjoyed the callbacks to past episodes, I enjoyed seeing Churchill talking with a toga-clad Doctor, and it was hard to resist the generally frisky imaginative energy that was on display. It was fun to see another badass alterna-Amy and another alterna-Rory (who, of course, was awesome, as Rory is in all versions of time and space). Now there's an epic romance to make you go "Awwww."

And I liked the fact that there was a callback to the pain that Madame Kovarian had caused Amy and Rory by stealing their daughter. After a long period of the show only obliquely referring to their very real loss, we got to finally see how much Amy had missed raising her daughter, but again, the episode had to get to so many different things that it didn't spend much time on her decision to murder (one version of) Kovarian in cold blood.

The more I think about 'Doctor Who,' the more I wonder about the British model of showrunning. In that mode, you get one supreme writer who farms out scripts to individuals (whose scripts are often rewritten by the head writer). There's no writers' room in which ideas get batted around by a group; there's no group taking a hard look at whether the show is repeating itself or falling into ruts. In the American model, with the majority of writers meeting regularly to debate where the season and the characters should go, in theory, there's a chance for a greater variety of ideas and for certain hobbyhorses to get ridden a little less frequently.

What you end up getting with the British model, in which one writer rules supreme, are shows that very much reflect the proclivities and interests of one person, and that can make for a more coherent vision, but it can also be dangerous, because that grand supremo's ideas don't get questioned nearly as much. If a writers' room is working right (and I don't claim that it always does), people will raise their hands and voice concerns about a particular set of moves or creative directions that tend to come up again and again. Having other writers around is a form of self-editing; it's probably tougher on the ego, but I think it's often better for the creative process.

But that model hasn't made much headway in England, so we get shows that indulge the creator's vision quite heavily, for good and for ill. The Russell T Davies era of 'Doctor Who' had some fantastic emotional moments and interesting ideas, but it also featured some dull, lazy, repetitive plots about the dangers of capitalism and some sloppy plotting (all of which was further indulged in the highly inconsistent 'Torchwood,' and to a frankly toxic degree in 'Torchwood: Miracle Day').

Moffat loves time shenanigans and puzzle plots; he loves things that double back on themselves and structures that contain dizzying dopplegangers and memory manipulation. But when all of that cleverness becomes a form of baggage and gets in the way of human (or Gallifreyan) emotions, then maybe there's just too much of it.

I think Moffat's a very clever writer, but I think at times he uses cleverness as a shield. I appreciate the fact that he's clearly no fan of mawkish sentiment, but if his stories continually avoid swimming in deeper emotional waters and confronting pain and love and knotty emotions in a more direct way, then, well, that's a little disappointing. All the timey-wimey stuff is good fun but sometimes the Moffat era leaves me wanting less of that, or it leaves me wishing he'd use his intellectual rigor to shape stories that draw on our compassion and our empathy. By adding Rory and Amy to the TARDIS, he's added relationship complexity to that brave little vessel -- but that doesn't necessarily mean he's explored those complexities in rich or rewarding ways.

Overall, I am glad that the guy who wrote 'Blink' is now running the show, but part of me thinks he's one of the few people on the planet who could write something like 'Lost's' 'The Constant.' I frankly expect more of Moffat because I think he's capable of it. Imagine that intellect used to create a story designed to go for the emotional jugular. Wouldn't that be epic?

As for 'The Wedding of River Song,' it felt like a buffet dinner that I eventually realized contains only desserts. Nobody likes frosting and chocolate more than me, but at some point, you want a substantial main course. I love the current cast of 'Doctor Who' and quite enjoy Moffat's dizzy imagination, but this cast is capable of nailing epic romance and epic tragedy. I hope they get a chance to do that in the future.

I'm hungry for more than fish custard.

Follow @MoRyan on Twitter.

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evildemonmom

While I agree with you on almost everything, I don't think the writing is why we don't believe the Doctor isn't in love with River. I think it's Matt Smith's failure. He's a good actor but this seems to be his Achilles heel. He can't make me believe he's in love with River. For me, one of David Tennant's best moments was when he meets up with Sarah Jane again. When he saw her, you could tell he wasn't seeing her as she was at that moment but as her younger self who had traveled with him. Age had no meaning. I think you're always conscious of the age difference with Matt Smith and Alex Kingston. And honestly, do you really want the Doctor to find his one true love? Not me, Rose Tyler.

October 06 2011 at 10:03 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Joe

I eagerly awaited Mo's write-up on Who, since she's one of a few factors that got me to try out the show, but I'm not sure I agree with her assessment of the show.

Fundamentally, it's obvious to me that Who is a children's show. Thus, all of the analysis of Moffat's timey-whimey-ness like it's Lost seems misplaced. Revived Who doesn't strike me as a program that's ever done a good job with emotional season-long story-arcs.

The stand-alones have more emotional resonance and, generally, better ideas. The arcs seem to end by throwing everything and the kitchen sink into the TARDIS. That's okay. For a kid's show, you want the ending to have a lot of fireworks. Of course, when you do that, it gets really hard to deal with heavy emotions. Even in the Davies-era, the endings only really worked when actors were doing their own farewells.

Since Moffat and the whole gang are coming back next year, I'm not sure how this episode could have had the sort of emotional heft Mo and company are looking for. At least Moffat leaves us on an up-note with no real Who for another year. (He has sort of neutered River, though. Time to bring in Jack or some other wacky person for a change.)

October 04 2011 at 1:44 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Gav

You are totally wrong about Moffat and the "British model". If you watch The Girl in the Fireplace and Blink without getting quite a bit emotional while getting beautiful puzzle-box moments to boot, you aren't paying attention. Just cos his cleverness in the scripts borderlines recently on the over-the-top, doesn't mean he hasn't exploited the emotional jugular. He's got far too many of those American-model Hugo Awards to really be bothered by this anyway.

October 03 2011 at 6:43 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
Lynn

From Mo: "I love the current cast of 'Doctor Who' and quite enjoy Moffat's dizzy imagination, but this cast is capable of nailing epic romance and epic tragedy. I hope they get a chance to do that in the future."
I couldn't agree more. Television is one medium that allows for years worth of story and character development. Shows like "Fringe", "Falling Skies", and "The Walking Dead" can have subjects that are off-kilter, but still allow for characters that are identifiable for the audience. MOTW are fun (season 5 was more fun for me than 6), but people are only going to keep watching if they develop an emotional attachment to the characters. Nobody could identify with a character who was truly alien; in fact, nobody could write a character who was truly alien--we don't know anything but human culture. To quote from the fan site for another show "...like all good science fiction, ... shines most brightly when it reflects our image back at us through the lens of the bizarre. Whether it's the future, the past, another universe, or outer space, science fiction has a unique capability to show us who we are, endlessly illuminating our humanity against the backdrop of the weird, telling us the story of ourselves through metaphor." This, of course, is not really the intent of Dr Who (in fact, its original intent back in the early '60's was to be "educational" which sounds laughable anymore), however, for those of you who have *not* been paying attention for the past 6 years, let's review: the Dr is 100's of years old. At some point in his past, he was married with a family (the notion that he had children goes all the way back to the first Dr and has come up a half a dozen times in the current series). They're dead, probably for eons. So are the other Time Lords because he killed them. He's the only Time Lord left (pseudo Time Lords like River aside). He travels about, gathering up traveling companions on the way, but this is only temporary because they are human and humans are fragile and tend to age and die quickly anyway. Any emotional attachment to them is painful, repeatedly so. So it's just him and the TARDIS--the only constant in his life (that was the point of "The Doctor's Wife"). Add to that that this is really his own doing and it's been this way and will be this way and he has to live with it, like--forever and that's the tragedy of the character--how alone he ultimately is in the universe. Although none of us can identify with being the last of your kind, we certainly all have experienced some kind of social isolation during our life. It's something the audience can understand about the character. And I see nothing wrong with the idea of the Dr ultimately, sometime in the future, finding a permanent companion and if it's some kind of romantic or strong emotional attachment, so be it. That would be rather cool.

October 03 2011 at 4:29 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Donnie

Mo, I don't disagree with your assessment that Moffat's Doctor Who runs more on intellect than emotions. However, I don't see it as a bad thing. You've admitted many times that you have a preference for shows that go for the "emotional jugular", but not all of us want or need that from every show we watch. In fact, it'd be EXHAUSTING if every show were like that. The Moffat era of Doctor Who has proven numerous times that it can go for Big Emotion when it wants to (most recently in "The Girl Who Waited"). That's obviously not what he was going for in this finale, and I'm fine with that.

October 03 2011 at 12:42 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to Donnie's comment
zehrazeyne

Actually I was just talking about this episode with my sis. Yeah, Moffat did do the Big Emo moment but there wasn't any emotional payment. After Amy wakes up in the TARDIS and asks, "where is she," the episode ends. We never see her dealing with it. In the same episode, Rory accused the Doctor of making him (Rory) more like the Doctor. This is not a small comment to make to someone but that issue is never addressed again. Rory never confronts the Doctor with what he did. Moffat is not shy of the big emo plots but he never addresses the actual emotions involved.

October 03 2011 at 6:35 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Craig Ranapia

Agree with you there - think it's fair comment to say Mo and I both adore 'Battlestar Galactica', which not only went for the emotional jugular but tore your emotional throat out and did gross and disgusting things with the steaming entrails. As jolly little shows that kick off with the near-total genocide of the human race are wont to do. :)

But yeah, I think it's important to realise that 'Doctor Who' is not only a very different show it's aimed at a younger audience. Listening to the commentary on my DVD of the penultimate Tennant story, 'The Waters of Mars', it was interesting hearing RTD and Julie Gardner talking about a lot of back and forth about the tone of the script and the design of The Flood; hitting that sweet spot between being pleasurably "scary" for kids and simply gross and terrifying.

October 03 2011 at 7:00 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
zedcon1

I was worried that TWoRS was going to attempt far too much in its 45-minute running time; if it was going to answer all of the questions raised over the past two series, there was no way it could answer them well. Under the circumstances, then, I found the finale refreshingly simple and breezy after so many years of ante-upping.

That said, the wedding simply didn't seem like a necessary part of the resolution. If anything, it was a way for Moffat to satisfy two different groups of fans. For the "shipper"-era fans who've discovered the show in the last six years, he offered a grand (if empty) romantic resolution. For the classic series fans, he revealed that that romantic resolution was All Part of a Larger Plan, and technically didn't happen at all, leaving the Doctor once again reassuringly alien. Hopefully casual viewers found something to enjoy as well.

The thing that worries me about Moffat, which you (Mo) touch upon in your discussion of the showrunner model, is that he has a tendency to be overconfident. In particular, I think he may have overestimated how much the audience truly cares about River Song. While we don't know absolutely everything about River's life, we now know that, barring some additional Moffat plot tinkering, we've seen all three of her incarnations, which effectively gives Moffat only as many years to wrap up her story as Alex Kingston can keep herself looking roughly the same age as she was in "Silence in the Library". Perhaps it's time for a spin-off?

October 03 2011 at 11:35 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Heather

"In that moment, I think he wanted to marry River because that would be the only way she would kiss him. The moment felt like it was mostly about a ploy, and that's more than a little .... unromantic."

This is the exact conversation I had with my roommate after the finale. And the thing is, as with all plot twists in the Moffat era, if it felt in any way earned, or ON PURPOSE, I would be fine with it. If the POINT was supposed to be that he only married her because it was the only way he could think of to get her to touch him, and she actually knew that but didn't care, that's an interesting story. But it doesn't feel like that's what Moffat was trying to do. It feels very much like he said, oh, well, yes, this is the silly way that they end up married, isn't that clever? And that's what gets to me the most about Moffat stories - he has a million interesting ideas, but he can't settle on any of them, and he has no interest, like you said, in exploring the complexities of any of the TARDIS dynamics he's created.

October 03 2011 at 11:05 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
D Monroe

At least Moffat gets that the Doctor has gotten "too big", too much. In the RTD era, bless him, but each story and finale got bigger and the Doctor became "more". If nothing else comes from this ep/season than that, then as a fan since my tween Forth Doctor on PBS days, I'd be OK with that. Also, I'm pretty sure that Matt Smith snuck up and somehow become my favorite Doctor and I'm OK with that as well.

October 03 2011 at 10:52 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Chuck Hamilton

For me, the main problem this season is the bells and whistles you mention. I'm not so concerned about how it affects the emotional content of the show (although I do agree with some of what's been said), but for me I could just use plots you don't need a diagram to follow. And it's not because I can't follow them. I just wouldn't mind an occasional simple, "monster-of-the-week" type story now and then, 'cause those are fun, too.

October 02 2011 at 11:40 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
zehrazeyne

Moffat's characterizations feel hallow. I don't think are emotionally where they need to be. There is not enough emotional consequence to the momentous events that occur. He likes to throw out these grand ideas but he doesn’t follow through. He likes to say things instead of showing them.

For example, he tells us that Amy worshipped the Doctor growing up. She made dolls, she made Rory dress up, she even went to four psychiatrists because of him, yet when he shows up all she does is yell and act annoyed. She didn’t strike me as even a little bit awed or moved. She should have been. This is obviously someone she spent a lot of energy and time dreaming about. Why wouldn’t we see that? Also Amy had a child. For most people, this is the most potent biological connection between two individuals that exists. For me, Amy doesn’t seem very attached to her child. She was upset at Demon’s Run but she never mentions it again after that. She just goes home and lives her life.

River Song is supposed to be a "psychopath" but I didn't get that impression. Yes, she's jaded about killing (but then she was trained as a killer) and the first chance she gets she does this huge selfless thing for someone she barely knows. Her being a psychopath just didn't ring true for me. She’s a psychopath the same way Amy is a mother. As a fact but not an emotional truth.

Also, Rory was alive for 2000 years, right? That would make him more than twice as old as the Doctor. Yet all he cares about is Amy, getting married, etc. etc. He must have had lots of life experiences. He can still love and be devoted to Amy but I don't feel as connected to someone even after 5 years, imagine 2000. How can he be emotionally and mentally more or less the same person? After all, a person who has lived even 80 years is considered wise and learned. Rory should have acted more "lived." But Moffat doesn't put enough emphasis on emotional development as much as the story. Unfortunately since time travel and the Doctor aren't real, the only way for us (or for me anyway) to identify with the story is with the emotions and they lack a bit in this season.

October 02 2011 at 9:54 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to zehrazeyne's comment
Genya1221

Just how many life experiences was Rory supposed to have? He was on guard outside the Pandorica for all of those years, and since he is not the Doctor, with access to all of time and space, he had to stay put. His life experiences, then, were what he could witness while never budging further than it would take to drag the box out of harm's way, as in the Blitz. All of those 2000 years were spent in devoted service to Amy, so it is not surprising that he is both fixated on her and also selflessly devoted to her.

October 11 2011 at 12:16 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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