March 18, 2013

Who50: "The Wedding of River Song"

Who50 counts down to the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who by reviewing my favourite episodes and serials over the history of the programme, counting down from #50 to #1. Today, #33: "The Wedding of River Song", a 2011 episode written by Steven Moffat and directed by Jeremy Webb.

Much of Doctor Who's second sixth season was devoted to a mystery set up in its two-part premiere: the Doctor's companions witness his death by a lake in Utah, and much of the season devotes itself to why he died, who kills him, and whether or not history can be changed. This, the season finale, resolves many of those plot threads - as well as exploring once and for all what can happen if one of those bits of history the Doctor insists can not be changed actually is changed.

In short, all hell breaks loose.
The episode's opening, in which the whole of human history is playing out at the same time, is absolutely mad. It contains cameos by several previous guest stars, notably Simon Callow as Charles Dickens and Ian McNiece as Winston Churchill, and adds in mammoths, the Roman Empire and a park full of pteradactyls. From there, events move thick and fast, back and forward, and every which way in what is possible the most madcap, overloaded, utterly insane hour of Doctor Who ever put to screen.

At its heart fits the final piece in the long-running puzzle of River Song. Steven Moffat introduced her in "Silence of the Library" back in Season 4, and tracked her life backwards from there. Here her story finally makes sense. Alex Kingston is a wonderfully appealing actor: I first encountered her in the American medical drama ER, although I think River Song may be her finest role. The title of this episode isn't a cheat or a thematic reference, as in Gaiman's "The Doctor's Wife". This is the real deal: River Song marries the Doctor. It's a weird Moffat riff on The Time Traveller's Wife that I absolutely adore, because it adds something fresh to a 50 year-old television series: honest-to-god romance.

This is the best opportunity to also note the Silence, one of the creepiest Doctor Who monsters ever created. Designed like Munch's "The Scream", cruel and sneaky, mouths like a puckered up bottom: they are a masterpiece of writing and design, guaranteed to thrill the kids while sending the grown-ups behind the nearest sofa. They, and their secretive organisation, inject a whole new level of mystery to the series - a mystery emphasised in this episode's masterful final scene. I expect they shall return in 2014. I hope they return in 2014.

There's a lovely interlude in the middle of the episode as well, where the Doctor learns of the death of Brigadier Alastair Lethbridge-Stewart. It's perfectly pitched, and acknowledges the death of actor Nicholas Courtney in a way that's respectful and pushes along the Doctor's motivations within the episode.

"The Wedding of River Song" opens with an inescapable trap, and no way out, and progresses as far as it can go before it finally pulls back, pulls the wool over the villains' eyes, and leaves the Doctor sneaking off to fight another day. Some may see the episode's conclusion as a cheat: I see it as perfect proof of why Doctor Who is such a wonderful, and wonderfully odd, television series.

I've elected this episode as one of Doctor Who's top 50 stories, but really it's an honour shared by a string of Season 6 episodes: "The Impossible Astronaut", "The Day of the Moon", "A Good Man Goes to War"... maybe not "Let's Kill Hitler". As an exercise in story arcs, 2011 was a fantastic year for Doctor Who - and it was a year that left me thinking the best was yet to come.


  1. I loved the River stories of this season too, and this story in particular - it made me sad how many people didn't! A fabulous arc and a fascinating character.

    1. I would totally watch a River Song spin-off series. She travels through time, is fairly dodgy, and does all the wetworks stuff the Doctor wouldn't do.

      All she needs is a plucky young male companion. I vote for a timey-wimey resurrection Ianto from Torchwood.

    2. Oh yes! I would watch the hell out of that.


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