Why This Year's Doctor Who Finale Was (Mostly) Better than Last Year's

Doctor Who has always been about escaping from inescapable traps, and winning miraculous victories against overwhelming odds. But seldom have the odds been more impossible than the ones the Doctor faced throughout the latest season — and yet, the season finale wasn't so much about how the Doctor wins, but the consequences of that victory, for himself and his friends. The hard part isn't winning, it's accepting the price.

With "The Wedding of River Song," Steven Moffat managed to catch all the balls he'd tossed in the air throughout the year, and answer all of the questions he'd been asking. The result was a pretty smashing episode — with a couple of major, huge flaws.

Spoilers ahead...

The other day, when I posted my spoiler-free preview of this episode, I was tempted to use the headline: "The 'soap opera' era of Doctor Who hits its highest and lowest notes." Which seemed a bit too fancy and meta. But it's kind of true — this episode was Steven Moffat's big, serialized storytelling at its best, and worst. The best was almost everything about the Doctor's journey. The worst was some of how the episode handled River Song, and to some extent Amy Pond as well.

Why This Year's Doctor Who Finale Was (Mostly) Better than Last Year's

In a lot of ways, "The Wedding of River Song" was pretty similar to last year's finale, "The Big Bang." There's a new alternate universe, in which Everything Is Wrong. Only Amy Pond (and River Song) fully remember the original universe. Amy and Rory find each other all over again. The Doctor meekly surrenders himself to oblivion to save the universe — except that he figures out a last-minute loophole. And there's a wedding.

Except that "The Wedding of River Song" was a much stronger episode than "The Big Bang," in at least a few major ways:

1) We got answers. "The Big Bang" dodged answering most of the big questions that had been posed in previous episodes, including just why the TARDIS blew up, and what this was all about. (Some of those questions remain unanswered, and may never be answered.) This time around, there were loads of answers. Does River Song really marry the Doctor? Yes. Does she kill him? Not really. Why do the Silence want the Doctor dead? Because otherwise, at some point in the future, at a time when nobody can lie or refuse to answer, he'll face "the Question." What is the Question? "Doctor Who." (And yes, that's cheeky. More on that in a moment.)

2) No cheating. I'm still a bit annoyed at how the Doctor escaped from the Pandorica in last year's finale. It was a silly cheat that the Doctor could be using, in theory, to escape from any danger from now on. (And no, I don't buy the argument that because the universe was dying, the laws of time no longer applied. Still a cheat.) This time, the Doctor faces an inescapable deathtrap — he has to be at that lakeside, and he has to face the deadly astronaut suit — and he finds a cunning way out that actually makes sense.

Why This Year's Doctor Who Finale Was (Mostly) Better than Last Year's

3) More fun. We had pterodactyls in the park, Winston Churchill as the Holy Roman Emperor, Gantok playing live chess and nearly paying with his life, killer skulls, the decapitated and sassy Dorium Maldovar, an office on a train, the cool/weird pyramid, knitting for girls, and so much more. For an episode that was basically about the Doctor going to his death, this episode managed to pack in an awful lot of gloriously silly bits.

4) A very clear thematic resolution. Season five contained some very powerful storytelling, but I was never entirely sure what the crack in the universe "meant," thematically. It had something to do with memory, and the fact that Amy Pond couldn't remember Rory after the crack ate him, but then she could remember the Doctor, at her wedding. It was lovely, but what did it all mean? Still not sure. Meanwhile, the themes leading up to "The Wedding of River Song" couldn't be clearer, and they do get an intensely satisfying resolution in the finale.

Perhaps it's because these themes are all about the Doctor, who's the show's main character when all's said and done. Let's talk a bit more about that.

The Season's Theme

Why This Year's Doctor Who Finale Was (Mostly) Better than Last Year's

Season six starts out by introducing the idea that the Doctor is destined to be killed, and meanwhile the Doctor's myth is getting bigger and bigger. Moffat first had the Doctor tell the Vashta Nerada to "look me up" in "Forest of the Dead," but in the Matt Smith era, the Doctor's self-puffery gets more and more extreme. Telling people that he's the "one thing you never want to put in a trap" is a good way of tempting them to put him in a trap.

For most of the Russell T. Davies era, the Doctor was still largely unknown outside of his circle of friends, and those few Earthlings who'd noticed that the planet got saved from aliens on a suspiciously regular basis. Even people who knew about the Time Lords were frequently surprised to encounter one who was still alive. But in the past few years, the Doctor's "dark legend" has become bigger and more widely known, and Moffat's version of the universe is more like a reflection of celebrity culture, with the Doctor as the ultimate celebrity.

Why This Year's Doctor Who Finale Was (Mostly) Better than Last Year's

But in "A Good Man Goes to War," this storyline takes a surprising turn — suddenly, we're not just talking about the Doctor's shameless self-promotion and his tendency to believe his own hype. Instead, we're talking about the Doctor's ruthlessness, and whether he's becoming known as a warrior instead of a savior. By overreaching and encouraging people to follow him into danger, the Doctor has caused carnage and suffering. (And now his enemies have been driven to kidnap a child to turn into a weapon against him.) And then in "Let's Kill Hitler," the Doctor gazes upon all his recent companions and declares that he's screwed them all up.

This theme gets underscored more in some of the following episodes, especially "The God Complex," in which Amy's faith in the Doctor nearly kills her and the Doctor realizes he has to stop putting Amy and Rory in danger. By the time of last week's episode, "Closing Time," the Doctor seems to have accepted that he's a vain man who creates a heroic legend around himself and drags people along on life-threatening adventures — no matter what Craig might say.

Why This Year's Doctor Who Finale Was (Mostly) Better than Last Year's

So is the Doctor a fearsome scourge of the universe, who's better off extinguished? Actually, no. "The Wedding of River Song" finally exposes this idea for the mistake it is — the Doctor's friends are willing to sacrifice for him, and as he puts it, "My friends have always been the best of me."

And when Amy and River build a "timey-wimey distress beacon" and tell the entire past and future of the universe that the Doctor is dying, the Doctor says that "that would mean nothing to anyone." And then they get responses from all over the universe saying that the universe owes the Doctor a great debt, and of course the peoples of the universe will do whatever they can. (Which is, unfortunately, nothing.) As River says:

You've touched so many lives, saved so many people. Did you really think when your time came, you'd really have to do more than just ask? You've decided that the universe is better off without you. But the universe doesn't agree.

In the end, the Doctor has saved people and made the cosmos better — although he still feels that he's gotten "too big," and thus he has to die. (Or rather, appear to die.)

The Brigadier

Matt Smith's performance in this episode really cemented his status as one of the top two or three all-time great Doctors. Especially that moment where he's jabbering to the severed head of Dorium about how he's going to go join the Beatles or help young Rose Tyler with her homework or have "all-Jack stag parties" — and then he hears the news about the Brigadier's death. It was lovely that Doctor Who found a way to acknowledge, on screen, the devastating loss we all feel at the death of Nicholas Courtney. But it also did more than anything else to show that the Doctor is not a god, and he can't escape from the inevitable.

Why This Year's Doctor Who Finale Was (Mostly) Better than Last Year's

Matt Smith deserves a lot of credit for taking the storyline of the Doctor confronting his own death, and coming to accept it (until he finds a loophole) and making it so powerful and intense. In the hands of a lot of other actors, this could have been dreary. Instead, it's magical. And that moment where he hears of the Brigadier's death, and accepts his own, is the heart of it. I also love the Doctor telling River that she's forgiven, utterly and completely.

And it turns out the reason the Doctor invited Amy, Rory, River and his past self to Utah wasn't just to deal a devastating defeat to the Silence in 1969 — but also just so that he could have friendly faces there at his final moment. And so that Past River could see Future River and know that it was going to be okay. That's really lovely. Unfortunately, that brings us to...

The Downfall of River Song

River Song was such a shiny character, full of endless possibility, and she hit her high point in some of the early Matt Smith stories. Jumping out of spaceships in flight, carving messages in ancient cliffs, and generally being badass and mysterious. Now, it seems like her mystery is gone, and it's been replaced by... I can hardly bear to type the words.

In a nutshell, here's what we found out about River Song in tonight's episode:

Why This Year's Doctor Who Finale Was (Mostly) Better than Last Year's

The Silence spent years and all of the considerable brain-wiping powers brainwashing River Song to kill the Doctor, but instead of killing him, she fell in love with him. As she puts it, "It was such a basic mistake, wasn't it, Madame Kovarian? Take a child, raise her into a perfect psychopath, introduce her to the Doctor... Who else was I going to fall in love with?" So her love for the Doctor is actually a reflection of her broken psyche.

And yet, even though River technically is the one who "kills" the Doctor, it's actually the suit that does all the work. She says, "The suit's in control. I can't stop it." Which makes you wonder why they didn't just send an empty suit after the Doctor in the first place — except that I think it has to do with River having special timey-wimey powers. (More on that in a minute.) River does manage to take control over the suit and discharge the weapons systems, leaving it powerless — and creating a weird alternate universe where all of time is happening at once, and the universe is threatened with disintegration.

River loves the Doctor so much, she's willing to sacrifice the entire universe for him — which is the opposite of what the Doctor stands for. In fact, it's a weird kind of love, that is willing to destroy the loved one's legacy. (Leaving aside the fact that if the universe dies, River and the Doctor won't have any place to share their love in.) The scene where River says, "You are loved so much by so many and so much, and by no-one more than me" is lovely — except for that line, which is either hideously overwritten or overacted, maybe both.

Why This Year's Doctor Who Finale Was (Mostly) Better than Last Year's

So in order to get River to restart the universe and set things right, the Doctor has to marry her — you'll notice the Doctor never says he loves her, and he makes fun of her for saying she loves him. Soon afterwards, the Doctor tells River, "I don't want to marry you." And then, right before he does marry her, he tells her, "You embarrass me," and he genuinely seems to be full of loathing for her in that moment. During the actual quickie wedding ceremony, River asks, "What am I doing?" and the Doctor replies, "as you're told." Awwww... so romantic. Finally, the Doctor tells her, "Now you're the woman who marries me," as if she's won the jackpot. (Plus of course, the wedding happened in a bubble universe that was erased.)

So what does River get for marrying the Doctor and taking the fall for his fake murder? She gets locked up in Stormcage for almost the rest of her life — apparently she gets out, in time to die in "Forest of the Dead." She's not only given up all her regenerations to bring the Doctor to life and given her final life to save him, she's also agreed to be locked away in prison and reviled as one of history's greatest criminals, just to help the Doctor lower his profile a bit. (Because even if the Doctor had to appear to die by that lakeside to safeguard the "fixed point in time," there's no law that says he couldn't show up at River's trial and say "Hello, it's me. Actually didn't die. Thanks.")

As a consolation prize, River gets to leave her cell every night and go traveling with the Doctor, in a series of adventures that we'll never get to see — since apparently, they all happened in the gap between "The God Complex" and "Closing Time." (Remember, in "The Impossible Astronaut," the Doctor who meets River in Utah has already lived through all the adventures in her magic diary.)

I'm sure we'll see River Song again, but I'm also sure that her story is basically played out. We've seen her birth and her death, and we've apparently gotten answers to all the major questions about her. And honestly, her character has lost most of its appeal at this point — she's now the psychopath who blackmailed the Doctor into marrying her by holding the universe for ransom, and then took the fall for him. Once she was locked up for a crime that the Doctor basically framed her for, he took pity on her and led her on some fun adventures.

Meanwhile, there's Amy. It's now safe to say that the Silence didn't brainwash Amy to stop caring about the fact that she'll never see her baby (as a baby) again — she just got over it really, really quickly. (For one thing, this episode reinforces the device that whenever someone sees a Silent, they mark their skin — and there was no skin-marking in "Let's Kill Hitler.")

Why This Year's Doctor Who Finale Was (Mostly) Better than Last Year's

In today's episode, Amy finally does deal with the fact that her baby was stolen and abused by monsters, by inflicting a painful death on the bubble-universe version of Madame Kovarian. It's a nice enough moment, but no substitute for seeing Amy actually deal with the enormity of what's happened to her child. After two seasons, Amy remains a bit of a cartoon character — although once again, we get to see Amy and Rory rediscover their love, and this time Rory doesn't have to die because Amy saves him. Which is a nice touch. (And yay for Rory getting another badass moment in this episode, staying to defend everybody and keeping his eyepatch on even though it was killing him. Go, Rory!)

But all in all, I can't help feeling that the failure of River Song to live up to her potential as a character has finally dragged River's mother down as well. (Oh, and when does that final Amy/River scene take place exactly? We've already seen Amy dealing with seeing the Doctor die, in the episodes following "Impossible Astronaut.")

Time is Magic

When Steven Moffat first introduced the phrase "timey wimey" in "Blink," it was seriously cute — and sounded like it might be a reference to actual science. But since then, "timey wimey" has sometimes seemed like a sort of all-purpose get-out-of-logic-free card. And with "Wedding of River Song," it seems clearer than ever that for Steven Moffat, time is basically magic.

Take the whole bubble universe where "all of history is happening at once." It's a cute idea — but it makes no sense even on the face of it. If time was stopped, then everybody would be just standing still like statues. Time is obviously moving, because people can travel from Point A to Point B, and remember conversations they had an hour ago. So in fact, there's something wrong with clocks, but time is working just fine. Also, if all of history was happening at once, that would mean everybody who'd ever lived would be on Earth at once — and there would be rather a lot of overcrowding. It's more like that time is jumbled up, but even that doesn't ever quite make sense. It only works as a cute idea, as long as you don't think too much about it.

And then there's the notion that River has to be the one who kills the Doctor, rather than some random dude with a gun, or an empty spacesuit or whatever. After all, the Doctor gets guns pointed at him every week, and any one of those guns could kill him. But we're told that Lake Silencio is a "still point" in time, which makes it easier to create a fixed point in time. (And until now, I'd thought "fixed point in time" meant that too many crucial historical events depend on this one event happening, as in "Waters of Mars.") I'm guessing that River has to be the one who stands in the spacesuit, while the suit's systems kill the Doctor without any help from her — because she's a child of the TARDIS and she has special timey-wimey powers that make the fixed point more fixed.

Oh, and then there's the magical transmitter that can send messages to the entire universe, from the beginning of time to the end — although that, at least, answers the longstanding question of what the heck the Master thought he was doing at the end of "Logopolis."

Doctor Who has never really taken great pains to have its time-travel stories make sense. But the show is more concerned with time-travel shenanigans than it's ever been before, and just like the fabric of time itself, the show's logic is showing signs of disintegrating.

The Question Hidden in Plain Sight

So finally, that brings us to the oldest question, the question from the beginning of the universe, which has been hidden in plain sight. Which turns out to be the title of the show we're watching. It's cheeky, but could actually become a great lead in to the show's 50th anniversary in 2013.

Reading between the lines of a few things that people say in this episode, it seems as though the Doctor's identity, in itself, isn't the great secret. It's that the Doctor knows something universe-shattering, and that knowledge is somehow tied up with his origin. The question of who (or what) the Doctor really is cannot be untangled from the terrible secret that he knows about some cosmic mystery.

And the Silence have somehow determined that unless the Doctor dies by the lake in Utah, he will be forced to answer the question ("Doctor who?") in his future — on the fields of Trenzalore, at the "fall of the Eleventh," when nobody can speak falsely or refuse to answer. Whatever the answer to this question is, it's momentous enough that the Doctor actually considers just dying, to spare the universe from the answer. As he tells Winston Churchill: "Suppose there was a man who knew a secret. A terrible, dangerous secret that must never be told."

Could this secret have something to do with Omega, the creator of Time Lord society? (People keep insisting that they see Omega symbols scattered here and there, hinting at his return.) Or could it be something even older and more fundamental than that? It's sort of funny that an episode which finally answers the question "Has the Doctor gotten too big?" then turns around and makes him bigger than ever.

The last time we were told to ask who the Doctor really is was on the show's 25th anniversary, in the dreadful "Silver Nemesis." And now, it seems likely that the show is finally going to give us the answers it hinted at back then — just in time for the 50th anniversary. (Although I doubt it'll be the Cartmel Masterplan, exactly.) Let's hope the show leaves some big revelations for the 75th and 100th anniversaries, though.