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Doctor Who XXXII.13: The Wedding of River Song, part three

October 7th, 2011 (09:26 pm)


We waited a long time for River Song, even if we did not know it. In 1963, when the format of Doctor Who was being decided, C.E. Webber (still one of the unsung creators of Doctor Who) speculated that the Doctor might turn out to have a wife, chasing him through time. In the first version of this post, I reported that this wife was Mother Goose, the mythical purveyor of fairytales, but the learned [twitter.com profile] paul_scoones  has reminded me (and I'm away from my books and magazines and notes at the moment) that it wasn't Mother Goose but Cinderella's godmother. So disappears an analogy between Mother Goose and River Song as authors of fairytales. Arguably, it's River's attempt to be Fairy Godmother rather than assassin which has led to the mess of pterodactyls and balloons and Emperor Winston Churchill in which the audience finds the Doctor at the opening of 'The Wedding of River Song', so with a little stretching I can make the analogy work still...

Steven Moffat writes of women from the perspective of an embattled and confused male, bewitched by female and feminine power. This authority, when concentrated in one woman, is at its most unchallengeable, but also its most irrational. River appears to be an extreme manifestation of this figure, following her emotions and specifically her sexual attraction to the Doctor, up to a level presented as sociopathic. Two characteristics of the Moffat/Matt Smith Doctor probably regarded as ‘masculine’ by the audience, his rationality and his social-physical gaucheness, are intriguingly balanced by characteristics which suggest effeminacy – his reading Knitting for Girls in the dive where he meets the Teselecta again, and his enthusiasm for dancing with men as well as women at the wedding of Amy and Rory. This combination places him firmly in the continuum of characters such as Norman Wisdom’s comic persona or Michael Crawford’s Frank Spencer, but with added intellectual force. While River has increasingly been depicted in ways which court adverbs usually associated with sexist depictions of women – her behaviour in ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’ sparked the word ‘flighty’ in this male writer’s brain – she was introduced in ‘Silence in the Library’ as a professor and in later stories addressed as ‘Doctor Song’, a degree which she is awarded shortly before we see her kidnapped by the Silence at the end of ‘Closing Time’. Roughly, the two seem well-matched as assemblies of variations on stereotypical traits masking great intellects and established mysteries.

‘The Wedding of River Song’ has left the Doctor a married man, despite his reluctance. River, as child of the TARDIS, becomes her proxy too. For all the patriarchalism of the brief marriage ceremony, the Doctor recognises that he can only become River’s ‘protector’ on terms acceptable to her, and if he acknowledges her right to protect him. This is to become a marriage of non-cohabitation, with no apparent prospect of River joining the Doctor in the TARDIS as she accepts her place in the Stormcage.

River is sent to prison, but the Doctor is trying to escape a metaphorical gaol, of fame. Yet for all his protestations, the Doctor has been shown to be confined by time, whether through protocol (a comment on another journal suggested that the Doctor was prevented from returning to see the Brigadier by Gallifreyan time travel etiquette) or through the collapse of the universe. As Steven Moffat reminded viewers of Doctor Who Confidential, the Doctor apparently still hasn’t told River his name. ‘The Fall of the Eleventh’ has been flagged as the next great crisis in the Doctor’s life, but we don’t have enough information to understand it yet; but it’s likely that River, and perhaps her parents, will be involved.

If the career of the eleventh Doctor was one of Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories, it might be called ‘How the Doctor gained a family’. Family seemed to be at the heart of Russell T Davies’s idea of what Doctor Who should be, but the Doctor was presented as antithetical to it, even to unorthodox models. Family life was something he could not have without surrendering his Time Lord identity. Steven Moffat has instead woven the Doctor as permanently as possible into a family unit – the errant son-in-law of the Ponds, in an enigmatic marriage with a daughter who is physically older than Amy and Rory themselves. Where Russell T Davies celebrated the extraordinariness of ordinariness, Moffat’s characters are extraordinary – the woman who grew up by a crack in the universe, which gave her unique gifts, and who waited twelve years for her Raggedy Doctor to come and fulfil his promise to her; the man who became a nurse, died for love and loyalty, was reborn as a plastic replica with a gun with which he kills his fiancée; the woman who is both of mortal and semi-divine birth, raised among the enemy, but who discovers her true nature. These are heroes of romance, but they retain a sense of the contemporary rather than appearing anachronistic in modern dress.

‘The Wedding of River Song’ made gestures at remedying some of the more disagreeable aspects of this season. Amy’s final confrontation with Madame Kovarian was of itself well-judged and finally saw Amy acknowledge that she would never see her baby again, before asserting her motherhood of River Song in the way most appropriate to Kovarian’s regard to her daughter. Within the context of the half-season’s management of Amy’s parenthood and loss, it was still inadequate. It’s been argued by a poster on the Outpost Wrinkly forum that Moffat’s treatment of the emotional impact of his arc story on the characters has been dealt with ‘novelistically’, ‘Night Terrors’ being interpreted as a commentary on Amy’s inability to communicate with her otherworldly daughter. This does not altogether convince. The relationship between the episodes written by Steven Moffat, a five-part story in themselves, and those by other writers was thin this year, with the exception of the Matthew Graham two-parter. The motifs developed through the season didn’t foreshadow plot elements in the way that I’d hoped. The whole season seemed rather disjointed, and unnecessarily so. It was not confusing, but lacked a coherent voice, and cried out for more time in a way that no previous season since Doctor Who returned has done before. It was not clear why the Silence needed to put River in the Apollo space suit, or exactly what they hoped to gain from developing River specifically as a weapon. There remain hints that they are managing the narrative more comprehensively than is obvious, identifying Rory as the man who dies, and dies again; there were monkish habits in the shadows in ‘The Big Bang’, hidden in plain sight; and it’s still not clear who forced the TARDIS to explode, or how, at the end of ‘The Pandorica Opens’.

Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who remains readable as an extended parable about fandom’s relationship with the programme, and the programme’s place in British culture. Amy and River are both avatars of different aspects of fandom; Rory, too, though he is not defined to the same extent by his obsession. The Silence, perhaps, are the 1980s BBC management whom fans could not persuade to view the Doctor other than negatively, or possibly philistine ideology-driven politicians seeking to stifle imagination and independence in British broadcasting. In the week that the BBC announced the most dramatic cuts to its budget and operations in its history, the time and duration of the Doctor’s return to our screens remains vague beyond the Christmas episode with Claire Skinner, Alexander Armstrong and Bill Bailey. Silence must fall in the end, but I hope not yet.


Part one of this review at Dreamwidth and LiveJournal
Part two of this review at Dreamwidth and LiveJournal


Also posted at http://sir-guinglain.dreamwidth.org/456252.html.


Posted by: gwydion_writes (gwydion_writes)
Posted at: October 7th, 2011 11:39 pm (UTC)

Excellent! Well put. I don't know that the doctor's relationships have ever been so uncomfortable and therefore more challenging to him and to fans who come along for the ride. It's like wanting to see how celebrities really live, a sort of taboo curiosity.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: October 7th, 2011 11:59 pm (UTC)

Thanks! The parallel with River and Mother Goose was unconscious wishful thinking cheating my memory - but I'm glad Paul Scoones read this as he has his own Doctor Who research projects going. I'm tired at the moment, or that's my excuse, and tend to set myself up to write more than I intended which leads to me making claims which I shouldn't publish anywhere without checking.

You're right about the lack of comfort in the Doctor's relationships. I tend to look to parallels within the programme's history and so can miss that sort of tree. His dropping off Amy and Rory at the end of 'The God Complex' acknowledges what he does to people directly and is so probably braver than the self-deceiving trapping of Rose in the parallel universe (twice); but he still hides behind the gifts of house and car. Moffat rapidly distanced the audience from the close relationship it had had with the tenth Doctor and it's difficult to know how much, if any, of the Doctor's stated opinions and accounts of his actions should be taken at face value.

Posted by: gwydion_writes (gwydion_writes)
Posted at: October 8th, 2011 12:08 am (UTC)

Yes-it's hard to imagine the 10th doctor being willfully deceptive until toward the end of his run and the 11th stands accused and self accused. His self assurance seems very low-more like a tragic hero. Redeemed though by his boundless enthusiasm/belief in others. I don't get the sense he believes in himself anymore.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: October 8th, 2011 12:26 am (UTC)

This brings me back to fannishness again, particularly Doctor Who's attraction to the self-critical and the perfectionist. The eleventh Doctor is both of these, though saved and irritated by turns at his inability to be completely meticulous. I think you're right, too, about his belief in others - 'Let's Kill Hitler' showed his faith in River being borne out at the end, and he's latched on to Amy as someone to believe in, specifically the young Amelia, almost from the moment he first met her.

Posted by: gwydion_writes (gwydion_writes)
Posted at: October 8th, 2011 02:30 am (UTC)

Agreed! This series Amy is at least as mythologized, if not more, than the doctor.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: October 8th, 2011 12:32 pm (UTC)

The eleventh Doctor is perhaps a sentimental chap who has difficulty forming adult relationships.

Posted by: ooxc (ooxc)
Posted at: October 8th, 2011 12:40 pm (UTC)

Very picky and petty? Are they married? Isn't the marriage invalid because it was conducted by a machine? I know that you can in some circumstances marry by proxy, but surely that has to be stated at the time? I realize that the Doctor was present - but he didn't take part as himself! Also, is handfasting valid as marriage?

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: October 8th, 2011 12:55 pm (UTC)

All depends on the legal system, I expect - and it was the Doctor speaking the words through the Teselecta.

Posted by: ooxc (ooxc)
Posted at: October 8th, 2011 03:41 pm (UTC)

Yeeees - but he wasn't performing the action - Picky, moi?

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: October 8th, 2011 04:17 pm (UTC)

Not necessarily - perhaps the Doctor will continue to marry River, in contestable ways?

Posted by: ooxc (ooxc)
Posted at: October 8th, 2011 06:04 pm (UTC)

That would be interesting!

Posted by: segh (segh)
Posted at: October 8th, 2011 08:58 pm (UTC)

I thought the Doctor's remark about her nights being between her and him suggested that the marriage had been consummated?

Posted by: ooxc (ooxc)
Posted at: October 8th, 2011 09:07 pm (UTC)

Indeed - but that doesn't prove anything about legality!

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: October 8th, 2011 11:44 pm (UTC)

Coming soon: 'The Annulment of River Song'?

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: October 8th, 2011 11:32 pm (UTC)

I think the Doctor is being deliberately vague, cultivating an air of mystery around the relationship and around River; but it was in a Moffat script that he confirmed he could 'dance', so...

Posted by: daniel_saunders (daniel_saunders)
Posted at: October 8th, 2011 09:26 pm (UTC)

C. E. Webber did get a big essay in Gary Gillat's Doctor Who: From A to Z though I admit he is less well-known that Sydney Newman even among die-hard fans.

The Wedding of River Song’ has left the Doctor a married man

Not convinced! River married the Teselecta. The Doctor was merely inside it; it's like being married to the bacteria in your spouse's gut.

If the career of the eleventh Doctor was one of Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories

The idea of Kipling writing for Doctor Who appeals to me and it is easier to see him writing for Moffat than Davies for several reasons.

Overall I seem to have enjoyed this season a lot more than everyone else. So I'm thinking the opposite of the rest of fandom; no change there then.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: October 8th, 2011 11:43 pm (UTC)

The bacteria in my gut are not telling me what to write! River, Amy and Rory believe the Doctor to be married to River and that's good enough for me for now. I concede that there is scope for other authorities to dispute the matter.

Kipling would have enjoyed a lot of Moffat's mythmaking, I think, though I'm not an expert.

I don't think you're alone - a lot of people around the internet have expressed admiration for this season over all previous 2005+ ones.