Remember Rose Tyler in the pre-titles sequence of Doomsday, back in 2006? “This is the story of how I died.” Or Russell T Davies’ promises two years later that the Series Four finale Journey’s End would see at least one of the Doctor’s companions killed off? We’re there again. Another series ends; another promise of a series regular not making it to the end credits bites the dust. And as usual, it is immensely gratifying to be disappointed.
That the escape the Doctor makes is down to the Teselecta (and nobody will ever be able to satisfactorily explain how a robot double of the Doctor is able to start regenerating) is a brilliant and cheesy cop-out, and one that is only acceptable because, as is usual with Steven Moffat’s storylines of late, it’s not what you do when you get there that counts, it’s how you get there in the first place that’s important. This is something Moffat shares in common with Robert Holmes (the King of the disappointing denouement), and nobody’s going to try and tell you that he wasn’t one of the greatest writers ever to work on Doctor Who.
As is befitting an episode in which we’re watching the Doctor face his certain death, what we actually get to see is his life passing before his eyes. It begins with Charles Dickens on the BBC Breakfast sofa; Dr Malokeh makes a small but timely cameo; and for the bulk of the early part of the story we’re seeing it as it is related to Winston Churchill. Madame Kovarian is back; there’s the contractual appearance of a Dalek; and Dorium Maldovar turns in a head-in-a-box performance that will be remembered by generations of kids for decades to come. At times, it feels like the regeneration dream-sequence of The Caves of Androzani writ large across an entire 45 minutes, a maddeningly self-logical sequence of events that you can’t stop to think about or it will fall apart in your mind. That’s how Steven Moffat likes it; I’ve said this before, his Doctor Who is not so much a dark fairytale as it is a nightmare brought to corporeal life. If you try to pick it apart, the threads loosen easily; if you surrender to its charms, it’s an extraordinary and exhilarating ride.
The Wedding of River Song is quite possibly the maddest, most audacious, and magnificent episode the series has ever produced. And it’s a genuine fence-splitter, too; it’s almost impossible not to react to it in one way or the other.
The turning point is another face from the Doctor’s past given passing mention: the Brigadier. That Moffat should choose to remember the character in such a way, essentially canonising the actor’s death, gives the Doctor’s choice (to die himself, to save the universe and all it ever was or will be) a profundity and verisimilitude that Matt Smith’s face articulates beautifully. As crazy as the episode gets, it never feels anything less than real and the Doctor is right at the heart of it. If you somehow manage to get to the end without sensing that Moffat has answered all the questions he’s been setting for himself, then the mystery he leaves you with at the end – Doctor Who? – is an appropriate slamming of the door on what’s gone before. Some of these questions weren’t meant to be answered; we’ve witnessed the creation of a universe in which it’s only important to piece together the bits of the puzzle that are relevant – the rest of the enigma is there as colour, as deception, as background; the series follows its dream logic to the point at which it needs to make sense, and everything else is shadow. None of Moffat’s stories have made total sense in the cold light of day, but then, they don’t exist in the cold light of day, they exist in the hazy Doctor Who universe of time-travelling Police Boxes and regenerating, two-hearted aliens. Steven Moffat might just be becoming the ultimate Doctor Who writer, and The Wedding of River Song, with its eye-patch-wearing soldiers, its park-pestering pterodactyls, its open-topped pyramids and its glorious, insane sense of self, might be the ultimate Doctor Who story. And what better way to celebrate Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart, than in an episode in which virtually the entire cast get to sport an alternative universe?
River Song seems to be exempt from the normal rules of engagement. And this might be something she’s inherited from her mother, because just as Amy Pond remembers the real world in the half-light of her wakening dreams (and how appropriate a metaphor for the rest of the episode is that?), so her daughter seems to bestride the different realities like the Metacrisis she really is. In the same way that in The Big Bang she was able to leave Amy the blank diary that she is returned in Let’s Kill Hitler, and in the same way that last year’s finale revolved around an image of River inside an exploding TARDIS (like Mother like... Mother), so the Wedding of River Song is an alternative reality event that bleeds into our own universe. When Steven Moffat brought the character back, it’s obvious that he was making her story up on the hoof (she was a one-story enigma that has become a bigger and bigger puzzle the more explanation we get), but what’s great about her arc is that the further it pays off on our expectations (so she was the Doctor’s wife after all; so it was River Song inside that spacesuit; so it was the young River Song we saw regenerate at the end of Day of the Moon), the more surprising it gets.
Series Six has delivered on its promises without compromising on its ability to astonish. I don’t know if I understand it, I don’t know if I like it, even (how can you begin to formulate a proper emotional response to something that’s so far beyond normality, beyond plausibility, that it exists in a bubble entirely of its own creation?); but I’ve never seen anything else to compare, and I’ve never had so much fun before. It’s Doctor Who at its most insane and its most engaging. It’s light years beyond wibbly-wobbly.