Doctor Who: The Wedding of River Song

Loki Amy Pond Media The Silence OĆ°inn he pulled bones from the desert sands Doctor Who Rory Williams Winston Churchill's Personal Mammoth River Song

Spoiler Warning, Speculation Warning, Postmodernism Warning

Tick tock goes the clock
He gave all he could give her
Tick tock goes the clock
Now prison waits for River

As far as series finales go, this one was thoroughly satisfying. And I have a lot to say about it, which is good, because this is probably going to be my last Doctor Who entry until late December.

Let’s start with the name: at least one person commented to me that ‘wedding’ can have many meanings, and such word play is right up Moffat’s alley. Well, they were right, and we managed to get both a metaphorical wedding (of all points in time) and a literal wedding (what we can presume is a Gallifreyan wedding ritual). So, that was a nice bit of wordplay.

But on to the episode. We get some wonderfully fun spectacle scenes in this episode, especially in the opening act, with some wonderfully whimsical quotes, my personal favorites being “Holy Roman Emperor Winston Churchill returned to the Buckingham Senate on his personal Mammoth” and “Pterodactyls are pests. Please do not feed”.

And that sets the stage for a quick drop into the plot: time is frozen on April 22nd, 2011, at 5:02 in the afternoon. Which is, obviously, the day the Doctor dies. So it’s apparent from very early on (basically the moment the camera shows Churchill’s clock) that River Song broke time. Which, frankly, seems like exactly the sort of thing she would do.

There were a lot of stand-out moments in this episode, so I’ll just summarize what I thought of it all at once: the pacing was brilliant, the dialogue and acting was all exactly where it needed to be, the visuals were stunning, vibrant, varied, and very interesting throughout. From a production standpoint, I can’t complain about a single moment of this episode.

We also have more overtones of the Second and Seventh Doctors in the portrayal of Eleven. First, the Live Chess game, aside from being a clever pun, brings to mind the Doctor in The Curse of Fenric. Fenric says of the Doctor:

He pulled bones from the desert sands and carved them into chess pieces. He challenged me to solve his puzzle, I failed.

The image of the Doctor playing chess (which is also an apt metaphor for the manipulation the Seventh Doctor was famous for) is something that is not only reminiscent of the Seventh Doctor because of Fenric, but more broadly because it is very easy to imagine the Seventh Doctor ‘pulling bones from the desert sands and carving them into chess pieces’. Because the Seventh Doctor is an Odinic figure. He is not afraid to use his allies without explaining their purpose in his plans (and this frequently leads him to be quite cruel to his companions), and he never does anything without purpose. Paul Cornell made the Odin connection even more explicit in Timewyrm: Revelation, with what amounts to a spiritual journey culminating in the image of the Doctor hanging from Yggdrasil.

And in a very similar way, the Second Doctor bears more than a passing resemblance to Loki, with his fickle smiles and air of mischievousness. He is the playful, whimsical side of the Eleventh Doctor, the impulsive one who isn’t afraid of getting into trouble without a plan already prepared.

Of course, others have discussed the Doctor as a magical figure before, and the show has even commented on it directly (“I hate stories about good wizards. They always turn out to be him."). But the Second and Seventh Doctors are easily the “most” magical Doctors, with very overt occult references attributed to them in various media. And the Eleventh Doctor’s character is clearly inspired heavily by both of these previous incarnations. He’s even inherited the Second Doctor’s propensity for staring out of cameras and video screens.

Which, of course, brings us to the real topic of this week’s post. The revelation that not only makes the end of The Wedding of River Song make sense, but will change the way you look at Doctor Who and become the predominant theme of at least the next series of Doctor Who (at least, I hope it will). What is this massive reveal? It is this: The Doctor is fictional.

No, I’m serious. That’s a huge revelation. The Doctor, and the entire universe(s) in which he has adventures. All of his companions, and enemies, and acquaintances, are fictional.

What? You already knew that? Well, of course you did. The better question is: did the Doctor?

Trust me, I’m going somewhere with this. And I think the evidence is overwhelming. First: the Doctor is fictional. Diegetically, I mean. The evidence is pretty straightforward: the “oldest question in the universe, the question that has been hiding in plain sight”, is “Doctor who?". The only way this makes sense is if, basically, the universe was created in 1963 by Sidney Newman. If the universe was crafted and fleshed out by Terrance Dicks and David Whitaker and Douglas Adams and Steven Moffat. If the universe follows the laws of narrative instead of the laws of physics. If the Sonic Screwdriver really is just an overly literal Plot Device. If the Doctor is literally the most important person in the universe.

There have been other clues as well. The biggest clue that this was becoming a plot element was in Closing Time, when the Doctor is talking about coincidence: “it’s what the universe does for fun”. As he says this, a coincidence that seems to be a bit much even for him is unfolding right in front of him. Swap ‘universe’ for ‘writers’ and you have a meta-narrative here.

And then there are the Silence. This episode made it clear that the Silence are aware of the narrative. At the very least, their leaders (the memory-proof Silence) are. They know they are fictional. The biggest indication of this is when they encounter Rory: they call him “Rory Williams, the man who dies and dies again”. By and large, Rory’s deaths have occurred in dreams, or in pocket universes, or in other places that the Silence shouldn’t be able to know anything about. The only way they could possibly know that Rory has ‘died’ repeatedly is if they are aware of the narrative - if they can watch the show.

And with that revelation, The Impossible Astronaut and Day of the Moon can be viewed in a new light. I remarked at the time on the amazing narrative techniques that Moffat was employing, by showing us the Silence sometimes and omitting their presence other times. Knowing that the Silence are aware of the story, it becomes obvious that they have control over the narrative itself when they are present.

Of course, their control isn’t complete. In particular, the Doctor also seems to exert some control over the narrative: we can think of the show hiding the fact that the Doctor is in the Tesselector until the end of the episode as the Doctor actually trying to hide that fact from the Silence. So, the story then becomes one of the Doctor and the Silence playing an elaborate chess game using the narrative itself as the board. The Seventh Doctor would be jealous. Although actually, there’s precedent here - in one of the New Adventures novels, Conundrum, the Doctor is trapped in the Land of Fiction. The novel is framed so that the story is written by the Master of the Land of Fiction, and the Doctor actively wrests control of the narration away from him. So, this idea has been flirted with before.

Now, the Eleventh Doctor doesn’t seem entirely aware, or at least not entirely sure, that he is inside a Narrative universe instead of a Physical one. If anything, he suspects it is true - the Troughton-esque look into the camera in the last shot of this episode shows that he is aware of this on some level. Now, certainly there have been nods to the fourth wall before - again, in Conundrum, there’s a quip about the extradiegetic world - but it’s never been played as anything other than a cute throwaway. It has never, if I may use that forbidden word, felt canon before.

So, then, how does the Doctor control the narrative if he’s not aware of it? Well, that’s simple. He’s the protagonist. Obviously, the narrative has to bend around his will and his actions. He doesn’t need to be aware of that fact to take advantage of it. This explains why the ‘fixed point in time’ at Lake Silencio could be fooled by using a robotic copy of the Doctor - we’re not dealing with the laws of Physics, but the laws of Narrative. Appearance is everything.

A better question is this: are the Silence going to be fooled by the Doctor’s trick? If they are capable of viewing the narrative extradiegetically, then that means they know they have been tricked. They saw the same things we saw. It’s possible, though, that they stopped paying attention to the narrative once they thought the Doctor to be dead. Of course, that gives us a new question:

Why do the Silence want the Doctor dead?

If the Silence are meta-aware, and they know the question and its implications, why do they want to prevent the Doctor from asking it? One possibility is that they fear presenting the Doctor with proof of his diegetic nature will destroy the narrative, bring an end to Doctor Who, and thus an end to their existence. I’m certainly not the first person to mention the idea of narrative collapse in Doctor Who before. But wouldn’t killing the Doctor also result in the collapse of the narrative?

Not necessarily. It would provide an end to the narrative, but that does the opposite of collapse it - it solidifies it. Hamlet is not a story of narrative collapse, even though the protagonist dies at the end. No, the death of the protagonist solidifies the narrative. And even with a dead protagonist, we can continue to tell stories. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead demonstrates this well for the Hamlet example. The protagonist realizing his diegetic nature, on the other hand, poses a different problem. In the Doctor’s case, it could lead him to attempt to escape the diegesis and enter the extradiegetic (read: our) world. Certainly this is what happened in The Mind Robber - the Doctor escaped from the Land of Fiction, and in the process he destroyed it. And the result of this is that even if we try to create new stories, they risk feeling contrived - the suspension of disbelief has been shattered.

The Silence’s story, then, is The Mind Robber taken to a higher level of the narrative. Or, if you prefer, it is the same story told without the conceit of a metaphor: instead of the Land of Fiction to represent the Doctor’s fictional nature, this story uses the Doctor’s actual fictional nature itself.

To the fans, then, the Silence are arguably the heroes of the story - they want to preserve the universe in which they exist, and thus the universe from which we get Doctor Who stories. If the Silence fail, the narrative structure of Doctor Who, the ability to tell new Doctor Who stories, is threatened.

Silence must fall.