Three thousand years in the future, a time traveller meets someone. A woman. A woman he’s never met before, and yet who knows his name.
“There’s only one reason I would ever tell anyone my name. There’s only one time I could…”
Back in 22nd April 2011 the time traveller meets her again, for what should be the last time. It’s the end for The Doctor. Because she’s going to kill him.
Steven Moffatt is clearly not a writer who believes in giving himself an easy time. This is the only time a series of Doctor Who has ended with a single story, though in many ways it’s not a single story in the traditional sense, because this year the inevitable story arc has been woven strongly throughout all of the episodes he is written. In some ways it is the final episode of a five part serial, and an ambitious serial at that. It has to tell the story of the Doctor’s death: because we’ve seen him die, we know it is a fixed point in time. “Maybe he’s a clone or a duplicate or something?” No, that most certainly is The Doctor and he most certain is dead. Instead it provides a wonderful conclusion to the Silence in the Library story (rating 11/10) and cheats miserably when in resolving the Doctor’s death (rating 0/10).
As an entry in story focusing on the events of 22nd April 2011 it began well. We already know that there was the younger Doctor, last seen in A Christmas Carol and an older Doctor following from Closing Time each approaching the day from a different perspective. Stepping out of time, the alternate timeline Soothsayer Doctor proved an effective way of taking a slower, sidelong look at the potential consequences of the Doctor and River’s decisions in the fateful moment. The Doctor’s helplessness and desperation, River’s neediness, the hand fasting, the kiss; it all came together in a perfect point of inflection in the Melody/River continuity. I loved it.
After a series of Amy & Rory and then the Doctor fretting about his demise, turning the tables to make the Doctor’s goal in this story – his triumph – the bringing about of his own death was a superb device. Everything came together in a single moment on top of a a pyramid. Unfortunately, in the last five minutes, a switch was pulled that undermined not only the audacious opening two-parter but the climax of this episode itself: the teselector. Of course when the teselector shows up at the beginning of the episode I dismissed it. That would be cheating. “Maybe he’s a clone or a duplicate or something?” asks Amy, over the Doctor’s body, in The Impossible Astronaut. “Let me save you some time” says CEDIII. “That most certainly is The Doctor and he most certain is dead.” That’s the writer’s voice. That’s his promise: not a duplicate. Yet that is exactly what this is, regardless of whether there’s a miniature Doctor inside it. I rewatched the scene on top of the pyramid. Does it have the same emotional impact if you know that the Doctor didn’t really whisper his name; that it was the teselector that River kissed? Does it even make sense than they as opposite poles they short out the alternative timeline if River’s not really even touching the Doctor?
No, no, no.
It’s a cheat. And it’s cheap. The same goes for River’s apparent admission that she was acting not recognising the suit she wore as a little girl in The Impossible Astronaut. Alex Kingston is the actress, and there’s something fraudulent about claiming that River was engaged in such an undetectable deception.
Despite all that I do still like this episode. Having hugely enjoyed this series – the best series of Doctor Who ever, in my book – I’d wanted this episode to be the best story in the arc (hoping it would be the best in the series would be too ambitious following the heights scaled inThe Girl Who Waited). And it did have its moments. Indeed, purely for the line “she’d like to go out with you for…. texting and scones” it deserves classic status, and the tribute to Nicholas Courtney’s character is deeply touching and effective. I’m not sure how much the disappointment of the last five minutes bothers me, yet. I love Matt Smith’s performance throughout – yet again he is so unexpected, so old, so alien. And as in A Good Man Goes to War Karen Gillen shows us a chillingly tough side to Amy Pond.
So on to some minor niggles…
- Eye-drives: isn’t offloading all your memories far too complicated? I had assumed they would just have a tiny little screen in them that shows a Silence to those who work for them, since when you’re looking at them you remember them.
- When everything is resolved, who can remember the alternative reality? It made sense that the Doctor and River do, but I was surprised that Amy appears to – so who else does? And when do those memories occur? I had assumed they would occur on 22 April 2011 – but that would change the version of events we’ve seen – and I think we see those that for Amy, the alternate reality events occur post-God Complex. If that’s correct, I cannot see the reason, and whether it is or not, I think this is an area where the writing could have afforded a little more clarity.
- What changed time when River saved the Doctor by draining her weapons systems? What did we see in The Impossible Astronaut and what could have changed it? The Doctor’s foreknowledge might have, but if River was going to do that she’d have done that originally and we’d have seen the Doctor not die. My interpretation is that the original course of events included River trying to do this and undoing it following the alternate reality timeline, but I’m not certain this makes absolute sense. I’m also surprised by how much River’s demeanour changes from her sorrow before killing the Doctor and her flippancy after avoiding it. Could there be other timer-wimey trickery here that is yet to be revealed? Will it link up with how River was at Amy and Rory’s wedding (and Mels wasn’t)?
Indeed very few of the questions were answered. We did not find out who is Kavorian’s boss (other than the Silence, but who do they work for). We still don’t know, for example, who could beam the signal that controlled Amy’s flesh avatar into the TARDIS. So is this story over? I don’t think so. We have Trenzalor to look forward to, Kovarian is still alive. And there’s no longer any reason why the Doctor and River might not meet again. After all, she’s yet to learn his name.
I hope they do.