Rule One: The Moffster Lies.
It's funny how many reviews for this have taken longer to come out. Life, obviously, got busy for a lot of us, but that also means that we let it.
In part I think that's got to be people rocking back on their heels thinking: "how the hell do I respond to that?"
I suppose the obvious, if important, thing to say is that Andrew is right: this was a magic trick, a conjuror's illusion, where almost the entire episode is an elaborate misdirection to keep our eye away from the fundamental bait-and-switch con on the beach at Lake Silencio.
Let's not suggest that it isn't a very good distraction. The idea of time zones colliding as history starts to implode is brain-bendingly intriguing; the visual imagery of steam trains and pterodactyls and pyramids is mind-blowingly spectacular; the development of any sense of consequence of all this is… soul-crushingly absent.
Churchill, for example, is present as apparently Roman Emperor and Holy Roman Emperor (two completely different crowns, separated by a thousand years of history, but you can sort of get away without doing the research if "all of history is happening at once"). But he vanishes completely from the narrative the moment that Pond, Amelia Pond enters. In other words, he serves no narrative purpose beyond prompting the Doctor to supply expository flashbacks. That and because Ian McNeice is a great character and much more fun than having David Cameron asking the Doctor to explain why the Coalition seems to be trapped in an Eighties time-warp.
We barely pause for breath and we're into the Doctor effectively waterboarding a Dalek and then breaking the Tesselector crew's spaceship. Again. Last time they met, he had Amy force them to abandon ship (and one wonders how they got back aboard without being killed by their own robot anti-bodies) and this time he fritzes the thing with a wave of his screwdriver. And after this the captain still lets him borrow it to get incinerated on a lake in Utah.
(Okay, let's assume that he time-jumps the Tesselector out of the hastily-arranged Viking funeral, but even so…)
Of course, the Tesselector crew do seem to think that they're the good guys. Even though the Doctor clearly thinks they're a bunch of schmucks. As he says to them in "Let's Kill Hitler": "You use time travel to punish dead people" and "I'd ask who you think you are, but it's fairly obvious".
In Dungeons & Dragons terms, I'd have said the Tesselector crew are "lawful good" whereas the Doctor is "chaotic good". But really, they're not even that. Their mission is pointless. And they're dangerously bad at it. Neither of which qualify them as higher than "wandering monster".
I assume, though, that every single person watching groaned on seeing the explanation of the Tesselector in the "previously" sequence, as it immediately said "and this is how he gets out of it". Having them appear as one link in the chain of the Doctor's mini-Bond adventure (like the opening of "Diamonds are Forever") where he traces the Silence nearly double-bluffed us into thinking that we'd guessed wrong after all and that Moffat had something cleverer in mind, though. Ah well.
It is unkind and, I think, wrong to suggest that Moffat thinks chess is too dull for television without explosions and shit, since this clearly has the whole scene backwards. The point is that the Silence's agent Gantok has to be in peril of his life. Moffat's joke is to have him imperilled by something as harmless and as connected to the lives of schoolkids watching as a chess match. I bet the chess club has never felt so cool, so good on Moffat for that.
And then from Bond to Indiana Jones and another design triumph for Michael Pickwoad – boy has he been the hero of this series – with the tomb of the Seventh Transept and all those skulls. That would have been unwatchable for me as a child; I was deeply afraid of skulls and I'd have totally lost it.
This of course marks the point where we've totally abandoned science fiction for horror fantasy.
Nothing about those skulls makes sense in a traditional scientific world. Never mind my hand-waving attempts to explain the headless monks back in "A Good Man Goes to War"; clearly this is done by magic. The monks may very well "behead you alive", as the head of Dorium Maldovar puts it, but beheading is pretty invariably fatal. There are some deep theological questions about whether your soul – should such a thing exist – hangs around with your mortal remains awaiting the Last Trump or skips straight to Judgement Day, but I'm fairly sure that no one outside of a ghost story suggests that it can animate your leftovers. Particularly not once the useful bits like muscle and cartilage have rotted away! Doctor Who's had walking dead quite often – but almost invariably with an alien explanation.
But remember that this is a ghost story, one being told to Churchill by the Doctor. Churchill himself scoffs at it, and, as we will see, we may have reason to believe that the Doctor is making all this up.
However, the imagery of a tomb of living dead is entirely in keeping with the theme of the episode.
I was almost tempted to point out that Moffat's "all history in collision" is entirely populated by dead people (also pterodactyls) but thought that that would be unkind to several breakfast TV presenters. Nevertheless, it's true that the significant figures we see – Dickens, Churchill, Dr Malokeh, and of course Amy and Rory and even River back in "Silence in the Library" – have all died.
The Doctor, caught between life and death by River's actions, is himself in Limbo, which is of course the outer circle of Hell, at least according to Dante. So who else but the dead should he expect to see populating his personal purgatory?
So the first half of the story is telling us two things: first that this is a story, one that the Doctor is telling us and it may not all be true; and second that it is about perspectives on the dead who might not actually be dead.
It would all be terribly clever if the "get out of dead free card" that the Doctor is going to play wasn't so utterly cackhanded.
But never mind that. You could, in fact, easily describe this one show as the traditional two parts of a season finale cut-and-shut into a single episode: the bit with Churchill in Roman-meets-Victorian-meets-Twenty First Century-meets-Prehistoric London and all the flashbacks being the first part; the stuff with River and Silence in the pyramid forming the second.
Whether that's a triumph of economy of writing or a sign of paucity of plot I will leave as an exercise for the reader.
The Eleventh Hour boys pointed out that Mr Moffat has a near-pathological fear of what we might call the "resolution episode": all the fun is in the set-up of the spectacular finale, pouring everything into a fantastic "now, get out of that" cliff-hanger; after which the actual getting out of that is an inevitable letdown.
Last year, the Grand Moff avoided this by having "The Big Bang" be a completely different story to "The Pandorica Opens", almost a completely different genre.
Here he goes one step further and bends over backwards to have nothing but spectacular cliff-hangers (the soothsayer is the Doctor… gasp; there are hundreds of Silence hanging from the ceiling… gasp; River in an eyepatch… gasp; etc) and then filling in the back story to how we got there afterwards.
All of which is all the more frustrating when we thought that Moffat was the man who could do resolution.
Russell T, famously, infamously, would leap to "with one bound he was free" by pulling god-like powers out of someone's bottom and covering with a lot of hand waving, tugging on the heart strings and turning the Murray Gold up to eleven.
(Most egregiously, the "and you're all dead" solution to the cliff-hanger in "Rise of the Cybermen" and the "nahh, I think I won't" cop-out to the regeneration crisis of "The Stolen Earth", though the void-vacuum-cleaner of "Doomsday" reused to get rid of the Cyberking in "The Next Doctor" and Dalek-geddon by supertemp – "Journey's End" again – come close.)
But Moffat, particularly in "The Empty Child"/"The Doctor Dances" (but also "The Girl in the Fireplace" and, obviously "Blink") demonstrated a talent for writing a complicated and intriguing set-up that was, like the best magic tricks, or more pertinently, the best mystery writing, just as good once you'd seen the conclusion. A well-delivered resolution to a mystery is a joy to behold and even rewards rewatching when you can see how the "trick" is being done, but the key to it is that the "oh, it's obvious" should only occur to the viewer after it's been explained to them, like Watson and all those "elementary" observations of Holmes.
What is becoming apparent is that that sort of plotting does not scale up to season arc length.
Having set up multiple interconnected mysteries, what Moffat has tried to do is keep the amount of material that the audience need to hold in their heads to understand any one set of explanations to a minimum (essentially to no more than can reasonably be stuck in a "previously on…"). He's done this by compartmentalising each "answer" to its own episode. This can result in occasionally bizarre decisions, like the one to keep the Silence out of "A Good Man Goes to War", making the motivations of Madam Kovarian impenetrable to anyone watching the episode because that episode was about answering the "who is River Song" question not the "who are the Silence" question. And of course fatally compromising the audience's sympathies with Amy by having her emotional response to Melody's kidnapping (grief, anger, murder) confined only to the 'relevant' stories, making her seem like an uncaring bimbo in otherwise fine episodes in between.
Seen as a whole, it's possible to work out what was supposed to be going on, but that doesn't make the individual episodes any more satisfying. Like constructing a Frankenstein's monster out of body parts, just sticking the bits together doesn't bring it to life.
Still, what are the questions we can now answer? Mike Taylor comes up with an excellent, though not exhaustive, list:
1. why the Doctor had to die;
2. why River had to be the one to do it;
3. why she had to do it in the form of an Impossible Astronaut;
4. why there was a Silent there;
5. why Present-Day River missed Old River with five shots from point-blank range;
6. why she said “of course not” after missing;
7. what the Doctor and the Astronaut said to each other;
8. how the Doctor could avoid death when Canton told us “That most certainly is the Doctor. And he is most certainly dead”; and
9. what is the “first question” that the Silence believe must never be asked.
Despite what Mike says, I think we can actually answer all of these questions, so let's have a go.
1. why the Doctor had to die"Why did the Doctor have to die?" actually contains two questions: the first is "why did somebody want the Doctor to die (and who were they)?" and the second is "why didn't the Doctor avoid dying?"
The first is definitely answered: the people who want the Doctor dead are indeed the Silence, and Madam Kovarian works for them. However, contrary to the impression given by her line in "A Good Man Goes to War" about their "long and bitter war", this isn't (or at least isn't just) about revenge for his genocidal act in "Day of the Moon".
The real reason they want him dead is because there is something seriously deadly about his name and they want to prevent him ever answering the question "Doctor Who?" (see question nine)
The second is, in some ways, trivial: it's like watching part two of "The Caves of Androzani" and asking "why doesn't the Doctor avoid sticking his hand in that Spectrox nest?" He can't because he's already done it.
What makes the question slightly less trivial, of course, is the fact that he knows what is going to happen before the fact. In fact, the only reason that he is there on the beach is because he knows it's where he's going to be.
He is, essentially, trapped by a predestination paradox.
And this is presumably why the Silence in the White House loos gave Amy the post-hypnotic orders to tell the Doctor what he must know – that she is pregnant – and what he must never know – that he's going to die.
(That's a hell of a Cluedo conclusion, though, isn't it: the Silence, in the White House loo, with the predestination paradox.)
As a Lord of Time, and a defender of the ongoing continuity, the Doctor is kind of sworn to make sure that what is supposed to happen does happen.
If the fifth Doctor knew that he'd die of Spectrox toxaemia before episode one of "Androzani" would he still stick his hand in the Spectox nest? The stupid nobility of the fifth Doctor's character suggests that he would.
But as a natural rebel, the Doctor is as likely to reject the inevitable because he believes in free will. We've seen him encounter a predestination paradox and tell it to get stuffed before, in "Day of the Daleks".
Which is why we come to the "fixed point".
The trap that the Silence set isn't just to tell the Doctor the where and when of his death; it's to make that point a fixed point.
And to be fair to Moffat, he's not playing fast and loose with the rules of fixed points as we've seen them in the series. The rules as we know them come from "The Fires of Pompeii" and that very story shows us that the actual events of the fixed point can turn out to be different to what they appear. In that story, the Doctor believes he cannot avert the destruction of Pompeii because it's a fixed point; but it turns out that he actually could, he does still have a choice, and he – and Donna – choose to maintain the original history.
So the Doctor's sneaky "getting out of being dead" here doesn't break any rules because he doesn't change the perception of what is happening.
That is actually more important than the understanding that the fixed point was "always" the Tesselector that was getting shot. The Silence – not to mention all those witnesses in orbit who River unwittingly summoned up with her timey-wimey distress beacon – all think they see the Doctor die. So that is what history records. And as we will see, history is a very unreliable narrator.
2. why River had to be the one to do it and 3. why she had to do it in the form of an Impossible AstronautDorium here gives us the clue. Lake Silencio is a still point in time. Which means, apparently, you can make a fixed point in time there. Notice that, you can make a fixed point. Making fixed points in time sounds very much like a Time Lord power.
The Silence are building a weapon to use against the Doctor. But River isn't the weapon; the suit is. River isn't there as the brains of the suit; she's there as part of the engine. The Silence are using her to fix the still point so that this means that this event can only happen in the one way and that no one can go round rewriting it. She is, essentially, there as a shield for the suit against the Doctor's timey-wimey powers.
Why doesn't the Doctor just avoid being killed on the beach?
What has been increasingly clear since 2005 is that the modern series sees the Doctor as possessed of a Time Lord super-power to see and to an extent manipulate the entire probability-space around him. That is, he can look at the world and see all possible outcomes and to a degree choose which ones happen. Essentially, he as the super-power of coincidence. Or, if you want to be even more meta-textual, the writers are always on his side, and will write him a get-out clause.
Why would this be getting meta-textual? Have you seen the answer to question nine yet?
So how do you stop him doing that?
Well the obvious answer is to have another Time Lord running interference for you.
All of which begs the question, how much is River, with her backwards timeline – beautifully straightened out in the last ever (or if there's one at Christmas last-but-one ever) Confidential; like that version of "Memento" on the DVD that reorders it chronologically – how much is River part of the trap.
Not the Silence's trap for the Doctor; the Doctor's trap for the Silence.
Remember "The Day of the Moon" and River's massacre of the Silence at the end, while the Doctor stands around uselessly zapping them with flashes from his screwdriver? It's really not her fault. I mean really not her fault. The Silence raised her and trained her as the ultimate assassin. And then the Doctor stuck her in front of a telly and played that clip of a Silence ordering her "you should kill us all on sight". So she does.
The Doctor doesn't turn his screwdriver into a weapon against the Silence. He turns his wife into a weapon against the Silence.
Compared to this, anything that he does to Ace in "The Curse of Fenric" is charmingly innocent.
4. why there was a Silent thereThe Silent witness (sorry, it was irresistible) was there to makes sure that their plan went down the way they wanted it to. And of course, the Doctor needed one of them there so that he could be sure that they thought that it went down the way they wanted it to.
5. why Present-Day River missed Old River with five shots from point-blank rangeWell of course what Mike clearly means is "present day River" missed "young River" not "Old River". And if she'd actually shot her younger self it would have caused a grandfather paradox. With enough paradoxes on that beach already, it's probably safest to assume physics or the armour plating of the suit deflected her bullets.
Or if you prefer, then she subconsciously chose to shoot wide. Or even the Silence programming her to miss. Or ultimately, the "it was part of the act" explanation, which brings us to…
6. why she said “of course not” after missingBecause she is now able to figure out that it really was her in the suit. The Silence clearly mess with her memory to an enormous degree and even the Doctor tells her she probably won't remember committing the murder. There would always have been a gap in her life, an unexplained blackout covering the period when she is supposed to have murdered the Doctor, and only by seeing it happen can she realise that after all she did it.
Except of course that this probably falls into the category of "a clever lie" to convince the watching Silence that this is what she is thinking.
It is clear that, like her mother Amy, River is able to remember the events of alternative timelines, because otherwise she wouldn't be able to tell Amy what the Doctor really whispered in her ear.
As we've said above, this seeing alternative timelines is a Time Lord power, one that "A Good Man Goes to War" lets us infer is connected with exposure to the Untempered Schism; or in Amy's case, the very similar crack in the universe in the wall of her bedroom. In fact, Amy can remember alternative timelines because of a childhood growing up next to a crack in the universe even though that childhood itself now took place in an alternative universe since the Doctor retrospectively fixed the crack in "The Big Bang".
Of course it's quite possible, likely even, that that childhood exposure to – let's say it – artron energy didn't just give Amy a touch of Time Lordly power but mutated her chromosomes just enough to act as a starting point for her daughter's evolution into human+.
Amy's memory powers crop up again in this episode too, in fact are crucial to the Resistance understanding that time has gone wrong. Churchill sensed that time was out of joint – like Shakespeare he's got that bit of human genius that, at least in Doctor Who, lets some people see that little bit further – but he lacked the understanding that Amy has to comprehend what was really wrong.
It's fascinating, though, that Amy admits she has to keep drawing and redrawing her memories in order to keep remembering them. In effect, the entire universe has become the Silence.
And notice, also, that she gets bits wrong. Of course, her remembered Rory isn't right, even when he's right in front of her. But funnily enough, her drawings include a Dalek and even though it's red, it's a Time War Dalek, not a New Paradigm Dalek (although there is an NPD there too, though only its dome and neck – and while I'm on the subject, the dying Dalek unlucky enough to encounter the Doctor is carefully shot from only the "shoulders" up. Oh, and it's clearly grey, too).
7. what the Doctor and the Astronaut said to each otherAs it turns out, they had rather more time to chat than was previously appreciated. Up to and including an improvised wedding ceremony.
Although, as with the Doctor's death, perception is everything. If the Doctor says "this is a wedding ceremony" and the universe is watching and believes him, then it is a wedding ceremony, even if he did just make it up on the spot as an excuse to whisper to River the one thing that would convince her to stop foiling his plan.
Did I mention "The Curse of Fenric"?
8. how the Doctor could avoid death when Canton told us “That most certainly is the Doctor. And he is most certainly dead”Well, clearly because it was a big fat fib. Aided and abetted by the older River scanning the "dead" Tesselector with her vortex manipulator and then lying through her teeth about the results.
If there's a disappointment this year… no, that's way too much of a hostage to fortune. But one disappointment this year was that the TARDIS crew didn't run into Canton Everet Delaware III for another adventure.
Morgan Shepherd's line "I won't see you again, but you'll see me" obviously refers to the events of 1969, but seemed to promise more, that that wouldn't be the only time in their future but his past that they would see him. And Mark Shepard's laconic portrayal of the younger Canton III (gay, American, secret agent – he's almost the anti-Harkness) was a nice addition to the generally overwrought mix in the TARDIS.
Still, there's always next year.
9. what is the “first question” that the Silence believe must never be askedAnd here is where the meta-text becomes the text, as it were. Which means I'm going to start talking about Lawrence Miles.
Because, in terms of the Doctor Who universe, "Doctor Who?" is literally the first question ever asked in the series since it appears in the opening titles of "An Unearthly Child" before anything else happens.
Although admittedly it's missing the question mark and people – and by people I include psychotic proto-internet app Wotan and script editor Gerry Davis – often mistake "Who" for his name.
And on a meta-textual level, the Silence are right, because an answer, any answer, to "Doctor Who?" is the end of the Doctor Who universe.
It isn't as though Moffat hasn't been working towards this for a while, though. It first appears explicitly in "The Girl in the Fireplace", where Madam de Pompadour – passing the time between laying the groundwork for a century of European wars by playing the flirty minx – discovers that the Doctor's name is "more than just a secret".
"The Fires of Pompeii" (again) goes further when the seers' duel sees the revelation that the Doctor's name is hidden within the Medusa Cascade. Three years ago, I was speculating that Davros' new Dalek Empire would end up trapped in the Cascade by the younger Doctor and that he would use his name to seal it. So the revelation of the Doctor's name would unleash the full might of the resurrected Dalek Empire on the universe. That, of course, is not to be.
However, last year's conclusion as good as came out and said that the Doctor is made out of stories [link deleted].
Amy remembering the stories was enough to summon the Time Lord back into existence.
But beings made out of stories… we've seen those before. They're called "conceptual entities" and they appear in Lawrence Miles' "Alien Bodies" and all the following Faction Paradox works, most especially in the form of the Celestis in "The Book of the War" and "The Taking of Planet Five".
The Celestis are Time Lords who turn themselves into ideas, stories if you will, in order to avoid the Time War. Ideas being notoriously difficult to kill.
By turning themselves into stories of gods and monsters, the Celestis believe they have made themselves unkillable, immortal, all powerful.
But there is a greater and more terrible idea/story at work in "The Book of the War", the thing that is more powerful, more terrible than any gods or monsters is the unknown. And this is the story of the Time Lords' enemy.
The never-spoken question that runs through the Time War stories of the BBC eighth Doctor range and the parallel Faction Paradox oeuvre is "Who is the enemy?"
Let me rephrase that: "Doctor Who?"
At the end of "The Wedding of River Song", the Doctor "steps back into the shadows"; he chooses to abandon his legend, his story, and make himself the unknown. Embracing his "death", he becomes – to borrow from the best – more powerful than you can possibly imagine.
If the Silence style themselves the guardians of history, then they are setting themselves up as the new Lords of Time.
And the Doctor has become… their enemy.
But let's just look at the question as Mike has posed it, because Mike's question is based on a misconception that's actually quite revealing.
The Silence don't believe that the question cannot be asked.
Remember, back in "Let's Kill Hitler" (or the "previously on…" pre-title sequence): the Tesselector records told us that the core belief of the Silence was "Silence will fall when the question is asked." But later in the episode, Dorium tells us that this is a mis-translation; a more accurate one would be "Silence must fall".
So we know that we can't necessarily rely on the version of history we are told by the Tesselector.
For example, a thing – one on a long list – that could really have done with being spelled out: we only 'know' because the Tesselector crew tell us so that the Silence is a movement not a species – even though the Doctor himself refers to "the creatures that lead the Silence" (my emphasis).
It is important to remember that the Silence (the creatures) are memory-proof and therefore, bigger than that, they are history-proof. To the eyes of recorded history, and more to the point the Tesselector crew, the Silence are invisible. But their human servants are not. Madame Kovarian, Gideon Vandaleur, Mark Gatiss in a really big rubber chin… History can see these people doing things, following a set of orders given to them by invisible beings, and it looks very like they are following a religion.
Now think again about those scenes where the Doctor is explaining the plot to Churchill, in particular once he's noticed the first tally-mark appear on his arm. How can we be certain that he is telling Churchill the truth, given how particularly unwise that might be if there are forgotten Silence around to listen in?
And how do we know that that thing that the Doctor and River do on top of the pyramid is a wedding other than because the Doctor says it is?
These all point to the simple truth that the trope that Moffat is playing most heavily is "unreliable narrator".
Which brings us back to Rule One.
The reason why the cheat is most annoying is that Moffat told us explicitly – both in the series via the mouthpiece of Canton and in person on Doctor Who Confidential – that he hadn't. And of course it was a lie.
The reason why the cheat was tiresome was because – unlike the faux regeneration in "The Stolen Earth" – we never believed that the Doctor was truly going to be really and permanently dead. The cop-out in "Journey's End" was an appalling betrayal of the audience's investment in the drama and the narrative for the very reason that we could, just slightly, believe that it might be true. In contrast, this was merely a rubbish way of achieving something that was entirely expected.
Of course, Moffat has said that next year will be much more stand-alone episodes, much less arc-heavy.
And I don't believe him.
Because it ought to be fairly obvious that he's thinking – as a writer – in terms of a trilogy. He would, almost congenitally could never tell a story in two seasons. No one ever tells a story in two. The plan would always have been for three.
Season (Thirty) one: sets up Amy's story and lays the groundwork for the bigger mysteries.
Season (Thirty) two: answers to the questions who is River and who are the Silence which actually only show how much trouble the Doctor is in.
Season (Thirty) three: concludes the war.
Inform, educate and entertain.
All subject, of course, to how much fun Matt Smith is having in the TARDIS, because the Fields of Trenzelor at the Fall of the Eleventh is so his last story.
Not to get ahead of ourselves, of course – and who would want to when Matt is far and away the most brilliant thing in the series at the moment – but when he does go, is anyone else seeing The Fades/Psychoville's Daniel Kaluuya as possible replacement?
One last thing to say. In spite of it all, in spite of the tediously predictable cop-out of the Doctor's "death", in spite of the dreadful lack of development for the super-abundant ideas… that final scene, with the music building, and Dorium – furious, outraged, insane? – bellowing the series title over and over, and Matt Smith looks straight into the camera with his most enigmatic expression.
I loved it.
Next Time… Christmas in Wartime, in a creepy old house with Outnumbered's Claire Skinner and the awesome Bill Bailey. And Alexander Armstrong in a WW2 uniform. Harsh. Isn't it.
Tuesday, October 18, 2011
Day 3926: DOCTOR WHO: Crisis on Timey Wimey Earth!