‘Oh that man,’ River Song says, wine glass in hand, the same old glint in her eye, ‘he’s always one step ahead of everyone.’
We all know who she’s talking about, of course, but she could just as easily be referring to the man who has led us on a stunning, season-long dance and left us breathless and smiling at the end, the man whose safe hands are now charged with steering Doctor Who in a different direction to the path it has previously trodden: Steven Moffat.
But before things change, we have one final, timey-wimey hurrah with all of history happening at once to charge through: pterodactyls in parks, steam trains and skyscrapers, centurions in chariots in central London/Cardiff, Charles Dickens on BBC Breakfast and Winston Churchill in charge of a world where Cleopatra (‘Dreadful woman… excellent dancer’) and JFK have struck a deal to give the US a pyramid in which to store the Silence in floatation tanks.
Or something like that, anyway – to be honest, even as seasoned Doctor Who watchers we were a bit staggered by the spectacle and didn’t really try to analyse that bit too much, which was just as well because it was a redundant timeline anyway, and… to be honest… pretty pointless. Or rather, pretty and pointless.
The essential tenet of it was that River Song married a Teselecta that looked like the Doctor, only with Withnail-length hair, which she could then kill at Lake Silencio and let the universe believe he was dead when really he wasn’t – and that could have been done on a wet weekend in Wednesbury.
However, do away with it and there’d be a yawning gap which even all the other lovely surrounding moments of this episode (The Doctor’s numb grief at the death of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart and the magically melancholy conceit of the old soldier being invited to Utah as well as Amy, Rory and River if he were only still alive to make the trip; Matt Smith ripping off a Dalek’s head and nicking its eyestalk; the spooky, Indiana Jones-esque crypt in which the head of that extraterrestrial Uncle Monty, Dorium Maldovar, resides; and the wonderfully ordinary wine evening in the garden at the end) would struggle to fill.
Plus, we can’t have the Doctor marrying River in reality, so why not have them do it in a bubble universe that won’t exist once they kiss? Perfect solution, perfect Moffat.
He answers the series’ biggest questions with similar skill – all the ones he wants answering right now, anyway – and still has time to toss in such incredible lines as ‘Hell in high heels’ and ‘My friends have always been the best of me’. If there are a few loose ends at the end, well… so what? Everyone’s favourite pair of jeans has a few straggly threads somewhere or other.
And finally? ‘I got too big,’ the Doctor explains, ‘too noisy. It’s time to step back into the shadows.’ He’s not just talking about himself. He’s talking about a television show named after him – or, at least, named after the question hidden in plain sight – which reached its critical mass in terms of size and spectacle before the end of the David Tennant era (once the universe, the fabric of reality and time itself have been saved, there isn’t much else left to do – particularly if the whole universe knows who you are).
While the quality of the episodes has been uniformly better since the change of lead actor and show-runner, the sheer scale of the programme has been drastically slimmed down: first financially, and now, perhaps, in terms of the storytelling. That doesn’t mean a reduction in the quality of the writing; merely in the magnitude.
Epic has been done to death in Doctor Who; intimate hasn’t. There’s still a whole universe of scary, funny and moving tales to be told, and they don’t have to involve a billion Daleks taking control of the whole of history at once and killing everybody that’s ever existed a dozen times over. If River Song’s devotion to the Doctor has taught him anything, it’s that saving one life is as important as saving a billion; and perhaps that’s what he’s going to do for the foreseeable future. If so, we’re looking forward to it as much as we ever have.
With Steven Moffat at the helm and Matt Smith in the title role, the answer to that oldest of questions, ‘Doctor who?’, will always be ‘Yes, please.’
Aired at 7.05pm on Saturday 1 October 2011 on BBC One.
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