So then the battle for Demon’s Run is over, and at last I can remove the spoiler gauntlets and reveal some more detailed thoughts on this first ever mid-season finale. Now as I’ve already stated in my spoiler-free write-up, this was a great episode, fast paced and full of action, drama and humour. It was a thrilling and fun way to round off this first half of the season, with many great moments and fascinating elements.
First off, I was highly delighted that the inclusion of the Sontarans, Silurians and Cybermen did not herald anything as prosaic as the Alliance from the end of last season reforming. I had a sneaking suspicion that Moffat was going to subvert such expectations and feature a very different alliance, one formed by the Doctor...
And indeed this was the case. From the somewhat sentimental point of view of an old fan, it was a real pleasure to see the Doctor and the Silurians working together at last, after all those past clashes where his attempts to establish a detente had come to naught. Neve McIntosh, with previously played Alaya and Restac in last season’s Silurian two parter, gives us another memorable performance, and shows she could easily carry a series of her own - and I’m guessing I’m not alone is wishing for a spin-off series for Madame Vastra and Jenny.
The on-going adventures of a Silurian lady in Victorian London has great scope; not only do we have rich characters and a vivid setting but there’s also room for some classic fish-out-of-water antics as Vastra comes to terms with living in a completely alien future society like a Jurassic Adam Adamant. It may sound something of a far fetched concept, but the Victorians were quite as stuffy as we believe them to be *; theirs was a society based on cutting edge technology and delighted in new sensations, and many differently abled persons turned their physical misfortunes into success and celebrity in this culture that sought the shock of the new. Hence Madame Vastra could easily integrate into Victorian society by claiming she was afflicted with an unusual skin condition.
Equally pleasing for dyed-in-the-scarf Who fans was Commander Strax, played with aplomb by Dan Starkey. The concept of a Sontaran doing penance as working as a nurse was a delight to behold, and aside from providing some very fun lines, the idea itself is exactly the kind of intelligent inversion that the race’s creator and legendary Who scribe, Robert Holmes revelled in. And while Strax’s statements did produced some great laughs, these funny to human ears pronouncements give us an insight into an alien society who view things very differently. Too often in the show’s past, the Sontarans have been written as the run of the mill intergalactic warmongers, and so far the new series has gone to the back to basics established by Holmes in their first appearance The Time Warrior; that this race is not evil per se, but just hold different values to us.
I do have on very minor quibble here though, where Moffat missed a trick. When Strax is dying, he objects to Rory referring to him as ‘a great warrior’, countering that he is just a nurse. Now personally I’d have had The Last Centurion gently reply ‘So am I...’ Feel free to add that to the fan edit that runs in your heads.
Moving swiftly on, the Cybermen’s appearance was brief but spectacular. The scenes of mayhem in the Cyber Legion’s HQ was truly cinematic and also delivered perhaps my favourite moment of the episode - Rory facing down a room of silver giants and saying ‘Do you want me to repeat the question?’. As well as air punching all round, sharp eyed viewers may have noted that these Cybermen appear to be native to our universe, rather than those from Pete’s World, for if you look closely they do not have the Cybus logo on their chest plates.
But enough of remarking on the little details, what of the big reveal that River Song is Amy and Rory’s daughter? Well, I have to say that I did see it coming, although to be honest I can’t claim a right guess here. You see the thing is, I’ve read, heard and indeed indulged in so much speculation as to the truth about River Song, I had hit on the idea she was Amy’s child. But with so many other possibilities for my imagination to play with, I’d never selected it or any other theory as my best guess. After all this is Moffat story line, and he’s good at weaving plot threads in unexpected ways, so I was content to speculate without reaching a firm conclusion and just enjoy the ride.
However in the opening scenes of this episode when Amy named her baby ‘Melody’, I became fairly sure that River was her child. And when River told Rory that she could join the battle for Demon’s Run until the end, I became certain that not only was this was the case but also that little Melody wouldn’t be safe with her family.
And why? Well in the Doctor Who universe there is a thing called the Blinovitch Limitation Effect. The exact nature of this law of Time, first mentioned in Day of the Daleks is uncertain, but what we do know is that it is extremely hazardous to cross one’s own time stream. Remember how Rose was instructed to stay away from her baby self in Father’s Day, this is because if they touched there would be an explosion of time energy, potentially opening a rift in the space-time continuum. And we have seen this in the show before, firstly in Mawdryn Undead in the classic series, but also last year in The Big Bang. In the latter we saw the Doctor test to see if the multiple sonic screwdrivers were the same item and there a resulting ‘pop’ – now I know it didn’t look terribly serious but remember that at that time the Universe had all but collapsed and so the energy discharge was tiny.
But what of all those Doctor team-up stories, you say… Well, apparently as Time-sensitive species, they are at least partially immune to the effect but still it’s generally considered bad form to go messing about in your own time stream. As Time Lord or not, there is the possibility of creating damaging paradoxes and time loops, not to mention risking attracting the unwelcome attentions of the denizens of the Time Vortex like Reapers, Chronovores and continuity obsessed fanboys.
Therefore as a time traveller, and indeed as an associate of the Doctor, River no doubt realised that appearing early would be temporally risky. Plus she probably already knows the story of the events surrounding her birth, and therefore she can’t appear until the allotted moment without rewriting time.
But anyhow all that’s beside the point (what were you saying about continuity obsessed fanboys, hmm? Mr Kettle meet Mr Pot… - Ed. ), back to the reveal proper. Now, the big problem was setting up big mysteries is that now matter how well you execute them there is always the risk that when you finally lay the cards on the table, it’s going to be a let-down. Of course, you are on better ground if you have planned your story arc out properly from the beginning for cobbling something to fit at the last minute is rarely successful (looks disapprovingly at Battlestar Galactica), but even then it is a bit of damned if you do, damned if you don’t scenario. If you lay down clues and allow your audience a decent chance of guessing, some will be disappointed even though they were right, while if you pull something out of left field in a sneaky fashion, other will cry cheat.
Now personally, I was just a tad underwhelmed by the reveal as I’d put the clues together beforehand. But I stress just a tad, for I didn’t get there until this episode. But all the same it was beautifully played, and actually the more I think about it, the more questions it raises. River being Melody isn’t the final answer, it’s just another piece, albeit a big one, to a larger puzzle.
To begin with, if River is Melody why doesn't see remember being in the spacesuit and killing the Doctor? Could this be down to Silent-generated amnesia? Or are we barking up the wrong tree in assuming that the little girl astronaut who later regenerates is River Song?
Remember we have already seen River die in Forest of the Dead and there was no regeneration then… Of course, the incident at the core could be one of those sudden fatal events that not even regeneration can save. Or possibly she has lost this Time Lord ability in later years.
And there is also the mystery of why their time lines are running in opposite directions. Of course skipping about the whole of history is going to lead to meeting folks out of sequence, but it seems mightily suspect to me that every River we met is at an earlier point in her time line. Surely sometimes they’d managed to meet in the right order? And when you consider that in the classic series, there appeared to be some mechanism which ensure Time Lords always met in the right sequence (i.e. the latest incarnation of the Doctor always encounter the latest version of the Master), the fact that River and Doctor’s time lines are running in opposite directions suggests there’s something very unusual going on here.
And there’s an even bigger question looming over us - we still don’t know who ‘the good man, the best I ever knew’ she killed is…
However, as she takes the name River Song, this could suggest she ends up spending part of her early life in the Gamma Forest. Certainly the scene when the Doctor and Lorna Bucket finally, and tragically, meet again could be read as indicating that the meeting with child Lorna has yet to occur. Yes, I know he claimed to remember her but after her passing he does ask Madame Vastra who she was and also bear in mind River’s First Rule About The Doctor - he always lies. So then, could we be set for a trip to the Gamma Forest in the second half of this season where maybe the Doctor will meet the young Lorna?
On firmer ground, River being at least part Time Lord certainly makes more sense of their future relationship. Aside from being exactly the Doctor’s kind of woman (see here for a previous discussion of this), being as close to one of his own race as is possible in the cosmos certainly, and understandably, adds to the attraction.
Now also we should assess how well this reveal lives up to Moffat’s claim that it would be ‘a game changer’. Now this statement has generated a lot speculation over the last few months and while this episode was heaps of fun, some have rightly questioned whether it delivered all that was expected.
Firstly, in the story line itself we were built up to to the Doctor ‘never rising higher’ only to tumble into ‘his darkest hour’. Quite a claim to live up too, as the Doctor has pulled some massive strokes in his time, such as saving the entire cosmos on more than one occasion not to mention giving beings with the powers of gods a good drubbing to boot. Therefore at first glance, the battle for Demon’s Run was pretty much business as usual.
But perhaps we should remember that the only person saying this is River Song; it’s not an ancient prophecy but a personal interpretation of events. So then, from her perspective, from what she has seen the Doctor do in her lifetime, her assessment of the battle for Demon’s Run, could well qualify for the zenith and nadir of the Doctor. Plus this is her story, so there is bound to be some bias, particularly as her foreknowledge most likely comes from her parents.
But that said, his battle at Demon’s Run is notable for two reasons. Firstly we have him allying with old adversaries and win without bloodshed. But secondly, and more importantly, this victory is fleeting. Not only are there causalities, but actually the Doctor ultimately loses. Not only does he fail to rescue Melody, but Madame Kovarion has tricked him twice and he has badly let down Amy and Rory.
And all this has come about becomes of his own hubris. And it’s not just in the confident jokey business-as-usual manner he tackled the rescue operation but in the general way over the last several incarnations he has unthinkingly become oblivious to the consequences of his actions. As River Song points out he is now so feared that Kovarion and co. are waging a war against him and this chain of events stem from his recent grandstanding.
Now in a comment to my spoiler free review, Mr Lee Medcalf of The Black Dog Podcast, wondered why the Doctor was in the main so causal in his reaction to this assault on his loved ones. Was this misjudged writing, direction or performance? And indeed I must admit to wondering the same. But having reflected on the matter, it becomes clear that this wasn’t a dramatic misstep but the final act of a man who has begun to believe in his own legend too much. For it is precisely because he believes he can outfox anyone or anything in the universe that he fails to notice that his victory is, as Dorium points out, ‘too easy’.
Now then the Doctor being defeated is indeed a rare thing and equally uncommon is a whole situation being his own fault. So then, while he has tackled far bigger threats, such as would-be universe devourers like The Beast or Sutekh, this truly is a very personal dark hour.
But is it really game-changing? Well, at first glance no. But considering the implications, it certainly changes all the key dynamics between the regular cast. But also we should remember that the story is far from over, and I suspect there are further troubles to come and the dark hour may not have concluded yet. For example, consider the final post credits sequence - the caption ‘Time is running out..’ and a skeletal hand clutching a dying sonic screwdriver. So then I’m guessing that we don’t yet realise the full consequences of this episode. It could well be a pivotal point in the Doctor’s history.
And the title for the next episode - Let’s Kill Hitler - while hinting at a monstrously cheeky story line also has more sinister undertones. For while it seems to promise another venture to World War Two, complete with Churchill, spitfires and possibly more ‘ironsides’, we should note that this could be reference to that old time travel moral dilemma - if you could go back in time, would it be ethical to kill Hitler as a child? Now bearing in mind, we have a theme developed in this story about the consequences of the Doctor’s actions, this reference to that classic moral maze becomes somewhat ominous...
Certainly it would appear that Moffat has a plot line in mind that is going to change the way the Doctor’s operates and possibly redefines the character itself. And while the cliff-hanger to A Good Man Goes To War might seem a little in the shadow on the climax of The Almost People in the leaving the audience in suspense stakes, the more you consider what it may be leading too the more the speculation engine overheats... Which is the ideal place to leave the series for the break; an open door to new adventures that a bouncer called ‘summer’ won’t let us through yet... Roll on autumn, dark nights, and more Doctor Who!
* Interested readers should check out Matthew Sweet’s Inventing the Victorians, a fascinating tome which demonstrates how wrong the popular image of this period is.