Steven Moffat's Doctor Who era has been one long story, about the Doctor and the Silence. The Silence are mentioned in Matt Smith's very first episode, and their actions have dominated the Eleventh Doctor's life. But we still don't really know what this is all about, and we're hoping for more clues when the show returns on Saturday.
And as we rewatch old episodes, we inevitably wind up asking: Is there a Moffat Master Plan? One that leads to a climax he planned out long ago? And is this all going to wind up making sense, in the end?
Of course, there's a rule of thumb: Pretty much any time you wonder if a television show's creative team is winging it, the answer is going to be, "Yes." It's pretty much the nature of television, where everything is chaos and creators are at the mercy of outside forces.
At the same time, Moffat is clearly telling one long serialized story on Doctor Who. There's never been an era of the show where the stories were so strongly connected. In season five, the Crack dominates the storytelling, to the point where if you take the Crack away, neither the Weeping Angels two-parter nor the Silurian two-parter has a proper climax. In season six, everything is built around the saga of River Song being born, falling in love with the Doctor, and (apparently) killing him.
And of course, Moffat has said recently that there's no arc whatsoever in the new season of Doctor Who. But he's also said that he lies. And we're clearly in the middle of a sprawling story that won't be completed until we see the Fields of Trenzalore and learn why the Silence were so keen to get rid of the Doctor.
Should Doctor Who have a master plan, in any case? You could argue that a big part of the show's appeal has been that it go anywhere and do anything — which means having a tight arc, with tons of recurring characters, is actually putting too many limits. Russell T. Davies' solution to this conundrum was mostly to make the show's arcs about the companions' personal journeys, while tossing in the occasional breadcrumb like "Bad Wolf" cropping up over and over. The paradox of Doctor Who might be that the more you try to make a sweeping epic out of the show, the smaller it actually becomes.
But leaving that question aside, what can we learn from the stories that have already aired, about the story that Moffat's in the middle of telling?
Fame and the power of seeing. The Doctor is either legendary or famous, and he faces monsters that gain power from not being seen.
Moffat starts introducing the notion of the Doctor's fame as early as "Forest of the Dead" during the David Tennant era. The Doctor stares down the Vashta Nerada by telling them, "You're in a library. Look me up." He similarly stares down the giant eye of the Atraxis in "Eleventh Hour," telling them, "I'm the Doctor. Basically, run." In "The Pandorica Opens," the Doctor tries a similar tack with the gathered alien armies, giving a big shouty speech on top of Stonehenge. And then, in "A Good Man Goes to War," we see lots of ordinary people gossiping about the Doctor's myth, and the Doctor turns out to have loads of never-before-seen allies. Finally, in "The Wedding of River Song," the entire universe responds eagerly to a call for help on the Doctor's behalf.
And in both of Moffat's season finales, the Doctor sacrifices his fame to save the universe.
In "The Eleventh Hour," the Doctor discovers that everyone he meets in Leadworth recognizes him instantly, because of all the drawings and "cartoons" young Amelia Pond drew of him. He's locally famous as the "Raggedy Doctor" from her stories. He's become sort of a fairytale character, a piece of folklore.
At the end of the season, the Doctor sacrifices his own existence to reboot the universe — and the main way we see this is that everybody has forgotten the Doctor. But he is able to reconstitute himself by getting young Amelia Pond to remember him, once again, as a kind of fairy tale, about a man who ran away in a box that was somewhat wedding-themed (old, new, borrowed and blue) so she'll think of him on her wedding day. The Doctor tells Amelia, "We're all just stories in the end, so make it a good one."
In season six, River Song refuses to shoot the Doctor, and that refusal causes the entire universe to stop, because of timey-wimey stuff. And then in the time-stopped universe that results, River builds a giant transmitter to contact the entire universe, which — as mentioned above — responds with messages of love and gratitude for the Doctor. But the Doctor decides to fake his own death, because he "got too big." The universe is saved, but the cost is that the Doctor needs to vanish. (Something that will probably stick about as much as the Randomizer did.)
And in the most recent season finale, we learn that the Doctor has the ultimate kind of fame: his very name is of massive, cosmic import. (More on that below.)
Meanwhile, Moffat is famous for his monsters that only have power when you don't see. The Weeping Angels can only move when you're not looking at them. The Vashta Nerada live in the shadows, and you have to "count the shadows" spot them. You can't remember the Silence unless you're looking right at them. Even the Smilers are hidden in plain sight and turn ugly when you're not looking.
But the Silence are tied up with both seeing and memory — you forget their very existence when you're not seeing them. In "Day of the Moon," they tell Amy that she's been their prisoner "many days," and her "memory is weak."
A major theme in season five, too, is the "perception filter" — which allows something sinister to be hidden so that you only see it from the "corner of your eye." Hiding "where you never want to look." There's a hidden room in Amy's house, allowing Prisoner Zero to stay hidden from the giant eyeball. And in "The Lodger," a spaceship is hidden atop Craig's house by a perception filter that makes it appear to be an extra floor that people think has always been there.
As we said, the Silence have driven most of the action for the past two seasons. In season five, they blow up the TARDIS — or at least, a voice saying "Silence will fall" is heard as the TARDIS blows up. This explosion creates cracks in the universe, including the crack in Amy's bedroom wall that starts everything off. Why do they blow up the TARDIS? We can only guess it's their first attempt to kill the Doctor, and destroying the entire universe is just an unintended side-effect. (We may never know for sure.)
In season six, the Silence kidnap Amy Pond as she's pregnant with a child conceived aboard the TARDIS. When she gives birth to River Song, they kidnap the child and raise her to be the perfect assassin, programming her to kill the Doctor. They go to huge lengths to create an assassin who's part-Time Lord, and get her to a "fixed point" in time so she can kill the Doctor in a way that can't be revoked.
And eventually, we find out that the Silence isn't a race, it's a "religious order," and their central teaching is that silence must fall, so that the question will not be asked. "A question that must never, ever be answered," as Dorium puts it. This question: "Doctor who?" Apparently the Doctor's own name is "a terrible, dangerous secret that must never be told." So terrible that even the Doctor seems to accept that he might have to die to keep it secret.
But the Doctor is destined to go to the "Fields of Trenzalore," at the "Fall of the Eleventh," "when no living creature could speak falsely, or fail to answer." He'll be asked his name, and he'll have to say it, and terrible things will result. (And it seems somewhat likely that the "Fall of the Eleventh" will be the end of Matt Smith's Doctor.) The Silence is desperate to prevent this, and it's basically the whole reason for their existence. But we know the future River Song in "Silence in the Library" apparently knows the Doctor's name, something the Tenth Doctor says he'd only reveal for one reason, at one time.
It's typical of Moffat that the Doctor decides he's gotten "too big," at the exact same moment that we discover his very name is crucial to the entire universe.
And all of this raises the obvious question: How does someone's name become so cosmically important? People tend to be given their names at birth, after all. So either the Doctor's real identity is that of someone whose very existence is problematic. (As in the famous "Cartmel Masterplan" from the 1980s, which would have seen the Doctor being an avatar of a legendary Time Lord figure.) Or else, the Doctor used his own name to seal something, some terrible force, and if you speak his name, something will be released. In any case, you have to assume the Doctor's name was originally benign and became terrible because of some foundational event.
Meanwhile, of course, the Silence are building a time machine in their subterranean lair when we see them in "Day of the Moon." And it's identical to the abandoned pseudo-TARDIS that we saw on top of Craig's house in "The Lodger." The implication is that the Silence want to be Time Lords themselves, but they kind of suck at it. The Silence also have dug subterranean tunnels "everywhere" on Earth, running all under the surface of the planet, and they've been influencing human history for thousands of years.
Not only are the Silence a religious order, they also ally themselves with a squad of "Anglican marines" in "A Good Man Goes to War." Why are Anglican marines working with the Silence? (Not to mention the Headless Monks, who seem to be a separate religious group.) And are they connected, in any way, to Father Octavian and his clerics, another future religious order in "Time of the Angels"? (Or does Moffat just like future religious soldiers?) What theology, exactly, do all these religious groups subscribe to?
Also, in "A Good Man," Madame Kovarian says they've fought an "endless, bitter war" against the Doctor. Is this just referring to their Wile Coyote-esque attempts to kill the Doctor? Or are there some hostilities we haven't witnessed yet?
Tons of people have noticed that the sets in "A Good Man" feature what appear to be Omega symbols — is this a clue that Omega, the ancient Gallifreyan who gave the Time Lords their power, is behind all of this? Or just a religious thing, with Alpha and Omega being key religious terms? (Or, as some have suggested, are those actually a map of Stonehenge?)
People also noticed that the side of Melody Pond's crib in "A Good Man" has a row of symbols, starting with an Omega, below her name.
Meanwhile, we have one huge piece of evidence that Moffat really is just making all of this up as he goes along: River Song's nonsensical origin. In an era where we're constantly being told that people are stories, River Song's own story is a mess.
River started off as a fascinating, brilliant character, but as we've learned more about her, she's become a terrible plot device. We've covered this before (here and here) but River Song really does seem to be the central failure of Moffat's Doctor Who.
In a nutshell, here's her backstory. She's born aboard the asteroid Demon's Run, then she's kidnapped and taken to 1960s Florida, where she's raised in a nightmarish bleak orphanage. The Silence use all their considerable brainwashing power to train the baby River to kill the Doctor. Eventually, she escapes, goes to New York, and regenerates. She then bums around for 30-odd years, before becoming Rory and Amy's juvenile delinquent friend Mels, who's so obsessed with the Doctor, she can't stop bringing him up in school.
When she actually meets the Doctor, Mels immediately assassinates him — but on realizing she's River Song, the woman the Doctor will eventually marry, she has a sudden change of heart and gives up all her remaining regenerations to save the Doctor's life. She then goes and studies archeology, so she can find "a good man" (aka the Doctor) again. The Silence eventually kidnaps River from her archeology school and forces her to kill the Doctor, her brainwashing having completely worn off by that point. But she won't do it, and instead the universe is forced to a halt.
As River says in "The Wedding of River Song":
Take a child, raise her into a perfect psychopath, introduce her to the Doctor. Who else was I going to fall in love with?
The Doctor marries River, but he never says he loves her, and the way the scene is staged, it's almost like he's marrying her to appease her, to get her to restart time and fix the universe. In fact, the Doctor mostly seems disgusted with River. And as a wedding present, River gets locked up in Stormcage for almost the rest of her life, for a murder the Doctor could easily prove she didn't commit. (But it's okay because she gets to go out with the Doctor every night.)
There are some huge plot holes with this whole storyline — including the fact that River's brainwashing breaks down so easily, when we've seen what the Silence can do with an adult mind, let alone a child mind. And the question of what she was doing for 30 years between 1969 and when she met up with Young Amy and Rory. Also, who exactly arrested River for killing the Doctor, and who has jurisdiction over such a crime? Why does she go to spend years with her parents Amy and Rory, but then not care when they're about to be killed inside the Tesselecta?
Mostly, though, I don't believe in this story emotionally. I don't believe that Amy could have her baby stolen and decide that it's okay that she missed the first 40 years of her child's life because she eventually met Mels. (At that point, Amy is a child, but Mels is middle-aged.) I don't believe that Mels could be raised in the horrible orphanage we glimpse in "Day of the Moon" and brainwashed to kill, and then get over it as quickly as she does in "Let's Kill Hitler." I don't believe that being raised as a psychopath leads to you to fall in love with your intended victim. I don't believe that the Doctor has any feelings for River Song, other than being curious about her unsolved mystery — before that mystery is solved. I don't believe that River really thinks of Amy and Rory as her parents.
The relationship between Amy and Rory feels absolutely real to me — particularly on Rory's side. But nothing about River Song has the same level of credibility, at this point. There's also the fact that her birth, career and death are all in service to the man she marries, making her completely subordinate to the Doctor. She gives her life for him not once, but twice.
Minor spoiler below...
Still, it seems as though we're not done learning more about River Song — we'll get one last chance to see River and her parents together, in this season's "Angels Take Manhattan." And the other day, Karen Gillan told us that there will be "a pretty huge revelation" about the fact that Amy didn't get to raise River as her child. "We are going to learn something very, very vital to that story line."
And it seems quite likely that whatever new thing we learn about River this fall will also be the next breadcrumb in the elaborate ongoing story that Moffat is telling — which may have a climax, of sorts, with next year's 50th anniversary.