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Hello, Mary Sue

June 8th, 2011

This year, BBC America decided to do the smart thing and show new episodes of Doctor Who on the same day they debuted in Britain. This cunning plan lasted for five weeks, because they then decided that no one in America watches television on Memorial Day weekend. The final two installments of this initial half-season therefore were delayed a week, which was especially unfortunate because they were also the two with SHOCKING. PLOT. TWISTS!

I tried to hold out, but then I ran headlong into a flock of spoilers for the final minutes of “The Almost People.” So, buh-bye BBCA! You were filled with commercials and you ruined the cliffhanger sting with your credit-squeezing, but I was willing to put up with you so long as you were in synch with the U.K. Word to your scheduler: a week is an eternity in the universe of cult TV.

So, if you are a good boy or girl and are still waiting for the U.S. debut of the half-season finale, “A Good Man Goes to War,” I urge you to go elsewhere now, because there is nothing ahead but spoilers. From this point onward, you have no one but yourself to blame.

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.

“A Good Man Goes to War” was an object lesson in both what is good and bad about Doctor Who in the Steven Moffat/Matt Smith era.

Make no mistake, it was fun to watch. It lobbed out–and tossed aside–more ideas in 15 minutes than many shows manage in an entire season. Headless monks with an “attack chant?” A Sontaran warrior doing penance as a nurse, genetically engineered to lactate mother’s milk? That latter one was worth an episode in itself, yet here it was a throwaway.

And that’s to say nothing of Madame Vastra, a Silurian adventuress hunting (and ultimately eating) Jack the Ripper in Victorian England, and her katana-wielding human maid Jenny. And they’re lesbians! The fan fiction writes itself!*

Toss in some superfluous Cybermen, and you’ve got another example of the kitchen-sink approach of last season’s “The Pandorica Opens,” in which the Doctor was jumped by every monster costume hanging around the special effects shop. (In fairness, previous showrunner Russell T. Davies did this sort of thing as well.) It’s entertaining, but sacrifices common sense for fan-gasm.

As both a character-defining event and a cliffhanger, “A Good Man Goes to War” was oversold. We were told that the Battle of Demon’s Run would be “the Doctor’s darkest hour.” “He will rise higher than ever before and then fall so much further,” said River Song (whom I’ll get to in a few moments). But did any of that happen? Okay, he stormed a military base and sent the troops fleeing, but was that rising higher than the time he faced down an entire Dalek fleet with no weapons and no plan?

And how far did he fall? Sure, the wicked Madame Kovarian twirled her eyepatch and ran off with Amy’s baby for a second time, but that’s another day at the office for a serial adventurer. Maybe falling “so much further” was the revelation that the word “doctor” was becoming equivalent to the word “warrior” in galactic society, but that ground was well-covered in the Eccleston and Tennant eras. Was it really more of a blow to his psyche than the failure of the “Time Lord triumphant?”

Then came the revelation that River Song was in fact the grown-up version of Amy’s daughter Melody Pond. For some reason, this sent the Doctor into a giddy spin as he rushed off to save the baby that we already know will be just fine. As cliffhangers go, it’s got the urgency of that time the Master walked down a flight of stairs.

Which brings us to the frizzy-haired elephant in the room, River Mary Sue Song.

A “Mary Sue” is an idealized fictional character who serves as a wish-fulfillment fantasy for the writer. The term usually comes up in discussions of fan-fiction, but it applies to professional work as well. The maligned boy genius Wesley Crusher from Star Trek: The Next Generation was the Mary Sue of show creator Gene Wesley Roddenberry.

River Song’s Qualifications for Mary Sue-dom

  • Whenever she’s on screen she’s the center of attention.
  • She breaks in and out of a maximum-security prison at will. She treats history as her personal Post-It Note pad. And she flies the TARDIS better than the Doctor does**.
  • She’s introduced to us as already having had an undefined, but presumably romantic relationship with a future Doctor. She’s not just a potential love interest, she’s a fait accompli***.
  • She’s a deadly shot with a laser gun, yet the Doctor–who notoriously abhors violence****–not only doesn’t seem to mind, but admires her for it.
  • The story arc that has all-but-consumed the last two years of the show? It’s all about her.

In River Melody Williams-Song-Pond we have a character conceived in the TARDIS and engineered to be an anti-Doctor weapon. She regenerates. She’s super-strong. She’s Amy and Rory’s child. She’s possibly the Doctor’s future wife and very likely his future lover.

And I cannot wait until Steven Moffat achieves whatever he intends to accomplish with her. So long, River. Don’t let the police box door hit you on the way out.

* Truthfully, I enjoyed Vashta and Jenny. But if there was ever a Holmesian double-act (Google it) introduced as ready-made for their own spin-off media, it was these two.

** Also see: Adric.

*** You cannot prevent the catharsis of spurious philandery.

**** Remember when the Doctor kept telling Leela to put away her poisonous Janus Thorns? Neither does the Doctor.

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