I’ve always considered this episode a bit unspectacular, a bit of a misfire as an attempt at a mid-series “opener”. I’ve had to somewhat reevaluate this impression after this viewing. Although the episode has many problems and is far from perfect, there’s also a lot to like in there. Far from being a story about knocking off Hitler, this episode resolves the burning question about Amy and Rory’s daughter, i.e. River Song, hanging over from A Good Man Goes to War. It’s substantially a story with little in the way of plot, except concerning River’s attempted assassination of the Doctor. Maybe this is my main scruple with the episode. Without an actual story anchoring the episode, it all feels a bit messy and uncoordinated. I appreciate the revelations about River Song/Mels, and the arc development concerning the Silence’s conspiracy to kill the Doctor, and River’s role therein, but I find hard to look past how disjointed and poorly choreographed this episode feels.
Let’s talk about River, though. The “River” we see at the beginning of the episode, the delinquent Mels, is different from the River we know and love. Both River and Mels are “bad girls” with a rebellious streak, but unlike River’s misbehaviour, there’s no method to Mels’ madness, no purpose to her anarchy. Perhaps that reflects the subsequent influence of the Doctor over River? Mels was raised by a cult to be a psychopath with the sole purpose of killing the Doctor—it’s no wonder she was perennially in trouble with authority. Mels is portrayed as a delightfully diabolical woman; this was particularly apparent to me when the Doctor first realised he’d been poisoned, and his body had begun to give way, and Mels merely stood there smiling wickedly… before proceeding to terrorise the people of Berlin. But right at the end, with the Doctor on his deathbed, she becomes the River Song we recognise, giving him her regeneration energy to save his life. “Hello, sweetie.” It’s a beautiful moment. Alex Kingston was enjoyable to watch; she carried out really well both the comical (“So I was on my way to this gay Gypsy bar-mitzvah…”) and the more villainous stuff that she obviously had riveting fun playing, but also the more emotive and agonised material near the end.
The last fifteen minutes or so of this episode, in general, redeem it in my estimation. While the first half hour was messy and over-pitched, the final third was close to sublime, beginning with the Doctor struggling to hold onto life in the TARDIS, arguing with the TARDIS’s voice interface, successively taking the forms of himself, Rose, Martha, Donna and finally little Amelia Pond. The Doctor’s argument with voice-interface Pond was funny while it lasted, but also touching that Amelia Pond’s hologram’s utterance “fish fingers and custard” roused the Doctor into action. So was it also touching watching the Doctor, dying and weakening by the second, trying to force himself to save his friends, and River. Matt Smith conveyed powerfully the physical and emotional turmoil the Doctor was in as he tried in vain to struggle through his impending death to help his best friends. Supremely selfless, even at the point of death. And I’m as moved by the resolution to this episode as much as anyone: the beginning of River Song, when she rejects her conditioning and selflessly delivers the Doctor from death.
Some final thoughts. I thought the story of Mels’ growing up with Amy and Rory was charming. Especially the moment we see Amy and Rory get together. Too cute. Rory himself was written well in this episode. He’s steadily becoming less of the wimp he was when we first met him, and more of a brave action man. Marriage apparently suits him. Although, as I said, the episode is not without its very visible problems, the last fifteen minutes are exceptional, absorbing viewing, and effectively redeem the episode in my eyes. That raises out the company of “meh” episodes and into that of “good” episodes, in my book.