Doctor Who Christmas Special: The Husbands Of River Song
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The Husbands Of River Song came out of the idea that Steven Moffat was considering leaving the show after exhausting himself with the high drama of series nine. For a lot of fans, myself included, this year has been the best of Doctor Who since the show returned (a failed but intriguing premise in Sleep No More and a frustrating finale aside) and it would have allowed Moffat to go out on a high. With that in mind, The Husbands Of River Song would have been a lovely - pardon the pun - swansong for Moffat to depart on.
It isn't arc heavy or over dramatic like previous Christmas specials The End Of Time two-parter or The Time Of The Doctor; it is simply a fun and endearing look back at one of the most significant character relationships in the Moffat era; the 'marriage' of the Doctor and River Song. Now those fans who hate her aren't going to find much to love about her this time round, though the episode dispenses with the high drama of daughter-of-companions / assassin / link to the Doctor's story arc in favour of something simpler and sweeter for Christmas day. And as I mentioned in my preview, it is the perfect palate cleanser after the high drama and darkness of series nine.
What I enjoyed so much about the episode was the chance to turn the tables on River Song; this wasn't about the all-knowing Miss Song walking into the Doctor's life and shaking up his world, this was about the Doctor walking into one of her adventures and her not even realising it. Moffat wisely chose not to bring in any more big revelations about River. Her story is indeed done but the timey-wimey nature of their relationship means she can be revisited at any point between her birth (A Good Man Goes To War / Let's Kill Hitler) and her death in Forest Of The Dead. And the chance to see her interact with another Doctor, making good on that premise from her very first episode was an opportunity I have been waiting for, for quite some time.
If anything, it is the Doctor who gets to play the lighter character this time round as this is River shortly after losing her children in The Angels Take Manhattan. We saw the impact the loss of Amy and Rory had on the Doctor in the 2012 Christmas special The Snowmen but this was River raw, angry and ready to throw herself into danger, sealing the mysterious diamond lodged inside the skull of the tyrannical King Hydroflax. And like her very first appearance in Silence In The Library, she calls upon her Doctor (the Eleventh) and gets someone she did was not expecting. But that's okay because she did get to say goodbye to Matt Smith's Doctor after her death in The Name Of The Doctor, such is the complex life of River Song.
Despite callbacks to many episodes of Doctor Who so far, the story was simple and fun. River has been tasked with stealing the diamond and marries the king to get it back (husband 1). She and husband number 2 Ramone (Philip Rhys) have called in the Doctor (husband number 3) to help. It all goes wrong, they are pursued by the headless Hydroflax (more on him shortly) onto a space cruiser destined to crash where attempts to sell the diamond backfire and they are forced to flee.
Yes, it does have elements of earlier stories thrown in but it is stylishly done. The Christmas town of the future is another festive addition in the style of Trenzalore (without the besieging armies) and things take a snazzy turn as the Doctor and River flee with the head of Hydrofax (diamond inside) onto the cruiser where they wine and dine with the most elite criminals in the galaxy. Director Douglas Mackinnon pulls out all the stops to make it another sumptuous , glossy festive special and it allows Alex Kingston to throw in a costume change or two. The Husbands Of Wedding Song it remains unapologetically fun throughout.
Capaldi is, as you would expect, is on fine form too, obviously bemused by River's failure to recognise him (she doesn't know he has been given another set of regenerations), especially when they flee onto the TARDIS. There is a great throwaway line from River that she borrows the time machine when he isn't looking, something I would love to see more of (DVD / bluray extras perhaps?) and yet again she shows her skill over flying the TARDIS, sometimes better than him. But the funniest moment had to be his elaborate, over-dramatic reaction to 'discovering' the TARDIS is bigger on the inside. Pure comic gold from Mr Capaldi!
At times it verges on frustration as she fails to realise her her companion is (and yes he is her companion in her story) - to the point when you think Moffat is starting to drag it out to ridiculousness - but then reels it all back in with her final realisation as they are surrounded by the body of Hydroflax and his face-peeling minions and it is beautiful to watch. She has spent so much of the episode confessing that she loves the Doctor but he doesn't love her, inadvertently opening up to the Doctor, that when they finally look at eachother Kingston and Capaldi deliver an entire performance without even speaking. It is lovely to watch.
As for the supporting cast; Greg Davies is a lot of fun as the very angry Hydroflax and the episode has a lot of fun with his head in a bag gag. He stomps and screams like a full-on tyrant in a suit that many pointed out looked like Big Hero 6's Baymax in the promos. And I don't know if this is what Moffat intended but it really does look and act like Baymax, especially when it sprouts wings and flies. Philip Rhys meanwhile is a bit wasted as the throwaway third husband while I actually found Matt Lucas's Nardole a little irritating. However Robert Curtis delivered a chilling performance as the agent Scratch sent to purchase the diamond; the moment he pulled open his face was a creepy touch and I thoroughly enjoyed the twist that he was in fact a servant of Hydroflax.
Ultimately though, the giant red killer robot suit is something for the kids to enjoy and I have no issue with that. For me, all the intrigue, chase sequences and crashing spaceships were just filler in the interplay between the Doctor and River. Those final scenes are what sold the episode for me; the Doctor showing genuine affection (even if it was not love) for the woman who has been a big part of is life. In the wreckage of the crashed ship he witnesses The Singing Towers of Derrillium and makes the conscious decision to create an event around his wife, making clever use of time to create the restaurant with the view of the towers that will be their final date before the end. Throughout the episode River notes that her diary is almost full; here the Doctor - and Moffat - wraps up her story by giving them that final, heartfelt moment, complete with the gift of the sonic screwdriver that she will take with her to the library.
The episode makes it clear that the Twelfth Doctor is the last Doctor she will meet and as such Moffat also makes it abundantly clear that this is likely to be River Song's last ever story on the show. Unless we see her with earlier Doctors (she is getting her own Big Finish series and a crossover with Paul McGann's Eighth Doctor - I have absolutely no issues with an onscreen special episode between the two as well). But here this is Capaldi and Kingston showing the fondness of numerous shared experiences; he isn't the bumbling, awkward kissing Doctor but a one that demonstrates a clear affection for River Song. And that was enough for me.
The Husbands Of River Song is not going to top the polls for best Christmas special and it is not the best episode for either the Twelfth Doctor or River. But it was a lovely, heartfelt reflection on their relationship and the superfluous distractions of the rest of the plot aside, this is what I will take away from this very festive slice of Doctor Who...