One of the great blessings of the Doctor Who revival has been its bevy of Christmas specials. Such a thing would have been unthinkable during the classic series, where the show had to scrounge for even a twentieth-anniversary special. Then, just as the first series of the revival started debuting, we were told that instead of a full new season of Doctor Who, we were going to get that, and an extra episode to show around Christmas — more new Doctor Who than we’d seen since 1980.
And it’s interesting to see how the producers have used these specials. They have filled in key parts of the canon, including David Tennant’s arrival and departure. They even acted as a second debut story for Clara Oswald. For the most part, however, they’ve been stand-alone stories somewhat separate from the season arcs around them. They tend to be lighter-weight and more action-oriented, but not without their depth or their charms.
The Husbands of River Song caps off a very strong season where Peter Capaldi’s Doctor hit his stride, and we said goodbye to Clara Oswald. We saw some of the best episodes of the series this past year, and it left the Doctor a sad and lonesome man. That season was going to be a challenge for him to follow. There was potential here to show the Doctor moving on, and coping with the mortality of those around him. However, while what was produced was enjoyable to watch, it was perhaps not as satisfying as it could have been.
A full spoilery review follows after the break.
The TARDIS arrives on the human colony of Mendorax Dellora on Christmas Day, 5343, and the TARDIS decides to do some shenanigans (putting holographic projections of reindeer antlers on his head).
As an aside, that’s a relationship that we should see more of with Peter Capaldi at the helm. The TARDIS (thinking Idris) here, should be a bit more mischievous around him, I think, not adverse to playing a prank or two. Capaldi plays an excellent straight-man.
But in this episode, Capaldi also gets to lighten up, and that’s important and welcome. Just as he opens the door to ask a passer-by about his festive reindeer antlers, a young man named Nardole meets him and asks if he’s a surgeon and, if so, if he could come as there’s a medical emergency. The Doctor, not having anything better to do, tags along, and is met at a flying saucer by River Song herself.
But there’s a problem: River doesn’t recognize her husband, as he doesn’t have one of the eleven faces seen in her spotters’ guide. It may also have been some time since she last saw the Doctor, and she’s lived a live where she’s very interested in keeping quiet her identity of River Song.
Inside the spaceship is the cruel multi-planetary dictator and maniacal cyborg King Hydroflax, whom River has married, primarily for the diamond that’s been lodged in the brain. With billions of Hydroflax’s subjects watching on live television (I love the collective pause of those billions on television when the Doctor makes a bad joke at Hydroflax’s expense), the Doctor (inadvertently taking the place of a “surgeon” that River had roped into her heist) is supposed to operate on Hydroflax’s head to remove said diamond and, possibly-or-maybe-not, kill said dictator.
River walks a bit of a moral tightrope throughout the story. She married a dictator for his famous diamond. She seems to fully intend to murder him. She pretends not to give a care about any of her questionable decisions… except for when she lets the veil slip, and lets out a lengthy rant about the victims that Hydroflax has plundered. Unfortunately, that rant is later undercut by her willingness to borrow the TARDIS and travel to a cruiseship full of genocide-mongers to sell said diamond to the highest bidder.
Hydroflax himself provides the main threat and whacky special effect, here. He is a cyborg and a duel creature. While the blusterous head of Hydroflax occupies River and the Doctor’s bag, the cyborg body (which looks like an evil Baymax from Big Hero 6) is quite capable of operating on its own and making (and communicating) decisions regarding its long-term survival. He can borrow other people’s heads as well — much to the chagrin of Nardole and Flemming — one of River’s co-conspirators who is also married to the woman.
Peter Capaldi’s Doctor is both bemused and frustrated by River’s inability to recognize him as the Doctor. And this element is both one of the best parts of the story, but also a bit of a missed opportunity. The Doctor doesn’t really have a chance to reflect on whether he should be bemused or frustrated over River, here. Possibly Moffat took one look at the situation, and could come up with no credible way that the Doctor would want to maintain his anonymity. In terms of character, I think writer Steven Moffat made the right choice: River is too important to the Doctor to be at all glad to have the woman not recognize him.
Unfortunately, this leads to the episode’s major problem, because as soon as the Doctor encounters the issue of River not knowing him, and decides that he needs to take care of it, the coincidences and the flat-out unwillingness of River to realize the obvious that has to take place in order to maintain the deception starts to wear a little thin. There are plenty of painfully obvious clues about the Doctor’s true identity, in spite of Peter Capaldi’s wonderful sequence where he mimes his companions’ awe of being in the TARDIS for the first time. Ignoring how quickly the Doctor displays an understanding of how the TARDIS works is several steps too far in maintaining the deception, and it makes River look stupid.
It does pay off, though, in a scene that shows the layers of River — albeit in broad strokes. Again, when the villains come up with a plan to use River as bait to attract the Doctor and take his head, her cool veneer vanishes, and she rants on about how the Doctor couldn’t possibly care about her, if he had any sense in his thousands-year-old body, only to have the clue kick in. The banter between Capaldi’s Doctor and Kingston’s River here is truly a delight, and I wish we had more of it.
But throughout the episode, we are presented with a River in broad strokes — almost a caricature of the character we’ve come to know. She’s older and wiser and plays a part — except when she isn’t. There isn’t too much nuance between the two poles, and I kind of which there had been. I think that if there had, the final fifteen minutes would have even more resonance.
Finally, the adventure is set aside, and River and the Doctor are able to really talk and, possibly for the first time, truly come to grips with their relationship. It meshes nicely with the clues provided in the first River-Doctory story, Silence in the Library and Forest of the Dead. And it feels like a proper good-bye… although, technically, River already had that good-bye, when she kissed Matt Smith’s Doctor near the end of The Name of the Doctor. She was post-Library, then.
But perhaps this is more for the Doctor’s benefit than for River. Matt Smith had too much to worry about to really give his good-bye to River the weight it perhaps deserved internally. With Capaldi’s Doctor finally deciding to bring about that moment by the Singing Towers, and giving River her own sonic screwdriver (as seen in Silence in the Library), he makes the conscious decision to close the circle. Future meetings between the Doctor and River might still be possible (and there are many who think that Tasha Lem is a future incarnation of River, who managed to get out of the Library), but closing the circle means closure, and the Doctor is personally closing the chapter he’s had with his River.
In that respect, I greatly appreciate The Husbands of River Song for drawing a proper curtain on this remarkable chapter of the Doctor’s life. It wasn’t perfect. I would have liked perhaps a slightly more explicit connection between his closure with River and his loss of Clara, but the episode did cross a lot of t’s and dot a lot of i’s. Really and truly, now, nearly all of the dangling plot threads of the past ten years are resolved. Moffat has a true blank slate to start on with season 10, and if reports are correct, he is apparently actively working towards arranging for his successor to come on board the show. Honestly, there can be no better gift to give the next guy than a completely fresh start.