Doctor Who – 2015 Christmas Special
“The Husbands of River Song”
Merry Christmas everyone. Christmas Day means many things to people and one of those is the annual Doctor Who Christmas Special. This episode marks the Peter Capaldi incarnation meeting recurring character River Song (Alex Kingston) for the very first time.
I mentioned in my review of the special from last year that I think the Christmas Special should be a largely disposable episode. It should deliver some festive fun but not intrude on the show as a whole. Many of these specials have involved regenerations and other major plot details so I felt that last year was quite refreshing in that it was a standalone story without much impact on the show as a whole. This episode mostly keeps to itself but there’s a coda that ties back into previous stories that I will go into a bit later.
The basic story here is that the Doctor finds himself in the company of River Song once again but she has no idea who he is because she has never encountered the Peter Capaldi version before. She knows the other twelve faces so doesn’t expect a new one. There’s also a mix-up when he is mistaken for the surgeon that she hired to do a job for her and hilarity ensues…at least in theory.
River has hired this surgeon to remove the head of an Galactic Tyrant named King Hydroflax (Greg Davies) so that she can get access to a precious diamond for her own gain. It turns out that he’s a cyborg and removing the head isn’t all that fatal for him.
There’s not much to say about King Hydroflax other than he’s cartoonishly evil and there’s an obvious dig at the British Monarchy in the Doctor’s rant about him not deserving support when he does nothing to acknowledge the working man. It was pretty on the nose but an amusing scene to include in an episode that airs on the same day the Queen addresses the nation.
The story isn’t all that interesting or important as it is basically a bit of a romp and it manages to be a fairly entertaining one for the most part. Everything moves quickly through the various locations and there’s plenty of banter that might be considered witty to move things along.
Much of your enjoyment of this episode will hinge on how much you like River Song. I have always found the character immensely irritating so I find her appearances to be something of a chore. She has moments that are excellent and Alex Kingston is an incredibly talented actress but the character bugs me. Steven Moffat writes a number of his characters like this which makes me think that he wants them to be endearing. Sadly I don’t think this so I found River as irritating as ever.
She’s pretty much up to her old tricks with a sarcastic comment for everything and always having a few tricks up her sleeve. I liked how the episode plays with the Doctor knowing who she is without her knowing who he is. He constantly drops clues in the hope that she will realise herself and has fun with the fact that she doesn’t recognise him. Seeing him ham up his fake surprise at the TARDIS being bigger on the inside was pretty funny but I found it to be a little overdone. Despite that, Capaldi managed to sell this really well along with the other comedy parts of the episode. It’s good to see his Doctor cutting loose and having a little fun after a really dark season. It’s a bit jarring to see him in a lighter story after the intensity of the previous episodes but speaks to the versatility of Doctor Who as a show that episodes like this can happen without feeling overly out of place.
I don’t find River completely intolerable and think she works better with Peter Capaldi’s Doctor than she ever did with Matt Smith’s incarnation. It might have something to do with the fact that they are much closer in physical age that it seems much more natural for them to interact. Capaldi puts across genuine affection and they made an effective double act when they were trying to escape the crashing ship.
Arguably River’s story was fairly complete by her last appearance so what would be the point in having her appear again? The coda fills in what more or less holds up as the final gap in her connection to the Doctor. As far as I’m concerned there are plenty of gaps but that’s another story and for the purposes of this appearance that final gap is the time they spend together before he sends her off to her end.
It was mentioned in her first appearance that he must have known when she would go to her death and we see that play out here. She knows of the legend around their last date and the fact that he keeps cancelling on the location allows her to fill in the blanks.
Their conversation in this scene was really well put together and wonderfully acted by both Alex Kingston and Peter Capaldi. There was a quiet melancholy to the whole thing as the Doctor knew what would happen after this so does everything he can to make sure it’s as perfect as it can be. He even tries to compliment her appearance despite the fact that he is incapable of seeing humans that way. It’s similar to his conversation with Clara last year where he points out that he didn’t notice that she had grown old.
The whole idea of the diary being a particular length because a time traveler would know exactly how long a book someone would need was an interesting one as well. River is more than intelligent enough to realise what that means and knows that she’s getting towards the end of it which terrifies her. She appeals desperately for the Doctor to pull a solution from nowhere and save the day but he insists that this isn’t always possible. Things end and sometimes that can’t be avoided. I get the impression that she knows this as well as he does but the fear of death would cause her to cling to hope even though it’s irrational. It’s good to see some vulnerability from her rather than the constant overconfidence we often get with this character.
I found the subtext of this scene really interesting. The Singing Towers were representative of the relationship between the Doctor and River. The Doctor is visibly moved by the music made by the towers and knows the explanation for the music being made. The Doctor understands why they make music but nobody else does which ties into the fact that nobody else can understand him but he is as reliable as they are, pointing out that they are there when others need him the most just as he is. River tells the Doctor that she loves the towers but can’t expect them to love her back which is a thinly veiled declaration of her own feelings for the Doctor. She even compares him to a monolith which is harsh but appropriate. This was a nice summation of their complex relationship.
I’d say that with this scene the story of the connection between the Doctor and River Song is over as there is nothing more to be mined from it. If this is to be their final moments that we will see then it’s a good way to finish this off. We have now seen the final link in the chain before she gets to the point that the Doctor first meets her. This episode is almost a victory lap for River and the show should definitely leave it at that after this episode.
A mostly entertaining yet sometimes irritating Christmas episode that manages to be a mostly disposable romp.
Your enjoyment of this episode will mostly hinge on whether you like River Song or not. I have always found the character irritating so sitting through her appearances will always be something of a chore for me but if you like River then she’s pretty much what you would expect from the character.
I like how the episode had the Doctor enjoy knowing who River is without her knowing who he is. His constant hints to his identity were amusing and his fake shock at the TARDIS being bigger on the inside was a bit overdone but Capaldi managed to sell it well enough. It was refreshing to see Capaldi stretch his comedy muscles and have the show take a lighter tone after a really dark season.
I don’t find her completely intolerable and I think that Alex Kingston works so much better with Peter Capaldi than she ever did with Matt Smith. It might have something to do with the fact that the actors are much closer in physical age so it feels more natural. They made a fun double act during the sequence of the ship crashing.
The coda of the episode reveals that this is just before she goes onto her death that we see in her first appearance. It would seem that this shows the last link in the chain of the story of their connection and allows River to have something of a victory lap. River knowing about her impending death due to the diary running out and appealing for a miracle was a nice touch as it shows she isn’t always overconfident. It’s nice to see some vulnerability from the character.
I liked the subtext of the scene as the mystery of the Singing Towers represents their relationship and the difficulty people have understanding the Doctor. It’s a nice comparison and works really well.
There’s a melancholy to this scene that is played wonderfully by both of the actors as the Doctor points out that things have to end sometime. This is a good way to end their story and definitely should be left at this. There’s nothing more to be mined from their story at this point.