I confess that I had a bad feeling about this year’s Doctor Who Christmas special as soon as I heard that noted comedians Matt Lucas and Greg Davies were among the main guest stars, and that one of the characters was King Hydroflax. This had all the hallmarks of the show lurching firmly into ‘silly’ territory, the kind of thing that I don’t take to at all well. My only hope was that the promised return of the divine Alex Kingston as the inimitable River Song would counter the potential downsides.
Even with that hope in mind, my first viewing of “The Husbands of River Song” did not go well. It really was very, very silly indeed to the point of being a wacky cartoon caper (there’s even a comedy ‘whoosh’ sound effect when River throws a head-in-a-bag to the Doctor at one point), and just to make matters worse there’s a heavy added layer of Douglas Adams humour to the whole thing – the kind of surreal shenanigans that only Adams himself could ever really pull off and that everyone else is best advised to stay well away from.
The resulting confection managed to hit all the wrong buttons for me, and in entirely the wrong order. To make matters worse, I even dozed off in the middle – although admittedly, this was at least as much to do with sinking into a food coma after Christmas dinner as it was a justified critical verdict on the show.
Actually, dozing off ended up being the saving grace of the episode, because I realised that I had to rewatch it again from start to finish at a less overfed point of the holiday weekend. And this time I decided to pretty much ignore all the elements that constituted the alleged ‘main story’ and concentrate instead on just the exchanges between the Doctor and River while allowing the rest of the hour to be rendered as just mildly distracting noises off. I did so in the hope that filtering out all the distracting noise intended for the kids might make the episode somewhat more successful for me. And you know what? It absolutely did.
I’m a big fan of River Song and of Alex Kingston and always love seeing her return to the show – and this time was no exception. I have always found it amazing that a character originally created for a one-off 2008 guest appearance opposite David Tennant’s Doctor should then have so successfully made the transition to a recurring role alongside the entirely different 11th Doctor played by Matt Smith; even more remarkable is confirmation that if anything, the character now finds her best, true home seven years later alongside Peter Capaldi. There’s just something so right about this pairing that it feels like this was always what it was really intended to be, and that Tennant and Smith were merely placeholders in the relationship waiting for the real deal to arrive and pick up the mantle.
It should go entirely without saying at this point that Capaldi is genuinely brilliant. However, after a season 9 that ended with unprecedented levels of intense emotional drama, what “The Husbands of River Song” does successfully remind us is that he is equally as brilliant at the comedy side of things and that moreover he can switch from one to the other in the blink of an eye while making the blend a seamless one. We never once feel that the Doctor is a composite character of two different performances, it’s simply one perfectly integrated whole. Against such acting of the highest order, Kingston is quite able to raise her already impressive game even higher to match him all the way, and the result is that you get the very best out of both performers as they spark beautifully off each other.
Steven Moffat’s script gives them both plenty to work with. There’s no point in bringing back River Song just to do the same old thing all over again, so here she’s given a whole new raison d’être compared to all her past appearances: for once, for most of this episode she’s unaware that the person standing opposite her is her one-time Time Lord husband at all. As a result, we – and the Doctor – get to see what Professor Song is like when he’s not actually around and it’s a more ruthless guise for the character than we usually get to witness. The whole thing is played like a classic slapstick Hollywood film of the 30s (or maybe one of those concealed identity comedies from Shakespeare) and the episode generates considerable material for everyone to work with as a result. The Doctor’s reactions to River’s obliviousness are priceless, but at the same time also allow Capaldi to play with some real depth and warmth: the fact that River isn’t looking means that the Doctor is conversely able to show his true feelings toward her more than he usually would.
While the sound and idiotic fury of the ‘main plot’ tends to dominate for the first 40 minutes of the hour-long special, there’s still considerable delight to be had from Capaldi and Kingston bouncing off each other, with several classic scenes: “I think I’m going to need a bigger flowchart” to explain River’s storyline to date made me laugh out loud, while River revealing that she often borrowed the Tardis when the Doctor wasn’t in – and without him ever suspecting – was a delight. The scene in which the Doctor gets to act out his feigned surprise at the Tardis being bigger on the inside than on the outside (to show ‘how it should be done’) is unquestionably a true comedic gem of the year, made only better by the cherry on top when he’s startled to discover that River has found a concealed drinks cabinet in a console room roundel that he himself never knew anything about.
But really, it’s only when the caper about the priceless Halassi Androvar diamond has run its course does the episode really free itself from the cartoon trappings and deliver a genuinely special 15 minute coda. River is surprisingly (and to be honest a little annoyingly) slow to realise just who the faux surgeon is when normally she would be much quicker-witted; but the scene in which the realisation is finally made, following River’s outpouring of her feelings about the Doctor little realising he’s standing alongside her, is undoubtedly well worth waiting for and was for me the absolute highlight of the episode. “Hello, sweetie” has never sounded better, or been more poignant, than when uttered here by Capaldi.
After this, it seems very clear that the entire point of doing a River Song story at this point is to provide the character with a final swan song in the television show, a far more fitting last appearance than her confusing, frustrating turn as a telepathic artificial construct in “The Name of the Doctor” would have been. All the events of this story seem to have been retroactively engineered to fulfil a sequence of dialogue from River Song’s first appearance in “The Silence of the Library”/”Forest of the Dead” and Moffat very carefully delivers on everything that was said back then, seven years ago:
The last time I saw you, you turned up on my doorstep with a new haircut and a suit. You took me to Darillium to see the Singing Towers. What a night that was; the towers sang, and you cried. You wouldn’t tell me why, but I suppose you knew it was my time … You even gave me your screwdriver – that should have been a clue.
Even River’s comments to the Doctor in that story about him appearing so very young in that first encounter make sense, seeing how many years have passed for the Doctor during his various adventures in the meantime not least the billions of years that were spent in “Heaven Sent”. By the end of the Christmas special, neither River nor the audience are left in any doubt that there will never be any further on-screen adventures for the pair: the fact that River didn’t recognise the 12th Doctor or had even been aware that there were any other incarnations available beyond Matt Smith neatly constructs a fiendishly perfect Gordian knot that means they can never meet again after this – not before the fateful events in the Library that we’ve already been party to.
The one possible flaw in this carefully constructed ointment is that Moffat, Capaldi and Kingston might just have done their jobs here a little too well. Seeing how exquisitely perfect the two actors are together makes it impossible not to want to see them reunited and back together again at some point down the line. Maybe the BBC could option the rights to remake the classic The Thin Man serials and cast Capaldi and Kingston as Nick and Nora Charles? I would watch that in two heartbeats. Maybe Moffat could make that revival his next project when he moves on from Doctor Who, since it would be a return to his bantering heyday in the likes of The Press Gang and Coupling.
In the meantime, “The Husbands of River Song” made for a lovely curtain call to one of the show’s best-loved and most successful recurring characters. As a result I can even forgive it the silliness of the main story, which – while clearly not to my own personal taste as is surely clear to everyone reading by now – was undoubtedly a good match for the festive season. In fact this was probably one of the better judged Christmas specials that Doctor Who has put together in the past decade, in many ways far better suited to Christmas Day than last year’s “Last Christmas” in being the sort of suitably fun fare to lay before the entire family who don’t want to be bothered by anything too deep or serious while digesting the turkey.
Personally I’d take the convoluted, dark “Last Christmas” over the cartoon antics of “The Husbands of Rover Song” any day, but Doctor Who isn’t about me – at least, not always! Having spent much of the last few months saying that the series has to recover its sense of fun and adventure, and drop some of the intricately interconnected navel-gazing for a while, it would be a bit rich of me to now complain when the series does exactly that only to find it’s not really my sort of thing after all. Be careful what you wish for, in other words.
More importantly the Christmas special plays a key transitionary role in the series’ history. It puts a firm line under the intense and draining events of “Heaven Sent” and “Hell Bound” and indicates that there will be no lasting mourning for the departure of the Doctor’s most recent companion. Indeed, it’s noticeable that Clara’s name isn’t mentioned in the Christmas special even once. While the Doctor appears to be in need of some general cheering up (hence the holographic reindeer antlers in the opening scene before the delightfully festively-themed opening credits) it’s clear that the Doctor is not dwelling on recent events – he even has one moment of just losing it and laughing with complete hysterical abandon while lying in the snow alongside River.
It’s this sense of moving on that comes over most palpably at the end of the 60 minutes. Clara is gone and forgotten (by the Doctor at least – not by the fans), and now River has also been consigned to history. It seems a deliberate move by Moffat to cut key ties to the past and allow the show to set off in a completely new direction when the series returns in 2016. I think it’s about time, although there’s a certain amount of nervousness for us all as a result – again, that mantra of ‘be careful what you wish for’ comes to mind. But a genuinely fresh start for the series could nonetheless be just what the Doctor ordered for the new year.
Rating: ★ ★ 1/2
The 2015 Doctor Who Christmas special and the most recent episodes from Doctor Who season 9 are available on the BBC iPlayer. The Christmas special is available on DVD and Blu-ray from January 25 2016, and it will also feature in the complete season 9 boxset that will be released on March 7 2016.