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Doctor Who 9.13 Review – ‘The Husbands of River Song’

December 26, 2015 | Posted by Jeremy Thomas
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Doctor Who 9.13 Review – ‘The Husbands of River Song’  

[Warning: spoilers abound for those who have not seen Friday’s episode of Doctor Who.]

Many aspects of Steven Moffat’s tenure as the creative mind behind Doctor Who have been controversial, but perhaps none more so than the creation of River Song. The sometime partner in crime (and in love) of the Doctor made her first appearance in the Moffat-penned classic “Silence of the Library” and has been dividing Whovians ever since, although most pointedly after the reveal in Series Six that she’s the daughter of Amy and Rory. Generally, it can be found that whether people are primarily fans or critics of Moffat’s run on the show falls in line with their opinion of Alex Kingston’s mostly human/slightly Time Lord archaeologist/thief and whenever her name comes up among Who fans, arguments are sure to ensue for a variety of reasons.

That being the case, it’s not surprising that when the title of the Christmas special was announced to be “The Husbands of River Song,” fan reaction was a bit divided. There was a contingent (which, for full disclosure, I count myself among) who were happy to see Kingston return to the show after the chance of further River adventures were considered a bit uncertain; even Kingston said she was surprised to be returning. But for many, the fact that the Christmas specials tend to be a bit lacking in comparison to the rest of the show was compounded by dread at the thought of more “River nonsense.” For better or worse, this episode gives fans pretty much exactly what they were expecting no matter what side of this particular fence that they’re on.

“The Husbands of River Song” is perhaps one of the least overtly holiday-themed Christmas specials in a while, particularly following deeply festive past examples like “Last Christmas” and 2012’s “The Snowmen.” Even “The Time of the Doctor,” which was exceedingly action-packed and served as Matt Smith’s farewell, had a host of Christmas references throughout. We have a few nods to the holiday here, but it’s basically all at the start with the snow, the Doctor’s TARDIS-supplied antlers and the awesome warning sign outside the TARDIS that “Carol singers will be criticized.”

Once that’s all done away with, we move into an episode that really feels like it could have taken place during the series proper. And there’s something nice about that. I enjoy the Doctor’s forays into the holiday season as much as anyone, but things got as Christmas-y as they could last year and it was probably a wise move to ease up on that for a bit of variety. So instead of holiday alien invasions or evil snowmen or dream Santas, “Husbands” instead plants the Doctor in a much more adventure-esque situation: one of Doctor Song’s get-rich schemes.

And really, there’s not a lot to the adventure side of the plot. It’s light-hearted and rollicking adventure, like something out of an old sci-fi serial — which makes since, as Doctor Who is in fact an old sci-fi serial. There’s a whole mess about a diamond and a despotic warlord and people losing their heads and such, but the seriousness and stakes are downplayed in favor of humor. The tyrannical king is a buffoon without a body, spending much of his time in a bag and played for laughs. The beheadings all work out fine in the end, with our two sympathetic supporting characters ultimately sharing the robotic body as employees of a very important restaurant. And the diamond is a MacGuffin in the truest sense of the word, a goal for River that is less important as an object than it is as a plot device to bring the Doctor and his wife together. The main plot is entertainingly diverting, and that’s all it has to be.

For my part, I was hopeful to see Alex Kingston return to see how her chemistry and comic timing with Peter Capaldi is, and it just as sharp as I’d hoped. I loved Eleven’s interactions with River; their banter in the midst of the Silence-related climax of “Day of the Moon” is a highlight moment for me. But Capaldi is a very different Doctor than Matt Smith and one that almost seems an even better fit for River, particularly when the two get to flying back and forth with witticisms. It’s another testament to Kingston and Capaldi’s talents that they’re able to fall so easily into the Doctor/River pattern and yet offer something a little bit different in that rhythm.

I tend to look at the Doctor’s interactions with characters across regenerations like cover songs of the original interactions. Sometimes the covers completely surpass the originals, like Rose and Ten vs. Rose and Nine or Clara and Twelve vs. Clara and Eleven. Other times it’s an interesting new permutation but doesn’t quite hold up to the original, such as Sarah Jane’s interactions with Ten and Eleven in comparison to her run in the original series with Three and Four. River’s song (feel free to blast me for that pun) has now been in three keys; the overture of Ten, the symphony of Eleven and what appears to be the coda of Twelve. I promise, that’s all the further I’m stretching out that poor, tortured metaphor; the point is that we’ve seen three different interactions between River and the Doctor and they’ve all had their charms.

What’s so interesting about this episode is the way circumstance allows the Doctor to hold back who he is, so he can see River when she’s not putting on a show just for him. As much as I’ve enjoyed the relationship between these two characters, there’s always been a niggling of frustration about them because, for lack of a better term, it’s always about the foreplay. It’s all witty banter and flirting; even in their most romantic moments it’s never quite felt like a fully realized relationship. But that makes logical sense, as the story of their relationship makes a truly fulfilled relationship impossible. They’re always destined to be two ships passing in the night, as mixed up in each other’s timestreams as they are. Any relationship where you have to compare notes about where you’re at isn’t one that you can really call “realized.”

Critics of the show will point this out as an excuse for lazy writing; the whole set-up allows Moffat to be oh-so-whimsical in popping River in and out whenever he wants. And there may well be some truth to that. But whatever the reason, it works because Kingston and the various portrayers of the Doctor have always managed to find that groove with the two characters. There’s true affection there, but it’s not quite trust for many obvious reasons and that gives this episode a rare opportunity for the Doctor to get past his lover’s defenses and see what really there.

There are moments of this where the episode may go astray for most. It’s a little irritating for those of us who defend River to see her basically admit that her entire persona is defined by the Doctor. Even if you don’t cotton to the criticism that Moffat doesn’t write women well — a criticism he’s done a good job counteracting the last two seasons’ worth of Clara — there’s always been something great about how River matches up with the Doctor well. She doesn’t mold her own beliefs to his and he accepts that, unlike the way he reacts to many others. Her confession in front of Hydroflax seems to undo some of that, but I accept it thanks to a little bit slipped in there: the revelation that for her, this is right after the loss of her parents in Manhattan. In that instance, it makes sense that she’s clinging to the one thing she has left knowing that she’ll never see Amy and Rory again. It’s still a bit head-cocking, but I get it.

The big question here is whether we’ve seen the last of River Song. I don’t think so; I think that as long as Moffat’s around, we’ll always have a good chance of seeing Doctor Song return somehow. And the somewhat ambiguous nature of their conversation at the end does leave it somewhat open. But if this is the end, it’s a good place to stop. River has pretty much come full circle and it may even be best for the Doctor to shed that last vestige of his Eleventh incarnation. They get a great send-off here, complete with a final night that lasts twenty-four years. Maybe we’ll see her again, but if not I feel like her final moments on the show were quite satisfying.

Some Final Thoughts:

• River code-named the Doctor “Damsel.” Because of course she would.

• “I don’t like being sure about things. One minute you’re sure, the next everyone turns into lizards and a piano falls on you.”

• The Doctor pretending to be shocked by the TARDIS being bigger on the inside is fantastic. It’s about time somewhat finally managed to do it right, after all.

• “Are you thinking? Stop it, you’re a man. That looks weird!”

• This is it for Doctor Who until series ten comes around, which is likely late next year. Thanks for watching along with me and in the meantime, keep your sonic sunglasses, screwdrivers and trowels properly calibrated. Just in case.

The final score: review Very Good
The 411
"The Husbands of River Song" provides what may be a very proper send-off to Alex Kingston's adventuring thief/archaeologist. And if it's not that's fine too, but Steven Moffat pens another solid Christmas entry that allows Capaldi and Kingston to bounce their characters off of each other at least once. It may fall a little short of the thematic depth of last year's "Last Christmas" or the epic stakes of "The Day of the Doctor" two years back, but it's still a fulfilling coda to series nine.

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Doctor Who, Jeremy Thomas