December 25, 2015, 8:00 p.m. (EST), BBC
There’s a sadness to the Moffat-era Doctor Who Christmas specials that belies their casual broadness and often silly or nearly irrelevant holiday flourishes. “A Christmas Carol” is all about loss and it inevitability, the way it can harden us to the world or allow us to recognize its fleeting beauty. “The Doctor, The Widow, and the Wardrobe” (admittedly Moffat’s messiest holiday hour to date) is about the triumph of a mother’s spirit in the face of great tragedy and adversity. “The Snowmen” and “The Time of The Doctor” are explicitly about The Doctor himself facing loss, and “Last Christmas” is about The Doctor and Clara’s deep-seated fear of losing each other. So it is perhaps fitting that “The Husbands of River Song,” though it plays like a broad farce for its first two acts, ultimately becomes about closing the loop on the love story that has been a definitive feature of the Moffat era.
Earlier this year, Moffat commented that he wrote “The Husbands of River Song” thinking that it might be his last-ever Doctor Who script, and honestly, it would work as such, both on a narrative level and for the way it tries to run the gamut of tones this show can do. Yet its also far more interesting than that; on one level, the episode functions as Moffat atoning for some of his previous weaknesses as showrunner, not only calling River to the fore of the story, but giving her an agency over her death that “Silence in the Library”/”The Forest of the Dead” did not. This marks the second time in two episodes that the Twelfth Doctor has implicitly made amends for the Tenth Doctor’s callous treatment of women. The Tenth Doctor wiped Donna’s memory without her permission; The Twelfth deals with Clara as a human and the two agree to a game of memory-wipe roulette to ensure they are on equal footing throughout the process. River has to wrest her agency from the Tenth Doctor in “The Forest of the Dead,” but throughout the Eleventh Doctor era, there is an undercurrent of The Doctor having power over the direction of River Song’s story, and not always in good ways. River was always played as The Doctor’s equal, but the show never seemed to fully believe in the relationship, or in River’s worthiness of her husband.
So it is fitting that “The Husbands of River Song” largely plays like an episode of non-existent spin-off The Adventures of River Song, with The Doctor functioning more as a cross-over guest star than a lead until the episode finally gets to Darillium. River is a bigger, brasher, more amoral character here than she has been in many of her previous appearances, glibly planning murder and casually bumping elbows with genocidal maniacs. Alex Kingston plays the hell out of all of this, including River’s glib dismissal that The Doctor means anything to her. This, too, is canny on the episode’s part for a few reasons. First, it gives us another glimpse into how River shields herself from a life of longing for her love to return. Beyond that, the episode gives us a sense of how River sashays through time and space without The Doctor. For most of the episode’s runtime, this is her story—she doesn’t even know she is sharing it with The Doctor. Finally, though, it allows for a lot of humor that reads as cheap at first but takes on more depth later in the story. Capaldi is frequently petulant at the idea of River with another man, rolling his eyes, commenting sarcastically, and basically pouting like an entitled man-child. Much as I love The Eleventh Doctor, this all harkens back to his frequent annoyance whenever he was not the immediate object of affection and adoration, one of his least appealing qualities. This could seem like a lazy slip by Moffat into old patterns, but it’s not, not really. Because The Doctor gets over himself. He admits his love for River, and his big reveal is played less like a hero moment than a quiet revelation that both he and River have gotten one key thing wrong about themselves in all their time together: The Doctor does love River Song, and more than either of them can usually admit.
All of this is great, extremely clever stuff (and in a less showy way than Moffat’s cleverness usually manifests), but “The Husbands of River Song” also functions as a broad holiday farce, a case of mistaken identity tied up within a zany heist caper. The episode feels more like standard Doctor Who than anything in series nine to me, and this is more of a compliment than it may first appear. While I enjoyed much of the last season, it didn’t sing to me in the way great seasons like series five and series eight have. Something felt off throughout, as if the show was just going through the motions on another arc, another series of adventures, another retread of themes about The Doctor and Clara and their somewhat toxic relationship. “The Husbands of River Song” shakes all of that baggage off with a glib joke about the TARDIS giving The Doctor holographic antlers to cheer him up, and just gets down to telling a fun, funny sci-fi caper with two of Moffat’s most enduring creations: The Twelfth Doctor and River Song.
The pairing should grate more than it does, not because I had any doubts Capaldi and Kingston would be stunning together (and they are), but because I have long thought the show was best served leaving River as an artifact of the Eleventh Doctor era, making the love story one between that Doctor and Professor Song. Of course, that in itself was falling into Moffat’s old trap of treating River as plot point rather than person, and while “The Husbands of River Song” does do some plot work (tying up the loose end of how River gets that sonic screwdriver and finally showing us The Doctor and River on Darillium, even referencing the “First Night”/”Last Night” short to keep The Eleventh Doctor’s plans in canon), but it is more interested in River song as a person than in River as a puzzle box, and more interested in The Doctor letting go of his fear of losing her and finally understanding her point about happily ever after being a moment rather than an eternity. Sure, the idea that a night on Darillium lasts twenty-four years is probably a bit of a cheat (do we really think The Eleventh Doctor wouldn’t have closed that loop himself knowing he would get two and a half decades with River before saying goodbye?), but it’s the sort of thing that is earned by years of this romance being weighed down by tragedy, and by the idea that it will finally get a chance to breathe.
“The Husbands of River Song” goes a long way towards curing that old criticism that Doctor Who never got around to showing us what The Doctor and River are like when they go on wacky adventures together throughout the universe, that we never really saw River as a companion in her own right, more as a guest star who would reference her time as such, but it also play with that, holding us back from seeing The Doctor and River in a traditional adventure as such, since River doesn’t know who he is until the climax. It’s clever on a structural level, and allows Moffat to dodge the idea that those adventures would never be as perfect in execution as they are in reference, but it also goes a long way towards satisfying that need, at least for me (though I was never particularly taken with the idea that not showing more River was a bad thing anyway).
The special doesn’t really work as a Christmas special, but it does work as a broad farce that likely satisfied whole families on it airing last night, and it ends with a whopper. Moffat has since confirmed he isn’t done with the show, quite yet, but I can see how writing the sequence on Darillium would make him think he had done all he needed to for The Doctor, for River, and for Doctor Who. This episode is light as a feather until it isn’t, but then, as I’ve argued, it was never nearly as zippy as it appears on the surface. This is a zany adventure that papers over a smart interrogation by Moffat of his own past flaws, and it ends with an affirmation of both River and The Doctor. The love story gets to have a happy ending, even as we’ve already seen it end in tragedy. The characters live happily ever after, and are torn apart tragically soon after they “meet.” What could be more Moffat than that? What could be more Doctor Who?
- “Is something wrong?” “I think I’m going to need a bigger flow chart.”
- “Calm down. Keep it together. Don’t make puddles.”
- “Well, I basically married the diamond.”
- “Cheer up, get a saw. I’ll kill the lights, you kill the patient.”
- “I wondered why we didn’t share a bathroom…”
- “Sexy.” “It’s not sexy.” “It’s a little bit sexy.” “Why’s everything sexy now?”
- “Sorry. I’ve always wanted to see that done properly.”
- “Does sarcasm help?” “Wouldn’t it be a great universe if it did?”
- “This is where genocide comes to kick back and relax. Do try the fish.”
- “It took me less than a week.” “To fall in love?” “It’s the easiest lie you can tell a man. They’ll automatically believe any story they’re the hero of.”
- “When you love The Doctor, it’s like loving the stars themselves. You don’t expect a sunset to admire you back.”
- “Hello sweetie.”
- “How could you know?” “I’m an archaeologist from the future. I dug you up.”
- “How have you got a new one by the way? Aren’t there rules?” “A thing happened.” “I bet it probably did.”
- “I’ll take the robot, you drive.” “Okay.” “Oh. Don’t stop for strangers.” “Look who’s talking.”
- “Get back in the TARDIS. This is my job!” “This is my job!” “I’ve been doing it longer.” “I do it better.” “River, nothing on this ship, not one living thing is worth you.” “Or you.”
- “Not everything can be avoided. Not forever.”
- “Times end, River. Because they have to. Because there’s no such thing as happy ever after. It’s just a lie we tell ourselves because the truth is so hard.”
This is a zany adventure that papers over a smart interrogation by Moffat of his own past flaws, and it ends with an affirmation of both River and The Doctor.