Doctor Who Recap: River Song is Coming to Town

Alex Kingston as River Song. Photo: Simon Ridgway/BBC America
Doctor Who
Doctor Who
Episode Title
The Husbands of River Song
Editor’s Rating

The first time I watched Doctor Who's holiday offering, it didn't go swimmingly. It was late and I was tired and cranky, and probably not in the mood for festive antics. The whole thing seemed loud and rather aimless, and at nearly 60 minutes (like all the holiday specials are), stretched too thin for the premise. There's always a very real danger of viewers being in similar frames of mind on Christmas night, because Christmas is an unpredictable holiday.

However, I gave it another spin a night later with a brighter outlook, in the company of my wife, and the entire affair felt a delightfully fun romp with some lovely emotional resonance in the third act. It's Christmas. It's Doctor Who. What more do you need? As one of my oldest and dearest Whovian pals Denise recently declared, after experiencing the devastating three-part season nine finale, "We need a light episode."

Still, it wouldn't hurt to have had some more time in between those emotionally turbulent installments and this caper. Those events are fresh and crisp in our memories, but the Doctor is able to move on from Clara's departure with far greater ease than we can. The key, I think, to appreciating "The Husbands of River Song" is to accept that it's less an episode of Doctor Who, and more a one-time spin-off starring River, which happens to include the Doctor.

Admittedly, though, this seems preposterous even by River standards: She married the megalomaniacal cyborg King Hydroflax (Greg Davies, The Inbetweeners) to get at a precious diamond that allegedly belongs to a culture somewhere else in the vast Whoniverse. The only problem? The gem is lodged inside the king's head. Hydroflax is a boorish warmonger worshipped by far too large a proportion of the universe. This guy brings to mind any number of the Republican candidates for president, and would comfortably fit on the same stage as those egotistical blowhards.

Enter the Doctor, mistaken for a surgeon by River's lackey, Nardole (the instantly funny Matt Lucas). For the first two acts, River is oblivious to the true identity of this well dressed Scotsman. The narrative provides a solid reasoning for her obtuseness: She's aware of the finite nature of the Doctor's life cycle, and to her knowledge, Smitty was his final face. However, she's unaware of all that went down on Trenzalore — if only we viewers were so lucky — and she doesn't know about his new life cycle. (Which, it's worth noting, is a massive development the series continues to only lightly and off-handedly address.) The Doctor is somewhat aghast and yet highly amused by her failure to recognize him. He lets it slide, as it allows him to observe her less-than-honorable behavior when he's not around. Beyond being an intergalactic bigamist, she seemingly has no problem selling this artifact to the highest bidder — in one very funny scene, the pair literally improvise an auction as a distraction.

There's much nonsense on display here; the special has an absurd Douglas Adams sensibility. Yet for an episode we'll all deem lightly, we're still dealing with multiple beheadings, a psychotic cyborg body, and whatever that revolting maneuver is the character Scratch (Robert Curtis) does. You'd have to search far and wide through the bowels of Doctor Who to find something as gross as splitting your own head own open to retrieve a wad of money. Maybe this is precisely why we tune in to Doctor Who on Christmas — to top off all the light with a little darkness. This particular Christmas special is often a kind of theatre of the grotesque, and as of late, Moffat has seemingly delighted in pushing the boundaries on December 25.

At the close of the second act, the situation involving the cyborg body, the shouting king, the priceless diamond, and the true identity of the surgeon all come to, ahem, a head. The starliner in which act two largely takes place is doomed. River knows as much from a book published in the far future entitled History's Finest Exploding Restaurants: The Best Food for Free — a great holiday gift for your favorite time traveler! A meteor strike comes along, instantly altering the entire episode by killing off most of the characters. It's a welcome deus ex machina, as we we don't have to deal with them anymore and can get on to what really matters.

When the TARDIS doors open, we see a place we've heard of, but never been to: The Singing Towers of Darillium, purported to be the location of the Doctor and River's last night together. This was all established way back in "Forest of the Dead" in 2008, and surely by design, the "The Husbands of River Song" often feels like an inverse of the dynamic of the "Silence in the Library" two-parter, which introduced her character so many years ago. If all of that seems too distant, the Doctor gifts River with her recognizably unique sonic screwdriver featured prominently in the Library.

If I've spoken of River in not entirely glowing terms here, that's because there have been numerous occasions over the years where my patience was tested by her character. The truth is I bear no ill will toward River, and I was perfectly happy to see her return this holiday season. Her familiar presence at this juncture is probably more welcome than some of us would care to admit. If you are a fan of River Song — and there are plenty of you out there — this must have been a delight, as Alex Kingston radiantly shines. She's front and center throughout, with the Doctor effectively serving as her witty companion.

It's also melancholy, though, because once again this seems to be the end for the character. If Moffat wants to screw with his own continuity, he'll find a way, but this is supposed to be the couple's last night together, even if that night lasts 24 years. The holdover from the season finale is the Doctor's assertion that "Not everything can be avoided — not forever." Though the specifics of Clara are a blur, his awareness of how far he went to save her appear crystal clear. He's seeing this ending with more clarity than he could the previous one, and it's apparent exactlyhow much of an effect the journey to save Clara had on him. It's almost as if the Doctor can't wait to end his relationship with River just to prove to himself that he can do it. Even though the bulk of "Husbands" feels unrelated to the season that came before it, there's still a tiny reminder that the reset button has not been pressed, and that the Doctor has changed a little bit more. It's an appropriate coda to a stellar season, a coda with an entirely appropriate coda of its own.

Odds and Ends

  • An unquestionably great moment: River's deliriously impassioned speech about what it means to love the Doctor, the truth of his identity finally dawning across her face, and the sly look on Peter Capaldi coupled with him uttering "Hello sweetie." She must have felt like a real idiot in that moment, because few Doctors instantly scream "I'm the Doctor!" with as much clarity as Capaldi.
  • Ace bits: The sign on the TARDIS warning carol singers; the Doctor's irritation with River over finding things sexy; the scene where the Doctor has a good, long laugh, which he desperately needed; the Doctor's faux speech about the TARDIS interior was priceless — "Finally, it's my go!"; whatever that magic spray was that instantly provided River new duds; "I'm having an irritable bowel"; the dry bar in the TARDIS; the brief appearance of a fez in River's possession; "I think I'm going to need a bigger flow chart"; the manner in which the Doctor has the restaurant built and makes Christmas reservations.
  • As the insect-like Flemming paged through River's diary, he noted that her most recent encounter with the Doctor was in Manhattan, telling us where in River's timeline these events occur (though Moffat previously confirmed as much a few weeks ago).
  • River: "Does sarcasm help?"
    The Doctor: "Wouldn't it be a great universe if it did?"
  • Naff bits: The TARDIS's inability to take off because the head was inside and the body wasn't is seriously dodgy logic, especially given that it was cyborg; the money ball taking out Hydroflax's body was so convenient — as not only a means of taking out the body, but also of denying River her fortune; and no Joni Mitchell's "River"!
  • This wasn't the first time in the Doctor's lives that someone wanted to decapitate and use his head. See: "The Brain of Morbius." Morbius to Tom Baker: "What a magnificent head!"
  • Hydroflax's line "Come to me, my body" is lifted from a crappy old Sean Connery movie called Sword of the Valiant. You can watch the bit for yourself right here.