It feels weird to discuss the Doctor Who Christmas special. Usually there’s a few months between the end of a series and December, or in last year’s case, a month and a bit. But here we are, a mere 20 days since the incredibly emotional finale to series 9, with a holly jolly special. And while in general, I haven’t loved the sillier, rompier Christmas specials, in the case of “The Husbands of River Song,” we need a bit of silliness following the decidedly un-silly “Hell Bent.” And any excuse to bring Alex Kingston back—and to have her interact with Peter Capaldi, no less—is okay in my book.
The Christmas specials in the Steven Moffat era have tended to be best when they’re twistier and less sappy. Not unsentimental, just not too schmaltzy. “A Christmas Carol,” Matt Smith’s first one, was a marvelous revision of the Charles Dickens classic done in space with fish and stuff; the contrast of that would be his second one, “The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe,” which, despite some funny Smith moments, was incredibly hokey and not all that fun. The two that have followed —”The Snowmen” and “The Time of the Doctor”—served as big storyline episodes and weren’t standalone at all, and “Last Christmas” was a super weird/awesome Alien and Inception pastiche with Santa Claus involved. All this is to say, for a Christmas special just to be a wacky adventure with a headless robot is sort of refreshing at this point.
The Doctor, having somehow ended up on a planet at Christmas time (he always does that) gets mistaken for a surgeon who has to perform a live-saving procedure on the cybernetic and horrendously violent King Hydroflax (Greg Davies) who is dying with a projectile in his brain. His “wife” turns out to be River Song working a con to try to get the projectile—a massively valuable diamond—out of his head to sell it to mass murderers aboard a luxury space liner. Believing up to this point the Doctor only had so many faces, doesn’t recognize ol’ Twelve, leading to some hilarious moments of him trying to make her realize it’s him and her just not having it.
As I said, this was just a bit of a romp, but there were definitely some quite enjoyable moments. Any time Kingston and Capaldi are sparking off each other, which is actually quite often, it’s pretty marvelous. As Moffat rather callously said a few weeks ago, this episode takes place right after “The Angels Take Manhattan” in River’s timeline, “but it doesn’t really matter.” Turns out, he wasn’t just being a jerk; it doesn’t really matter. Other than a mention of that being the most recent thing in her diary, there’s no holdover for her. And, aside from some mentions of it being a long time since he laughed and saying all good things must come to an end, etc., there’s nothing to announce that the Doctor’s just had a sad few billion years he can’t really remember. This really is just an adventure.
What we do get that gives the episode some real emotional resonance is the last 15-20 minutes, when River gives an impassioned speech to the onlooking bad guys who want the Doctor about how you can’t expect a sunset or the very stars themselves to love you back, ending with her realization that the Doctor has been with her the whole time. (How many people made a little happy noise when he said “Hello, Sweetie”? Not that I did…) From then until the end, it’s a really nice denouement to her character and their relationship. Even though it won’t be the last time she sees him, it could very likely be the last time he sees her (unless Moffat brings her back again). Referencing the trip to the Singing Towers they never get to take, and River seeing her diary is almost full up, she knows she’s almost at the end, but at least they get a Christmas of 24 years together to enjoy before then. And the Doctor finally gives her the sonic screwdriver she has with her during “The Library.” (!!!)
Douglas Mackinnon did a really nice job directing, as he always does. Mackinnon’s now directed eight episodes, making him the third most prolific director of Nu Who behind Euros Lyn and Graeme Harper. He’s always solid, though I will say, the budget of this episode does appear to have been pretty low. It’s very obvious they redressed the Trap Street set from “Face the Raven” for the alien world at Christmastime, and when River and the Doctor confab aboard Hydroflax’s flying saucer, it’s the President of Earth airplane set redressed. This type of thing happens all the time and usually it’s not so noticeable, but here for some reason it really stood out.
And, yeah, some famous comedians in Britain were in this, like the aforementioned Davies and Matt Lucas. And while they both did fine, the episode was really about the Doctor and River. There were lots of great little moments—like the Doctor having both his sonic sunglasses and his new sonic screwdriver (take THAT sunglasses haters)—and the Doctor getting to finally say the “it’s bigger on the inside” speech the way he’s always thought it ought to be said. Stuff like that made the straightforward story a lot more fun.
It’s Christmas. It’s fun. Doctor Who makes us laugh and tugs at our heartstrings. The only real sad thing is now we’re probably going to have to wait nine more months until we get any new episodes. Bah Humbug.
Let me know your thoughts on “The Husbands of River Song” in the comments below!
Images: BBC America
Kyle Anderson is a film and TV critic for Nerdist.com and is also the resident Who expert. Ask him anything about the show. Seriously, do it! On Twitter and all that!