Doctor Who: geeky spots in The Husbands Of River Song

Spoilers! It's our viewing notes and geeky spots for the Doctor Who Christmas special, The Husbands Of River Song....

It’s Christmas Day and that can only mean one thing – the Doctor Who return of Professor River Song, and the Den of Geek return of the geeky spots. So join us, won’t you, for a festive walk through the callbacks, allusions and generally interesting similarities featured in The Husbands Of River Song. If you spot anything we’ve missed out – we’ve been on the Christmas sherry since 9 o’clock this morning – let us know in the comments!

The References of River Song

As you might expect from the convoluted story of the Doctor and River Song, this episode contains a lot of references to their previous adventures together. Before reading this article, it might be useful to read our article on River Song’s timeline, which gives background information on some of the things mentioned in this episode, including:

–          The circumstances behind the Doctor’s own marriage to River Song, which is a source of tension throughout the story.

–          River’s augmented lifespan, which was a result of her conception aboard the TARDIS and experiments performed on her by the Silence.

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–          The points in her timeline at which she became a doctor and then a professor.

–          River’s diary, which was gifted to her by the eleventh Doctor shortly after she regenerated into her ‘River Song’ incarnation.

–          Many of the incidents contained in River’s diary, namely the opening of the Pandorica, the crash of the Byzantium and their adventure in Manhattan.

–          ‘The time when there were two of you’, which refers to the timey-wimey antics of the mini-episode Last Night.

One part of River’s history we obviously we can obviously elaborate on now is her final night with the Doctor, at the Singing Towers of Darillium. When she tells the Doctor about this night in 2008’s Forest Of The Dead, she says:

“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.”

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As you can see, the facts in this episode have been changed a little – no doubt due to the Doctor restarting the universe in 2010’s The Big Bang or something – and the screwdriver the Doctor gives River in this story isn’t his own, but by and large The Husbands Of River Song fits the story established seven years ago, albeit with the added cheat of a 24-year night to fit dozens of Big Finish Capaldi/River Song boxsets in.

Other, so far unseen, meetings referenced in this episode include the Doctor and River picnicking in Asgard, first mentioned in 2008’s Silence In The Library, and their encounter with the legendary Jim the Fish, previously referenced in The Impossible Astronaut.

Incidentally, people often do need a flowchart (or at least, a hugely complicated diagram) to make sense of the Doctor and River’s timelines; do a Google Image search for ‘River Song timeline’ and you’ll see what we mean.

River first demonstrates her ability to fly the TARDIS in The Time Of Angels, when she claims that she ‘learned from the best’ and that the Doctor wasn’t around when she did. In the same scene, she reveals to Amy that the TARDIS only makes its familiar wheezing, groaning sound because the Doctor always leaves the handbrake on – if that’s the case, it’s a mistake River herself also makes in this story.

This story is a veritable sonic smorgasbord, with River’s sonic trowel and screwdriver joining the Doctor’s sonic sunglasses (yep, they’re still here) and warp drive screwdriver. They join the likes of the sonic lipstick afforded to Sarah Jane Smith in The Sarah Jane Adventures and the Doctor’s sonic cane in Let’s Kill Hitler.

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Among River Song’s possessions is a fez, an article of headwear beloved by the eleventh Doctor. He developed the obsession in 2010’s The Big Bang after stealing one from a museum exhibit, but River soon removed it from his head and blasted it into oblivion. According to Steven Moffat, Matt Smith grew very attached to the idea of the fez, and he joked that it was only destroyed by River so it wouldn’t become part of the Doctor’s regular outfit…

Both of River’s catchphrases appear in this story, courtesy of the Doctor.

“Hello, sweetie” and “Spoilers!” both made their first appearance in River’s debut story Silence In The Library, and have been a regular part of her vernacular ever since. It’s not the first time the Doctor has appropriated the latter line – the eleventh Doctor said it to the tenth in The Day Of The Doctor to avoid talking about Trenzalore.

River shows photographs of all twelve of the Doctor’s previous incarnations (including John Hurt’s War Doctor, seen in The Day Of The Doctor). In The Time Of Angels she told the eleventh Doctor that she had such pictures, claiming that he always turned up in the wrong order and as such she needed the ‘spotter’s guide’.

The Ghosts of Christmas Past

The Husbands Of River Song is the twelfth episode of Doctor Who to be broadcast on Christmas Day. As well as the annual specials that have been airing ever since 2005’s The Christmas Invasion introduced a napping David Tennant to our screens, 1965 saw Christmas Day fall on a Saturday, which back then meant that shows such as Doctor Who would transmit as usual. However, because the series was in the middle of twelve-part epic tale The Daleks’ Master Plan at the time, the production team felt it would be best to make the Christmas episode relatively standalone. As such, episode seven, The Feast Of Steven, was a light-hearted runaround which has become infamous for its final scene, in which the Doctor wishes his companions a merry Christmas before turning to the camera and saying “And incidentally, a merry Christmas to all of you at home!”. Sadly, the episode is missing from the BBC’s archives.

This isn’t the first time Doctor Who has had aliens using flying saucers; the Daleks have been using them ever since 1964’s The Dalek Invasion Of Earth. Other notable examples include the flying ships used by the Dominators in the 1968 serial of the same name, and the Adiposian nursery ship which beamed up thousands of tiny Adipose creatures in 2008’s Partners In Crime.

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There is some uncertainty as to whether or not the Doctor is medically qualified; in 1967’s The Moonbase, the second Doctor tells companion Polly that he obtained a medical degree in Glasgow in 1888, while the third Doctor tells Liz Shaw that he’s a doctor of ‘practically everything’. However, the first and fourth Doctors both claimed on a few occasions to not be qualified physicians. Regardless, the Doctor seems to have a good working knowledge of human physiognomy, at the very least.

Following last year’s Christmas special, which saw the first festive makeover for Doctor Who’s title sequence, the opening is made even more jolly for this episode, with added snow and baubles for planets. Though uncommon, story-specific opening credits are not unheard of – as early as 1966’s The War Machines, the production team experimented with different ways of presenting the episode and writer information. During the first half of series 7 in 2012, each episode’s title sequence would be completely unique, with the main logo decorated to resemble a theme from the episode, and the space-time vortex growing progressively darker.

The Doctor is apparently an anti-monarchist in this incarnation, but on the whole he’s been on friendly terms with royalty, particularly the monarchs of the United Kingdom. King Richard I helped the first Doctor in The Crusade, and the tenth Doctor famously married Queen Elizabeth I in The Day Of The Doctor. However, it hasn’t always been harmonious – after knighting him, Queen Victoria banished the Doctor from her kingdom in Tooth And Claw. And an older Elizabeth I wasn’t best pleased with the Doctor for running off after her wedding, shouting for his head at the end of The Shakespeare Code.

Hydroflax shouldn’t be able to do any harm once inside the TARDIS; it is established in fourth Doctor tale The Hand Of Fear that the TARDIS exists in a state of ‘temporal grace’, whereby weapons shouldn’t work within the ship and aggressive actions should be impossible. However, this has seemingly failed on many occasions (including when the Doctor himself tried to strangle companion Peri in a fit of post-regeneration gittishness), and in Let’s Kill Hitler the Doctor tells Mels (later to become River) that the idea of temporal grace is ‘a clever lie’.

When the Doctor tells River that she looks amazing, she replies that he has no idea whether that’s true or not. The eleventh and twelfth Doctors in particular have seemed to find the notion of attractiveness, especially in human beings, difficult to grasp or even recognise. But the fourth Doctor sets a precedent for this in classic story City Of Death, in which the Doctor tells the Countess “You’re a beautiful woman, probably.”

The Doctor finally gets his ‘bigger on the inside’ moment, a staple of the show whose history we discussed in the geeky spots article for Before The Flood earlier this year. And it’s glorious.

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We also hear the TARDIS’s cloister bell for what feels like the hundredth time this year; you can find out a bit more about its origins in the article for Under The Lake.

Reference Hard

The Mendorax Dellora street on which the TARDIS lands is a fairly blatant redressing of the Trap Street set from this year’s Face The Raven and Hell Bent. Throughout the first act of the story we see the shop ‘Mathiesa Boutique’ – this is possibly a nod to writer Jamie Mathieson, who has recently penned episodes Mummy On The Orient Express, Flatline and The Girl Who Died.

The TARDIS places hologrammatic antlers on the Doctor’s head in order to cheer him up. Holographic projection has been a staple TARDIS function since the 2005 revival, with emergency holograms of the Doctor appearing in The Parting Of The Ways and Blink. The eleventh Doctor spoke to the TARDIS using its holographic interface in Let’s Kill Hitler, and the Doctor and Clara used the TARDIS to project clothes onto them to protect their modesty in The Time Of The Doctor. Plus of course, most heartbreakingly, the Doctor appeared as a hologram to Rose Tyler while saying goodbye in Doomsday.

This episode bears a few similarities with the 2007 Christmas special Voyage Of The Damned. Both stories feature a villainous robot with a human(ish) head, and both stories climax with the Doctor trying to stop a luxury starliner full of oddball aliens from crashing into a planet. No Kylie Minogue in this one, though.

The Doctor has encountered warrior monks twice before; in 2006’s Tooth And Claw the tenth Doctor faced Victorian ninja werewolf monks, while 2011’s A Good Man Goes To War had the eleventh Doctor face off against the Headless Monks, who could channel energy blasts into their swords, causing them to be not too dissimilar to the laser swords seen here.

A Good Man Goes To War also saw the decapitation of the Doctor’s friend Dorium Maldovar, whose talking head later reappeared in The Wedding Of River Song. In a similar manner to Hydroflax in this story, the Doctor placed Maldovar’s head in a box and he continued talking to the Doctor and complaining about his current situation – unlike with Hydroflax, the Doctor had placed Maldovar’s box upside down.

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The Doctor asks why everything is ‘sexy’ now, and it’s a question that some more conservative viewers might have been asking since 2010! The first use of the word came in Matt Smith’s debut episode The Eleventh Hour, when he used it to describe his new TARDIS. The TARDIS was also ‘sexy’ on several other occasions, most notably The Doctor’s Wife, when Idris reveals that he calls the ship Sexy when they’re alone together. The Doctor also refers to the vampire fish women of The Vampires Of Venice as sexy in A Good Man Goes To War, and the twelfth Doctor only has eyes for the tyrannosaurus rex he accidentally transports to Victorian London in Deep Breath, calling her a ‘big, sexy woman’.

For the second time this year, the Doctor makes a reference to being ‘snogged to death’. This worrying obsession began in Under The Lake, when he said of the visual earworm that “It’s impossible. I hate it. It’s evil. It’s astonishing. I want to kiss it to death.”

River doesn’t recognise the Doctor for an absurdly long time in this story, explaining that there can’t be an incarnation she doesn’t know about because ‘he has limits’. This of course refers to the twelve-regeneration rule affecting all Time Lords, which the Time Lords themselves circumvented when it was time for the Doctor’s final death in The Time Of The Doctor.

The Doctor and River see to it that the hold containing the TARDIS and Hydroflax is deadlocked, which means it can’t be opened using sonic devices – as we’ve mentioned previously on these pages, deadlock seals were introduced in Bad Wolf in 2005 and have been a series staple ever since.

Hydroflax is powered by a miniature black hole. The TARDIS, and indeed Gallifrey, are powered by aspects of the Eye of Harmony, which the Doctor has described as a star suspended on the verge of becoming a black hole.

The sudden realisation of the restaurant being filled with enemies is an image that was previously used by Steven Moffat in Peter Capaldi’s opening story Deep Breath, when the Doctor and Clara suddenly realised that they were the only living people in the restaurant and everyone else was clockwork.

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Whilst listing the Doctor’s wives, River mentions Elizabeth I (who, as we’ve already mentioned, married him in The Day Of The Doctor), Marilyn Monroe, whose marriage proposal he accidentally accepted whilst at a party in A Christmas Carol, and Cleopatra, who River posed as in The Pandorica Opens – but it’s uncertain which version she’s referring to.

The Doctor reminds River that ‘every Christmas is last Christmas’, which was one of the more poignant themes of the 2014 Christmas special Last Christmas. The phrase comes from the version of Danny Pink in Clara’s dream, who tells her that people get together at Christmas because they never know if it’ll be the last time – in a sense, making every Christmas potentially the last Christmas.

Christmas with the Stars

This story features guest performances from two of the biggest names in comedy, Greg Davies as Hydroflax and Matt Lucas as Nardole. Greg is probably best known for his role as Mr Gilbert in The Inbetweeners but is also a popular standup comic, having appeared in sketch troupe We Are Klang and written two series of his own Channel 4 sitcom, Man Down.

Matt Lucas is familiar to many for his roles in Shooting Stars and Little Britain (Which was narrated by Tom Baker), but he also appeared in the 2001 Big Finish audio release The One Doctor in the dual roles of Cylinder and the Jelloid. It’s a highly recommended and very funny production, incidentally, with Christopher Biggins and Colin Baker giving the performances of a lifetime opposite one another, and is available from the Big Finish website for just £2.99

The voice of the robot Hydroflax is provided by another Game Of Thrones alumnus, following in the tracks of Maisie Williams, Nonso Anozie. Anozie appeared in the second season, playing merchant Xaro Xhoan Daxos, who crosses paths with dragon queen Daenerys Targaryen.

The Doctor’s line “I think I’m going to need a bigger flowchart” is likely a reference to the famous line from the quintessential Christmas movie, Jaws (Don’t believe us? Download our podcast), “You’re going to need a bigger boat.”

The Doctor claims that River Song has been married to Stephen Fry. The actor, writer and former QI host nearly wrote for Doctor Who during the Russell T Davies era of the show, penning the first draft of a script about the Sub-Arthurian legend of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. However, the episode was too expensive to make and Fry was unavailable to make the necessary amendments, so the episode was taken out of the schedule and we got Fear Her instead.

Finally, it’d be remiss of us not to mention in this article the one thing everyone’s been saying since the posters and trailers for this episode were rolled out – yes, we do think the Hydroflax robot looks a bit like Baymax, the friendly robot from Disney film Big Hero 6. We reckon Baymax could take him in a fight if it came down to it, though…

When he’s not analysing Doctor Who in too much detail, Pete presents and produces Geeks Say Things, the Den of Geek podcast. You can subscribe and download all the episodes so far – including the Christmas special – here.

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