This review contains spoilers. Our spoiler-free review is here.
9.13 The Husbands Of River Song
Two things were bound to happen with the Doctor Who Christmas special this year.
One, that it would – as Christmas specials do – be a lighter, frothier piece of Who. We’re well schooled in the drill of that by now, Yuletide regenerations excepted. And we weren’t getting one of those, thank goodness.
Two, that it would thus be a very marked contrast for the direction that the show went in for the vast bulk of series 9 this year. The darker Who of the autumn was always going to give away to something warmer and lighter, with no shortage of fake snow.
After all, across the dozen episodes we’ve seen since September, horror has never been too far from the surface in plenty of them. I’m guessing, then, that The Husbands Of River Song will attract a reasonable amount of ire for what it isn’t, as opposed to what it actually is. And what it actually is, for me at least, is a perfectly decent piece of Who.
I don’t really think that The Husbands Of River Song is Doctor Who on top form, nor do I think it amongst the best Christmas specials since the show introduced them in 2005. But fun? Yes. Enjoyable? Yes. A good, solid piece of telly? Absolutely.
“I think I’m going to need a bigger flowchart”
What’s more, the whole episode was worth it for the moment when the Doctor got to do the bit where he walks into the TARDIS and has to get used to the idea of it being bigger on the inside.
Granted, this had been part of the plot-necessary deception of sorts here, as the returning River simply doesn’t recognise the Time Lord (something that lasted for far longer into the episode than I was expecting). Yet Capaldi – and Steven Moffat’s script – treated the whole scene as the Christmas gift it absolutely is. How much fun is the man having here? In fact, the whole episode explores Capaldi’s real, genuine gift for comedy, and for that alone, I’m already likely to revisit it.
On top of that, of course, there’s the return of Alex Kingston as River Song.
It doesn’t take long to appreciate that Kingston and Capaldi are a strong double act, and their interplay – not just TARDIS moment – is the highlight here. In particular, once River had ultimately realised that the Doctor was the Doctor, they both proved how ably and seamlessly they could switch between comedy and drama. Even without a Yuletide sherry or two, there was something really quite sweet about their eventually dinner date at The Singing Towers Of Derrillium.
There’s still a sense that the River Song story had been completed before the fancy Christmas opening credits, and that The Husbands Of River Song almost had her back for a victory lap. Did we get much new that warranted a River return? Well, bits. In particular, the realisation of the final meeting that was teased when River first appeared in Silence In The Library/Forest Of The Dead.
Furthermore, if there was any doubt left, these two care for each other, even if it’s River who has the strongest feelings. It was worth getting that across.
Is it the end for River now? Well, the final meeting goes on for 24 years, give or take. I’d suggest not. Dead or alive, Who has rich form in bringing characters back, after all.
Elsewhere, of the guest stars this time around, it’s Greg Davies that fared the better. Bearing more than a passing resemblance to Baymax from Big Hero 6 when he first appears, we learn that Davies is King Hydroflax. Well, more to the point, he’s Hydroflax’s head, with the rest of him sitting atop a big red robot, that ultimately interchanges heads as the episode progresses.
I don’t think we got enough Greg Davies in the episode, in truth, as he’s clearly have a ball here. He’s still served better than Matt Lucas, given a smaller, less impactful role that he fights to do much with. And then neither, really, makes anywhere near the impression than Faye Marsay’s wonderful Shona was given the chance to do last year. That’s a character I’d really love to see back in Who.
There was one slightly sinister moment too.
Aside from the crashing Baymax-alike action moments, the restaurant – which had a flavour of Deep Breath to it – had a particularly effective part when the Doctor and River were surrounded by strange people with heads they could rip open. Moffat, though, goes for comedy rather than fright, with a lovely little moment where the Doctor and River realise they have the head of the person the people around them worship in their bag.
Oh, and how lovely was the earlier moment where the Doctor just lay down in the snow and laughed, almost breathing out after the loss of Clara? Loved that bit.
But then I did like the deliberate lighter tone here, and as I’ve said more than once, I also like it when Doctor Who takes a turn to keep us on our toes. Yet I guess for me this one didn’t turn enough, that it was more some tasty turkey sandwiches than the main dish itself. The balance seemed slightly uneven, and I think I’d rather the consistently daft tone had been kept up, rather than the loud action sequences crashing in, and the latest on-screen ending to the River and Doctor story.
There’s a big caveat to that, of course, in that if you’re heavily invested in the River/Doctor storyline still, then The Husbands Of River Song had much to offer. But I still felt that the ground had been trodden, if not seen, before.
Production values? Definitely worth a mention. They’re as uniformly high as we tend to take for granted on Doctor Who. Returning director Douglas Mackinnon keeps things interesting and pacey, and the episode also showcases effects work that really demonstrates just how far Doctor Who, visually has come.
But still: this is a decent, rather than spectacular sign off for what’s been a very strong year for Doctor Who. A bit of a muddle, with one absolute stand-out moment of nerdy joy. Oh, and Peter Capaldi. He’s welcome in our house any Christmas he likes.
Roll on series 10. It’s been quite a year for Who, and the thought of at least 12 more Capaldi-headlined episodes is negating the need for me to make a Christmas list…