Doctor Who is like an old family friend who visits on Christmas Day–prompting past memories, eliciting conversations, and bringing multiple generations together. The 2015 Doctor Who Christmas special, “The Husbands of River Song,” provided us moments of loss and love framed within a tale full of excitement and humor. In holiday fashion, Doctor Who reminds us that it’s the connections we have with others, whether running from a headless cyborg or sitting down for a meal together, that gives the story of our lives meaning.
Writer Steven Moffat and Director Douglas Mckinnon set “The Husbands of River Song” in a holiday setting without making it about Christmas. The Doctor is camped out in the TARDIS, isolating himself from the holiday merriment surrounding him. He makes his point by hanging a sign on the TARDIS door noting, “Carolers will be criticized.” Yet the TARDIS isn’t in agreement, giving the Doctor holographic antlers. The best Doctor Who Christmas specials reinforce the celebratory feeling of the holidays. In “The Husbands of River Song” the Christmas spirit is evident not only through the town’s ornamentation and River’s red cloak, but also through the beautifully lit décor of the restaurant.
Many have been pining for a return of the vivacious River Song (Alex Kingston) since she last appeared in the Season 7 finale “The Name of the Doctor.” When the Doctor responds to a call for help, he finds himself face to face with River Song. Seeing River interact with Twelve (Peter Capaldi) for the first time was a pretty fun Christmas present. Capaldi and Kingston have great chemistry together, playing up the moments of comedy and tragedy to full effect.
Though she’s looking for the Doctor, River didn’t recognize him in his newly regenerated form despite his many hints. Even when the Doctor says to River, “I’m the Doctor” and later is able to explain why the TARDIS can’t take off, she still believes that he’s the surgeon she sent for. River is way too smart to not realize he’s the Doctor, but we’re willing to suspend our disbelief for the payoff of watching the Doctor get jealous and annoyed.
River wants the Doctor to remove the Halassi Androvar diamond that is embedded in the head of King Hydroflax (Greg Davies). She believes removing his head will be the best way to accomplish it, and isn’t concerned that it will probably kill him. She tells the Doctor that she’s an archeologist hired by the Halassi to get the diamond back, but as the plot progresses, it becomes clear that River’s agenda is much more self-serving. River’s moral ambiguity is part of what makes her interesting, but she does seem a bit more cold-blooded than we would expect. The story becomes overly complicated and contrived, with buyers who turn out to be Hydroflax sycophants and a turncoat host, in order to allow River the opportunity to reveal her true feelings and for the Doctor to reveal his true identity.
Through much of the episode River plays it cool with the man she doesn’t recognize as the Doctor, noting that love is the easiest lie to tell a man because “they’ll automatically believe any story that they’re the hero of.” She is forced to be more honest about her feelings when it’s suggested that River can be used as bait to capture the Doctor. She points out that though she loves the Doctor that she never said that he loved her back and that he doesn’t go around falling in love with people. Before the Doctor can reveal his true identity to River, she tells those who hope to use her:
“When you love the Doctor, it’s like loving the stars themselves. You don’t expect a sunset to admire you back. And if I happen to find myself in danger, let me tell you, the Doctor is not stupid enough, or sentimental enough, and he is certainly not in love enough to find himself standing in it with me!”
The timelines of the Doctor and River Song aren’t in sync, therefore the Doctor knows what’s to come for River. In “The Husbands of River Song” the Doctor gives River a sonic screwdriver, bringing their relationship full circle. The Doctor already knows he’ll use this screwdriver on the day that River dies. In “Forest of the Dead” River had told the Doctor:
“Funny thing is, this means you’ve always known how I was going to die. All the time we’ve been together, you knew I was coming here. The last time I saw you -the real you, the future you, I mean-you turned up on my doorstep with a new haircut and a suit. You took me to Darillium to see the Singing Towers. Oh, what a night that was. The towers sang…and you cried. You wouldn’t tell me why, but I suppose you knew it was time-my time, time to come to The Library. You even gave me your sonic screwdriver-that should have been a clue.”
Greg Davies plays King Hydroflax and he fares much better than some other comedians who have acted on Doctor Who (we’re looking at you, Mitchell and Webb). At the start of the episode River is assisted by the unfortunate Nardole (Matt Lucas) and the dashing Ramone (Phillip Rhys). River abandons both pretty easily, but they get their own weird happy ending when they become the restaurant maître d’ after surviving the crash. As well as the cyborg King, we get to see some other interesting aliens on the spaceship. It’s no Star Wars cantina, but it’s more unusual aliens that we generally see on a single Doctor Who episode. Flemming (Rowan Polonski) plays a host used to dealing with demanding guest requests while Scratch (Robert Curtis) has a head that serves as a storage container.
The King Hydroflax storyline has some fun elements despite the sometimes confusing narrative (why did the Hydroflax worshipers want the diamond?). Yet the heart of “The Husbands of River Song” was in the moments between River and the Doctor. After some intense episodes from Season 9 of Doctor Who, the Christmas special brings some peace and joy. Through his experience with Clara, the Doctor has come to accept that a Time Lord who travels with humans will inevitability have to deal with loss. Because of this the Doctor is able to focus on River for the time they have left together. The Doctor Who Christmas special “The Husbands of River Song” delivers a story of connection and acceptance wrapped in a fun holiday package.
- River’s outfit-changing perfume–that’s what we really want for Christmas.
- River’s code name for the Doctor is “Damsel” because he needs to be recused so much. Now who’s the hero of their own story?
- The Doctor makes a Jaws reference with “I think I’m going to need a bigger flowchart.”
- River paraphrases Oscar Wilde with “It’s my diary… One should always have something sensational to read on a spaceship!”
- The Doctor gets his chance to act out his version of “It’s bigger on the inside.”
- River cleans out her bag to make room for King Hydroflax’s head and pulls out a red fez.
- Flemming knows how “To Serve Man,” offering to prepare the Doctor for dinner, which the Doctor smartly declines.
- Is the head-splitting Scratch a clone of Captain Picard’s clone Shinzon from Star Trek Nemesis?
- The line you never want to hear: “I’m an archeologist from the future. I dug you up.”
- We had no idea how long we’d been waiting to hear the Doctor use River’s catchphrases “Hello sweetie” and “Spoilers!”
- When the Doctor uses a line from last year’s Christmas special–“Every Christmas is last Christmas”– it makes us realize they really dragged out Clara’s death for far too long.
- Steven Moffat’s lack of trust in a bunch of casual viewers to know how to feel as they watch Doctor Who on Christmas Day gives Murray Gold carte blanche for his overdone musical score.
- Is crashing spaceship in which “genocide comes to kick back and relax” supposed to add to our holiday cheer? Are we supposed to be happy they got what was coming or sad the Doctor couldn’t save them? We’d better go back and listen to the music.
- Missing River Song already? Don’t worry because Big Finish just released a full cast audio drama titled The Diary of River Song.