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Doctor Who: The Husbands of River Song (Review)

Every Christmas is last Christmas.

The Husbands of River Song is an odd duck.

The first half is a fairly light romp, a rapid-fire farce that ties together the goofy science-fiction of Doctor Who with Moffat’s own fondness for banter and wordplay. The plot is fairly light, the dynamics fairly simple; the script leans rather heavily on its two lead characters and a slew of one-liners that aim for quantity over quality. It is in, in many respects, the Moffat era equivalent of a Davies era Christmas special; it is easy to follow bombast with an impressive scale, pitched at the perfect volume to help digest all those mince pies. Even the earlier timeslot seems appropriate.

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The second half is something completely different. It is an emotional farewell to the character of River Song, effectively closing the time loop that began all those years (and Doctors) ago with Silence in the Library. Although The Name of the Doctor leaves open the possibility to future stories about River Song, The Husbands of River Song provides the last truly essential piece of the jigsaw puzzle. In doing so, it pays off a bit of continuity that has been hanging in the air for seven years. This seems an odd choice to combine with the lighter fare in the first half.

It is not that there is anything particularly wrong with either half. Certainly, Moffat is a writer who has done an excellent job changing track mid-story at certain points in the past; A Good Man Goes to War comes to mind. However, there are also points at which the switch has been less than elegant; Let’s Kill Hitler is probably the strongest example. The problem with The Husbands of River Song is that it leans far more towards the latter than the former.

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The first half of The Husbands of River Song is pretty unobjectionable as Moffat era plotting goes. In many respects, the premise feels surprisingly simple, given the high concepts that drove earlier Christmas episodes like A Christmas Carol or Last Christmas. There is an evil robotic cyclops, and the Doctor and River Song get caught up in an elaborate heist that involves kidnapping the head of that robot cyclops and locking it in duffel bag. That is something more akin to the premise of The Runaway Bride or Voyage of the Damned than The Time of the Doctor.

In fact, a lot of the episode feels drawn from Voyage of the Damned, to the point where the climax of the episode features the Doctor standing on the bridge of a starship crashing towards a planet. There is a creepy cyborg antagonist, a meteor storm, the idea of a starship as a leisure cruiser. There is certainly nothing wrong with this approach. This bombastic larger-than-life blockbuster cliffnotes approach to storytelling is perfectly suited to Christmas. In fact, the earlier scheduling of the episode suggests that those involved realise as much.

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It is silly and goofy, but silly and goofy feel entirely appropriate at 5pm on Christmas Day. The Husbands of River Song aired earlier than any of the ninth season, and there is an endearing playfulness to the episode that makes it all feel like cotton candy. The palace at the start of the episode feels very much like something from a classic fifties science-fiction film, to the point that eagle-eyed viewers might confuse it for a more colourful Dalek ship. The antagonist looks like a child’s toy or something that escaped from a cartoon; a hulking red battle suit.

(More than that, it feels like Moffat even places with some classic space opera tropes that feel particularly appropriate with the release of Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens. Most notably, the episode features an ancient order of space monks with laser swords. Although The Force Awakens was released too late for it to be a direct reference, there is even a nice scene of the primary characters arguing about holding hands during a bombastic chase sequence.)

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The set-up allows Moffat to play to his own history as a sitcom writer. Moffat is perhaps best known for his plotting gymnastics, but there is some joy to be had in watching him work through sitcom gags with the set-up of Doctor Who. There is nothing wrong with hearing Alex Kingston deliver the line, “I’ll kill the lights, you kill the patient.” Similarly, the very existence of the sonic trowel (“do you realise how ridiculous that sounds?”) allows the show to poke fun at the sonic screwdriver. And the science-fiction twist of a head in a bag is still funny.

If there is a problem with the first half, it is the recurring sense that a lot of this has been recycled and reappropriated. The sonic trowel gag is really just a blunter version of the “sonic sunglasses” motif that runs through the ninth season, but without the cool twist of letting every kid with glasses pretend to be the Doctor. The head in the bag is a reworking of a solid gag from The Wedding of River Song. River’s clever escape plan is just a twist on Jack’s “volcano day” scam from The Empty Child.

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Then again, it is Christmas. There is no better time of year to recycle old jokes. The Husbands of River Song has enough zest and energy that it never feels hackneyed. The show might have cracked jokes about archeologists in Silence in the Library, but that doesn’t mean that the “just a thief… with patience” line is any less funny. Kingston is a joy to watch, and she bounces rather effortlessly off Capaldi. None of this is bold or groundbreaking stuff; it’s not as clever as Last Christmas, as magical as The Time of the Doctor, or as emotional as A Christmas Carol. But it works.

If the first half of the episode has an underlying strength, it is the clever idea of allowing the Doctor to slip into a supporting role in a River Song story. Although the Moffat era has done a pretty great job of hinting that River Song has a rich life outside her encounters with the Doctor, The Husbands of River Song cleverly reverses the traditional dynamic. The Doctor essentially finds himself cast as a companion to River Song. It is an interesting twist, one that feels like a logical counterpoint to Clara’s “companion as Doctor” arc in the eighth and ninth seasons.

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It leads to a particularly memorable sequence where the Doctor finally gets to do his own impression of what it must be like to step into the TARDIS. It is a delightful sequence that plays on audience expectations; it takes the classic “its bigger on the inside” gag and turns it inside out, inflating it past the point of recognisability, bursting it, and then gluing it back together. It is a moment of pure unbridled geeky joy for both Steven Moffat and Peter Capaldi, with both doing wonderful work. There are much worse ways to spend Christmas.

In some respects, the second half is an odd choice for a Christmas episode. The second half of The Husbands of River Song relies on the audience recognising the importance of the “Singing Towers” and the new sonic screwdriver. Long-time fans would recognise those story beats immediately, acknowledging River was inching closer and closer to her inevitable death in Forest of the Dead. However, Christmas seems like a very odd time to set-up a punchline that landed seven years earlier.

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To be fair, Moffat’s script makes it quite explicit what is happening. There is something very clever in the observation that the Doctor can predict exactly how much diary a person might need; it signals both River’s looming death and River’s awareness of that fact. However, the concept still feels relatively abstract without any larger context. Then, as River and the Doctor have dinner, the script allows River a line about how she has heard stories that this will be their last night together.

It is a necessary line of exposition for audiences who might have forgotten an emotional monologue made by the character in her first story over half a decade ago. However, it also feels rather clumsy and robs that moment of a lot of its power. The heartbreaking idea at the core of River’s final monologue was the implication that the Doctor had known and River did not; that even though she knew him better than anybody, he could not acknowledge even that to her.

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A lot of that tragedy is lost in how the scene plays out. While Moffat hews on the right side of explicitly violating continuity, there is a sense that The Husbands of River Song somewhat rewrites Forest of the Dead. The rewrite is not blatant, mostly confined to tone and context. River’s character arc (and her implied relationship with the Doctor) in Silence in the Library and Forest of the Dead is substantially altered by the necessary exposition that drives the final scenes of The Husbands of River Song.

Still, this is a relatively small price to pay for an episode that seems to have been consciously written to address stock criticisms of River as a character. After all, the script goes out of the way to give River her own adventure and her own romantic interests outside the Doctor. At the point where the plot shifts from farce to tragedy, River acknowledges it is impossible to have a conventional and healthy relationship with the Doctor. The Doctor is bigger than all that; he is a force of nature, a concept, an ideal. The sunset metaphor is a powerful one.

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A lot of the power in the final scenes is down to Peter Capaldi and Alex Kingston, who act the hell out of the episode’s final scenes. They are assisted by one of the more straightforward (yet touching) “timey wimey” climaxes to a Moffat episode. There is something quite powerful in the idea that “ever after” can never last forever. It feels very much like a bookend to Moffat’s big “just this once” speech from The Doctor Dances. It retroactively roughens some Moffat’s softer storytelling choices, acknowledging working hard for happy endings does not guarantee them in perpetuity.

To be fair, this is arguably implied in the final scenes of Hell Bent. Clara acknowledged that her death was still waiting for her at the end of her journey and that she would eventually have to face it. However, the episode also suggested that her death could be delayed almost inevitably; she used the words “the long way round” on a show where that phrase can apply to billions upon billions of years. As such, even the twenty-four year “ever after” of The Husbands of River Song feels abbreviated.

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In interviews, Moffat has admitted that he wrote The Husbands of River Song not knowing whether he would ever write another episode of Doctor Who. Of course, he also subsequently confirmed that he would be running the tenth season of the show. However, The Husbands of River Song feels very much like an endpoint to the Moffat era in a way that even The Time of the Doctor does not. It feels like a bit of housekeeping, the last item on a list of threads to be resolved.

After all, there are really no more lingering plot threads hanging over the show. The Moffat era has handled all the items in its brief, whether those imposed by its own choice or inherited from previous showrunners. The conspiracy against the Doctor and the TARDIS has been explained, the Doctor’s regeneration crisis has been handled, Gallifrey has returned. There is very little else that anybody could argue Moffat has to deal with. In fact, the tenth season is an incredibly blank slate at this point. It will feature a new companion and – playing the odds – probably some Daleks.

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There is a sense that The Husbands of River Song might have played better if it were Moffat’s final episode of the show. The sudden change in mood might feel a lot less jarring, and the awkward shoehorning of past continuity might feel more excusable. If the Davies era can be forgiven the unrelenting excess of The Stolen Earth, Journey’s End, The End of Time, Part I and The End of Time, Part II, then Moffat might be excused forty minutes of familiar gags executed with enthusiasm and affection followed by twenty minutes of heavy continuity resolutions.

Indeed, the heartfelt dialogue from River about the difficulty of loving the Doctor could easily be read as a metaphor for the difficulties of managing a long-running franchise like Doctor Who. (The same could also be said of Moffat’s script for Heaven Sent, which could also play as an allegory for the grind of showrunning on a monolithic piece of popular culture.) Like River Song, Moffat is a mortal enjoying a flirtation with a more primal force that will continue on long after he has politely stepped aside.

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Moffat will be back in charge of the show when it returns. It is not outside the realm of possibility that he might stay on for another season or two beyond that. This is not a bad thing. Doctor Who has never been more adventurous at any other point in its history. The show has certainly been more consistent and reliable at points (during the Hinchcliffe and Davies eras), but it has never had the same level of ambition and vigour. The idea of a tenth season overseen by Moffat with no baggage is exciting. However, it also robs The Husbands of Rivers Song of some power.

Then again, there is some sense in which this feels entirely appropriate. In some respects, the debut of River Song in Silence in the Library and Forest of the Dead represented a premature start of the Moffat era; the threads of Moffat’s tenure as showrunner intruding upon the late tenure of his direct predecessor. Maybe there is something appropriate about the end of River Song serving as a premature end for the Moffat era; the last threads of Moffat’s tenure as showrunner tidied away before his era has had a chance to come to an end.

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The Husbands of River Song feels like a full stop that has arrived just a few words too early.

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5 Responses

  1. “It is an emotional farewell to the character of River Song”

    Not as long as SM lives and breathes.

    I think I’m going to accept after this season that Doctor Who just isn’t for me. There is such a gulf between fan opinion (A golden age for the show) and the dissenters (a production team which is too cozy) that it can’t just be written off as, “wait a year or two when everyone readjusts their optics”. I feel the show has just moved on.

  2. Maybe I’ve been looking in the wrong places but I thought the ‘stock criticism’ of River Song was that she effectively took over the show and was better at the Doctor at… well everything? I admit I haven’t seen the episode (I know many love her but there is only so much River I can take) but honestly it sounds like yet another cloying tribute to the character.

    My dislike of River Song is longstanding but to be honest I think I’m just increasingly disfastified with the way Moffat seems determined to turn the Doctor into a fool. I know the Doctor has never been omnipotent and he’s often needed an external conscience (such as Donna or Wilf) but I think Moffat has gone a little too far in that direction, mostly in the interests of bigging up Clara as the Doctor’s superior. Moffat’s version of the character often comes across as someone who is less flawed and eccentric and more a loser who needs to be hand held by his smarter companion most of the time (remember those cue cards?)

    • I don’t mind the Doctor-as-cosmic-fool. I think it’s a nice tone change from Doctor-as-Lonely-God. But the character’s always been in flux. Even the version of Tom Baker from the Hinchcliffe era is significantly different than the version of Tom Baker from the Williams/Turner era.

      I don’t think Clara’s the Doctor’s superior; I think she’s an equal. She is just as flawed as he is, just as capable of deception and self-deception. What’s that wonderful “only Mikkelsen could deliver it” line from Hannibal, about how being the same as someone allows you to deceive them and be deceived in turn? But then, I’m not entirely convinced by the criticisms of Clara as “too perfect”, given that the character is consistently and repeatedly portrayed as somebody who has very serious problems with honesty.

      I think Clara is not a superior, but someone with the same potential as the Doctor; someone who challenges him rather than necessarily following. Much like Donna was, compared to Rose and Martha, although without the plot punishing Clara in the same way that it punished Donna. (That said, I think Tate is a stronger actress than Coleman and Donna is a more interesting character than Clara.)

      • The problem (for me) is that the other characters still act like the Doctor is still treated as a brilliant man in universe when Moffat (and others) write him as largely incompetent. It gets wearying after a while, especially when used for cheap nasty jokes like those in Capaldi’s introductory episode.

        Which is another issue for me really. Clara is emotionally flawed true but the show was still hell bent on proving her as more mature and certainly smarter than the Doctor… which just isn’t what I want from the show. Why *should* a thirtysomething, clever but otherwise relatively normal human be ‘equal’ to a being from a hyperadvanced race who has lived for many centuries? The dynamic does not always have to be Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson in space (though I admit I like that a lot) but there is surely a happy medium between that and dumbing down the character who is supposed to be one of the great minds of the universe – eccentric and flawed but still clever.

        I think I’m done with the show, at least until Moffat finally leaves. I actually like Capaldi a lot and liked Coleman too (the character dynamic isn’t her fault) but at this point I’m just burned out by a style I didn’t like to begin with that doesn’t seem likely to go anywhere soon.

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