Alex Kingston returns to the series in sparkling form as Professor River Song, hooking up with her third on screen Doctor in the shape of Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth (Thirteenth, Fourteenth, Fiftieth, One mark two – or whatever) incarnation. After the gripping and intense three part finale to Series Nine, this year’s Christmas special brought much needed light relief for the viewer and more importantly for the Doctor.
Forget Clara’s postponement of her date with death, Series Nine ended with the tragedy of the hero who could no longer travel with his most beloved companion because they were simply too dangerous together. There was a degree of ambiguity at the end of Hell Bent as to whether or not the Doctor remembered Clara. After all, the Tardis was decked out as a shrine to his forgotten companion, complete with the face of the woman he had spoken to in the diner. And cheeky Clara, ever needing the last word, left him with a massive hint on the chalkboard in the Tardis. Did that mean he had reconnected with that part of his backstory? Pleasingly, it would appear otherwise.
The Doctor begins this adventure feeling a sense of loss, locked inside his TARDIS hating not just carol singers, but singing full stop. That song in the diner, Clara’s theme, the only experiential link he now has with that part of his past, is bittersweet. Significantly, he still has the sonic glasses, but there’s no sign of the electric guitar. The Doctor may be withdrawn and in need of the TARDIS to perk him up with comedy antlers, but there is no brooding over the past because he simply cannot feel it – Clara is never once mentioned.
So step forward River Song, yes she’s his wife (sort of), but she’s also a direct link to the last companions he properly remembers – Amy and Rory. The events of the last two and a half series haven’t been retconned, but they’ve been compartmentalised into a non-autobiographical part of the Doctor’s thought processes: at best diary entries, only ones that feel like they’ve been written by somebody else. So this is the time to tie-up some different loose ends for the Doctor that go way back to before he first knowingly encountered the impossible girl. It’s the perfect opportunity to bring back Kingston to star alongside Capaldi – a pairing too good to turn down. Matt Smith and Alex Kingston worked surprisingly well, but just from this one episode, the suspicions that River Song would have made a far better companion for the Twelfth Doctor seem to have been fully vindicated.
The chemistry between the two leads is electric. The viewer starts from the Doctor’s perspective, feeling his bemusement at River’s lack of recognition or acknowledgement of his existence. We then switch to River’s perspective once the true nature of her mission is revealed, and we sympathise with her as the unrequited lover who nonetheless accepts that fate, because it’s the only way to love the Doctor. And then finally, we join them in their relationship, as partners in the adventure, working out the solution together, second guessing each other’s moves until at the end they are standing side by side on that balcony overlooking the Singing Towers. Of all his companions, River Song is as close to being the Doctor’s equal as is possible – any closer and the universes would have another hybrid to threaten its existence.
In fine Christmas Special tradition, The Husbands Of River Song includes some headline guest cast members, but in this instance their roles are hardly challenging or against type. Nonetheless it’s good to see the likes of Matt Lucas and Greg Davies inducted into the Doctor Who hall of fame (though Lucas has also featured in the Big Finish audio – The One Doctor) and they do not disappoint in what they’ve been scripted to do.
Until the last ten minutes or so, the story is a light-hearted romp, in the vein of Douglas Adams (The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy), and once again there are plenty of comparisons between Capaldi and Tom Baker, particularly from the latter’s more off beat performances from the Williams/Adams era. But there are throwbacks to early Baker too, particularly with the parallels with The Brain Of Morbius, as once again the Doctor’s head is required. There is a classic scene in Baker’s debut story, Robot, where at a meeting of The Scientific Reform Society the Doctor takes to the stage and performs tricks to distract the crowd. Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor is similarly theatrical when he attempt to bluff his way out of trouble after he and River have discovered that the buyer for the diamond venerates Hydroflax. Capaldi excels at these moments of buffoonery, and it’s the most unexpected aspect of his brilliant characterisation of the Doctor.
We knew he could do grumpy, we knew he could do intense, but the range of Capaldi’s work is quite extraordinary, and this episode shows it off better than any other. Once again we see the Doctor in preacher mode as per Inversion of the Zygons, this time lambasting the privileges of royalty who “crush the hopes and dreams of working people.” Comparisons to the labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn have been made by several reviewers on account of its topicality, but this is exactly the kind of thing we might have heard Troughton, Pertwee or Baker say back in the 60s and 70s.
Another highlight is when we see him faking bewilderment at the bigger on the inside TARDIS when finally he gets his turn, showing how it should be done (did anyone else notice the incidental music here going all Sherlock?). Interestingly, Clara didn’t play ball on her first entrance into the TARDIS in The Snowmen, commenting instead that it was smaller on the outside. Were he to have remembered the other half of the hybrid, I wonder if his mock surprise would have been played out differently, taking a leaf out of her book. Although it’s fun to see River failing to recognise the Doctor, at this point and several others thereafter it’s hard to see why she is so slow on the uptake, or indeed why she doesn’t expect the Doctor to come to her aid, given that in previous episodes her trust in the Doctor was such that she could leap out of a spaceship or jump from a building.
Despite being a light hearted episode, The Husbands Of River Song also carries some deeply moving scenes, mostly reserved for that scintillating ending, when we realise the Doctor is taking River Song to the singing towers for their very last date before she meets her fate in the library. First it is laughter that comes back to the Doctor in a charming scene in which the two begin to connect for the first time as River is infected by the Doctor’s laugh. But by the end, the music has returned for the Doctor, almost. He talks the science of the wind, but the tear in his eye is a sure sign that the music has touched him again. It runs deeper than the knowledge that River’s diary is almost complete.
The aftermath of Series Nine could have set the whole tone for series ten, affecting the Doctor’s choice of future companion for instance, or his demeanour and outlook (just as Series Eight did for Series Nine). Instead, it looks like this meeting with River Song has brought the resolution and wiped the slate clean from the Doctor’s Clara graffitied chalkboard. We are left with a wonderful sense of freedom ahead for Series Ten.
The idea that River and the Doctor’s final night together lasts 24 years could signify that there are many more adventures in store for them (and not surprisingly there are plenty of calls for River Song to be the next companion), but more plausibly, just as in the case of Clara it is another example of the stalled ending. I have a hunch that in the return of Ramone and Nardole, Steven Moffat is satirising himself, or more correctly the disingenuous image of him amongst some vocal critics. Sometimes endings are good.
Which brings us onto the perplexing end caption. After “And they both lived happily ever after,” is followed by “And they both lived happily,” we might have expected the sequence to end with “And they both lived.” But instead the final caption reads simply “Happily.” Once again it could be viewed as a subverting of what has become a stock trademark of the current showrunner’s era. The ending in this instance is not life or the escaping or undoing of death, but the happiness of a past moment.
In recent years the spin off worlds from Doctor Who has proliferated thanks to the incredible imagination of the fan base and the output of Big Finish in particular, and once again there are possible nods to this wider Doctor Who universe – the madcap scenes with the head in the bag wouldn’t be at all out of place in an Iris Wildthyme adventure and River Song’s reference to her second wife might be of interest to fans of another archaeologist, Bernice Summerfield. Speaking of Big Finish, if this is to be River Song’s final televised outings, fans of the character ought to check out their excellent new range, The Diary Of River Song, which fills out all those blank pages between the stories we’ve seen on screen.