A Song of Comfort

Review of The Husbands of River Song
Warning: This review contains episode-specific spoilers and wild speculation about future episodes.

Christmas episodes are unusual creatures, trying to be all things to all viewers. There is the expectation that a large number of families, including those who don't regularly watch the show, will be tuning in. Thus, the episode should be easy to follow for those with little or no knowledge of the characters and ongoing storyline(s), and fun and cheerful for those making it part of their holiday celebrations.

At the same time, it has to be satisfying for those of us who follow the show regularly. If it's a complete toss-off, the production team risks alienating its core audience, which is also bad. Thus a Christmas special is a weird hybrid (see what I did there?) of fluff and substance that can be very difficult to execute.

As one might expect, then, there were parts of The Husbands of River Song (THORS—Ha! What an acronym!) that made me really happy and others that made me cringe a little. It's difficult even to generalize which was which. Most of the interpersonal bits were good, though some were not; most of the guest artist bits were pants, though some were not; most of the plot points were eyeroll-y, though some were not. You get the idea: par for the course.

On first viewing, though, I found the good bits outweighed the bad. Moffat's dialog was mostly rich in quotable one-liners, with the occasional battle-of-the-sexes comments that he seems to think are funny (but as far as I'm concerned almost never are). I took the lighthearted feel of a "romp" at face value that first time through, too, which meant that the guest cast (Greg Davies as King Hydroflax, Matt Lucas as Nardole (whom I kept mentally calling Unstoffe at first), and Phillip Rhys as Ramone) were all played at a just-right-for-the-occasion "panto" level of off-the-wall.

Even that first time, though, there were flaws I couldn't overlook. First and foremost, the whole cyborg despot angle simply didn't work for me; it was too campy for my taste. Similarly, on repeated viewing the guest cast was too over-the-top for the kind of Doctor Who I prefer. And even though there were some good lines that sprang from it—both comical and dramatic—I thought the joke that River didn't recognize the Doctor went on far too long.

But when you get right down to it, those weren't the parts of the episode that were meant for me. They were (primarily) in there for the casual audience. Those of us who are more hardcore fans were instead served by the pieces that went right over the heads of the less intensely engaged, most of which had to do with the Doctor's chronologically challenged relationship with River.

Ever since River strode into the Library, she's been a favorite plot device for Moffat. Because her timeline and the Doctor's don't coincide, he can throw her in any old where (with varying degrees of success). Here it works particularly well, both because the end of Series Nine left us needing a fluffy, upbeat story and because Capaldi's Doctor and Kingston's River Song have great chemistry, with more mature—and much more believable—romantic undertones than between River and Smith's Eleventh Doctor. (Among other things, there's only a five year age difference, with her the younger now.)

Because of the overplayed joke of how she doesn't recognize him, we see River's usual flirty manner aimed at several different non-Doctor folk, from the other men who give THORS its name to River's mentioned-in-passing former wives to the random (female-presenting) extra at whom she made "call me" hand signals. (It was great to see River's supposed bisexuality actually referred to explicitly on screen.) It also allowed for some fun role-reversals, like when the Doctor gets to see the dimensional transcendentalism of the TARDIS for the "first" time ("Finally. It's my go.") or greets her unexpectedly ("Hello, sweetie.").

Again, there were several places I heard Moffat speaking to the critics through the dialog. Not only was there the aforementioned clarification of her sexual preferences, but he addressed the issue that many fans have with the idea of the Doctor falling in love with various Companions—whether that be Rose, River, or someone completely different. River rants at their captors, "Whoever said he loved me back? He's the Doctor; he doesn't go around falling in love with people. And if you think he's anything that small or that ordinary, then you haven't the first idea of what you're dealing with."

And then Moffat brings it home, showing us one more previously established piece of her timeline on screen: dinner at the Singing Towers of Darillium. We've seen the results of this encounter at the Library. She tells the Tenth Doctor that this is when he gave her his sonic (Happy Christmas, indeed!) and that he cried. We get to see that play out here.

Of course there are contradictions. In this version, she knows now that this is their last night together, whereas at the Library there was no indication she thought she wouldn't get out of it and see him again another time. Then there's the bit where she's surprised about where they're crashing. "Hang on; I recognize that planet ... That's Darillium!" If, however, as she told the staff on the Starship Harmony and Redemption, "[She's] an archaeologist from the future; [she] dug [them] up!", why would she be surprised by the location of the dig site?

Even as egregious as they were, I could forgive THORS its flaws for the final scene. Perhaps it was overly sentimental, but I thought it was beautiful and gave a perfect explanation for what River means to the Doctor without it having to be a romantic relationship in the way that we understand them. They both use the Singing Towers as a metaphor, she saying that "you can't expect a monolith to love you back," and he replying with sad calm.

"No, you can't." He turns back to look at the Towers. "They've been there for millions of years, through storms and floods and wars and... time. Nobody really understands where the music comes from. It's probably something to do with the precise positions, the distance between both towers. Even the locals aren't sure. All anyone will ever tell you is that when the wind stands fair and the night is perfect... when you least expect it... but always... when you need it the most... there is a [S]ong."
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Comments

I've never been a big fan of River. She's always seemed terribly artificial to me. She tromps into a plot and sneers smugly at everybody, especially The Doctor. She sprays bullets around with abandon. She takes The Doctor for granted and expects him to show up to save her whenever she is in trouble. And he does.

I'd been wondering why he didn't let her go *splat* at the bottom of a cliff when she stepped off the edge expecting him to magically appear and catch her.

They'd done a lot of talking about their sharing tranquil good times together, picnics and romantic evenings and such. But since they never actually showed these to us I had my doubts.

And Matt Smith's Doctor seemed terrified of and irritated by her by turns. He didn't seem to like her very much, much less be in love with her.

THORS seems to indicate that this smug superiority has been an act on her part all along, covering up her deep insecurities. I liked her better in this episode, with her vulnerability showing, than I ever have before.

I hope this is the last we see of her because it is a perfect finale to her relationship with The Doctor. Seeing her acting like a smug jerk again would really destroy this new conception of the character.

So I liked the River parts of the episode. I also liked the various scene changes. The planet and the flying saucer. The deep space luxury liner. The Resturant at the Singing Towers.

The ranty cyborg I didn't like so much. He was kind of silly with the talking detatched head. But... Christmas episode. I didn't take it too seriously. And a diamond??? All this over a diamond? Diamonds aren't that uncommon. They are just bits of carbon, a very common element. Why should a diamond be so valuable? Ah well, it was just a McGuffin anyway.

I was mostly pleased by the episode. It was MUCH better than I had been expecting, what with River being in it and all. It wasn't perfect. But I don't really demand perfection from Doctor Who.

On another note, I really enjoyed the 4 days of continuous Doctor Who on BBCA. I saw a lot of episodes from several Doctors. It was great.

By Kara S (not verified)
mrfranklin's picture

Yeah, we did kind of get a different perspective on River this time. And I agree, I liked her better as a more complex character with relatable motivations (insecurity). It sounds like you and I had pretty similar reactions to this episode overall. :)

Cool that you got to see more stuff on BBCA! Any new favorites?

By mrfranklin
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