Review: Doctor Who – The Husbands of River Song (Christmas 2015)

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I’m not going to lie, I wasn’t that excited about this year’s Christmas special. You’d think after arguably the best series of Doctor Who in the last ten years I’d be absolutely itching for another dose of time-travelling goodness, but it seemed everything about it was conspiring against me. Not only does it see the return of River Song – a character who was great at first but has long since had her time – but it also has one of the most ridiculous titles I’ve ever seen for a Doctor Who episode. I mean, I get it, but it’s not awfully festive, is it? But then again, neither was Voyage of the Damned, I suppose. Regardless, there’s undeniably something intriguing about the idea of Peter Capaldi and Alex Kingston squaring off on screen, and if Russell T Davies is a firm believer in this “sex storm” of a pairing, well, who am I to judge?

So, now that The Husbands of River Song has aired, did it make for a welcome festive treat? Or does it follow in the footsteps of Christmas turkeys from years gone by like The Doctor, The Widow and The Wardrobe?

The answer is… somewhere slap bang in the middle. It’s not bad. But it’s not great. It’s an hour of ups and downs, its quality inconsistent and almost entirely based on how invested you are in the character of River Song. For someone like me who has little attachment to her these days, that’s probably not the best of starts.

It’s Christmas though, so we’ll start with the positives. From an acting perspective, both of the leads play their part well – Peter Capaldi is on fine form as ever and, as promised, there’s a definite spark and chemistry between The Twelfth Doctor and Alex Kingston’s feisty archaeologist. In fact, this is probably one of the best performances we’ve seen from River Song since her debut way back in 2008, benefiting hugely from having the story entirely centred around her character rather than being shoehorned in as a supporting role. It’s also true that said story offers a welcome change of tone from the events of Series 9 – following some deeper, darker elements and the emotional farewell of Clara, it’s nice that things have shifted gears to a full-on farce. The comedic talents of Greg Davies and Matt Lucas only add to the lighter atmosphere, the two of them far better utilised than some other Christmas guest stars have been in the past (I still weep for you, Bill Bailey).

The problem is self-inflicting though. In going from one extreme to the other, the plot is light and fluffy – and it’s exactly that. Fluff. The characters themselves might be captivating but absolutely everything around them falls flat and it’s difficult to feel like you should care about what’s going on. It’s surprisingly straightforward, yet it feels so drab and convoluted – the tale of River Song and her many husbands simply just doesn’t capture the imagination. There’s some great set-pieces peppered throughout – the very opening scene with The Doctor’s hologram antlers, the reverse “bigger on the inside” moment, and the final scenes which I’ll get to shortly – but, on the whole, things just whizz by from one location to another, very little of it feeling of much consequence. Sure, it’s meant to play out like a sci-fi panto, but considering this script was written by the same man who gave us Heaven Sent only two episodes prior, it feels like one heck of a comedown.

If I was to sum up The Husbands of River Song in one sentence, it’d be “one joke stretched out for far too long” – the joke in question being River’s inability to recognise The Doctor’s new face. It’s funny at first and it offers a nice twist on all her previous appearances in the show, but this goes on and on for two-thirds of the episode and it really starts to wear thin. The special promised to show us “Mr and Mrs Who” in their prime, but they don’t actually start behaving like a proper pair until the climax, which is too little too late and there’s a lot of wasted potential. Fortunately, most other times the episode tries to nail a joke, they’re at least worthy of a chuckle – The Doctor’s reaction to the hideously graphic head-unzipping in the restaurant and the “irritable bowel” gag immediately jump to mind.

So, after a series of slapstick seasonal antics, The Doctor and River end up on Darillium where he dons his best outfit and takes her out for dinner by the Singing Towers. Thematically, this is hands down the best part of the special – the Towers themselves are a visual spectacle and this single scene manages to bring River’s time on the show full-circle, propelling her back towards the Library where we first met her and saw her demise. It’s a touching finale and a worthy end to the character – I may not be her biggest fan, but you’ve got to admire her persistence to just refuse to go away for good. Having said that, the scene is completely undermined by the cheesy “and they both lived happily ever after…” text at the end. Whose bright idea was that, eh?

Rather aptly then, this manages to be both a necessary and unnecessary story at the exact same time. It fills in the final blanks in River’s journey, but it’s not something we strictly ever needed to see. But we have now, so surely that’s her done and dusted – no more “spoilers” or “hello sweetie”, all we need is for “timey wimey” to be put to rest and normal service can truly be restored. It had a fun beginning and a thread-tying end, but sandwiched in between was a hollow and forgettable Christmas outing for Doctor Who. The thought that this might be our last taste of the show for a year – possibly even until next Christmas Day – is just a tad underwhelming.

To sum up then, it wasn’t perfect. But it’s Christmas, so it gets away with it. Had this aired at any other point in the year, I can’t have seen it going down quite as well as it seems to have done. For me, The Husbands of River Song was no Christmas classic, but it was harmless enough for post-dinner entertainment. Your mileage may vary, and at the end of the day, the clue’s in the name – you either like River Song or you don’t, and whatever your stance on the matter, you already know exactly how much you’re going to get out of this episode.

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