It’s Christmas Day on a remote human colony and the Doctor is hiding from Christmas Carols and Comedy Antlers. But when a crashed spaceship calls upon the Doctor for help, he finds himself recruited into River Song’s squad and hurled into a fast and frantic chase across the galaxy. King Hydroflax is furious, and his giant Robot bodyguard is out-of-control and coming for them all! Will Nardole survive? And when will River Song work out who the Doctor is?
All will be revealed on a starliner full of galactic super-villains and a destination the Doctor has been avoiding for a very long time…
Peter Capaldi is the Doctor in The Husbands of River Song
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The Doctor – Peter Capaldi
River Song – Alex Kingston
Nardole – Matt Lucas
King Hydroflax – Greg Davies
Ramone – Phillip Rhys
Flemming – Rowan Polonski
Scratch – Robert Curtis
Concierge – Anthony Cozens
Alphonse – Chris Lew Kum Hoi
Receptionist – Nicolle Smartt
King Hydroflax’s Body – Liam Cook
Voice of Hydroflax – Nonso Anozie
Written by: Steven Moffat
Directed by: Douglas Mackinnon
Broadcast: 25 December 2015
Poster by: Stuart Manning
Gifs by: J-Ru
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Christmas specials should be fun and relatively light-hearted, and The Husbands of River Song succeeds on both levels. A quick moving story about a criminal caper comes complete with tons of banter, a series of amusing moments, and antagonists that manage to unnerve while being amusing and unique. And perhaps most importantly, this story helps to close the narrative arc (possibly?) on an important and beloved character.
It’s Christmas 5343 AD, on the planet of Mendorax Dellora, and there’s an intergalactic warlord in desperate need of a surgeon. But what he gets is the Doctor, who isn’t in the mood to put up with an homicidal, genocidal maniac with a killer headache. The cause of the headache, one of the most priceless diamonds in the entire universe that became embedded in his brain, doesn’t even raise one of the Doctor’s attack eyebrows. What does get his attention however is the doting and attentative wife of said warlord – one River Song. The Doctor is happy to see River, but she isn’t happy to see him. In fact, she doesn’t recognize him at all…
In many ways, the 2014 special Last Christmas felt like the true finale for Series 8. It tied directly into that season by closing the book on Danny Pink while reigniting the Twelve/Clara dynamic which appeared to have come to an end due to the events of Death in Heaven. In contrast, The Husbands of River Song is a stand alone episode. There is no mention of Clara, Missy, Davros, the Daleks, or the Time Lords. There’s no huge galaxy destroying threat or any danger of the Web of Time unraveling or any chrono-shenanigans (outside of River). It’s just the Doctor and River in one of their oft-mentioned off-screen adventures that the viewers are finally allowed to take part in. According to Steven Moffat himself, there was a very good chance that The Husbands of River Song would have been his last episode of Doctor Who as showrunner, changing his mind at the last minute to come back for another season. Considering the near perfection of Heaven Sent and an incredibly solid follow-up with Hell Bent, an episode such as The Husbands of River Song could have been seen as a silly way to go out. But to me it would have been an appropriate story to end Moffat’s tenure as it encompasses the best of Moffat’s writing and storytelling abilities while also touching upon one of the most discussed aspects of his time as showrunner.
To me, Moffat has a gift when it comes to writing dialogue. His early 00’s sitcom Coupling struck a chord with me because of the interactions between the characters in terms of dialogue and monologue while also managing to convey a sense of camaraderie between them. It was also incredibly funny. The Husbands of River Song follows in that vein, showcasing the relationship between the Doctor and an unsuspecting River through both banter and their reactions to each other. From the very beginning of the episode, the comedy of errors begins with the Doctor annoyed that River doesn’t recognize him and River ticked off that the Doctor keeps insisting they know each other. No one does annoyed like Peter Capaldi and very few people do “will you please be quiet” like Alex Kingston, and the more the Doctor tries to drop a hint to River that he IS the Doctor, River casually blows him off or interrupts him with something much more important and the cycle continues. There are so many little moments such as River casually mentioning she steals the TARDIS all the time and the Doctor never knows about it…
…or the Doctor and River trying to rescue the other while the space liner is crashing…
…or by instantly going back to their feisty flirting as soon as River realizes who she’s standing next to…
River: So, what’s the plan?
Doctor: I count five exits, two hidden, one in the ceiling.
River: What about the one down below?
Doctor: No, I don’t like it.
River: Too close to the engines?
Doctor: Too tight.
River: Ooh, is someone getting personal?
Concierge: Excuse me, but what is this!?
River: Hush now, mummy and daddy are talking.
X X X X X
Doctor: What do you think, by the way?
River: Of what?
Doctor: Of my new body!
River: Oh, I’ll let you know. I’ve only seen the face.
Or an absolutely perfect response by the Doctor when River warns him that the inside of the TARDIS is a bit less…snug than he would think.
Moffat also adds a unique villain to the proceedings. While Lord Hydroflax (played to hammy perfection by Greg Davies) may not have long-term staying power, the idea of a suit of sentient power armor who casually swaps out one head for another whenever a direct link to information is…required. It’s a horrifying concept when one things about it, but Moffat plays it for laughs. The space liner that provides the setting for the second half of the episode could have come out of a Douglas Adams novel – a high-price luxury cruise where the price of admission is several billion credits and confirmed galactic atrocities, including the buyers for the Halassi Androvar diamond…
Moffat’s script combined with the directing of Douglas Mackinnon (Time Heist, Flatline) makes for an enjoyable episode that serves as a fine Christmas special that contains a few memorable moments, but there’s nothing to set it as a classic when compared to Last Christmas or A Christmas Carol…though there’s also nothing that makes it as dreadful as Voyage of the Damned. It’s not until the last 15 minutes that The Husbands of River Song drops the emotional hammer with its attempt to close the story arc for River.
One of the most discussed aspects of Steven Moffat’s time as showrunner, and really as his time as a television writer, has been how he writes and handles woman. Moffat has introduced several female characters to the Who canon – River Song, Amy Pond, Clara Oswald. And there have also been the supporting characters in the form of Missy, Ashildr/Me, and Jenny/Lady Vastra. On one hand, these characters have been strong, independent, capable of solving problems and saving the day on their own without a man’s help, and were never afraid to call the Doctor out when the situation demanded it. But on the other hand, it always seem liked the entire lives of these characters revolved around the Doctor. I don’t mean in the “well, they’re in the same episode sharing the same plot” kind of way, but in the way that the Doctor was the center of their entire lives. Missy is eternally obsessed with him and seems to have taken it up a notch in her female regeneration (no male ego my tuchus). Amy Pond spent her entire childhood and a good bit of her adulthood waiting for him to show up. Jenny and Lady Vastra seems to have all kind of off-screen adventures of their own (get on it, Big Finish!) but the only time they’re been independent of the Doctor was when they just happened to be investigating the same utopian community in The Crimson Horror, and even then their time on screen seemed to say “we’re just placeholders until Matt Smith shows up.”
Now there’s River, who was conceived on the TARDIS itself, born and raised to kill the Doctor, and has associated with him often enough that the mere mention of her name is enough to make a Dalek ask for mercy. River is a character who has seen it all, done it all, is smart and clever enough to almost give the Doctor a run for his money, and has had tons of off-screen adventures both with and without the Doctor. The Husbands of River Song could have been a chance to see one of her solo adventures. More importantly, it would have been a chance to see River WITHOUT the Doctor. And there are several moments where we see just that, where we see just how ruthless River can be. She’s willing to simply scoop out Hydroflax’s brain because she’s “married to the diamond,” and she’s awfully nonplussed with how another husband of hers, Ramon, ends up with his heads on Hydroflax’s robot body, but it doesn’t matter since she erased his memories of their marriage because he was getting annoying. And she casually steals the TARDIS out from the Doctor’s nose, implying she’s done so time and before, go so far as to call him “The Damsel” since he always needs rescuing even though he’s no one special.
This all puts River’s relationship with the Doctor in a whole new light. For all the flirting and banter, it could be possible that River was using the Doctor the entire time and she was good enough for him to fall for it. This could have been a very interesting plot thread to follow, as it also could have meant River recognized the Twelfth Doctor and was just stringing him along the entire time.
But then, when she’s run out of options and Hydroflax’s body is demanding the Doctor…
River: 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! [She catches the Doctor’s gaze, and the two look into each other’s eyes]
The Doctor: Hello, sweetie.
River: You are so doing those roots.
…the truth comes out.
Now, it could not be the truth. The whole thing also could have been River overplaying her hand on purpose and the Doctor finally catching her off guard. But it still means that no matter what happens, the Doctor is always on River’s mind and she, dare I say, pines for him. This would be fine within the confines of a single episode or a series with River as a full-time companion. But for a character who we’ve been told is known across the entire universe and has done all these awesome things…it’s classic Moffat – a strong female character whose existence revolves around a male figure in some capacity.
But it IS a very powerful and emotional moment, with Capaldi putting so much emotion into two small, quiet words, and from there the Doctor and River show kicks in to great effect, all the way to the very end of the episode where much like Christmas everything it tied together into a neat little bow. The last few minutes are the heart of the episode because of the planet the pair are standing on. River knows its name, Darillium, and knows its where she spends her final night with the Doctor. It’s where the Doctor gives her the sonic screwdriver she’ll use to save him in Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead. And it’s where…
The Doctor: Times end, River, because they have to. Because there’s no such thing as happy ever after. It’s just a lie we tell ourselves because the truth is so hard.
River: No, Doctor. You’re wrong. Happy ever after doesn’t mean forever. It just means time. A little time. But that’s not the sort of thing you could ever understand, is it?
The Doctor: Mmm. What do you think of the towers?
River: I love them.
The Doctor: Then why are you ignoring them?
River: They’re ignoring me. But, then, you can’t expect a monolith to love you back.
The Doctor: No, you can’t. 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 song.
River: So, assuming tonight is all we have left…
The Doctor: I didn’t say that.
River: How long… is a night on Darillium?
The Doctor: 24 years.
River: …I hate you.
The Doctor: No, you don’t.
– A sonic trowel. Now I’ve seen nearly everything.
– There was a picture of the War Doctor in the wallet. I’ve never wanted a War Doctor/River story until that very moment.
– Hello Professor Song…
Cobi’s Synopsis – A fun and light-hearted episode with an emotional coda, The Husbands of River Song makes great use of Peter Capaldi and Alex Kingston with a caper-style story that wraps a ribbon around the story arc for River Song.