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A deeply silly Doctor Who reunion takes an emotional turn

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Just in terms of its narrative structure, “The Husbands Of River Song” is one of the strangest hours in television history. For the first 40 or so minutes of its run, it’s a deeply goofy bit of slapstick space opera whimsy, with Peter Capaldi playing against a recurring guest star who last appeared on the show more than two years, and hasn’t really had an active role in a story in closer to three. And then, in the final 15 minutes, the episode shifts tones completely, going for a poignant, melancholy send-off that directly calls back and completes a narrative circle that the show began tracing way back in 2008. For Alex Kingston and River Song, tonight’s episode is the follow-up to “The Angels Take Manhattan” and the direct prequel to “Silence In The Library”/“Forest Of The Dead.” For Peter Capaldi and the Doctor, this Christmas special finds him walking in the footsteps of both his immediate predecessors, particularly Matt Smith’s 11th Doctor. The result is … well, it’s not bad, honestly. But it’s absolutely a weird episode, and it probably doesn’t have quite enough genius and emotion in the end to quite justify the oddness of its construction.


That’s not the worst of sins, as these things go. The first two thirds of “The Husbands Of River Song” are probably best understood in terms of a precept writer Steven Moffat first articulated in an interview for 2011’s “The Doctor, The Widow, And The Wardrobe,” in which he noted that he had to write the show’s Christmas specials in the knowledge that a decent chunk of the audience would, given the festive occasion, probably be a bit drunk and sleepy by the time they settled in to watch Doctor Who. What that has tended to mean for both the Moffat- and Russell T. Davies-penned Christmas specials is that they are quite a bit broader than your typical Doctor Who episode, something that already isn’t exactly known for its subtlety. Sometimes, that means the show simplifies its storytelling and themes so much that they become discomfiting to those who actually are paying attention—for instance, whatever “The Doctor, The Widow, And The Wardrobe” is trying to say about womanhood and maternity probably isn’t unsalvageable, but the whole thing is just crying out for nuance the yuletide format is ill-equipped to provide.

More often, in both the Davies and Moffat eras, we just get the show holding the audience’s hand in the most cloying, obvious ways, and a lot of that goes to the music. It’s one thing for Doctor Who to consciously decide to tell a lighter, fluffier story at Christmastime. It’s quite another for the show to use every last music cue to hit viewers over the head with how damn light and fluffy this story is. Murray Gold’s scores for the show have long been criticized, in part for being too loud and too obvious. While I wouldn’t really argue with either of those points, I do think obvious music can work with more emotional storytelling: Yeah, it’s not great for a show to feel it necessary to tell its audience how to feel, but if the audience is already feeling those things, the music can end up complement and accentuating those emotions. That won’t be true for all viewers, admittedly, but that’s at least plausible. What’s far more frustrating is when the show uses music to tell the audience … well, not when to laugh, exactly, but when to be amused. Screwball comedy is not something the show can fake with silly music. It’s only something the show can earn with the right combination of winning performances, clever writing, and good, well-paced direction.


And this episode has a lot of the elements to be funny, if it would just get out of its own way! Peter Capaldi and Alex Kingston, plus guest stars and Britcom stalwarts Greg Davies and Matt Lucas, are all capable comedic actors. Steven Moffat gets in plenty of his usual supply of one-liners, and River Song’s flirtatiousness works a bit better and feels a little with this more caustic Doctor. A spacefaring cruise liner for the universe’s worst murderers feels like something out of a minor Douglas Adams story, although I think I’m officially ready for Moffat to move on from survivable decapitations and aliens that can open up their own heads. In fairness, I’ve now had the chance to watch “The Husbands Of River Song” a second time, and the music cues and general sense of whimsy aren’t quite so overbearing on a rewatch, perhaps because I had a better sense of what to focus on beneath all the noise. But, at least on the first time through, this special can feel pretty damn exhausting in stretches, which is a shame because, again, all the potential is there for this to be a funny little confection of a special, at least until it gets down to the real business at hand.

Yet, for all that, I’m charitably inclined toward “The Husbands Of River Song,” even at its least effective moments, mostly because there’s nothing actively wrong about what’s going on here. (Unless you’re of the opinion that River Song just shouldn’t appear anymore under any circumstances, which is a perfectly valid opinion that I neither share nor especially understand.) Some of this, I suppose, is because there have been some bad Christmas specials in this show’s past, and more than that specials with bizarre, off-putting messages. I mentioned “The Doctor, The Widow, And The Wardrobe,” and then there’s “Voyage Of The Damned,” a story that unquestionably tries out some interesting things but is also one of the inexplicably misanthropic Christmas stories I’ve ever seen. “The Husbands Of River Song” is, at its worst, a goofy but fundamentally harmless comedy that has some interesting ideas but doesn’t quite work.

It helps that “The Husbands Of River Song” is, especially once the opening (and rather amusing) gag about the Doctor’s antlers is dispensed with, probably the least Christmas-themed special the show has ever done, especially compared with other Moffat specials. Unlike any of his previous efforts, this special has no real interest in making any grand statement about the deeper meaning of Christmas. Considering “A Christmas Carol” and “Last Christmas” already offered pitch-perfect, albeit very different meditations on that subject, it makes sense to go in this very different direction, and freeing tonight’s special of any particular need to comment more deeply on the human condition makes its misfiring moments feel that much more forgivable.


I realize that’s not exactly a strong endorsement of the episode’s charms—and, in fairness, I’m talking here about what we get for the first 40 minutes, not the completely different 15-minute epilogue that closes out the special—but a lot of this comes down to how much the episode gets out of its own way. Most Doctor Who Christmas specials, freed of the longer-term storytelling responsibilities of in-season episodes, act as showcases for their Doctors, allowing the star to cut loose in an episode that’s crazier and wilder than usual. That should be kind of the best thing ever, but for all the reasons outlined above, that frequently doesn’t really happen. “The Husbands Of River Song” ends up being fun, even when it’s flawed, because even its clunkiest music cues can’t overwhelm Peter Capaldi’s performance. That makes sense, given Capaldi’s best-known comedic work was on The Thick Of It, a show with no music whatsoever; as such, Capaldi is particularly good at finding the comedic rhythms of scenes purely in terms of his interactions with the other actors.

This is very much a story where the Doctor ends up going on a silly, whimsical adventure against his wishes and his better judgment, yet he also has such a ball seeing River Song again—at least until he learns what it’s like to see what she’s like when the Doctor’s not around. There are other, more fleeting indications of deeper emotional beats the episode could have explored, had it chosen to: The Doctor mentions he hasn’t laughed in a long time, implying he’s still getting over the heartbreak he suffered over the past season. River’s amoral behavior and open-minded relationship to all things sexy don’t sit well with the Doctor, though the episode never digs too deeply into that part of the relationship dynamic. That’s probably for the best, honestly, because I’m not at all sure the show could have had the Doctor (and, by extension, Steven Moffat) sit in judgment of River without the whole thing going off the rails.


Anyway, all that ends up mattering is the one thing River is absolutely, indisputably wrong about: The Doctor really does love her, even in this unknown new incarnation who appears ill-equipped to understand the concept. And frankly, I’d have put up with an episode a hell of a lot worse than “The Husbands Of River Song” just for that moment when the penny finally drops, when River looks over and the Doctor says, “Hello, sweetie.” Capaldi’s Doctor makes us earn every moment of warmth, which makes them all the more powerful when they do at last come. We saw in the opening just how happy this Doctor was to see River, but it’s only in that moment, when he is finally with her, that we realize he feels something still deeper toward her. Then the next five or so minutes are proof enough both that the continuing adventures of Doctor and River would have been something to see—or perhaps to hear, if Matt Smith could one day be persuaded to join Alex Kingston at Big Finish—and that said adventures are narratively impossible, because those two together are so ridiculously overpowered that they can solve any crisis in a tenth of a story’s running time.

Then, at last, we get to the Singing Towers of Darillium. Even for a hardcore fan like me, I’ll admit I had forgotten a few of the key details of what River had told the 10th Doctor way back in “Forest Of The Dead”—and it was only on the rewatch that I caught the Doctor’s throwaway line about his new haircut, ticking off one more box—but “The Husbands Of River Song” takes its time in setting up what this planet and those towers mean to both River and the Doctor. For River, this represents the last, terrible confirmation that she was right all along: The Doctor gave her precisely as long a diary as she would need, and he now can put off this appointment no longer. For the Doctor, Darillium represents the last piece in a temporal jigsaw puzzle he spent his past life—and, for just one terrible day, the life before that—assembling. He is melancholy yet resolute when he realizes he and River have at last made it to the singing towers, and he does all he can to make their last night together as romantic and perfect as possible.


For all that, I expected there to still be some last grand swerve coming, not least because “The Husbands Of River Song” appears to close off any possibility of River ever coming back alongside this Doctor or any after him, unless the show finds some way to restore her post-library self to life. (There are any number of narratively plausible ways to do this, but considerably fewer emotionally satisfying ways.) The mention of River’s nearly full diary made me think the Doctor might present her with a new one, crowbarring in all manner of new, previously untold adventures in the apparently closing gap between her adventures with the 11th Doctor and her one encounter with the 10th Doctor. But no: The Doctor gives her the sonic screwdriver that his earlier self will soon (and long ago did) use to save River’s consciousness, and the circle is complete. River’s next adventure will be her last, and the Doctor’s first.


All that leaves, then, is the question of living happily ever after. On this point, the show offers its one great twist, redefining River and the Doctor’s “last night” to mean something far grander, far longer, and far worthier of the lives and loves they shared. The Doctor echoes Clara’s line from last year’s series-best Christmas special that every Christmas is last Christmas, and that all things must end. But for beings that measure their lifespans in the centuries, there’s no reason that farewells should be brief. Maybe even a trickster god with a time machine can’t hold back fate forever, but he sure as hell can linger in those last moments longer than anyone else could. As River points out when she argues for the true definition of “happily ever after,” that’s more than enough for the Doctor and River to get their happy ending, even if tragedy still awaits.

It’s funny to think that, at least according to Steven Moffat himself, “The Husbands Of River Song” was very nearly his last ever story for the show, and that he came very close to leaving Doctor Who after writing this story until changing his mind and staying on. Judged as a whole and giving proportionate weight to those first 40 minutes of silliness, it’s hard to imagine a sillier way to go out than with this. (Though considering the perfection that was “Heaven Sent” did air about a month ago, I think we could still call leaving now as going out on a high note.)


But focusing on those final 15 minutes as the true would-be end of the Moffat era, it makes a lot more sense. I’m glad this isn’t quite the end, because as frustrating and flawed as Moffat’s approach to the show can be—admittedly less so after this generally excellent year, but still—there’s still something to his approach to Doctor Who that can be found in no other writer, and his handling of the Doctor’s arrival on Darillium and the beginning of his last night with River is proof of that. The Doctor and River’s story was always something that seemed to lie just beyond our view, with the glimpses we did get mere extracts of a far greater story that we probably couldn’t even comprehend. Seeing the leadup to a 24-year final night together is just about the quintessential example of that. But what we do get to see is plenty beautiful on its own terms, even if the show takes a weird and wonky path to get there. “The Husbands Of River Song” could absolutely have been better, but I’m not sure its ending could have been. If you’ve got to choose, it’s better to start weak and finish strong than vice versa, and this year’s special absolutely does that.

Stray observations

  • I doubt this is actually the final end of River Song’s adventures on television, though I imagine she will continue to be an only occasional presence on the show from here on out. That said, today does mark the beginning of a new era for her, as her first Big Finish adventure, The Diary Of River Song, was released a few hours ago. This is one of a couple of already announced stories that will feature River and the 8th Doctor together in some unknown capacity, which should be fascinating to see play out.
  • River does indeed have photos of all the Doctor’s faces, including the War Doctor’s. Given how she just “borrows” the TARDIS here, we might reasonably assume that her main interactions with the Doctor’s pre-11th incarnations are just to covertly steal their TARDIS, though again the spin-off media might end up complicating that picture a bit.
  • And that does it for Doctor Who for a little while, as the show isn’t due to return until probably relatively late in 2016. As always, it’s an absolute blast to write about the show and talk it over with you all, and this year has been especially fun. I certainly intend to be back for more when the Doctor returns next year.