Doctor Who “The Husbands Of River Song” REVIEW
Aired in the UK on BBC One, Christmas Day
Writer: Steven Moffat
Director: Douglas Mackinnon
Essential Plot Points:
- At Christmas on a human colony far in the future (that looks like it’s been colonised by Harry Potter fans) the Doctor is mistaken for a surgeon and asked to operate on the dying warrior King Hydroflax.
- To the Doctor’s surprise, King Hydroflax appears to be married to River Song, but River doesn’t recognise the Doctor in his latest body.
- River has, in fact, only married Hydrflax so that she can be close enough to him to cut off his head… because the King has a diamond lodged in his brain.
- But it turns out the King can detach his head from his artificial body anyway. So the Doctor and River nick it and go on the run.
- However, the King’s body has its own AI, and it pursues them, acquiring new heads along the way.
- Lots of shenanigans on a luxury cruse spaceship full of dodgy aliens later, the Doctor defeats the head-hunting AI.
- But the ship is hit by meteoroids, and crashes on Darillium next to the Singing Towers, where the Doctor knows he and River are destined to spend their last night.
- He gives a local the diamond and tells him to sell it and use the money to build a restaurant with a view of the towers.
- He then nips forward in time so he and River can have their last night… telling River that on Darillium a night lasts 24 years.
We’re not being Grinches, honest. But while “The Husbands Of River Song” isn’t a Christmas turkey by any means, it is a bit of a trifle: a gaudy, sugary, over-rich piece of fluff.
You can see what Moffat’s aim is; after a boldly experimental season full of format-breaking episodes and high emotional drama it’s time for a bit of fun. This Christmas special is an unashamed, undemanding romp that exercises the brain about as much as a Road Runner cartoon. It’s a sci-fi screwball comedy with the Doctor and River in the Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn roles. It’s pacy, it’s funny, it action-packed and boasts some striking visuals (especially a couple of the new alien races).
But while there’s a lot to enjoy along the way as it rushes towards a beautifully judged and moving final five minutes, overall… it doesn’t quite work. It’s a little too desperate to be loved; an ADHD episode that’s overdosed on Smarties, jumping up and down going, “Look at me! I’m being funny!” Too often it’s simply loud, shouty and slapstick, relying on army-wavy, eye-rolling, overacting and silly voices.
Capaldi, of course, gets away with going over-the-top – his faux reaction to the size the TARDIS’s interior is one of the episode’s highlights (“Finally…!”) – but Alex Kingston’s cod-Shakespearean overtures of love to King Hydroflax are like something out of a Carry On film. Greg Davies appears to been told to act like he’s in Blackadder while Matt Lucas was clearly hired simply for his extensive range of comedy whimpers.
Combined with the ’70s Top Of The Pops lighting and Murray Gold’s “all-that’s-missing-is-a-penny-whistle” score, the result is more than a little panto at times. Sure, it’s Christmas, so that’s a cheap shot (and a criticism that’s been somewhat unfairly levelled at the show before) but never has it been nearer the truth. All it needed was for Missy to turn up as Widow Twankey. There’s nothing wrong with Who being silly on occasion, it just works better if it isn’t signposting that it’s being silly.
What’s telling is how much better the episode becomes when it does dial down the excesses. While River Song in mugging mode might reinforce every prejudice harboured by those who’ve grown tired of the character, when Alex Kingston is actually required to act (such as her speech about why you can love the Doctor but he’ll never love you back, plus that exquisite final scene, of course) you remember why we all fell in love with River in the first place. In amongst all the sound and fury, the little scene in which River talks about the diary and the Doctor reflectively says that the man who gave it to her “sounds awful” comes across like a rare gem; it’s a kind of tonal change the episode needed more of. In an episode that’s largely plotless (which isn’t a criticism, it never pretends to be anything other than a caper) it’s the character moments that provide the depth.
There are plenty of other incidental details to love in “The Husbands Of River Song” (see “The Good” list below) but the absolute high point has to be the final few scenes on Darillium. Even if you’re not the kind of fan who gets excited at the fruition of a throwaway line from over five years ago, it was a powerfully emotional way to end the episode. It looked great too, the image of the Singing Towers has near-mythical impact. If nothing else the episode sends you away with a warm glow, and doesn’t even rely on a punchline, just a surprisingly honest little exchange: “I hate you.” “No you don’t.”
Is this the last time we’ll see River Song? Probably. Possibly. While there is wriggle room for more appearances, surely her story must end here. As she said, her diary is almost full; “The Husbands Of River Song” is the prefect postscript to fill up those last few pages.
- Hydroflax’s AI body is impressive and you have to love his Big Hero 6 moment when he unexpectedly grow wings and launches into the sky. We also love the idea of a robot going around procuring heads; it’s just a shame about the heads he chooses here.
- The alien concierge is wonderfully loathsome and not just because his kids ate his wife. The design of the prosthetic mask was excellent too.
- The opening titles, with Christmas tree baubles in place of planets, are either cheekily kitsch or embarrassingly twee. Either way, they suit the episode.
- So River’s been secretly borrowing the TARDIS and has even installed a drinks cabinet? Good on her.
- The two or three “serious” Doctor/River moments are all really, really strong, the ending specifically.
- The Singing Towers.
- The Doctor’s spin on the old “it’s bigger on the inside” cliché.
- “How do you know me?”
“It’s a tiny bit complicated. People usually need a flowchart.”
“I think I’m going to need a bigger flowchart.”
- “I’ve got cross arms.”
- “It’s my back.”
“My back’s playing up. It simply refuses to carry the weight of an entirely pointless stratum of society who continue nothing of worth to the world and crush the hopes and dreams of working people.”
- This guy… this moment… the Doctor’s reaction…
- In the past director Douglas Mackinnon has helmed some great action episodes of the show, but he seems less sure when it comes to comedy. Where’s the subtlety? Even the action scenes – usually his forte – are a bit of a mess.
- Why is it lit like a ’70s sit com? Apart from the final scenes which are gorgeous to look at, the rest of the episode looks like The Goodies meet Charlie And The Chocolate Factory.
- The comedy score is grating at times.
- The general overly broad tone of the acting.
- Is that street set the same one used in “Face The Raven”? Even if not, the similarity when the two episodes have aired so close together, is distracting.
And The Random:
- DID YOU SPOT? River pulls an Eleventh Doctor’s Fez from her bag.
- River reminds the Doctor of people he’s been married to: Elizabeth I (in “The Day Of The Doctor”), Marilyn Monroe (in “A Christmas Carol”) and Cleopatra (unknown). The Doctor claims that River has also married Stephen Fry (again unknown) before suggesting that Stephen Fry and Cleopatra are the “same thing”. Now there’s a story for Big Finish to play with…
- River invites the Doctor to share an Aldebaran Brandy. The Star Trek universe has Aldebaran whisky and Antarean brandy. So River could be drinking – gasp – a hybrid!
- The Doctor greets River by saying he’s had a haircut and is wearing a new suit. This is a reference to River’s speech in the Tenth Doctor episode “Forest Of The Dead” when we first heard about the Singing Towers Of Darillium: “The last time I saw you – the real you, the future you, I mean – you turned up on my doorstep with a new haircut and a suit. You took me to Darillium to see the Singing Towers. What a night that was. The Towers sang and you cried. You wouldn’t tell me why, but I suppose you knew it was time. My time. Time to come to the Library. You even gave me your screwdriver. That should have been a clue.” You can see how it’s all come full circle now?!
- If you understand what the phrase “me time” is a euphemism for, Nardole’s final exchange with River takes on a whole new meaning.
- If you’re wondering how this all fits in with the mini-episode, “Last Night” that was one of the extras on the Series Six box-set then River does mention that time “When there were two of you.” In “Last Night” the Eleventh Doctor meets a future version of the Eleventh Doctor who is on his way to his “last night” with River. So presumably it was one of the occasions she mentions when he he ”chickened out”…
- When Flemming is reading from River Song’s diary he mentions The Pandorica Opens (from “The Pandorica Opens”); a picnic as Asgard (mentioned in “Silence In The Library”); the crash of the Byzantium (the wrecked spaceship in “The Time Of Angels”); and Jim the Fish (a friend of the Doctor and River’s mentioned in “The Impossible Astronaut”).
Review by Dave Golder