2015 Christmas Special “The Husbands Of River Song”
Directed by Douglas McKinnon
Written by Steven Moffat
Starring Peter Capaldi, Alex Kingston, Matt Lucas, Greg Davies BBC America
Air date: December 25, 2015
When it comes to modern Doctor Who, I have to admit a soft spot for River Song. That’s especially true of her first appearance in “Silence In The Library/Forest Of The Dead.” Written by Steven Moffat, it was one of the brighter spots of the Russell Davies era. It has some entertaining plot twists, an energetic performance by Alex Kingston, and a sudden opening of new possibilities for what the Doctor could be and for what show could look like.
It’s been seven years and River Song is back. That future happened. Russell Davies and David Tennant turned into Steven Moffat, Matt Smith, and now Peter Capaldi. We know River Song’s origins and the meaning of her name. We’ve learned much about her history and something of the Doctor’s as well. Does this latest encounter polish or tarnish the legacy of their time together? Let’s find out.
River Song turned out to be surprisingly important at the start of the last six years of Doctor Who. As Kingston recently pointed out in Vanity Fair, River Song became a key dramatic bridge for Moffat when he assumed control of series in Season 5. She was a familiar fixture in a show with a new look, a new Doctor, and a new companion. River then went on to become a central figure in the main arc of Season 6. Those appearances brought thrills more often than not, but they also revealed what annoys me most about Moffat: very uneven pacing when it comes to his ability to tell a story.
With the completion of Amy and Rory’s story in “The Angels Take Manhattan” during Season 7, River’s story became less important. The main season story arcs transferred to Clara, first as the Impossible Girl and then her relationship with Peter Capaldi’s Doctor. River did appear once more that season as a part of Matt Smith’s regular season farewell, but her character was less central to the plot. River Song then fell silent and reality set in: the Doctor’s future seemed to fall a bit short of the possibilities hinted at in 2008.
Alex Kingston now returns in the 2015 Christmas Special, “The Husbands Of River Song.” Moffat admitted to the Radio Times back in November that this is partly for selfish reasons. He had concerns that this Christmas episode might be his last, and he wanted to end his tenure by bringing back a favorite recurring character that he hadn’t written for a while. Moffat’s departure from the show has not happened, however. He’s already talking to the press about season 10 and that his replacement as showrunner has not been identified.
Going into this Christmas Special, one must acknowledge that writing another River Song episode must be a little tricky. She’s a character with some close but very open-ended personal history with the Doctor. She can only be played by a single actress because her first appearance in show history is actually her last physical appearance in her personal timeline, before she is transformed into a nearly immortal being in a computer core. She more frequently interacts with the Doctor on her terms rather than his. She appears to know what several of the Doctor’s incarnations look like from memory. In short, she represents an increasingly long set of creative rules that grows with each appearance on the show. Keeping those straight gets more difficult as the appearances pile up.
What Steven Moffat does this time out is attempt to circumvent all that. He tries to throw out the rule book on River Song. He wants the first meeting between River and Capaldi’s Doctor to be very different than any meeting she ever had with Matt Smith (or the one with David Tennant.) He is at least superficially successful. Much of the meeting is the inverse of what much of the audience has come to expect out of a River Song episode in its broad strokes.
The effect is largely slapstick with a large dose of Douglas Adams. When it comes to a River Song story, this is not a bad thing. Since their initial meeting, there has always been a certain screwball comic energy between River and the Doctor. This time merely turns that energy up to 11.
Peter Capaldi and Alex Kingston help in this effort. Kingston must have been originally been cast as River to bring brashness to the role, and that fits in well with what’s needed here. I first saw Capaldi in a quiet, deadpan comedy film called Local Hero in the mid-1980’s with Peter Riegert and Burt Lancaster, and he was great. Together, they make a decent screwball couple — she is all zany energy and he lets a withering look or a whispered line say absolutely everything.
Where it remains unconvincing is in the unrelenting pace of much of the time. There are so many unfamiliar things going on at once that it’s hard for a viewer, at least this viewer, to accept or fully comprehend what is happening. Like all screwball comedies, the plot serves to pile problem on problem until it all comes tumbling down. That happens here with an ever-appropriate “Hello, sweetie,” but the road to that moment feels so impossible that it never fully pays off.
The story also adds to the disorientation after that with an abrupt change in tempo. The last 15 or so minutes turn from screwball to sentimental. There are a set of breadcrumbs that were laid down over all of River’s prior appearances about what certain meetings with the Doctor in River’s future look like. At least some of these get competently paid off in a tender way, but it’s a lot to take in. The whole thing is a lot to take in.
For all of Steven Moffat’s vices, he has brought some virtues to Doctor Who. I’ve always felt that Alex Kingston and River Song are among them. This episode does not dissuade me from that notion, but it’s not River’s best appearance. It takes her and the Doctor in some very interesting new directions. It gives the character a rare thing: a relationship with three incarnations of the Doctor. A lot of it works, and works quite well. A bit of it doesn’t and that sticks out like a sore thumb.