Steven Moffat stated in an interview that, for a long time, he thought that this script, the 2015 Christmas special, might be his last for Doctor Who. He didn’t know if he’d be continuing as showrunner after 2015, and undoubtedly had at the forefront of his mind the possibility that this year’s Christmas special might very well be the last episode he produces for Doctor Who, at least as showrunner. And, truly, The Husbands of River Song feels very much like a swan song of sorts. It isn’t just that it ties up the seven-year story of River Song in what feels like definitive and satisfying closure — there’s a relief and gaiety, but also a genuine emotional touch, to the proceedings that lends to it a sense of warm finality. I mean, much of it is silly farce, but it’s silly farce done in such a loving, adoring way that it does feel as much a personal statement from its writer as much as it is a bit of lighthearted seasonal fluff. You can feel, in a very real sense, Steven Moffat smiling affectionately through the script. To put it another way, if Heaven Sent and Hell Bent were the soaring final act, the coup de grâce to the Moffat era, then The Husbands of River Song would have been the rousing encore.
As far as Christmas specials ago, this is surely the campest, fluffiest, most farcical yet. And there’s nothing wrong with that. After the intense and emotionally devastating three-week long coda to Series 9, a lighthearted, comedic, self-consciously camp story about the Doctor and River Song stealing a bad old king’s head, jam-packed with the most juvenile, lame humour Moffat could muster, was exactly what we needed to bring Doctor Who in 2015 to a close. It was the perfect tonic to one of the darkest, heaviest ends to a series since 2005. And this episode wasn’t just a worthwhile watch for that reason — lighthearted camp can often be tedious, forgettable pap (e.g. Partners in Crime, The Crimson Horror), but this was genuinely fun, funny and well-written farce. It was so self-consciously camp and silly — the characters, the lines, the whole situation were supposed to be unutterably ridiculous — that it was good, and it doesn’t pretend to be anything else. If nothing else, it’s highly pleasurable and gratifying light Christmas viewing, which is as it should be.
At heart, though, this was a story about the Doctor and River Song, not King Hydroflax’s head. It was a joy to watch Peter Capaldi’s Doctor and River Song together, no less in a situation where one doesn’t recognise the other. It was also poignant to watch the Doctor visibly hurt by River’s not recognising him and by her flirtation with what seems like everyone apart from him, when she thinks he’s not watching. The situation made for some fantastic moments, hilarious as well as poignant, not least the Doctor’s side-splitting and eminently re-playable performance when he gets his chance, “finally”, to do the “It’s bigger on the inside” thing. Easily the best “It’s bigger on the inside” of them all, in my opinion. But moments like the Doctor and River’s tension-laden conversation at the dinner table on the supervillain luxury resort spaceship carried great emotional weight. And of course, River’s speech, insisting the Doctor (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”), the love of her life, doesn’t love her back, was very good, very earnest and emotive.
All of which made it so much better when River finally recognised the Doctor. The dynamic between River and Capaldi’s Doctor, and the flirting and the banter, after River recognised the Doctor was every bit as good and electric and convincing as River with Matt’s and David’s Doctors. It does make me wonder, even, whether the moment shouldn’t have been delayed as long as it was, whether we could have been treated to more quality Twelve-River action. As a close to River Song’s story in Doctor Who, though, the episode was perfect: as lovely and beautiful and emotional as you could want. The show, in tying up River’s seven-year long character arc, brings her story full-circle, ending it by leading into Silence in the Library, the first time we ever see River, but the last time River sees the Doctor (in life). As an effective addition, it was interesting to see that the Doctor has learnt his lesson from Hell Bent — he knows, and accepts, that this is the last time he sees River before she goes to the Library, where she will meet her end, and he can’t change that. When he says “Times end because they have to,” and “There’s no such thing as happily ever after,” he’s clearly still internalising his lesson re Clara, as well as resigning himself to River’s fate. Which is as punchy and profound an instance of the Doctor’s character development as it gets, frankly. “Happily Ever After”, though, as River insists, only means time, and it’s such a gratifying and lovely end to River’s story on Doctor Who to know that River and the Doctor will have, practically, as much time as they could want to spend together on their final night. And that final shot, of the Doctor and River gazing lovingly into each other’s eyes, was beautiful. Happy Christmas, indeed.
Quote of the week:
“It’s bigger on the inside!”