Sunday 27 December 2015

Reviews in Time & Space: The Husbands of River Song

The Husbands of River Song

Christmas. A time for family, gifts, lots of food and of course the annual Doctor Who Christmas Special. These specials have ranged from festive romps featuring robot Santas to emotional goodbyes (and an energetic hello) to previous versions of the Doctor, comfortably asserting themselves as a staple of British festive television. The 2015 edition sees the return of an old face, as Professor River Song makes a surprise return in The Husbands of River Song.

The Doctor
Well it sure beats a fez

Some time after the events of Heaven Bent/Hell Sent, the Doctor has found himself on Mendorax Dellora, and isn't quite in the Christmas spirit. After being mistaken for a surgeon, the Doctor meets up with once again with River - only this time she doesn't recognise him thanks to his latest regeneration. It turns out River has hired a surgeon to cut off the head of her latest husband King Hydroflax - a ruthless cyborg with the world's most valuable diamond lodged in his brain.

What follows is an intergalactic heist story moving across the galaxy, as River and the Doctor are chased by Hydroflax's robot body as it tries to retrieve its head. And with River still blissfully unaware of who her latest companion is, the Doctor has found himself in a rather rare position indeed.

River Song
Andy's new caretaker

Christmas is usually advertised to be a special time for Doctor Who even when the story itself proves to be largely inconsequential, but this year Moffat managed to even add some extra festive cheer to the opening credits themselves. Though purely an aesthetic thing, the addition of snow and Christmas baubles to the opening credits was a really nice touch - setting the tone for the episode nicely as the fun kind rather than the overbearing kind.

The plot itself isn't a whole lot to write home about. River Song "steals" a priceless diamond and then unknowingly carts the Doctor around on one of her whirlwind adventures - on the surface that's about it. But honestly, is there anything wrong with such simplicity? In the last year we've had some pretty complex Doctor Who stories with various twists, and on the whole the atmosphere has been pretty glib. So after all that it's rather nice to kick back and relax with a light-hearted romp. Within a whole season this is the kind of story that would come across as instantly forgettable (albeit enjoyable), but at a time where Doctor Who can perhaps get away a lot more with light-hearted whimsy it comes as a very welcome change of pace.

King Hydroflax
Pick a head pun

The Husbands of River Song features a number of popular guest stars (most notably comedians Matt Lucas and Greg Davies), all of whom put in a pretty great performance but ultimately the story isn't about any of them. As the title suggests this is a River Song episode through and through. Now in the past my opinions on River have been less than favourable, but in this episode she really works. I don't know if it's her chemistry with Capaldi, the fact enough back story has been sufficiently covered with the character or that Moffatt has just improved when writing her, but everything clicks. Ever since her first appearance in Silence in the Library the show has thrust her as yet another extremely important figure in the Doctor's life, but this is the first time it has been shown from an alternate perspective. 

For a start, we see that River's relationship with the Doctor causes her just as much pain as it does joy - her fully acknowledging that his feelings aren't going to be reciprocated in the conventional sense. Similes such as "like loving the stars and asking them to love you back" are really well-played here, and Alex Kingston pulls off an emotional performance as a River who sadly knows that her time is coming to an end. The episode also acts as the perfect opportunity to fill in some of the gaps that have accumulated in the last few years - finally answering the eternal question of where she got her own Sonic Screwdriver.

River's screwdriver

That isn't to say the episode solely belongs to River though, as Peter Capaldi is on top form as well. Whether it's as a product of Clara's departure or simply the wonderfully grumpy nature of the Twelfth Doctor, he starts out in an unexpectedly un-festive mood before being a rather curious mixture of amused and frustrated at River's inability to recognise him. For once the Doctor finds himself in the role of the companion, and the story doesn't leave any opportunities missed to take advantage of this reversal. His "reaction" to entering the TARDIS for the first time is brilliant, especially with the comment that he's always wanted to see it "done right". The rapport between the pair is perfectly handled, retaining the bond the two have always had while dialling back on the overly physical romanticism Song had with both Ten and Eleven. What's left is a mutual respect and admiration, and their final scenes against the backdrop of the Singing Towers easily the most touching they've ever had. And without a single kiss scene in sight.

The Doctor & River
And it was the best day ever.

For an episode that, judging by the title and synopsis alone, I didn't have especially high hopes for I found myself pleasantly surprised by The Husbands of River Song. Though a pretty straightforward romp with an overbearing amount of guest stars, it injected a much needed bit of fun into Doctor Who while providing a satisfying and often emotional (third) end to the story of River Song. After years of having little love for the character, I'm finally at the point where I'd actually be eager to see the character again. Or alternatively just check out her newly released Big Finish adventures, which look to be a great place to explore the character.

No comments: