This year’s Doctor Who Christmas special, The Husbands of River Song, followed on from what was arguably one of the most consistently well written and best performed series since Steven Moffat took over. After such a high standard had been set, could this romp through interstellar con-artistry and flashy, giant robots hold up?
The short answer is no. But then I’m not sure if it was supposed to. This year has been a lot more focussed on the Doctor’s desperate desire to save people and has delved into who he is as a person, how he relates to people, and where exactly his morals draw their lines. This Christmas special left all of that behind in favour of what I think was supposed to be just a bit of fun.
Let’s take a look at the story. River Song has apparently married King Hydroflax (Greg Davies), much to the Doctor’s shergrin. It doesn’t take long, however, for the Doctor to discover that she is, in fact, after a diamond that is lodged in the dying monarch’s head. Hydroflax is dying and has replaced most of his body with a giant, red robot which can, apparently, act more or less independently. The Doctor acts with some subdued horror and annoyance at River’s new associate and later with conflicted anger towards her true intentions – to cut off the king’s head and dig the diamond out.
We get a little bit of the Doctor’s discomfort here and he gives a few token objections, but nothing is fully fleshed out. This is a recurring issue in this episode and one I will come back to. Suffice to say, it seemed as if they were setting up something that never came, so this feels like a bit of a loose end.
Hydroflax’s head is already removable, it seems, and they kidnap it and escape in a somewhat comical manner. The Doctor laughs it off and expects River to have worked out who he is by now – but she hasn’t. She has a collection of all of his twelve previous faces, but not his current one.
Matt Lucas’ character, I should mention, felt like another waste of guest talent. I was reminded of Bill Bailey’s appearance in The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe (2011) – a comic actor brought in as a pull for the audience, but ultimately left with very little to do.
River has yet another husband, Ramone (Phillip Rhys), who helps them locate the TARDIS. The Doctor becomes even more irked as River alludes to having ‘borrowed’ the TARDIS on previous occasions. After a rather hilarious moment of the Doctor pretending to be amazed by the dimensional differences of his own ship, there is something of a hiccup as the TARDIS refuses to take off with only Hydroflax’s head and not his body. At this point, the giant robot body steals Ramone’s head and comes after the TARDIS.
Escaping to the starship Harmony and Redemption, we get another glimpse into River’s life outside the Doctor. This is a ship where only the worst of the worst of the galaxy’s criminals come. Genocide, mass murder, planet destroying and more are just some of the entry requirements. Again, the Doctor gives her a worried look as she expresses pride in her being there.
This isn’t dealt with in any detail and honestly, it’s a massive missed opportunity. The Doctor looks genuinely hurt by a lot of what River says about him and there’s some very subdued moments from him mulling it over. But where we could have had some genuine conflict between them, where there could have been some development and have them talk to each other as reasonable human beings what do we get instead? Boob jokes and gross-out aliens.
As River tries to sell the diamond, complete with Hydroflax’s head, things spiral out of control. The robot returns, the criminals aboard the ship gang up on her, and all seems lost. Slowly, River realises that the Doctor is who he is and they escape through means that are ultimately not important or particularly plausible, but hey this is Doctor Who.
The ‘defeat’ of the giant robot was a bit of a disappointment, too. I think there was an attempt made to make it into a sort of commentary on banks, money, and society. But it didn’t really come across particularly well and it very much fell flat. It felt much like back in the 70s when the Doctor would give a robot or a supercomputer some sort of logic puzzle that would confuse it until it stopped working. The solution came out of seemingly nowhere and felt a very sudden and unsatisfactory end to an antagonist who had been terrorising us for the whole episode.
The ship is hit by meteors and is going to crash on the planet Darillium. The Doctor makes an attempt to save the ship and everyone on it, but after River tries to take his place, and then he tries to take hers again, they agree to let the ship go down, saving themselves only. This made me genuinely uncomfortable, especially when the Doctor makes a remark about how nobody would be saddened by the deaths of everyone aboard. It seemed uncharacteristically cruel for a person who has a history of saving people and has just spent the entire last series going to extreme lengths to make sure everybody lives.
This is like a twist on the 2007 Christmas special, Voyage of the Damned. There the Doctor does do everything he can to save the crashing ship and rescue everyone – even the people he doesn’t like, even the people he would rather not keep alive. The Doctor did it because it was the right thing to do and didn’t make judgements on the people, he just saved them. And given that that was a major theme of this year’s series, it felt out of kilter that the Doctor would so callously dismiss all that death, no matter who the people were.
And then the Doctor and River have their final night together as they watch the Singing Towers of Derillium. River mentioned back in Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead that this was where they last met before she died. Fans who have stuck around since then would have quickly picked up on it, and there were a few mentions of the fact that her diary was almost full.
Now this scene here sums up exactly what is wrong with this episode. Here we have an opportunity for a quiet and emotional moment for the Doctor, to give the audience a chance to take in the full impact of what he is feeling, knowing that River is going to her death. What do we get instead? Exposition on top of cheesy lines. It felt forced, it felt clunky, it felt like this was the first draft.
We know Peter Capaldi and Alex Kingston are great actors, capable of delivering a lot of pathos through silence, and that’s what this scene needed. We didn’t need the Doctor to straight up tell her that she was going to die. We didn’t need all the exposition. We didn’t need the characters announcing what was going on. We needed to see it, we needed to feel it. It was a wasted opportunity.
It’s the same old thing he’s been doing with River Song for a few years now. Where once she was an enigmatic and interesting character with depth and potential, she became a catchphrase machine geared towards what John Nathan-Turner always called ‘something for the dads’. I thought we were past that. I thought we’d developed since those sexist times and attitudes. River does not come across as a sexually liberated character, but more as an outlet for the writer’s fantasies.
This episode felt very much like Steven Moffat running on autopilot. Sex jokes, witty one-liners, throw away remarks, and time-travel solutions thrown in for good measure. I wonder if he’s been exhausted by the year’s busy schedule.
But maybe this wasn’t supposed to be a character driven exploration of ideas. Maybe it was just a silly little adventure for the Doctor and River. Well, why can’t it be both?
After an absolutely stellar series, this was a let down. I’m willing to forgive many of its faults because it is supposed to be a bit of a Christmas romp. But still, I think we expect a little more from Doctor Who these days.