Doctor Who: 9X “The Husbands of River Song” Review
Reviewed by John Hussey.
‘The Husbands of River Song’ was a romp, so-to-speak, and was simply there to be watched and enjoyed. I felt I spent the whole of Series Nine analysing it, whether it was because I was trying to figure out the underlining meaning, or the disastrous directions Steven Moffat took the show. Also it didn’t help how inconsistent the quality was.
Like last year, I felt the finale left me on shaky grounds with the show but with the foreknowledge that River would be coming back, it gave me something to look forward to, despite my doubts with the show’s trajectory.
It was nice to see Alex Kingston back. It has to be said that I find River to be one of Moffat’s greatest additions to the show. Her character is just great to watch and has an interesting storyline. Some would say her character has depleted due to Moffat revealing too much about her, destroying her mysterious nature seen in her original appearance, but for me I think it has simply added to her character. This year’s Christmas Special was no exception.
Another exciting element was seeing River meeting yet another incarnation of the Doctor. She first met David Tennant’s incarnation back in 2008, then she spent the better part of four years mingling with Matt Smith’s incarnation and, after a short break, she is now meeting and greeting Peter Capaldi’s incarnation. She will even be interacting with Paul McGann’s incarnation within Big Finish Production audio adventures Doom Coalition 2 and The Diary of River Song.
Having not seen River since 2013’s ‘The Name of the Doctor’ it was nice to see her return. I think I needed cheering up after ‘Hell Bent’, requiring an episode that didn’t make my head ache. ‘The Husbands of River Song’ was filled with silly bits of fun. Now, like many, I didn’t know whether this was what I wanted from an episode of Doctor Who but it seemed to work all the same. Surprisingly, despite all the humour and fun within the episode it did come across as rather dark. River’s intentions of beheading King Hydroflax to obtain a priceless gem was quite extreme to say the least.
Seeing River when she wasn’t with the Doctor brought about a different side to the character, expanding on her cheekier and sexier qualities, to which are used a lot to gain her advantage. Sometimes you forget she was once Amy and Rory’s innocent child before being brainwashed by a corrupt religious order to kill a time traveller that has lived for over a thousand years before inevitably falling in love with that said time traveller. And that sentence in a nutshell describes River’s long, and complicated history.
The added bonus of the episode was the factor of River not knowing who the Doctor was, due to not knowing about his extended life cycle, leaving the door open for many humorous exchanges. The Doctor was constantly trying to reveal himself and failed with hilarity. We even ended up with a scene where he pretended he was boarding the TARDIS for the first time, demonstrating how one should actually react to the whole “bigger on the inside” concept.
Another running gag was the Doctor becoming insulted at River’s betrayal as she continuously reveals her other lovers. Despite the Twelfth Doctor’s distaste in affection, even he couldn’t help but feel backstabbed at the idea of his own wife cheating on him (and possibly sleeping around, because let’s face it, their relationship was sexual – the flirting meant something). It gave the Doctor a horrible insight as to what his dear wife got up to when he wasn’t around. But, in River’s defence, the Doctor has also fooled around with other woman, both before and during his marriage to River. Good Queen Bess!
Once River was aware of who she had been spending her adventure with, the chemistry shifted. They were back to their old selves again, minus the snogging. It was touching when the Doctor used River’s infamous line “Hello Sweetie” to finally convince her of his identity. Prior to this it was upsetting to discover that River believed the Doctor never truly loved her, despite her affections for him, and that she generally believed he wouldn’t be aboard the ship to save her. At least we know from ‘The Name of the Doctor’, her last known encounter with the Doctor, that the Doctor revealed his love for her through finally saying goodbye to her.
It is fair to say that all of the above was the main focus of the narrative and that everything else was just sort of there to fill in the gaps. King Hydroflax was, let’s face it, a lame villain. He didn’t particularly do much other than bark out orders and threats for comedy relief. It was his robotic body that served as the true threat of the special. And yet, you can’t hate the villain. Yes he was lame, but he was fun like the rest of the episode and Greg Davies delivered a great performance. Shame he wasn’t in it longer.
Matt Lucas was definitely not in it enough. Because the narrative was all about River, everyone else (other than the Doctor) quickly became redundant and so were wasted. It has to be said that Lucas was another example of twisted comedy, having been beheaded and attached to Hydroflax’ robotic body. Then again, nothing is quite as chilling as Scratch taking off part of his head in order to give River her payment.
The special was very much a River-centred story, this made it the first time in any of her episodes to date. I feel as though this Christmas was River’s show, and not in a bad way. After having Clara stealing the spotlight one time too many over the past few years, it was a fresh perspective to have someone else take up the mantle. It was nice, especially for me, to see River get so much attention because she is a great character. Like the Doctor she has many different layers. One minute she is wacky, the next minute she is unpredictable and Kingston always knows how to raise the bar in performance.
I’d go as far as to say Kingston stole the show. She really did blow Capaldi out of the water and pushed him to one side. That’s not saying that they didn’t have some wonderful scenes together though. They both still played well against one another, showcasing a new dynamic to their complicated marriage. I think, in many ways, Matt was the best actor so far to play against Kingston. They just had a great chemistry together and you felt they were on equal grounds. Plus, you could feel the passion and damaging love story that followed them.
The highlight of the episode, and certainly some of Capaldi and Kingston’s best scenes together, was the conclusion scene. We finally saw the Doctor take River to see the Singing Towers on Darillium. Their journey together had come full circle. And as River stated all the way back in ‘Forest of the Dead’, the Doctor cried. It’s no wonder the Doctor avoided this destination for so long. How could you take your beloved to the place you know you would be saying goodbye, practically sending them on their way to die? He even finally hands her the sonic screwdriver which will be used by his younger self to save her to the Library databank.
It has been a long, wild adventure seeing these two extreme, mad characters come and go together but it would seem their journey has come to its final conclusion. Because of this scene, we know that River doesn’t meet the Doctor past this point. I do feel also that this scene takes away the saddening scene in ‘Night and the Doctor’ where it seemed the Eleventh Doctor was the one who took River to see the Singing Towers. That scene made a lot of sense and still left their ending in somewhat mystery. It might have been better if the Twelfth Doctor handed River over to the Eleventh Doctor to complete this scene, but alas, the mini-episode has been somewhat retconned.
But, at the end of the day it was a necessary scene to see onscreen and it is fantastic to have finally seen it. I suppose the scene was disappointing because I didn’t feel it was all that emotional. Maybe it was down to the way the Twelfth Doctor is, I don’t know. It just didn’t have that tragedy factor that, say, the goodbye in ‘The Name of the Doctor’ had. It could also be that I simply loved Matt and Alex together. Either way, it was beautifully ended with the notion that their last night together would last for twenty-four years. In the end, their end was rewarding.
‘The Husbands of River Song’ was a nice little Christmas treat. Not a masterpiece, but certainly a great conclusion to River’s story. This was the episode’s highlight and I enjoyed every second of River’s screen time. It would be nice if Moffat stopped giving me whiplash with his sudden changes in quality; one minute writing a masterpiece and then the next minute writing a big old question mark that makes me wonder why the narrative even exists, making ‘Love & Monsters’ appear to be a gem.
This Christmas Special was a turnaround at least. I still have hope for the show, but I will keep my dread on stand-by mode on the off-chance Series Ten delivers more shocks (and not the good kind) and disappointment. Until then, at least we have this lovely piece to glare at. Keep up the good work Peter.