Doctor Who: “The Husbands of River Song” was surprisingly wonderful

I feel like it’s a somewhat unpopular opinion, but I adored “The Husbands of River Song.” Certainly, it’s my favorite Moffat-era Christmas special, but it’s also a rehabilitation of the relationship between the Doctor and River Song, for whom this episode also functions as a very nice send-off that wraps up her story as neatly as I think Steven Moffat is capable of doing.

In the tradition of Doctor Who Christmas specials, “The Husbands of River Song” is wildly silly. With a whisper-thin plot (River is trying to steal a diamond that’s embedded in the head of a tyrant robot king), the episode is carried along mostly by the entertainingly slapstick-y performances of the guest actors and, ultimately, by the wonderful interplay between Peter Capaldi and Alex Kingston, who have more chemistry in this one episode that Matt Smith and Alex Kingston ever did.

The thing about this episode is that it’s basically not about the plot at all. The tertiary characters of Hydroflax, Nardole, Ramone, and Flemming are all fun, in their ways, but they don’t matter. Frankly, I’m not entirely sure why the episode spends so much time with them. While I appreciate the desire to give everyone a happy ending, I actually found it unpleasant when Nardole and Ramone popped up in the final, otherwise beautiful and very romantic, scene at the Singing Towers of Darillium. For the most part, though, everything about this episode is building up to River Song’s impassioned speech about the Doctor’s indifference towards her and her realization that the Doctor has been with her all along on this adventure. From there, the episode makes quick work of showing how the Doctor plans to make things right with his wife.

River Song has been a troubled character almost since the very beginning of her existence in Doctor Who. While her introduction back in “Silence in the Library”/”Forest of the Dead” was interesting, River’s appearances after Steven Moffat took over as show runner became more and more frustrating as she was transformed from a fascinating time travelling adventuress to a character whose entire existence seemed to be bound up with the Doctor. When she and the Doctor actually wed, things were just plain uncomfortable, as the Eleventh Doctor was overtly hostile to River by that time. The couple of times River appeared after that were, frankly, forgettable, and it seemed that, after systematically diminishing the character and thoroughly subordinating her in service to the Doctor’s development, Moffat was finally content to let River Song be.

While I’d been excited for some time about the prospect of seeing Alex Kingston get to act with Peter Capaldi, I tried very hard to temper my expectations for this Christmas special. Even just the title, “The Husbands of River Song,” just seethes with sexist potential, and it wouldn’t be the first time that Moffat had used a Christmas special to convey some boring and condescending ideas about the role of women. Instead of the sexist disaster it could have been, though, “The Husbands of River Song” turned out to be a lovely portrayal of the romance between River and the Doctor. Sure, it may be a sort of hand-waving solution to years of missteps on Steven Moffat’s part, but it works so well and the payoff is so earned and touching that I can’t help but fall in love with River Song all over again, myself.

Miscellaneous thoughts:

  • The Doctor’s feigned reaction when he steps inside his own Tardis is a new iconic moment for the show.
  • Peter Capaldi really sells that “Hello, Sweetie.” Perfection.
  • I honestly just sort of uncritically love this whole episode, but I can definitely see myself watching that ending over and over and over again.

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