Christmas Day is an opportunity for Doctor Who. It always pulls in a significantly greater amount of viewers than a standard episode, usually good for an extra couple of million and sometimes as much as five or six million more than the preceding series. So this is an important time because a lot of people who don’t normally watch Doctor Who tune in for the Christmas episode. A reasonable percentage of them is probably people leaving their televisions on in the background, so a big eye-catching episode to grab viewers’ attention is always a good idea. But more than that, this is one of the big moments each year when Doctor Who has potential new fans watching and needs to impress them (the others being first in the series, last in the series and returning classic monster episodes). Most importantly it needs to say: this is what Doctor Who can do, and look how exciting and fun it is!
So in light of all that, the way this episode functions is odd to say the least. It is very much the work of a writer who thinks he isn’t going to be writing any more Doctor Who, and is more interested in rounding off his own particular vision of Doctor Who than creating a springboard for new viewers to join. It feels like an ending, and at a time when this particular Doctor is only two seasons into his run and not going any time soon, that’s unnecessary and misguided.
River Song was always set up as a character who has her own adventures. The Doctor and River are occasional visitors into each other’s worlds. Up to this point, we never really get to see River Song off on her own adventures, or get much sense of what that might be like, so it made sense at some point to have an episode that functions as if it were a pilot episode for a River Song spinoff, with the Doctor making a guest appearance. At least it would have made sense if it was a mid-season Doctor-lite episode. On Christmas Day it’s frankly bizarre.
If we look at some of the most successful Christmas episodes, ruling out those moments over the years where Christmas coincided with a Doctor’s regeneration, what they all do is have the Doctor arriving on his own, throw him into an adventure, meeting a new companion or companion-substitute during the course of the episode. They don’t require any knowledge of previous episodes. And whilst The Husbands of River Song functions perfectly well on this level, it wouldn’t feel like that to a new viewer. There is so much linking back to the convoluted River Song backstory that a newcomer can’t help but feel like they are joining an ongoing story at the end of it. What’s worse is that the Doctor/River Song relationship as shown in this episode makes little sense without that backstory.
Think about it from the point of view of a new viewer. We are shown a character who appears to be a villain, albeit a villain with style. She is planning a murder. Despite this the sidelined, awkwardly comedy relief Doctor (this really doesn’t suit Twelve) chooses by the end of the episode to spend his next couple of decades with her. Just what is this strange series about? What does the Doctor stand for? Yes, this all makes sense to us – we know the back story and we also know that the Doctor’s relationship with River makes perfect sense in terms of a man whose only lifelong friend is also a murderer. But for anyone who is new to Doctor Who this is an oddity of an episode, shifting gears three-quarters of the way through to suddenly become a bittersweet romance between two characters that simply don’t seem to work together in those terms.
If you don’t think about what’s going on too much (and let’s face it, a lot of viewers on Christmas Day evening won’t) then it’s not a bad broadly comedic episode. Matt Lucas is brilliant, the second time a Christmas episode has introduced a new companion without realising it at the time, and then having to dramatically rewrite the character for future appearances. Greg Davies gets a bit of a raw deal, playing a character that is a waste of his talents: an angry head. If he was chosen just because he happens to be very tall then he should have turned it down. Have a look at Taskmaster to see what a genius he is at delivering wry one-liners (scripted with, or by, another comedy genius Alex Horne). You simply don’t take a talent like that and give him second-rate slapstick.
So this is a huge mis-step in terms of the best approach to a Christmas episode, but if you are a fan of the whole River Song storyline then you will love the episode. As a conclusion to the whole arc (and please let this be the conclusion now – it has run its course and then outstayed its welcome) it works well and delivers the big happy(ish) ending. It fits perfectly with the Steven Moffat Children’s Fantasy Fiction approach to Doctor Who, even referring directly to that “happily ever after” fairytale line that is something the Doctor can never have. The best he can manage is “happily for a while”… RP
The view from across the pond:
I’m not big on fishing; never really had the patience. Unlike the Sixth Doctor, who could sit and enjoy a bit of fishing, I’m more like the Eleventh waiting for a church to get painted. But fisherman or not, I know what’s involved. Get the rod, bait it, cast it, wait for a bite, pull it in and hope for the big one…
Stephen Moffat’s next Christmas special, The Husbands of River Song, is a bit like fishing. He gets the rod (River Song), baits it (sets the mystery), casts it (has the Doctor get involved) and waits for the bite (there are many throughout this episode), and he hopes there’s a win when he reels the story in to its conclusion. The most important thing to remember about Doctor Who is that it should always be fun. Season 9, the season that preceded this episode, started to lose that. The nature of the show is one that doesn’t always make sense, often steps on its own storytelling feet, and sometimes makes itself look terrible. But if it’s at least fun we can take something away. So it doesn’t have to be the big one, but it could still sate our hunger until a new season arrives, provided it’s fun. So with the weak Christmas link being the day it takes place only, we begin…
One thing Moffat and his predecessor do well is “long game storytelling”. This is when you drop a story idea and it can take ages before there’s a big “reveal”. When we first met River in Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead, she talked about how the last time she saw the Doctor, he arrived on her doorstep with a new haircut, took her to Darillium, and gave her a sonic screwdriver of her own. This is the episode that finally sees that come to fruition. It’s the episode that closes the book on the confusing life of River Song.
The problems I had with the episode start with River. She was a scientist, professor, and archeologist. Moffat’s former creation, Jack Harkness, was more of a pirate and gentleman thief. So what happened that turned River into a version of Jack? It doesn’t seem like the River that we’ve come to know.
Then there’s Hydroflax. What sort of villain is this? His head can be lowered into his chest and a replacement comes out? Man-E-Faces, much? (That was a He-Man reference!) It was like a toyshop got hold of Moffat and said, “we have an idea for a toy, but we need a story so people will buy it”, and Moffat complied! Now, Harmony Shoal on the other hand was creepier and had real potential but didn’t go anywhere particularly. Yet!
There are a ton of nibbles that tug the line, like the wallet with all the Doctor’s photos, but that feels forced and it’s in chronological order, which wouldn’t make sense based on the order River met the Doctors. Fact is, it’s not the bite we’re looking for to reel in the catch. There is an absolutely outstanding performance by Capaldi as he gets to “do it properly” when walking into the TARDIS as if he had never seen it before. A strong tug at the line, certainly, but… not quite there yet. Until the realization…
If you’ll pardon the pun, this is where we pull the catch out of the river. When River realizes that the man she’s been with throughout the episode is, in fact, her Doctor, it’s marvelous. Her description leading to the realization is incredible:
“You don’t expect a sunset to admire you back. When you love the Doctor, it’s like loving the stars themselves.”
This might not be the massive “catch that got away”, but it’s a hearty catch and certainly helps the yearlong Who-absence that followed! Starting as just mildly amusing, it leads to an extremely fun episode once that moment occurs. By the time the action has settled down and we get the epilogue (an idea that has sadly fallen out of favor in modern Who but seemed to be a staple of classic), we are treated to an incredibly heartfelt goodbye to River. The words appear on screen and fade slowly from “And they both lived happily ever after”, then dropping the “ever after” until finally only the word “happily…” is left.
At the end of the day, it was a good catch full of laughs, action and heart. Christmas Doctor Who was fun again! I smiled and turned off the television… happily.
Read next in the Junkyard… The Return of Doctor Mysterio