I should start this review by providing a little bit of context: As a generality, I don’t like the Christmas episodes. Most of them are schmaltzy and overly trite. I don’t even like the idea of Doctor Who doing Christmas episodes. So it is with that bit of information fully divulged that I declare openly how much I loved this episode. It’s not only the strongest and most enjoyable Christmas episode we’ve had, it caps off the strongest season of modern era.
What a journey Peter Capaldi and Steven Moffat have taken us on in the past two years with the 12th Doctor. He started out as rather dour, moody, grumpy and even rude. Personally, I enjoyed him in his first season; I found him to be a smart contrast from the previous two Doctors (whom I loved, by the way). He loosens up a bit, becomes a tad more jovial, a bit less abrasive, in his second season. And now we find him smiling, laughing, and downright jokey. Part of that is due to River Song, of course; she brings a certain air of naughty school girl truancy to any episode she shows up in, getting involved in heists, capers and high crime. And with “The Husbands of River Song”, we the fans have been given a Christmas present: a fully satisfying wrap-up to River’s saga.
This has an element of classic farce to it, with River looking for the Doctor and not knowing that he’s standing right next to her the entire time, which provides for some clever moments of wit that allow both lead actors to spread their comedic wings. The Doctor doing his own over-the-top “it’s bigger on the inside” moment (“Sorry, I just wanted to see that done properly”) is one of the gems of the entire series. The banter between the two leads sparkles like a polished knife with a spiky edge and is truly glorious. In one of the bumpers that BBC America aired during commercial breaks, Alex Kingston crowed about all the River one-liners this episode contained, and she’s right: “Husbands” contains some of my favorite River moments ever.
Another confession: River Song is a problematic character for me. I thought that her introduction in the “Silence in the Library” 2-parter was extraordinary: An archaeologist who is intimately acquainted with the Doctor, but is totally unfamiliar to him because this is his first time meeting her. It also proves to be her final time meeting him. What a staggeringly brilliant idea (I go into this in a bit more depth in my book Doctor Who’s Greatest Hits: An Unauthorized Guide to the Best Stories From Time and Space), and what a rich mine of material for future storylines. Unfortunately, in subsequent appearances (especially in Series 6), she became less a character and more a plot device — or rather, a series of plot devices. She became little more than one shocking revelation after another. The only thing that kept her from flying apart at the seams was the genius of Kingston’s portrayal. But here, in what seems to be a final appearance, we have her back as a fully-fledged character. Which is appropriate, as this leads indirectly into her first appearance. Alex Kingston is a force of nature and a monumental talent, and threatens to dominate every time she shows up; it’s a tribute to both David Tennant and Matt Smith that they stood their ground and didn’t allow her to run away with her episodes — especially Smith, as he had her at the height of her bombasity. But here we see that Capaldi is truly her equal and the chemistry between the two of them is electric. That scene at the dinner table where they’re discussing her diary is simply amazing.
This is a fast-paced, lighthearted adventure romp with strong comedy elements, a big flashy robot, a silly bald man and a loud, shouty king — at least for the first 50 minutes. And then we turn a corner as the story takes us to Darillium and the last night that the Doctor and River will spend together before (for her, at least) their fateful meeting in the Library. It’s an incredibly deft bit of writing by Moffat and direction by Douglas Mackinnon (who also directed “The Sontaran Stratagem”, “Cold War”, “Time Heist” and others) that the episode shifts gears so quickly and presents us with a final tender, quiet, melancholy scene between only the two leads. It was quite possibly the sweetest scene Capaldi has been given so far in his two seasons. The 12th Doctor presents her with the sonic screwdriver that she has when she meets the 10th Doctor. And then — he scans her with it playfully. What’s he doing? I’ll just bet he’s “saving” her, which leads right into the final scene of “Library.” Steven Moffat takes a lot of heat for his convoluted plotlines (justifiably so sometimes) but this, ladies and gentlemen, is Moffat at his most brilliant.
And while River’s adventures on television may be over, there’s still more stories to be told. Apparently she and the Doctor will be on Darillium for 24 years (Earth years? Gallifreyan years?). Plus, we now know that she’s sneaked off before with his TARDIS when he wasn’t looking, so who knows what she got up to on those jaunts. Plus, there’s gobs more River coming from Big Finish Productions, starting with “The Diary of River Song” releasing on December 26, the day after her Christmas episode!
The best season in 10 years wraps up with the best Christmas Episode. We’re in a golden age of Doctor Who. Enjoy it! You never know when things might change….
If you enjoyed this review and would like to read more, please order a copy of my book Doctor Who’s Greatest Hits: An Unauthorized Guide to the Best Stories From Time and Space!