In the 2015 Christmas special of Doctor Who, The Doctor runs into River Song, who asks him to save her dying husband. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Doctor Who.
I wanted to like this episode more than I actually did. After an absolutely stupendous ninth series, this episode is like a reminder of the time when it was really hard for me to watch Doctor Who and actively enjoy it. Which sucks because I really like River Song and Alex Kingston!
But for the first half of “The Husbands of River Song,” the 2015 Christmas Special wanders along a nonsensical, confusing storyline while simultaneously shouting at me every five seconds. I didn’t even know what to react to because I didn’t even understand what was happening. I’m a big fan of in medias res and chaotic stories, but like many of the episodes in series six and seven, I felt like I was watching a story with a million missing pieces. Granted, that’s what a River Song story has to be. Her story happens in such a bizarre order when compared to the Doctor. That’s not what I have issue with. It’s that I’m thrust into a story with three new characters – Nardole, Ramone, and King Hydroflax – and I’m given no reason to care about them aside from the fact that Moffat’s script tells me to care about them. They’re River’s friends and Ramone is her husband. But why else do they matter? They exist to push the story forward occasionally, but they’re never developed beyond the obvious.
It’s frustrating because there’s so much happening in the first 30 minutes that I struggled to latch on to anything to keep me grounded. This special was more humorous than I expected, which was perfectly fine. I like a little wacky humor myself! But the best way I can describe what this experience felt like was that it all came out of nowhere. There’s not much of an introduction to any part of this story, and then, suddenly, River is telling an audience of millions that their King will be healed. Who were those people? Where were they? How did she even end up in that crashed spaceship??? Why did it crash? Where did Nardole even come from?
Without any of this context, “The Husbands of River Song” came across as listless. Entertaining, certainly! But as I struggled to find a way to identify where in the timeline she was (and correctly figured out it was before the “Silence in the Library” arc), I found that entertainment value waning. I was reminded of the many wandering, clever-for-the-sake-of-it episodes we got after Moffat took over. They’re completely absent from series nine, for the record! That season was tight, entertaining, emotional, and satisfying. It’s not until River’s distraught monologue aboard the Halassi ship that Moffat finds his voice within this episode. There, as River Song assures Flemming and King Hydroflax that the Doctor would never dare to fall in love with someone, that he’d never consider anyone a damsel worth saving, I was struck by what makes River such a compelling character.
I have had complicated feelings about River for a long time, especially since much of her latter characterization revolves so heavily around the Doctor that she never gets much all to herself. Here, though, she’s near the end of her life. Aside from her night on Darillium and the events in “Silence in the Library”, she’s experienced every iteration of the Doctor. She’s seen how cold he can be, but she also knows that he cares. But I’m most in love with Professor Song the archaeologist, who uses her wits to outsmart everyone who underestimates her. I am intrigued by the woman who enamors those around her while reaching around to pick your pocket.
I don’t know that we get much of that version of River here. Oh, it’s in the episode in pieces, but the conclusion of “The Husbands of River Song” covers one of the only things left that we’ve never seen of her timeline: the late date on Darillium. River will always be wrapped up in the Doctor; her whole life is a reflection of that. (Which is also a problem with the writing attached to her, but that’s a completely separate essay. PLEASE TELL ME SOMEONE HAS WRITTEN IT.) So while I wish we could see more of her life outside of the Doctor, I can’t deny how cool it was to see her date on Darillium. It’s a treat, especially once I found out that a night on that planet lasts twenty-four years. It’s also so goddamn sad; River gets the sonic screwdriver she’ll have in her last adventure with the Doctor. Her death is not far off. But perhaps this is the closure that her character needs. As far as I can tell, the loop is closed now, and we’ve seen every major event in her life. I wouldn’t be surprised if this was the last River Song episode ever, or if we don’t see her for a while.
What a weird “Christmas” episode, by the way!
The video for “The Husbands of River Song” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
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