Doctor Who’s Christmas episodes are good at two things: being even cheesier than usual, and making us love every second of it. This year’s special, “The Husbands of River Song,” is no different, giving us an over the top emotional rollercoaster of an episode.
There were a lot of boxes to get checked off for this episode, and it has to be one of the few Christmas specials to have significant links to the main series episodes. The actual Christmas elements to this special were brief, a funny “Carolers will be criticized” sign, as well as The Doctor in antlers, but otherwise not a very Christmasy show.
Featuring the return of River Song (Alex Kingston), this special got to do a ton of things with Capaldi’s Doctor that we haven’t seen before. For one thing, this was one of the most laugh-out-loud episodes of his run so far. With River meeting this incarnation of The Doctor for the first time, The Doctor got the opportunity to have the upper hand in their relationship for once. Seeing Capaldi trying to hint at River about his identity and seeing her brush him off over and over was adorable and a little sad at the same time.
Strangely enough, in addition to being one of the funnier Capaldi episodes, it was also heartbreaking several times. Getting to see River through an outsider’s eyes, The Doctor doesn’t like everything that he learns. River married to a tyrant, as well as one of her coworkers … who knows how many other husbands she has had. Callous about murder, intent on making money, The Doctor’s view into River shakes everything we ever knew about their relationship. Has River been using The Doctor all these years? She even admits to repeatedly stealing the TARDIS without his knowledge.
Now with all these heavy revelations there needs to be a release, a ying to the yang. This is achieved through some of the silliest imagery the show could conjure. Mainly through River’s tyrant husband King Hydroflax, a giant robotic body with a removable head. This leads to many a scene with a head in a bag furiously yelling at The Doctor and River. This kind of silliness has been lacking in the Moffat years. In fact, this special feels like a bit of a throwback to the earlier seasons of the current series. How fitting considering the narrative hole it fills. More on that later though.
In addition to the general feel of this episode, certain plot points felt like a greatest hits remix of the Davies years. Elements like space cruiseliners, which we saw in at least two Davies era episodes, along with an old theme of even the characters who reach a life-changing end being perfectly content with their predicament. This felt like a mash-up of Davies and Moffat’s key components.
One of the best moments of this special, one of the funniest and greatest moments of Capaldi’s run, has to be when The Doctor gets to give his reaction to the TARDIS. Expanding on the usual “it’s bigger on the inside” line that everyone gives, the obvious glee on The Doctor’s face feels so authentic, both for the character as well as the actor as a longtime Who fan. Going huge with his reaction along with the score and camera angles, over the top is an understatement.
The only real negative I felt was that the last fifteen minutes or so feel like another episode. We jump from a fun, clever adventure story and suddenly we turn a corner and things get very melancholy and dramatic, as well as being tragically heartwarming. Both parts are good mind you, just the tonal shift is a bit abrupt.
I’ve always loved the River episodes of Who, but frankly this one wrapped things up so perfectly I truly hope this is her final appearance. I had my suspicions that this appearance would finally fill the gap in her and The Doctor’s story, the one from her first appearance in “Silence in the Library” so many years ago. They did finally give us the events as River described them, the singing towers of Derillium, The Doctor crying, River getting her own sonic and knowing that River would be going off to her death after this adventure gave extra weight to what we see.
Strangely enough, though Capaldi’s Doctor has been a colder, often meaner version, here he manages to have one of the sweetest and most emotionally honest moments of the series. Everything about how River finally realizes that he is The Doctor and after an episode with both of them realizing their relationship isn’t quite what it has been made out to be, somehow in the end the two of them feel even closer than they ever have before. If you can watch that final ten minutes and not feel a tug on your heartstrings I doubt anything could ever reach you.
As sad as their last outing is, it also might be the most loving this husband and wife have even been. After River realizes this is their final night together and asks The Doctor how long the nights last on this planet, he lovingly tells her twenty four years. Even though The Doctor has been cancelling plans and putting off this final outing for years, now that it has arrived a more fitting end for their story I couldn’t even imagine.