Review | Doctor Who – ‘The Husbands of River Song’

Photograph: 'The TARDIS' / Phil Long
Photograph: 'The TARDIS' / Phil Long

Where to begin? Firstly, those expecting the world from ‘The Husbands of River Song’ will be disappointed. It was beautiful, it was sad, and most importantly it was a fitting goodbye to the Professor.

The plot is surreptitiously buoyant. On Christmas Day, 5343 on the human colony of Mendorax Deltora, The Doctor is parked and grumpy in his TARDIS before being mistakenly recruited to attend to King Hydroflax (Greg Davies) by his assistant, Nardole (Matt Lucas). Arriving at his spaceship, he finds Doctor (“sometimes Professor”) River Song who not only doesn’t recognise him but is entirely oblivious as to his less than subtle clues that he is the Doctor and hasn’t the faintest about how to help the ailing king.

We find out that Doctor Song is married to the King to get access to an incredibly rare diamond lodged inside his (removable) head and that she’s in several polygamous marriages with little thought given to the Doctor (codename: Duchess), except when she’s stealing his TARDIS. Queue an hour of resplendent, non-stop running through time and space as Hydroflax’s robot body tries to reclaim its head and River shows just how she spends her days without her “monolith”.

What is immediately striking is just how well the supporting cast and story distracts from this being a momentous goodbye. Davies and Lucas are hilarious and Peter Capaldi and Alex Kingston, in their first performance together, have a natural rapport which easily transforms into a natural chemistry when the Doctor’s true identity is revealed to her.  It’s a rollicking, good humoured rollercoaster ride of laughs and cheers, ending with a few tears, which fits its Christmas billing and is ultimately very reminiscent of the Russell T. Davies era.

Stephen Moffat has said that he wrote the episode thinking that he would never get to write another episode of Doctor Who. His words were the first major hint that he was stepping down as showrunner, which was later announced after the broadcast. Although he is penning a final series before handing over to Chris Chibnall, it will be hard for him to top this episode.

If 2008’s ‘Silence in the Library’ was the spiritual birth of what Moffat could really do with Doctor Who then ‘The Husbands of River Song’ is his sanguine, but never melodramatic, spiritual goodbye. It’s obvious from the start of this episode that it was “time to go to the Library.” Fans had guessed it, logic dictated it and there is something inherently sad from the start because you can just feel that this is the final ride.

Knowing that David Tenant’s Tenth Doctor awaits with River’s death is as emblematic a success a writer could hope for. Moffat is leaving, but the loop he created both for River and with the quality of his storytelling is a Möbius strip that will never, ever end. It has been said that Moffat can’t write about women without coming across as sexist or puerile in his portrayal of them. To the contrary, it’s River Song and not the Doctor who was always the embodiment of Moffat as a gleeful writer with a wink in his eye, a plan to win when you least expect it and the proverbial tease for more (as the last line of the episode confirms). It is impossible not to see this special as a fitting conclusion to not only River’s story but Moffat’s time as showrunner and the writer who singularly embraced the satisfactory complications that time travel can offer.

As for the ending itself, there will hardly be a dry eye in the house. Capaldi’s Twelve Doctor, with his “new haircut and a suit” did, finally, take River to Darillium to see the Singing Towers. Established way back in 2008 as the last place the heavily implied wife of the Doctor would see him, ‘Silence in the Library’ and ‘The Forest of the Dead’ was the pinnacle of Moffat’s imaginative insinuation. The towers sang, River told us, and the Doctor cried as he gave her his screwdriver without saying why.

It is impossible for the arc to end, and for the final scene, in particular, to be exactly what everyone wanted. Part of the success with the introduction of River was just how much it left open to the imagination what exactly she was in his future. If Doctor Who spends most of its time travelling and has a massive back catalogue of material, it is a testament to Moffat and the show as whole that it can simultaneously make you feel nostalgic for events which have yet to be depicted on screen. Like with Tom Baker’s appearance in ‘The Day of the Doctor’, it never really got an explanation because you never expected one, certainly not for a very, very long time.

Most presumed, or certainly hoped, that River’s Doctor, given how she speaks to the Tenth Doctor, was a much older version of him (it lay in doubt at the time whether or not Tennant would reprise the role for a fifth series). This is not only excusable but fits the format perfectly when rewatched with the knowledge of what is to come.

What is harder to account for is the little moments of sentiment which are missing. Details were all we had when River was introduced, and details should have defined this scene. Capaldi’s Doctor gave River a screwdriver and not his, which (in the original story) was a heavily modified and updated version of the Ten’s (a disappointing oversight, given that Capaldi’s new one actually looks like a variant of Tennant’s). The moment is tinged and lost a lot of the punch that should have gone with it because it was meant to be a shocking gift of something so personal. This, coupled with Capaldi not actually crying, makes for a diminished scene. River never really got the Doctor who we are meant to believe loved her unconditionally; there was always a wall in the way that blocked the view of what their relationship was. While that chimes with the difficulty of the Doctor being a “monolith” that you can only love at a distance, it is heavily implied through her entire run that they are actually much closer than acknowledged.

The conclusion should have reflected this (would a kiss have killed anyone? Maybe the censors), but we did eventually get it in ‘The Name of the Doctor’ with Matt Smith (River’s future ghost, the Doctor’s self – still with me?). It makes sense for the story and for Song’s arc as a whole that her final Doctor was considerably older than Ten who first met her and the Eleventh with whom she travelled. That Song and Twelve have so much chemistry together is precisely what makes it work, leaves you wanting more and is a beautiful twist that a night on Darillium is “24 years”. As she reflected as they listened to the towers sing, you can love a monolith, but can it ever love you back? The answer is a resounding yes.

A conclusion then we got here, albeit with a tinge that it could have been better.

What is curious about Capaldi’s Doctor is just how much fun he’s having. In his first two series, there has been a progressive lightening of his tone. From the stern apathy that we were introduced to right up to the ageing rocker of the ninth series; but the character, despite the loss of Clara, is having a much welcome return to the joie de vivre of seeing the universe. He even acknowledges as much when says he hasn’t laughed in a long time, making you miss the more lighthearted days of the character.

Alex Kingston remains, as ever, marvellous in the role. If this is her last outing then there is nothing left to give without scraping the barrel of plot. Like Rose Tyler with Russell T. Davies, Moffat has created a singularly distinct character whose story is now at an end. Kingston’s style, and his writing, not only created a sincere evolution from child psychopath to love interest but one we came to care for.

Of the plot? It works to perfection: playful and utilised by a star cast who actually get breathing room and aren’t shoehorned in for good measure. It also benefits from not being a one-way trip to the end but a good story in its own right laced with plenty of moments to look back on. The Doctor finally getting his turn to react to the bigger on the inside TARDIS introduction was hilarious, as was the hidden drinks cabinet.

Murray Gold, who seldom gets the loud and proud credit he rightfully deserves, produced a score with the same cerebral curiosity and heartfelt punch of instrumentals that he introduced the character with back in 2008. It’s wonderful that his ‘Silence in the Library’ motif got a play, but the score will aptly be remembered for the literal ‘singing’ of the towers.

For some this episode will never live up to the promise of what ‘Silence in the Library’ and ‘Forest of the Dead’ intimated was to come. That could be said of River’s whole arc; that it was either too convoluted, too romanticised or not romanticised enough. Each will find their own in the story as each found made their own conclusions and guesses about what the intimations were in the first place.

What is beyond doubt is that Moffat’s reign as Doctor Who showrunner has been as multifaceted as his leading lady and just as complicated. As both leave, it’s fitting that they leave together with a good story. River Song’s departure is Moffat’s goodbye; poignant and sad but leaving you with food for thought and wanting more.

The scene which will stick in most people’s minds will be when River rants about the Doctor never being sentimental enough to be standing in the midst of trouble with her. When the penny drops as to who is next to her, you will hear the sweetest hello ever uttered which is gut-wrenching, not least because it is also a goodbye.

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