‘The Husbands of River Song’, written by Steven Moffat, opens on Christmas day in the year 5343 on the planet Mendorax Dellora. Due to a case of mistaken identity the Doctor is summoned to save the life of King Hydroflax by his wife, River Song. For once River doesn’t recognise the Doctor and he is caught up in her scheme which involves assassination and a diamond heist.
This is a Christmas romp putting the Doctor in the unique position of being a sidekick in River’s adventure. There is plenty of danger provided by a giant robot body with a habit of stealing peoples’ heads and later a luxury space cruiser whose passengers and staff are all guilty of genocide with lots of laughs along the way.
Yet at its heart this is an examination of the relationship between River and the Doctor as he gets to see how she is when he isn’t around and what she really thinks of him.
Spoilers From Here On In!
River Song has, for the most part, had the upper hand in her relationship with the Doctor. She knew more about him and how to play him. Even in ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’ River had the Doctor at her mercy when she was programmed to kill him. In ‘The Husbands of River Song’ she is vulnerable because she doesn’t recognise the 12th Doctor.
He knew that she was a brilliant, determined woman before but here he gets to see a more ruthless side to her. As part of her plan to recover a precious diamond she has married King Hydroflax and paid a surgeon to decapitate him so she can make of with his head. The fact that King Hydroflax is dictator who literally eats his enemies alive doesn’t make her actions much better.
Shortly after the Doctor finds out River is also married to her handsome henchman Alphonse, although she wiped his memory of the wedding. River also mentions she has had wives in the past.
It becomes clear this is about the Doctor suspecting that River has just been using him. Their bizarre relationship, which has tied time into knots and warped reality, could all just be part of a confidence trick. Especially as he learns that River refers to him as the ‘Damsel’ because he needs rescuing so often and that she borrows his TARDIS without his knowing.
Peter Capaldi and Alex Kingston play all of this brilliantly, with rapid fire exchanges that are reminiscent of the finest screwball comedies. Capaldi captures the Doctors dismay at not being recognised, uncomfortableness around River kissing her other husband and then his glee at playing dumb, particularly his over the top reaction to the interior of the TARDIS.
For her part Alex Kingston makes River incredibly competent and someone that is used to being the smartest one in the room. It is to her credit that she doesn’t make River look foolish when she doesn’t see that the Doctor is right in front of her (even when he tells her). As we see as far as River knew there were only 11 Doctors and no more. So confident was she in this information that she couldn’t predict that there would be more.
The supporting cast also elevates the story, with Greg Davies as a perfect pantomime villain even when he is reduced to just a head. Matt Lucas is also great as the bumbling Nardole who ends up having his head put on the giant robot body by its onboard AI. This leads to a very funny gag in which it appears Nardole is pointing a gun at his head when it is in fact just the robot body threatening him.
The story moves at a quick pace, with the River and the Doctor escaping in the TARDIS with the starship Harmony and Redemption where genocide comes to relax. While they wait for the buyer of the diamond the Doctor notices Rivers sadness, which turns out to be because her diary is almost full signalling the approaching end of her life.
The buyers turn out to be worshippers of King Hydroflax putting River and the Doctor into deep water as the cultists fill the dining room. With the headless robot suit seeking the Doctor’s head as a replacement they plan to use River as bait to draw him out (unaware he is standing right next to her).
It is here we see another side to their relationship as River states that while she loves the Doctor she doesn’t believe that he loves her. She realises that he isn’t so small or ordinary that he could fall in love with a mortal, something which harks back to Missy’s speech in ‘The Magician’s Apprentice’ about how Time Lords transcend simple concepts of love.
This is another stand out performance for Alex Kingston conveying the anguish and tragedy of River’s love for the Doctor but her utter defiance in the face of death. She is not dependent on him and has obviously lived through many perils where the Doctor didn’t rescue her and she doesn’t expect him to.
This leads to a beautiful moment in which, at the height at her rant that the Doctor doesn’t love her, that River sees the 12th Doctor for who he is. That recognition plays in silence until the Doctor acknowledges the connection between the two with a ‘hello sweetie.”
We get a reminder of just how brilliant River is when it is revealed the reason she set up the meeting on the starship was because she knew it was destined to be destroyed. Her foreknowledge is used perfectly and it explains just why she was happy to rub shoulders with world killers, because she knew they were all going to die.
After trying and failing to save the ship (and competing over who is going to sacrifice themselves) the time travellers use the TARDIS to escape to the planet Darillium, with its singing towers. Both the Doctor and River know that this is said to be where they spend their last night together (as revealed in ‘Silence In The Library’ and touched upon in the mini-episode ‘First Night/Last Night’).
Perhaps influenced by the events of ‘Hell Bent’ the 12th Doctor goes out of his way to ensure there is restaurant to take River to while she is unconscious. He even gives her the sonic screwdriver (to replace the sonic trowel she uses here) that will download her mind as time demands. This seems a conscious decision to bring their relationship to an end for the good of the web of time.
This is a very touching scene as the couple are serenaded by the singing towers. A geographical feature, unable to acknowledge their existence nonetheless provides something of beauty. In their presence the Doctor explains to River that there is no way around this moment. Her fate can’t be undone and there is no loop hole to exploit. This is their last night together.
However, on Darillium, a night lasts 24 years.
A caption assures the viewer that the Doctor and River lived happily ever after, implying that they spent the next 24 years together finally acknowledging the love they hold for each other now having reached a point in their respective timelines where they are equals.
This was a wonderful Christmas episode. The comedy was pitched just right with events being farcical but never becoming a parody. There was still a real danger to the characters and they used brilliance to come out on top but what made this so good was that it concluded the River Song story in a way that doesn’t take anything away from what has gone before (or after in this case).
Alex Kingston and Peter Capaldi have real chemistry. They convey so much of their character personal and emotional journey within the 60 minute span of the episode it is a shame that it is unlikely we’ll see more of this pairing. River has never seemed more perfectly matched than with the 12th Doctor and it is easy to imagine them spending 24 years together.
While not about Christmas the episode nonetheless captures the festive feel, opening on the snowy colony filled with carollers to the message of hope for the future. This is one of the best Christmas episodes for a while (although I have a soft spot for ‘A Christmas Carol’).