And now I’m crying into my figgy pudding.
Nothing says trustworthy like Death, taxes, and Doctor Who on Christmas. We Whovians gather in theatres or around the artificial light from our Sonys to worship at the altar of the one who drives the TARDIS. Since 2005’s brilliant “The Christmas Invasion,” however, I’ve been left feeling rather as if I’ve wasted an hour of my holiday than visited my favorite Time Lord. That is to say, the Christmas episode is not typically the Doctor’s finest hour. Hold your horses, Dear Reader, and be prepared to feel amazed: Snarky Rachel was moved tonight; I’ve gagged her and left that beeyotch in the corner to sulk as I celebrate the return of Stephen Moffat at his finest. “The Husbands of River Song” is one of the best episodes of Capaldi’s run, and for that he largely has to thank Alex Kingston’s return as River Song.
You’ve heard the hyperbolic “Capaldi’s finest hour” from my colleagues, no doubt, but not from me. I would rank “Husbands” right along with “Listen.” The episode is full of that patented Moffat humor juxtaposed with enough feels to move one to tears — even one as dead inside as this writer. Further, it finally cements River as more of a person than a legend, humanizing the character once and for all as one with hopes, dreams, and heartache, instead of She With All The Answers. River has always seemed so far “above it;” nevertheless, in the final hours of this Christmas special, she is faced not only with death itself but with the realization that the Doctor loves her and is letting her go anyway.
In a human colony, on a distant planet, during the 54th century, the Doctor is mistaken for a surgeon when King Hydroflax (Greg Davies), a brutal dictator, is close to death, having rather unfortunately gotten a valuable diamond lodged in his brain. We like comedy on Christmas! And after the sludgy, whiney, brooding Doctor from most of this past season, it is refreshing to laugh as Capaldi stretches his comedic chops alongside Davies, Kingston’s one-liners, and Matt Lucas (who is mostly underused here). If you think that’s the worst problem Hydroflax is facing, however, you’d be wrong: he’s found himself hitched to River Song, although she claims she basically married the diamond.
While River is her normal quippy, self-indulgent self, she’s a bit misinformed about the Doctor — for the FIRST TIME EVER! River does not recognize Capaldi as the Doctor because she is convinced he can only regenerate eleven times, and she does not know this face. After attempting to convince “the Surgeon” to kill Hydroflax and remove the diamond, the rest of the episode unfolds like a 1940’s caper film, that is to say: rather zany and full of charm.
One of the best bits revolves around the Doctor entering the TARDIS and marveling on its geometric wonders in a very dramatic “it’s bigger on the inside” performance.
My entire understanding of physical space has been transformed! Three dimensional Euclidean geometry has been torn up, thrown into the air and snogged to death! My grasp of the universal constant of physical reality has been changed…forever. Sorry, I’ve always wanted to see that done properly.
— The Doctor, in his best Shakespearean performance
Our lovable Time Lord is all jealous fumbling at the sight of his wife betrothed to another, but as usual, it is an open-ended question as to whether his jealousy stems from his feelings for her or his own pride. The Doctor mostly has fun with River not recognizing him, posing as her companion, finally getting “his turn.” But that turn becomes bittersweet when River is very open about how she sees the Doctor’s feelings for her. To River, the Doctor is the sun and all that revolve around him are mere specks of dust in the vacuum of space, just happy to have a little light shown their way. When flipping through her diary, she laments that it is almost full, and a sweet symbol of their love reveals itself as a curse when she notes that the man who gave her this gift would know that it was but a short assemblage of pages, spelling out to her the limitations of time, of life. It’s a subtly beautiful moment in the midst of the heist episode signifying a coming storm. We know the Doctor will eventually reveal himself to River, but under what context? He now knows how companions, how those he loves – in his way – see themselves through his eyes.
Kingston delivers a great speech about the Doctor not caring to show up in her hour of need, that he could not possibly love her, that anyone waiting around for him is just wasting their time. Well, you know the rest – the man loves to make an entrance. He turns to her with all the swagger of Smith, Tennant, and Capaldi together, and says, because you’ve been waiting for it and because Moffat knows when to drop a great line: “Hello, Sweetie.”
And They Lived Until They Didn’t
The final moments of the episode find River and the Doctor sharing a meal at the Singing Towers of Darillium, teased way back in “The Forest of the Dead” as the last time River sees the Doctor before going to her end with Ten. Capaldi gifts her a sonic screwdriver, and sheds a tear or two at the end of their affair. Nights on Darillium may last twenty-four years; however, there is a sense here that it is not enough time for either of them. That the Doctor is understanding the full weight of love and loss, not because he lost a companion, not because he knows River goes to her death soon, not because things end; the Doctor finally sees how he affects those he loves. How his love is both a gift and a kind of obligation.
Moffat serves River Song well here, and I can almost overlook the plot holes of River carrying around photos of the Doctor – so she would know full well that she had never met Ten when they come in contact with each other. She would not have to consult her diary as she does. Nor would she have to ask Twelve all the time where they are in the timeline if he was her only Doctor. Those matter very little in an episode that is both fun and heart-wrenching in the best possible way. It’s like Christmas to me. I hope you all enjoyed your day, and whether you celebrate or not, consider adding Who to your yearly traditions. If this hour was any indication, you’re in for a treat.