Tony tries to slot 2015 into the Christmas Special charts.
Before the 2015 Christmas Special aired, I honestly wasn’t looking forward to it that much.
After the high-octane storytelling of Series 9, all the released information about the Christmas Special felt a bit slapstick, and simultaneously a bit The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe, with its big robot (swappable heads sold separately), couple of comedians as guest stars (a la Arabella Weir, Bill Bailey, Alexander Armstrong), rather than, say, the likes of Richard E Grant, Sir Ian McKellern, or Michael Gambon. It all felt a bit…frothy, a bit inconsequential.
Having watched it, there’s still that sense of froth. Much of the story - as is frequently the case with River Song stories – devolves quickly into banter, on the basis that that is who River is, the banterer in the face of danger, death, and exploding star systems. It’s almost like Steven Moffat getting his full-on comedy demons exorcised whenever there’s a River story, but that sense has seldom been more palpable than in The Husbands of River Song.
That said, the central idea of the story is fairly bleak. What does the person you love get up to when they think you’re not around? And if you think that lacks a certain festive touch – you’ve obviously never spied on your loved one at a Christmas party with advanced hidden cameras and microphones from a command base in the parking lot.
Ahem…which is a good thing.
Erm…anyway, the idea of time and space as a playground in which the Doctor and River only meet occasionally, and the subsequent idea that in between those meetings, River gets up to all sorts of adventures of her own is a logical one, even if it does come off as an hour-long advert for the soon-to-be-released Diary of River Song audio stories from Big Finish. The idea of the Doctor having a face she doesn’t recognise works well throughout the episode, though his obvious, heavy-handed hints that he’s the Doctor mean she really should cotton on earlier than she does. The final realisation after her passionate, and probably in retrospect mortifying speech about the Doctor and how she loves him, is a delicious moment, sold well by Alex Kingston’s facial expression, but up till then, the episode is something of a big frothy trifle, with something nasty and alcoholic hidden inside it – this idea of River simply using the Doctor, of love being ‘the easiest lie you can tell a man; he’ll believe any story of which he’s the hero.’
That unpleasant idea (however true it may ultimately be – and wars have been fought over the question of a woman’s devotion to an insecure man) is proven to be false as the episode evolves, River practically screaming her love from the treetops, and not demanding an equality of love in return from her ‘sunset’ husband. There will be those who regard that speech as further evidence of Moffat’s inability to write credible, strong women, but there is a point later in the episode where River and the Doctor tot up their list without particularly apparent rancour – Elizabeth I, Cleopatra, Marilyn Monroe…Stephen Fry – which suggests that Steven Moffat’s going for a futuristic mindset with River, just as he originally did with Jack Harkness, where jealousy and notions of a strict equality of treatment are rather subsumed beneath the size of the universe and the breadth of emotions like love.
In terms of plot – well there is one, technically, but it’s nothing that will trouble the annals of great Who. Bit of an idea stolen from a Bond movie – nutcase bad guy with a moving ‘bullet’ edging its way towards his brain, bit of a commentary on male pride fantasies (all that facial massage and overblown language from River to Hydroflax, dropped immediately he’s out of earshot, not to mention River’s lines on the Doctor himself – or Damsel Who, as one or two of you will probably think of him from now on), but mostly it’s running and laughing and quipping and headlessness jokes.
In terms of casting, 2015 was not one of the programme’s finest Christmases. Look through the cast lists of previous Christmas Specials and this year’s rather feels like a budget episode, with the lack of top table names coming across in the performances. Do we really believe Greg Davies as a world-conquering, solar-system-destroying king of all he surveys? Nnnnnotsomuch. Matt Lucas is… well, he’s in it, for reasons that defy most imagining. Phillip Rhys is interesting, briefly, as Ramone, but more for the context he brings to River’s other lives than because he’s given anything more than ‘stand there and look pretty’ to work with in terms of characterisation.
Then, just as The Husbands of River Song seems set to write itself into the bottom echelons of Who Christmas Specials – not Doctor, Widow and Wardrobe bad by any means, but not strictly better than any of the others – there’s an ending. An ending to River’s story, and an ending of the sort fans would go on demanding until it was seen on screen – the final time the Doctor and River meet prior to her appearance in the Library, and the handing over of that sonic screwdriver, to replace the utterly lame sonic trowel, and words are exchanged between what look like an over-made-up Twelfth Doctor and River about their time, their life, their adventures together. As an attempt to anchor all the running about and silliness with detachable heads and funny robots and fairly unthreatening cannibal kings, it feels a little formulaic, but it’s probably why you’ll watch The Husbands of River Song a second time at some point in your life. While the running and banter is all very well, you can get it better elsewhere, and there turns out to be little special in the chemistry between Kingston and Capaldi to elevate this particular running about and bantering over any done by Kingston and Matt Smith, or Capaldi and Coleman. So really it’s the ending you’ll come back for.
That said, did it deliver?
Mmmmmmaybe. It gave good downbeat, certainly, the Doctor trying to tell her that this was the last time before the last time, but then it stole the sense of that away with the idea that ‘their last night’ would end up being 24 years long (commence the fan fiction… now). Did it contain anything of extra-special poignancy, beyond the giving of the sonic? Not really.
In Britain, there’s a great festive tradition called pantomime – broad comedy plays put on for children, usually based on fairy tales, with snarling villains, valiant heroes, magical helpers, and more than a little double entendre. Having previously plundered the likes of Dickens, disaster movies, rom com, alien invasion movies, CS Lewis and the Alien movies, as well as substantively adding to its own contribution to the science fantasy mythos, this year, it feels like Doctor Who pretty much gave us its take on pantomime – fast, funny, a little mordant, and ultimately frothy. Was it a well-done example of the breed? A guarded yes. Was it anything to threaten most people’s lists of their favourite Christmas Whos?
To borrow briefly from the pantomime tradition, one has to admit that ultimately, oh no, it wasn’t.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk