Doctor Who: “The Husbands of River Song”

***MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD***

I’ll admit, I have a love-hate relationship with River Song on Doctor Who. Things started well. From her introduction in the season 4 two-parter “Silence in the Library”/”Forest of the Dead” through her guest appearances in season 5’s “The Time of the Angels”/”Flesh and Stone” and “The Pandorica Opens”/”The Big Bang,” I thought River Song was the greatest recurring character on the show since the Brigadier. We didn’t know much about her because the Doctor didn’t know much about her, only that she was a good friend (and possibly more) from his own future, someone he hadn’t properly met yet. In a show about time travel, it makes sense that this would happen, that he would bump into an important figure from his life out of order, and there were some great moments to be mined from that. Also, on top of everything, Alex Kingston, who plays River Song, is amazing.

But if what was so magical about River Song was her mystery, that magic was completely undone in season 6, when the show became less about the Doctor’s adventures and more about her life story. In a move that, in my opinion, utterly ruined her character, Steven Moffat insisted on unraveling every single mystery of River’s life, many of the details of which didn’t make sense (a human baby conceived on the TARDIS will have Time Lord abilities? What?), although to be honest most of season 6 didn’t make sense anyway. Worse, this sassy, independent, time-traveling adventurer lost those very traits and suddenly became all about the Doctor, to the point where her entire life was quite literally about him. After that, I was over River Song. Completely. I never wanted to see her again, because if a little goes a long way then spending an entire season undoing everything that made her interesting goes right off the edge of a cliff. When she showed up again in season 7’s “The Angels Take Manhattan” and “The Name of the Doctor,” I wasn’t pleased to see her. Although in that latter episode it seemed like we had finally seen the last of her.

We hadn’t. When it was announced that this year’s Doctor Who Christmas special was called “The Husbands of River Song,” I groaned so loudly the cats ran away in terror. I rolled my eyes so deeply into the back of my head I could see my own thoughts. After a season that I thought was more mature, thoughtful, and in control of itself than the show has been in a long time, I was worried it would be a step backward. That it would remind me of a time when I was so disillusioned with Doctor Who I very nearly hated the program I’ve loved since I was a child.

I needn’t have worried. “The Husbands of River Song” turns out to be quite an enjoyable adventure. Peter Capaldi has acres more chemistry with Alex Kingston than Matt Smith ever did, and he chooses to play their relationship maturely and with a sense of equality and respect between them, which Matt Smith also never did. (The writing and acting were so clunky in many of the Smith episodes that the Doctor came off as a terrible boyfriend, almost verbally abusive at times, which certainly couldn’t have been the intention.) This increased chemistry between the two characters helps enormously. So does the fact that Steven Moffat has been able to write episodes for this season of Doctor Who without being hampered by also having to write a season of Sherlock. Apparently, when he focuses on just one program he does a much better job!

There’s a lot of humor in “The Husbands of River Song,” most of it stemming from River not recognizing the Doctor’s new face. I also got a kick out of River’s codename for the Doctor being “damsel,” because he’s always in distress and needs rescuing, and how the Doctor needs a flowchart to figure out their out-of-chronological-order relationship. A book called History’s Finest Exploding Restaurants was also a nice touch. But perhaps the funniest moment of all is when the Doctor gets to pretend to be overwhelmed by how big the TARDIS is on the inside. His litany of extreme reactions was laugh out loud funny. I appreciated that River Song is once again independent and sassy, too, just like she was when we first met her. The revelation that she sometimes steals the TARDIS when the Doctor isn’t looking to go on her own adventures was a charming one.

There were some poignant moments as well, such as when River admits that she loves the Doctor without realizing he’s right there, and when they figure out this will likely be their last meeting. The only misfire? Those damn sonic sunglasses show up again!

With Capaldi in the role opposite her, I no longer feel like I’m over River. I wouldn’t mind if she popped up again down the road. But please, Doctor Who, use her sparingly. We all saw how much the show suffered when you got too focused on River Song, and you’re better than that now.

2 responses to “Doctor Who: “The Husbands of River Song””

  1. Hildy says:

    Agree, agree, agree! This episode went a long way toward fixing the character of River and her relationship with the Doctor.

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