The presents had been opened, the turkey and trimmings eaten and copious amounts of booze imbibed, and all we needed was a comfy chair and a fantastical, family adventure with our favorite Time Lord to lose ourselves in. Thankfully the BBC delivered, with showrunner Steven Moffat breaking away from the melancholy of the most recent series and the loss/departure of long serving companion Clara by throwing the Doctor into a rollicking affair with the Missus; yes River Song returns along with some partners of her own for something of a heisty outing.
Still in mourning over the loss of companion Clara, the Doctor is in seclusion on a remote colony when he is swept up in a elaborate scheme by none other than River Song, who aims to steal a valuable gem embedded within the head of King Hydroflax. Unaware of his true identity, the Doctor assists River in her escape after she steals the head of the King from his cybernetic body, which then sets out to hunt them down. Their escape leads them to a starship liner full of crime overlords where they intend to sell the head and jewel for a significant sum, but the beheaded intelligence is intent on stopping them before the ship reaches its destination, a planet the Doctor has been avoiding for a very long time.
The main (paper-thin) plot of the episode was centered around a heist, a diamond embedded in a King’s head, and River Song’s marriage to him as a deception to get close and steal it. Classic River. But this was surface dressing, a device to basically throw the Doctor and River back together and have them run and banter with each other for an hour. The end result is a bit silly, very entertaining, and at times incredibly touching.
The last time we saw River Song it was something of a sad farewell, remnants of her saving the Doctor one last time in The Name of the Doctor. Here we get River at the height of her powers, brazen, confident, and yet at a disadvantage; despite expecting the Doctor’s arrival (and equipping an associate with photos of each of his eleven faces), she is unaware he has been bestowed with a new regeneration cycle and has a face unfamiliar to her. Thus we not only get the pairing of River with the mature, less befuddled Twelfth Doctor, but he gets to ham it up and enjoy her ignorance of who he really is. His fake astonishment at the inside of the TARDIS being bigger than the outside is worth watching the episode for alone. The (now) similar age between the two gives them a new and incredibly interesting dynamic. There really there is a more mature, sexual undercurrent here then there ever was between Kingston and Smith. While it might not lend well to a season’s worth of adventures, especially with younger viewers, played against the inherent silliness of a Christmas special it makes for a wonderful if fleeting combination.
Capaldi revels in the lighter fare, and Kingston matches him with one liners and one uppage. Her secret installation of a bar in a TARDIS roundrel and the Doctor’s surprise wonderfully illustrate their repartee. Guest star Greg Davies (The Inbetweeners) did a great job, and considering he spent most of the episode as a disembodied head in a bag his impact is all the more impressive. Matt Lucas, a face familiar to many from turns in Little Britain and Alice in Wonderland, is given very little to do, sadly; knowing his abilities it’s a shame he wasn’t given a part with more meat.
Moffat has been long criticized for laying plot seeds and never wrapping things up, but he must be credited for folding this episode expertly into the history of the show. While for the most part the episode is a farcical good time, it does veer into something more sombre toward the end to give the relationship between the two something more respectful and touching. Mentions of adventures past, cheeky nods, and actual pertinent plot points get addressed spanning the whole of the Doctor’s relationship with River Song. He crafts some wonderful lines that help frame the complexity of their relationship and manages to fill in one of the most important gaps in the pair’s relationship.
The Doctor is a timeless alien, removed from the reality of emotional ties, and the River Song character has always challenged this longstanding part of his character. Smith played it well with an unsettled, boyish befuddlement. Capaldi approaches it and her with more reverence, reuniting with a cherished old flame rather then someone he’s not entirely sure how to handle. His gift is a poignant one for the knowing, and his skips through time to fashion a restaurant for a meal together are downright romantic.
As the truth is revealed and the Doctor and River look toward their future (well, her future and his past), each becomes fueled by their own fear: River’s that the diary she was long ago gifted is running out of pages, and the Doctor by his knowledge that the destination of the starliner is a place he has long avoided, the Singing Towers of Darillium, the place where according to legend they would spend their final night together before River’s death. So again, like his release of Clara, the Doctor is admitting some things are beyond his control, the passage of time comes to all. Another step in his rehabilitation.
The pair have always met like ships in the night; it’s a fleeting affair across time and space. But the efforts Twelve takes here, nearing the end, to carve out a window of peace for them to enjoy one last night together before the beginning of the end, is a touching one. Of course the sadness of this is turned on its head by the Doctor revealing a night on this planet lasts 24 years. If this is the real goodbye for her, then it is perhaps the most considered way to say farewell. The only real lingering question is what the hell happened with Jim the Fish?
The Husbands of River Song was everything a festive outing of the show needed to be. It entertained, it veered into the farcical, and it managed to bring a tear to the eye. Capaldi and Kingston were wonderful together and provided a bittersweet ending(?) to their relationship. We even got to see the Doctor’s romantic side… what more can you ask for?