Doctor Who Christmas specials have to strike a difficult balance. On one hand they have to be an entertaining and fun romp for the kiddies, (it’s later, possibly more depressing slot taken by the likes of Eastenders). On the other, it has to keep the regular fans entertained.
In the past the results have been varied – bad memories of Kylie Minogue on a spaceship called the Titanic are mercifully fading into the past – but The Husbands of River Song lands somewhere safely in the middle of the quality scale.
River Song makes her return to the series in a comedic heist episode. Feeling abandoned by the Doctor and fearing the end as the pages in her diary run low, she finds herself attempting to steal a diamond from a violent but popular king. Unfortunately, it’s lodged in his head.
Peter Capaldi is as brilliant as usual. He really is the Doctor now, and rather than have the character moping around as has happened in the past when a companion has left him, he acts with his face to let us know he is hurting, and the writing gives one great line of him complaining to the TARDIS for trying to cheer him up. It’s quite smart.
Alex Kingston and Greg Davies are in fine form (Greg Davies in particular does a great job taking the mick out of the fire and brimstone Klingon stereotype warrior) but Matt Lucas’ character seems slightly out of touch with Doctor Who’s recent direction.
The episode romps along but perhaps becomes a far more interesting beast when the Doctor and River confess their identities to one another. SPOILERS FROM THIS POINT: This episode closes the loop on the River Song storyline, tying up some of the plot threads show runner Steven Moffat has been criticised for leaving open. We now know how River got the screwdriver before meeting Tennant and it effectively ends as her first episode begins.
It’s a testament to both Kingston and Capaldi that we really believe she sees Matt Smith in his eyes, and it’s a sad moment when we, and her, realise that this is the moment we’ve been heading towards since the character of River first appeared, and the knowledge the Doctor has been keeping from her all along.
There is a lot of good stuff here so, perhaps most impressively, this surprising shift from jauntiness to character piece is surprising and well timed, but it’s far from perfect. The giant robot villain of the piece does not work. It’s obviously a person in a rubber suit with T. rex style flailing arms. The logic of how he’s defeated doesn’t really work either – it’s all very technobabbley, and his gimmick of storing heads within him defies the size of his body. The name Hydroflax would have felt dated even back in the ’80s, too.
Perhaps we’re supposed to forgive these things, and perhaps we should – there’s some joy and development here if we can – the ending finally closing the loop on River is a very welcome development, as after such a grim and dark series of Doctor Who, we should probably just enjoy the light.
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