Reviews - Doctor Who Christmas Special – The Husbands of River Song

Chris Jordan reviews this year's Doctor Who Christmas Special, which sees the return of Alex Kingston as River Song.

"I've been looking for a good spoiler-free review
site, sweetie!"
For Doctor Who fans, the show's annual Christmas special is one of the presents we most look forward to every year. Each special sees Doctor Who find a new sort of offbeat, usually snarky and tongue-in-cheek twist to put on classic Christmas-movie tropes, like last year's episode which put Santa Claus (played by Nick Frost) in the Kurt Russell role from The Thing. The specials also give the series a unique chance to do something narratively interesting between seasons, outside the confines of an ongoing year-long story arc. Sometimes this means examining The Doctor's psyche after a particularly traumatic season finale, sometimes this means exploring the dynamic between The Doctor and his companion without having to worry about furthering an arc, and sometimes this means taking a break from the usual stuff altogether to do a sci-fi riff on a holiday-related literary or cinema classic. The unconfined, let's-try-something-completely-different nature of the Doctor Who Christmas specials has lead to some unpredictable if occasionally uneven experiences: they've given us one of the show's very best episodes (Last Christmas) and arguably its very worst (The Runaway Bride), and they've ranged from very Christmasy (Doctor Who: A Christmas Carol) to only vaguely having to do with the holiday (Voyage of the Damned is fantastic, but could have been set at any time of year). But they are certainly never less than interesting, and they really benefit from the extended running time (an hour or more, instead of 45 minutes) that BBC gives them. This year's episode, with the tantalizingly mysterious title The Husbands of River Song, takes all the possibilities discussed above and does some truly great things with them. It delves wonderfully into the dynamic between The Doctor and River in a way we haven't seen since series six, and it does it with a sense of humor that riffs on the theme of Christmas in some very funny ways while also creating an episode that works well outside of the holiday context. As both a holiday special and an episode in general, The Husbands of River Song is excellent.

As is only appropriate for a Twelfth Doctor Christmas special, it is extremely snarky in its treatment of the holiday: after trading insults with Santa Claus last year, Capaldi's Doctor begins this episode by hanging a sign on the TARDIS with a harshly-worded rebuke to any potential carolers. It's the perfect holiday for Twelve to show off his endearing crankiness; he is a character who seems to be aggressively out of place in a Christmas special, and the episode derives much humor from exactly that contradiction. That said, only the opening minutes are particularly Christmasy, and that is ultimately just fine: an episode so important to the ongoing arc of The Doctor and River's relationship should be enjoyable at any time of year. It is an important episode for them for a few reasons: most obviously, it is the first time the Twelfth Doctor and River have gotten an episode together, and is also the only episode in which the Doctor and River have starred in an episode alone, without another main character or two sharing the screen. Since they finally get a chance for some rare one-on-one time, it is only natural that this is a big character-development episode for them, as a couple and individually. Beyond that, there is not much else I can say, because, in the words of River herself, “spoilers... sweetie.” As all of that should make clear, this is not just some one-off holiday special, but a very important episode for Doctor Who's ongoing story. As such, this is definitely one that fans need to watch, even if you're not so much in the Christmas-movie mood now that the holiday weekend is over. It has a shelf life beyond December, believe me.

"I am the re-animated cyborg head of Douglas
Adams, and I wish you a merry Christmas!"
There is another reason why this needs to be on your essential-viewing list: this is a very funny, very well-written entry in the series. It does something that Doctor Who rarely does, and even more rarely does really well: it gives us a straight-up comedy episode. The Husbands of River Song feels like it was written from beyond the grave by the late, brilliant Douglas Adams, of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy fame. We have a crazed robot dictator with interchangeable heads, we have an intergalactic luxury cruise ship that only caters to the universe's most violent mass-murderers and war-criminals, and we have a restaurant that may not be quite at the end of the universe, but it's pretty close. Like much of the stuff in The Hitchhiker's Guide, it's absurdist comedy that also manages to work well as sci-fi, thanks to just the right level of snarky writing. Adams himself was a script editor for Doctor Who in the late-70s and early-80s, and Steven Moffat's script for this episode is reminiscent of the best of his era on the show. It is also able to shift gears and provide strongly-written dramatic moments without any awkward feeling of an abrupt change in tone. Giving us some of the strongest comic writing he has done for the show, and also giving us the more serious drama that The Doctor and River deserve, Moffat has written a very solid episode.

With such a strong Christmas special coming just a few weeks after the excellent series nine, 2015 has been a great year for Doctor Who. The Husbands of River Song is a fitting end to that year: an episode that makes a very good Christmas special while also being a great entry in the series in general. Its well-written mix of character drama and Douglas Adams-style sci-fi comedy works extremely well, and the strong development of its characters' relationship ensures it an important place in the Doctor Who canon. For fans of the series, and particularly fans of the Doctor and River Song story arc, this is a must-see.


- Christopher S. Jordan