The annual Doctor Who Christmas special changes its tone with incredible rapidity, more often than not settling somewhere on either extreme of the tonal spectrum. On one end, the Christmas episode can be frivolous, light, and fun (see The Runaway Bride, A Christmas Carol, and The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe), and on the other it can be dark, serious, and with more at stake (see Voyage of the Damned, The Snowmen, and Last Christmas). This year’s Christmas special, The Husbands of River Song certainly falls into that former camp as it is a light-hearted, comedic romp across space.
As I have remarked elsewhere, Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor seems far less comfortable in a lighter, frothier storyline which led me to believe that last year’s comedic effort, The Caretaker, fell a bit flat. However, this special which positively percolates with one-liners from the Doctor seemed to work a lot better. I chalk this up to Capaldi’s comfort in the role and with a firmer grasp on the character we see what is perhaps Capaldi’s most relaxed performance as the Time Lord. But something also has be said for Steven Moffat’s script. Showrunner Moffat’s story never denies its lighthearted tone and runs with it from start to finish playing up the farcical nonsense for all it’s worth.
It cannot be denied that Moffat has an uncanny ability for writing fun dialogue between characters and much of The Husbands of River Song is built upon these dialogue exchanges. In fact, the special was at its best when it afforded Peter Capaldi and Alex Kingston the ability to talk to each other. However, when it came time to introduce a plot into the special and then resolve that plot, the story felt a little less interesting. There was nothing wrong with the central idea – River’s attempt to steal a diamond and sell it – in fact, I quite liked the very simple concept at the special’s heart. But, because the plot didn’t truly factor into the story until it was nearly over, the problem and solution was too rushed and felt unsatisfactory. Perhaps the biggest crime which the special could commit is how it evolves into a retread of the 2007 Christmas special Voyage of the Damned which found the Doctor aboard a doomed, luxury spaceship which runs afoul of some asteroids. It cannot be possible that Doctor Who has run out of ideas, so it is sad to think that the show has somehow become a pastiche of itself.
|River Song (Alex Kingston) and the Doctor (Peter Capaldi)|
But, it shouldn’t sound like The Husbands of River Song was a bad episode. As noted, when the story was at its most frivolous and light, it was a lot of fun and, to be honest, it was something of a welcome change following the solemn, character-driven finale which ended Series 9 a few weeks ago. Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor was a lot of fun in this story and he (rather surprisingly) had excellent on-screen chemistry with Alex Kingston’s River Song. As to River herself, I believe that she has rather overstayed her welcome continually popping up when it’s obvious that her storyline has run its course, but it cannot be denied that Kingston did a fantastic job in the role and, I think that this special is the perfect way to wrap up River’s convoluted existence.
The Husbands of River Song was a fun diversion for an hour or so, but it cannot really be much more than that. While there is nothing wrong with an hour of frivolity, I personally find more to enjoy in a Christmas episode which has a little bit more to offer. Chalking that up to personal taste, I cannot deny, however, the clever writing and fun performances from both Peter Capaldi and Alex Kingston. This is an episode which is not meant to be taken entirely seriously – when the planets in the episode’s intro sequence are replaced by Christmas ornaments you know at once you’re in for a tongue-in-cheek experience. Therefore, I give The Husbands of River Song 3.5 out of 5 stars.
On a tangentially related note, the finest Doctor Who-related Christmas offering in existence is Big Finish Production’s audio drama, The Chimes of Midnight which finds Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor and his companion Charley (India Fisher) arriving in the basement of an Edwardian mansion on Christmas Eve. It soon becomes apparent that someone’s picking off the household staff one-by-one and it’s up to the Doctor to solve the case. Simply put, The Chimes of Midnight is a brilliant offering and for any Big Finish novice it’s a great gateway into the audio adventures.