“There’s no such thing as happy ever after. It’s just a lie we tell ourselves because the truth is so hard,” says The Doctor in the 2015 Christmas special. Peter Capaldi. Grumpy sentiment. So far, so par for the course for the 12th Doctor. But The Husbands of River Song emerges as a surprisingly warm antidote to a season that has been inconsistent in everything but its darkness.
The return of Alex Kingston’s River Song is the kind of star billing that will have had fans either frothing with excitement or sighing with frustration. She is, after all, a figure who represents the most divisive period of Doctor Who’s modern incarnation – the point at which, thanks to Steven Moffat’s time-wimey shenanigans, the show disappeared up its own sonic screwdriver.
But if Moffat’s handling of overall season arcs has been uneven, his handling of long-term arcs is impressive. Clara, for example, had flaws in the short-term, but in the long-term proved one of the best recent companions for The Doctor – a female character whose farewell was as emotionally satisfying as the show gets. River, meanwhile, has been popping in and out of The Doctor’s life for ages – literally. On the one hand, that means she’s every bit a match for the Time Lord; Professor to his Doctor, female to his male, with a whole host of adventures to counter his stories. On the other hand, she’s wife to his husband, as much defined by him as she is independent of him. During Matt Smith’s Timey-Wimey Zone, he even turned out to have a hand in her birth.
Much like Clara, though, if River ever seemed to be less than a fully-fledged woman, she emerges here as a fantastic character – not least because this finally marks the moment when the Song cycle has come to close. Yes, this is the story that takes place just before The Doctor and River’s first meeting in Season 4: Silence in the Library and The Forest of the Dead. Moffat laid out his plans for the Time Lord in that landmark double-bill, one of his many masterful instalments that led him to become Russell T Davies’ heir to the head writer’s chair (the appointment was announced just before those episodes were broadcast).
“The last time I saw you – the real you, the future you, I mean – you turned up on my doorstep, with a new haircut and a suit,” Kingston’s worldly professor told David Tennant’s heartthrob doctor. “You took me to Darillium to see the Singing Towers. What a night that was. The Towers sang, and you cried.”
Ever since, the scales have been tipped in River’s favour, her burdened with the weighty knowledge of what would happen to him further down his timeline. “Spoilers!” she would cry, clinging to her diary detailing their many encounters. How fitting that their final meeting should arrive after Peter Capaldi has inherited the blue police box: for the first time in their relationship, he is the one in possession of the knowledge, unwilling to spoil the fate that awaits her in the biggest library in the universe. It comes not a moment too soon: in Capaldi’s hands, The Doctor has become older, wearier. He has aged, not just visibly but emotionally. He’s vulnerable, tragic. No wonder he’s so inclined towards the black side of existence; Smith and Tennant’s youthful runaways in the wake of the Time War have matured.
But The Husbands of River Song’s achievement is to deliver all of that pay-off with the most delicate of touches: this, after all, is a festive outing, one that should be able to air in a family living room and entertain all ages. Its careworn heart, then, is worn lightly on its sleeve, as instead of a solemn traipse through past romances, The Doctor takes us on a whirlwind caper. It seems like a long time since we’ve had an outing of Doctor Who designed simply for fun – and it’s a joy just to let the handbrake of the TARDIS off and watch it fly.
When The Doctor comes across River, she’s married to King Hydroflax, a disembodied head with a gigantic robot body who needs repairing. Greg Davies plays Hydroflax with the kind of school teacher’s anger he has won viewers over with in The Inbetweeners – and he yells his face off with entertaining gusto. The episode’s other celebrity cameo comes in the form of Matt Lucas, whose nice-but-dim persona works well as brief comic relief. Fortunately, though, it’s not really about either of them: this is just an excuse to get River and The Doctor running away from various groups of hostile aliens. And a giant robot. (The surefire sign of quality sci-fi is being able to add the phrase “and a giant robot” to the end of a sentence.)
Douglas Mackinnon directs this with all the fun and flair he brought to 2014’s wonderful Flatline – it’s no coincidence that he’s also the director of Sherlock’s 2015 Christmas special, which has a similar, zippy pace. And so we’re treated a bunch of silly set pieces, most of which give Capaldi and Kingston the chance to interact. The episode’s title comes from the fact that River Song has apparently had many, many spouses over the years – usually, so she can trick them out of something, or manipulate them into something. Capaldi’s role here, therefore, mostly consists of staring open-mouthed at his wife’s antics. It’s fun to see his usually stormy face briefly rendered gormless – Capaldi’s knack for Tom Baker-like humour, though, is perfectly suited to this kind of lighter affair, and Doctor Who will hopefully not wait too long to harness that manic grin again – but it’s mostly rewarding to have a glimpse of what River Song has been doing all these years; a welcome reminder that while we’ve only ever experienced her tale in relation to The Doctor, she’s also very much led her own life away from him. (She even, brilliantly, refers to him as “Damsel”, as she always has to help him when in distress.)
It’s precisely that quality that has made Kingston and her character a fantastic presence on the show over the years: she’s the ideal partner for The Doctor. And as we see them sitting down for dinner, there’s an undeniable happiness in seeing this couple reunited – even for a brief moment. There’s no such thing as a happy ever after, The Doctor tells us, but after a season of serious darkness, this most time-centric of shows understands the beauty of celebrating happiness – no matter how long the “ever after” part lasts. The result is a bittersweet conclusion to a defining chapter in Doctor Who, one that, for once, places the emphasis firmly on “sweet”.
Doctor Who: The Husbands of River Song is available on BBC iPlayer until November 2019.
Photo: Simon Ridgway