Season 9, Christmas Special “The Husbands of River Song”
“When you run with the Doctor, it feels like it’ll never end. But however hard you try you can’t run forever.”
Alex Kingston playing against Peter Capaldi? Must be Christmas… oh hey! It is!
Despite Matt Smith’s protests, Steven Moffat has brought River Song back to play with the Doctor, in what is equal parts completely silly romp and incredibly emotional resolution of the Doctor and River’s relationship. It also serves as the transition between the Doctor mourning the loss of the (mostly) forgotten Clara and the new start the next series will present us… when we find out when the hell we’re getting the next series.
(Seriously BBC. Quit mucking about and make an announcement already.)
Oh, wow. I am so torn by this episode.
Much like “Hell Bent”, there are two likely audiences here: those who love River Song, and those who can’t stand her. The Doctor’s wife, his murderer (twice over), daughter of his best friend and action-archaeologist, Professor River Song burst onto the screen in the 10th Doctor episodes “Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead”, then popped up repeatedly throughout the 11th Doctor’s run. There we would learn about her history with the Doctor, and — since she and the Doctor essentially were running opposite timelines — follow her back in time to her origins as a Child of the TARDIS and weapon molded to kill the Doctor by a religious order that wanted to save the Universe.
As the Doctor points out here, usually it helps to have a flowchart. And maybe footnotes.
What I loved about River was her confidence, independence and strength. I’m a fan of strong women in fiction as in life, and here was a character who flew into the Doctor’s life and knew more about his future than he did, and didn’t actually need him to save her. In fact, River saved the Doctor quite a few times, and “Husbands” throwaway line about his codename being “Damsel” was funny for precisely that reason. Of course, the Doctor saved River as well, but there was always a sense of her looking past the legend and the image of the Doctor. If the last several seasons have been about deconstructing the Doctor — and they really have been — it’s a trend that River contributed to greatly.
For the Doctor, she was a mystery and a frustration, an ally and a temptress. She treated him like an equal and sometimes as a child, but there was always a sense of fun and humor and joy in their interactions, no matter the dangers or tragedies of their meetings. We would lose some of that in time, as Moffat felt compelled to give us more of her origins than we actually needed, and I’ve argued before that the whole Melody Pond/Amy and Rory storyline went awry with “Let’s Kill Hitler” and “The Wedding of River Song”. Yes, both those stories showed us a young River, untried and shaking off her programming as the woman born to kill the Doctor, but still. I miss the young River not one damn bit.
But the River of “The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang”, of “The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon”, and “Time of the Angels/Flesh and Stone”?
Amazing. Wonderful. Smart, sexy, and dangerous as all hell. If the Doctor was going to fall in love with someone, it would be this woman. In many ways, a female version of the Doctor himself, with a lot of femme fatale and a fair amount of Han Solo thrown in. Or, since she’s an archaeologist, Indiana Jones.
The reason I’m torn is because 2/3rds of the way into the episode we get some real magic. Yes, yes, there is the first part of the story, with King Hydroflax and a giant robot, a diamond and all sorts of silliness, and it’s really fun and funny, and I laughed a lot but c’mon. It’s a romp, and aside from the palate cleansing that it provides from the seriousness of this season and the loss of Clara, there isn’t much there, and there isn’t meant to be much there. We’re supposed to laugh and have a good time with the mistaken identities and River not recognizing the Doctor and swap-able heads and what River is like when the Doctor isn’t watching. Because it is funny, since we know from her other appearances that she has a life away from the Doctor that she’s more than once made it clear he wouldn’t approve of, and here it is, on display in all her immoral glory.
River is, after all, a psychopath. She’s the Doctor’s psychopath, and tends to be on the side of the good overall, but she is also a thief and a killer, and there was a reason that the Dalek in “The Big Bang” begged for its life: She’s kind of a monster.
A monster who loves the Doctor.
The question always was — and here it’s asked again — does the Doctor love River?
And that’s why I’m torn about “The Husbands of River Song”.
Because we already know the answer.
There’s been a lot of internet wailing and gnashing-of-teeth about what this story does to the lovely minisode “Last Night”, where the 11th Doctor crosses his own timeline and meets himself taking River to the Singing Towers of Darillium. The emotional power of that scene comes from the fact that she tells the 10th Doctor that their final night together was when he showed up with a fresh haircut and a new suit, and they listened to the singing and the Doctor cried, and as she readied herself to die, River realized why: The Doctor knew she was going to her death. The future version of the 11th Doctor in “Last Night” implies strongly that this was that night, and it makes the present Doctor treasure the time he has with River more, and it’s really a kind of beautiful moment. The kind of beautiful moment you don’t want to ruin.
It isn’t ruined here, by the way, at least not in my opinion.
We’ll come back to that in a moment.
The reason why I’m torn — that fact that we know that the answer is that the Doctor loves River — is “The Name of the Doctor”.
There the Doctor and Clara find themselves on Trenzalore, where history says the Doctor dies in battle. There the data ghost of River Song links herself to Clara, and there we learn that the Doctor can see and hear that data ghost of his wife, and that the only reason he didn’t reveal that earlier than he does is that it’s causing him pain.
It hurts him, because she is just an echo of the woman he loves, and if he doesn’t acknowledge her, then he can lie to himself a little longer. He can pretend he’s not missing her, and he can pretend that seeing her and hearing her and knowing that she is just an echo isn’t a knife in his hearts.
But it is. That whole sequence, from her slap to his kiss to when she fades away, is all about the Doctor loving River Song.
So this feels… weird to me. Yes, this is River before she dies, and River before she knows that the Doctor really does love her. But we’ve seen that moment, and we know he loves her. So seeing her rant and rave about her not knowing he does… is weird to me.
Time travel. Gah.
But that last third. Where she lays out how she feels, where she lays bare the pain and insecurity of loving someone who is as much a legend and a force of nature as a man, while all the while he is standing beside her and she doesn’t know it… ahhhhhhh that’s gold, ladies and gentlemen.
Because he hears her.
He hears all the anger and love and loss and love and frustration and love and pain that is River loving the Doctor, and you can see it hit him right in both hearts… written all over his face.
Now, there is a quite funny exchange where he displays a bit of actual jealousy — as opposed to the comedy jealousy of the earlier parts of the story — and River throws it back in his face by pointing out that she’s not his only wife. It is, however, made quite clear that the wife that matters — the wife that matters to the Doctor — is Professor River Song, Cleopatra and Stephen Fry aside.
And lest you think that Moffat & Co are not aware that the fans love “Last Night” and that the Doctor is still reeling from the loss of Clara, I ask you to consider this line: “Every night is the Last Night for something. Every Christmas is Last Christmas.”
As for this not ruining “Last Night”, well, before the minisode and remarked on again here is the Doctor’s ability to find a way to avoid that trip, to put it off a little longer. But this Doctor has just had so much thrown in his face about the consequences of putting things off and trying to change what is, and all the holographic antlers in the world can’t let him ignore that it’s time for the trip to the Singing Towers and their last night together.
And oh… that scene.
River hoping for a way to change the future, because her diary is almost full, and fearing her long life is coming to an end, hoping for a Doctor-provided miracle. The Doctor knowing that he can’t, and the Clara-sized hole in his memories still fresh, knowing that he shouldn’t try, for fear of making it worse. Both of them not seeing at first what the other is saying and trying to say the words that will make it all OK, somehow.
There is, in some ways, the most important exchange of their relationship here as well. With the Doctor telling River that everything ends and Happily Ever After is a lie we tell ourselves, he’s really talking about himself, as River is when she says that he doesn’t understand that what that really means is not “Ever After” but simply more time together. He is talking about what he’s been through, and how he’s feeling, as he steels himself for their final night and his own loss of the friend he can remember only through the space she’s left. She’s talking about how she feels: afraid of dying, afraid that she will have no more time with the man she loves, no matter how unsure she is about how he feels about her. She doesn’t believe that he can understand the perspective of someone who doesn’t have the nigh-immortal lifespan he has, or that he can truly love someone whose life is just a flicker and then gone by his perspective.
Of course, they are both wrong, and they can both see it in the end. The Doctor does know that Time is all he and River — and his Companions, for that matter — have, and that his pain is lessened by the woman beside him:
“When the wind stands fair, and the night is perfect, when you least expect it… but always when you need it the most… there is a Song.”
And she sees that he does care for her, even if she’s still not sure that he loves her the way she wants him to, because he is giving her that time with him, that more time together, in the 24-years that is their Last Night. One imagines that there will be an adventure or two that night, of… various kinds, and that the Doctor and his wife, the radiant Professor River Song, will certainly enjoy each other’s company and something of a life together.
“Everybody knows that everybody dies, and nobody knows it like the Doctor. But I do think that all the skies of all the worlds might just turn dark if he ever for one moment, accepts it. Everybody knows that everybody dies. But not every day. Not today. Some days are special. Some days are so, so blessed. Some days, nobody dies at all. Now and then, every once in a very long while, every day in a million days, when the wind stands fair, and the Doctor comes to call… everybody lives.”
Those are the final words River speaks in “The Forest of the Dead”, but they fit here, too. If this is the last we see of River, and the last time the Doctor and the Song he loves are together on our screens… it’s a great way to say goodbye.
Of course, again, it wouldn’t work without the words of Steven Moffat and the performances of Peter Capaldi and Alex Kingston. Moffat, of course, loves the kind of wordplay and emotional speeches we get here, and if the first 2/3rds is all silly romp, well, he’s good at that indeed. His dialogue is golden in the final scenes, and since we know that he thought this season and this Christmas Special might be his last, it is as much his own happy ending as it is the Doctor and River’s.
Kingston gives us the magic and madness that is River as she always does: gloriously. In many ways the dialogue and her performance ask and answer the question of who River is when she’s not beside the Doctor, and we see both the bold adventuress and morally flexible monster in vivid color. As much as I love the action-archaeologist and swashbuckler, it is the quiet moments — well, some of them are kind of shouty moments — where we see the emotional person that are my favorites here. River loves the Doctor, and like anyone who is unsure of how the person we love feels about us, her pain at that uncertainty is real. Alex Kingston is always a pleasure, and her presence here is a lovely Christmas present indeed.
Plus we get her saying lines line “I’m an archaeologist from the future. I dug you up.”
And Peter Capaldi… oh the fears he has raised with his recent comments that he may be coming to the end of his run as the Time Lord after the next season ends, because fan after fan has fallen in love with his portrayal of the Doctor. I’ve been saying these last two seasons that he’s one of the finest actors we’ve had in the role, and here is no exception. We get to see the Doctor laugh with joy — something that we’ve had precious little of in the 12th Doctor’s run —- and the tears of a man knowing that something he loves is going to be taken from him. As always, Capaldi makes it all something special. He’s been amazing indeed this year, and hopefully we’ll have him for more than just another series, but if one more is all we get, well…
It’ll be another present under the tree.
Happy Holidays, everyone. I hope you’ve had time with family and friends, and that you’ve enjoyed this last year with all of us at SciFi4Me. We’ve enjoyed our time with you, and look forward to a new year of this genre we all love, and sharing our thoughts on it… together.