The Husbands of River Song

Story No. 288 Not in a bag
Production Code Series 9, Christmas special
Dates December 25, 2015

With Peter Capaldi
Written by Steven Moffat Directed by Douglas Mackinnon
Executive Producers: Steven Moffat, Brian Minchin.

Synopsis: River Song requires a surgeon to attend to her dying husband, King Hydroflax.


"I can't complain but sometimes I still do" by Thomas Cookson 15/11/20

I think this, more than any Christmas special, made me really question whether it was time they were just scrapped altogether. Right from The Christmas Invasion, I felt they represented a depressing step back into indulgent navelgazing of yet more domesticity. Compromising the show's momentum and the anticipation of the next season by providing something half as adventurous and furthering the show's overexposure.

Usually the RTD sycophants' excuse persists that Doctor Who shouldn't be too intelligent or challenging for Christmas audiences (who can usually follow Back to the Future II easily enough). Doctor Who must be kept dumbed down for them. An excuse that conveniently ends up extending to the rest of the year. After Tennant magically regrew his chopped hand, we saw RTD further doubling down on cartoon logic cheating for the kids, until the show resembled a live-action cartoon headache completely. Likewise, The Runaway Bride, by changing the core concept of how the TARDIS works to contrive a dumb car chase, actively becomes a permission slip for future horrible, spectacle-driven storytelling. Furthermore, there's a limit to how often you can contrive a story's obligatory Christmas theme.

Capaldi's Doctor, having been conceived as an unsentimental, grumpy negative ninny, feels as out of place in these saccharine specials as Eccleston would've done, had he not wisely jumped ship. Capaldi supposedly represented an all-change, taking the Doctor down darker, unsentimental paths. Putting him in these Christmas specials just confuses his era's journey.

Admittedly, Capaldi gets more in the spirit here than he did last year, but the opening gag with that warning sign to carol singers on the TARDIS doors immediately leaves me questioning why the Doctor's even here. If he's determined to be this much of a joyless Scrooge, why's even land in Christmas-time in the first place? If he really hated Christmas cheer, wouldn't it make more sense he'd avoid it, given he can go anywhere or when in the universe? Unless Moffat's having us believe the Doctor's such an arsehole he now specifically seeks out Christmas just to trample on it.

It seems Moffat's so desperate to contrive this comical juxtaposition of a grumpy curmudgeon amidst yuletide celebrations that he has Capaldi's Doctor deliberately decide to visit this juxtaposing environment for the gag.

Okay, so I know that might read as a signal to Fred. Based on that reasoning, why do I continue watching a series I've largely disliked ever since Romana left, when I could have better, happier things to do? Well, partly because a fan lifestyle revolves around the demand to follow the show's latest events so that you're up on conversations with other fan friends.

The truth is, sometimes we waste time on annoying or unpleasant things because we enjoy having things to moan about. Complaining about things the world could do without makes us feel human, like we're letting off needed steam. Unfortunately, fandom's sycophancy has seen that human need to moan become demonised and vilified. Where group-think and hysterical praise dominates and dictates an insipid conformity, as does fandom's cultish addiction towards ostracising lower rungs.

Sometimes for whatever reason, you find yourself fighting and clawing back into that rancorous fandom because why should you be forced out? Which embitters the need to still watch the show and define and nail what's bugging you about it.

However, the Doctor's not human, and if he wants to let off steam, he usually does so by fighting evil and railing against injustice. Not by trampling over some carol singers' fee-fees.

So why was I still watching? I think I tuned in this time because the idea of seeing River again seemed oddly reassuring. If only for conjuring my nostalgia for the sorely missed days of Matt's Doctor. Before the show went off the rails and lost its heart. Back when it all still made sense.

The Curse of Fatal Death demonstrated that Moffat has a preoccupation with how it's apparently no longer fashionable that the Doctor continue being an asexual outsider, and thus he should settle down with someone. Moffat has frequently wrestled with how, by the show's nature, the Doctor can't do this.

Firstly, by having the Doctor instead chaperoning Amy and Rory until their marriage. Then secondly by contriving his shotgun show-marriage with River. Then renouncing the Doctor's title completely, and finally, repeatedly killing and cloning him for several millennia. Moffat's frustrations with the Doctor's 'impotence' has seemingly manifested in playing recklessly with him until he's broken.

Considering this was almost Moffat's swansong and his last word on what he wants for our hero, here we finally get the capstone Moffat would probably be most happy with. Fading out on the Doctor and River's ten-year honeymoon. Indeed, Moffat wisely tailored this story toward viewers who might've stopped watching after Tennant left. Moffat's previous story arcs are ignored, and Capaldi's amnesia over Clara nicely establishes a blank slate.

You could skip from Forest of the Dead straight here and feel you'd missed nothing. The cumbersome business with the Silence, Amy's pregnancy and Hitler never comes up, which exposes how irrelevant it always was.

That's the counter-case for the Christmas specials. They're potentially a second chance to win back alienated viewers right when they're inclined to feel more charitable to spending time with the Doctor.

So, what does Moffat do with this clean slate, having jettisoned the Silence conspiracy arc and River's nefarious part in it? Sadly, Moffat can't resist planting another turnip of doubt over whether River is trustworthy. Whether everything she'd told Tennant before sacrificing herself, was a lie. Much like Dark Water had done the same to Clara.

The story's first half rubs it in Capaldi's face that River's been committing cosmic-scale bigamy behind his back. Even her insincere platitudes to her dying dictator husband leaves Capaldi wondering if she was repeating the same lies to him back in the Library. Has Doctor Who really come to this? Using the regeneration concept so the unrecognised Doctor can catch his wife in the act? When did River's presence last actually bring the promise of immersive archaeological escapades within ancient cultures? Why do the Samantha Swift archaeology games feel truer to the show's spirit than Moffat's writing?

Upon learning River's a black-widow bigamist, Capaldi's chiefly overcome with jealousy over her dying husband seemingly far more than moved to save his life. Perhaps Moffat always intended to emotionally chasten the Doctor-River relationship, revealing it as 'the Doctor's greatest love story, except not really'? Alternatively, maybe he foresaw River as the Doctor's true love, only for the romance to fizzle out over seasons. He'd made River so omniscient and invincible that the romantic thrill faded.

From there it becomes a contrived runaround comedy. Like the incessant head in the bag, it's a painful, horrible headache of a watch. I was begging for the damn thing to end. Yes, this is supposed to be irritating to Capaldi, but he's equally a source of maddening frustration given how inexplicably calloused and deceitful he's being.

River's smart-arsed "You're thinking. Stop it. You're a man." was indigestibly nasty and invidious.

Capaldi eventually gives up and accepts that River's not going to recognize him and so plays along, going to needless lengths to pretend he's not the Doctor, because ultimately Moffat turns all his characters into compulsive liars. Much like the Series 6 DVD's tacky, chauvinistic First Night/Last Night comedy skits about the game-playing Doctor essentially cheating on River with herself. Moffat's worldview essentially being that men can only get along with women by deferring to and agreeing with their stubborn, irrational misconstrues. I don't believe in making Moffat renounce his worldview, but it makes for a needlessly awkward, contrivance-ridden 60 minutes' television.

By now Moffat's used up every other gimmick with River, leaving only the role-reversal idea. What if this time the Doctor's the all-knowing stranger from River's perspective?

River doesn't recognize Capaldi's incarnation because he's outside the established, set twelve she knows of. Perhaps River's meant as an avatar for fans who, when presented with the thirteen rule being broken, refuse to accept its canonicity. Her stubborn inability to recognize the Doctor makes little sense otherwise.

Whilst many seemed deliriously charmed by Capaldi getting his turn to act awestruck at the TARDIS interior (all right, it did amuse me), I can't make head nor tail why he's so overenthusiastic about doing all this, beyond Moffat thought it a funny gimmick to overegg.

Basically, Silence in the Library's poignant premise gets flipped over into farce here (blatantly echoing Asylum of the Daleks' 'what if the Daleks didn't recognize the Doctor anymore?'). This entire episode's painful wackiness is just a long, unsustainable excuse for itself.

The problem with Capaldi is that, like Eccleston, it really does feel like the actor's most visible, vibrant instincts are completely contrary to what the script wants him to do. Frankly in Death in Heaven, during the aftermath of Osgood's murder, it really looked like he was revved up to throttle Missy. It felt like Capaldi had determined that his incarnation would. But instead Moffat had him paralytically pussy-foot around her and rush to the phone instead when Clara pulls his chain.

Likewise Capaldi's every instinct so far has indicated he'd want nothing to do with this kind of silly nonsense. Maybe he's even outgrown any patience with River. But instead the writing has him make a fool of himself by getting into these ridiculous hi-jinks and play-acting surprise at the TARDIS interior. Going to convoluted, lying lengths for no apparent purpose, other than it's supposedly the story's gag.

Thankfully, we then change location to a galactic starliner for the corrupt rich. Here the special starts over, settles down and develops a real atmosphere. The collector dissecting his own cranium for the reward was effectively creepy. Like Silence in the Library, it's like we've landed in the middle of the best NA novel Moffat never wrote. Capaldi and River's chemistry gets to blossom, and she compliments him as companion better than Clara ever did. But then comes River's overwrought, pathetically drippy, contrived, cringeworthy "The Doctor doesn't care about me" speech.

The ensuing crash was reasonably exciting, the robot being undone by the credit globe's firewall was satisfyingly neat, and River's catching the diamond in her bra was a smile-raiser. But then comes Capaldi's elaborate timey-wimey setup of River's final date, whilst she's unconscious. Upon learning where he's crashed, he funds the building of the restaurant before skipping ahead.

He should be dreading and avoiding this, but, as an author, Moffat is fed up with this and just wants to get it out the way. Thus, the Doctor's motives become overridden by Moffat's impatience. I'd accept the Doctor being resigned to the fact that their arrival on Derilium means it's time. Except it wasn't time until he started tampering with the world's history and deliberately skipping ahead to the future repeatedly until it was time. Capaldi comes off downright sociopathic here, as though impatiently determined to get River's prophesised death over with.

However, in isolation, the final scene is beautiful. Capaldi's words touching on our mortality and endpoints. The singing towers a beautifully realized metaphor for the series turning inanimate raw elements into something magical. It's almost A Christmas Carol's ending done right, and ends us on a high, despite the story overall being overshadowed by its unbearable first half.

Like Survival, Hand of Fear or The Visitation were to Classic Who, this felt an appropriate stopping point upon which the series could've ended with perfect serenity (we can assume Missy got exterminated off-screen).

But in the grand scheme of things, why should I care? After inflicting such wanton vandalism and corrosion to continuity lore and Dalek history, can I really care that, amidst all that, Moffat finally bothered resolving River's timeline correctly? Why does that matter more to him? Because empirically, I'm past the point it has comparative reason to matter to me anymore.

Yet, like so many of Moffat's belated gems, a few seasons earlier it could've made all the difference.