Doctor Who Series 9, Episode 13
“The Husbands of River Song”
Posted by Sage
Especially in the Tennant era, Christmas specials functioned as transitional episodes. “Christmas Invasion,” “The Runaway Bride,” and “Voyage of the Damned” are between-season interludes to get audiences acclimated to a change, whether it’s a new-new Doctor sword-fighting in his PJs or a companion’s recent departure. I knew, because of Jenna Coleman’s announcement, that “The Husbands of River Song” would be that kind of Christmas special too. And I worried. Steven Moffat has no objectivity when it comes to this character. And I’m still in mourning. Could Moffat write River the way he wanted and still be sensitive to Clara’s memory? It helped that he nearly wrote out the Doctor’s grief completely. But just nearly.
Will “The Husbands of River Song” go down in Doctor Who history as one of the show’s finest holiday episodes? No, of course not. But it serves its purpose. I am satisfied by the end of Clara Oswald’s story, but that didn’t mean I was ready to welcome a new companion the moment the credits of “Hell Bent” started to roll. But this episode functioned as a narrative stepping stone. A palate cleanser. And guess what? Peter Capaldi has chemistry with everyone, so bring on that new TARDIS roommate, whoever he, she, or it may be.
Alex Kingston was one of the headlining guests at Chicago TARDIS 2015. And though some trailers and promotional images had been released for the episode, there was little she could share in the way of details. What she could tell us about the ownership some of the men in her life feel over River Song is about as surprising as a “Hello, sweetie” in one of her episodes. For a time, Moffat considered making series 9 his last as showrunner. And if that season’s special would be the last he’d ever write, he wanted River on it. And then there’s Matt, who apparently confronted Alex in the wee hours of her own wedding reception to express his jealousy that “his” wife would be working with another Doctor. See what I mean about the objectivity? It’s sweet, yeah, but this favoritism is what’s always made me uncomfortable about Dr. Song as a character.
There’s a huge and passionate River Song fandom, and more power to ’em. Not being a card-carrying member, I went into this Christmas special reminding myself that maybe I wasn’t the intended audience, and that that was okay. To my surprise, this episode was the most effective use of River’s character since her debut in “The Silence in the Library” two-parter, and at no point did I feel like she was being ranked ahead of Clara. Nor that their characters were even being compared. And honestly, PHEW.
River is at best when she is allowed to be vulnerable, same as the Doctor. I grow frustrated with her in series 6, because she’s rarely anything less than perfectly confident and aggravatingly inaccessible. She’s, like, the opposite of a Mary Sue: a male fantasy of sexual domination and the “cougar” trope, armed with poisonous lipstick and an arsenal of innuendo. What could be more boring?
That’s how River starts off in this episode too, but more of her is eventually, finally revealed. Moffat has grown in this area, as “Hell Bent” certainly proves. And River benefits from his feminist leveling-up as well. The Doctor runs into Dr. Song (or is dragged to her, more accurately) on the planet Mendorax Dellora in the year 5434, by Nardole, a bumbling jester of sorts. (Matt Lucas is great, but Nardole is sadly extraneous. I won’t be mentioning him again.) River has called for a surgeon, and she and her minion think the Doctor is it. He’s thrilled to see her, of course. (“Rivaaaaaaaahhhh!”) She hasn’t a blessed clue who he is. And she wants to retain her anonymity as well.
The Doctor goes along with the misunderstanding for two reasons: first, he’s dying to see what River’s gotten up to (and he’s sure she’ll eventually need his help); and second, he’s waiting for her to recognize him. He can’t believe she hasn’t already; he’s well aware she’s cleverer than him in a laundry list of ways.
River has called for a surgeon to aid her husband, King Hydroflax, who has a foreign object lodged in his brain. She tends to him – while the Doctor looks on incredulously – laying on the endearments and the promises of eternal loyalty. By the way, King Hydroflax isn’t, strictly speaking, a person. But if anyone could get a murderous 10-foot-tall android with a human head to settle down with her, it’s River. The Doctor hates this. A lot. And he’s always been a bit shit at covering up his jealousy. (“That’s who you’re married to? Not….anybody else?”)
This marriage, not unlike any of her others probably, is a long con. The projectile that’s killing Hydroflax is the Halassi Androvar – the most valuable diamond in universe – and River wants it. She engaged the services of a surgeon not to save the brutish dictator, but to pull a Queen of Hearts. (“I basically married the diamond.”) Why does she need a professional to go “off with his head” if his survival isn’t a necessity? I assume that she just got the an obscenely expensive manicure at some swanky space salon or some such. That doesn’t matter, nor does the rest of the episode’s weak-ish plotting. What does matter is that River Song was once married to Stephen Fry, and the Doctor’s still not over that either.
TL;DR: River and the Doctor escape Hydroflax’s flying saucer (that’s what it is!) with his head in a duffel bag. He’s still alive and threatening them (“Oh, zip it.”), and his metal body is on the hunt for a replacement cranium. River rendezvous with another husband, the young and handsome Ramone, who’s been assisting her the whole time. Her getaway vehicle is the TARDIS; a reveal that leaves the Doctor looking annoyed, but not shocked. One of River’s strengths as a character is that her life outside of what we see on the show is so rich. The possibilities are endless, especially if she’s made a habit on borrowing “Dad’s” car when he’s otherwise engaged. There’s literally never a dull moment with River, no matter when Doctor Who catches up with her. She’s always neck-deep in some scheme, with a few needy men seduced into doing her bidding. (“I’ll see you on Temple Beach. I’ve already picked out your swimwear.”) She may not be my favorite companion, but she is kind of my hero.
Between all the kissing (“As an activity, it’s not hugely varied, is it?”) and the decapitated despot in his luggage, the Doctor isn’t having a great time. That is, until he realizes that he can finally give himself and his TARDIS the awed reaction that they both deserve. It’s the comedic high point of the episode and a sad reminder that all of series 9 was far too serious for the a show led by the guy who played Malcolm Tucker.
Once River has her ride and a fresh drink (did the Doctor even know the TARDIS has a bar cart?), it’s off to the Starship Harmony & Redemption. That’s a space cruise with a very nice name intended for a lot of very not-nice people, and the best place to find a buyer who won’t mind snuffing out Hydroflax in order to fish out his prize. (“Suites are reserved for planet burners.”) The Doctor is still nipping along at River’s heels, increasingly desperate for the other shoe to drop. How can she not know him? Is he so changed? And where did she get her wallet gallery of his 12 other faces?
That sad ‘lil flip. 🙁
River’s inability or unwillingness to recognize her “surgeon” for who he really is gives the Doctor the first chance he’s had to anonymously observe her. On the surface, she’s all one-liners and sparkly dresses, as per usual. He’s the only one of her husbands who can spot the melancholy under the glamour. The source? Her salacious travel read. It’s her own story, which she fears is rapidly coming to a close.