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?
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.
The Doctor: Is it sad?
River: Why would a diary be sad?
The Doctor: I don’t know, it’s just that…you look sad.
River: It’s nearly full.
The Doctor: So?
River: The man who gave me this was the sort of man who’d know exactly how long a diary you were going to need.
The Doctor: He sounds awful.
River: I suppose he is. I’ve never really thought about it.
The Doctor: Not somebody special then?
River: No. But terribly useful every now and then.
The Doctor looks stricken and ashamed. Just as he did with Clara, he focused on what wasn’t human about River so that he wouldn’t have to feel so alone. He knows that River feels deeply and that her obstinacy and sass are unleashed as a defense mechanism, more than not. But it was easier to flirt and to fight the bad guys side-by-side than it was to face the expectations that his behavior was building up. But face it he does in the middle of their business dinner with dummy buyer Scratch. He couldn’t look away if he tried.
Flemming: My information is correct. You are the woman who loves the Doctor.
River: Yes, I am. I’ve never denied it. But whoever said he loved me back? He’s the Doctor, he doesn’t go around falling in love with people. And if you think he’s anything that small or that ordinary, then you haven’t the first idea of what you’re dealing with.
Flemming: Your Majesty, I assure you, she is the perfect bait. When this woman is in danger, the Doctor will always come.
River: Oh, you are a moron. No, he won’t.
Flemming: He’s probably already here.
River: No, he isn’t, of course he isn’t!
Flemming: Possibly on this ship.
River: Well, go on, scan it then. Go on, why don’t you?
The Doctor: River…
River: Two hearts, stupid clothes, you can’t miss him.
The Doctor: River!
River: Go on, scan the whole parsec! He’s not here. God knows where he is right now, but I promise you, he’s doing whatever the hell he wants and not giving a damn about me! And I’m just fine with that.
The Doctor: River…
River: When you love the Doctor, it’s like loving the stars themselves. You don’t expect a sunset to admire you back. And if I happen to find myself in danger, let me tell you, the Doctor is not stupid enough, or sentimental enough, and he is certainly not in love enough to find himself standing in it with me!
Well, goddammit. Just. GODDAMMIT. Do I ship Twelve with everyone now? Maybe. Maybe, I do. With the face, and the voice dropping an octave, and the SUIT. That’s the sexiest “hello, sweetie” mine ears ever did hear. There go eight perfectly good years of platonic feelings for this pairing. Fuck off, Christmas.
And what timing too. The show just confirmed my forever head canon, which is that River needs very much for the Doctor to validate their relationship in a romantic way for her to feel that she’s special to him. And by this point in her timeline, she feels the futility of that dream. Don’t think about this River, fresh off the events of “Angels Take Manhattan,” settling into the only last days she thinks she can have – treasure-hunting just for the thrill of it and using romantic love as bait for rubes. (“It’s the easiest lie you can tell a man. They’ll automatically believe any story they’re the hero of.”) The only man she’s ever truly loved can’t love her back. Their soulmate bond took her parents away from her. What good is any of it? River is wrong, though. The Doctor falls in love all the time. He falls in love with cheeky questions and low-rise jeans and faces that need three mirrors and small acts of selflessness. He falls in love with people who force him to see himself and put the wonder back into his universe just by looking on it with fresh eyes. It’s kind of his biggest problem, to be honest. Here’s another tip: don’t think about the Doctor listening to this speech, remembering the time he inhaled the time vortex or burned up a sun just to say goodbye or spent 4.5 billion years in his own personal hell (HE REMEMBERS IT, HE DOES) because of the love this woman he cares so much about thinks he’s too superior to feel. DO NOT DO IT.
And bless, because as soon as she realizes who followed her on this damn fool caper and is still standing next to her, and how that negates so much of what she’s just said, River’s response is banter. Always, banter. And the Doctor banters back, because that’s what they do. (“You’re so doing those roots.” “What? The roots of the sunset?” *snort*) And now that she knows why the chemistry between herself and this stranger is so good, River turns it right up. This is what terrified me about a River/Twelve episode coming so soon after Clara’s exit, but even this Whoufaldi Trash has to admit that Kingston and Capaldi are quite delicious together.
They’re saved from their bloodthirsty dinner companions by an oncoming meteor strike. Exploding restaurants are River’s dine-and-dash strategy, and her timing is again spot on. One tiny problem: the ship is crashing straight into the surface of Darillium, which River and the Doctor know to be the last time they spend together before the events of the Library. They tussle over who will be the one to at the controls when the starship plows into the planet’s surface (“I’ve been doing it longer.” “I do it better.”), both diving safely into the TARDIS at the last second.
River is knocked out by the impact. The Doctor checks on her, then opens the door to meet a Darillium workman who’d searched the wreckage for survivors. The Doctor hands the man – Alphonse – the diamond that River tried to marry and tells him it would be awfully nice if someone opened a restaurant with a scenic view of the planet’s famous Singing Towers. He drops in a few years later to make a reservation for their finest table, and then he waits.
It’s Christmas on Darillium (another human colony, surely), and the Doctor and River are finally on the same page. He tells her sincerely that she looks “amazing,” instead of making the lusty comment he usually would. And instead of an “I know!” and a hair flip, she answers shyly that he has no bloody idea whether she looks amazing or not, but that she appreciates the compliment just the same. They’ve known each other for hundreds of years, but, until this moment, the Doctor and River have never fully let their guard down around each other. River confesses that yes, she does fear time. But she doesn’t want the Doctor to run from her just because he can’t promise her forever. “Forever” isn’t real to humans, or even children of the TARDIS. We can’t comprehend it.
The Doctor: Times end, River, because they have to. Because there’s no such thing as happily ever after. It’s just a lie we tell ourselves because the truth is so hard.
River: No, Doctor. You’re wrong. Happily ever after doesn’t mean forever. It just means time. A little time. But that’s not the sort of thing you could ever understand, is it?
Or maybe he finally can. The Doctor gives River two gifts on their Darillium date: first, the sonic screwdriver that’ll confuse the hell out of Ten at a later (for her) date; and second, the little time that she needs to say goodbye. A night on this planet is 24 years, and I defy anyone not to get emotional at River’s cry of happiness and surprise when she learns this little detail. (“I hate you.” “No, you don’t.”)
The Singing Towers themselves are untouchable and spectacular, but there is still a part of them that can be understood. It’s the relationship between the “monolith” and the mortal observer that creates the phenomena. They need each other. In other words, what good would the towers’ song be if no one were around to hear it?
Timey Wimey Observations:
- “Carol singers will be criticized.”
- The TARDIS thinks the Doctor needs cheering up. He remembers Clara. He remembers Clara HARD.
- “I think I’m going to need a bigger flow chart”
- “Are you thinking? Stop it, you’re a man, it looks weird.”
- Steven Moffat has a file named “River Song Zingers.docx” and you can’t convince me otherwise.
- “You know who you remind me of? My second wife.” Errybody on this show is bisexual now, and I’m WITH IT.
- “I’m an archaeologist. Look, I’ve got a trowel.”
- “I haven’t laughed in a long time.” Can you not.
- “Your remaining majesty.”
- “Jim the Fish” reference! Chug your drink.
- If you enjoyed Greg Davies as Hydroflax, start watching The Inbetweeners right now.
- “Good’s not the word.”
- I don’t know if I heard this right, but I THINK it is now canon that the Doctor and River have had a threesome with Cleopatra.
Series 9 ends with a very silly but equally beautiful Christmas special, and now we’ve got at least eight months to wait for the Doctor’s return. What did you think of “The Husbands of River Song”? The comments section awaits your opinion.