Gallifrey may be back, but the last thing The Doctor would want is to be at home for the holidays.
So where is he?
The planet is Mendorax Dellora. The year is 5343. The Christmas ad on TV is probably an elderly Ice Warrior sitting on the moon of Phobos as a younger member of the Martian military caste floats a new piece of telescopic targeting software for his sonic disruptor up to him. Ahh, sweet.
Not that it matters, as The Doctor’s chosen to Scrooge himself away inside the TARDIS (because of course 12, with eyebrows thick as tinsel, doesn’t like Christmas), parked on a rather familiar ‘Raven-y’ set with a Shakin’ Stevens snow makeover.
All of time and space to frown about in and he decides to hide away from Christmas in a location that not only is geographically exact to the one his chum died on, but literally couldn’t look any more Christmassy. There wasn’t a July going free on the beaches of Penhaxico Two? (Extra serving of Christmas pud if you know which special Penhaxico Two is mentioned in).
But that’s as cynical as I can possibly be about ‘The Husbands of River Song’, which is everything that Doctor Who should be at Christmas: a fast-paced, fun, screwball romp with just enough sentiment in just the right place to leave you feeling like you watched something that wasn’t purely throwaway froth.
And it is fast-paced. Events from Mendorax Dellora to the TARDIS to outer space move in such rapid succession that, before you can lift your head from Quality Street tin and murmur ‘that’s mad!’, you’re plonked in another scene. Like The Doctor, we’re all just being pulled along.
And who’s doing the pulling? Why the only person who could pull The Doctor (take that as you want): Professor River Song.
Every time she turns up River bends the gravity of an episode around her. In the past she’s tended to be a plot point with fantastic hair offering ominous warnings of things to come rather than an actual character, despite Alex Kingston’s not inconsiderable efforts. But it feels like there’s more to her here, that she’s an actual person instead of a spoiler-y puzzle to solve.
So much so that this feels like an episode of ‘The River Song Adventures’ with a guest appearance from The Doctor, acting as her companion. That’s no bad thing, especially as it gives Capaldi a chance to do comedy after a trio of such emotionally heavy episodes at the end of Season 9.
We all know the man can do laughs, especially if they’re profane, but it’s still surprising to see his anti-banter Doctor joke. His ‘Bigger on the inside’ moment is a perfect piece of Twelfth humour – funny, but also acerbic as hell.
There’s something very Hepburn & Tracy about River with Twelve. One’s the crotchety old man, the other’s all swagger and sexy and smart retort. It’s possibly the best Doctor/River pairing we’ve seen on screen, perhaps because River – not knowing she’s dragging her proper husband along – doesn’t feel like she has to compete with The Doctor.
He (mostly) gets to be himself, she gets to be herself. It’s lovely to watch. Especially Kingston. She plays River like a hand plays the glove.
Ms. River Song – who’s added bigamy to her intergalactic rap sheet – is after the diamond burrowing its way into the head of Greg Davies’ shouty pantomime cyborg King Hydroflax. His robotic Buzz Lightyear body is the big ‘it’s behind you!’ of the episode, stomping around, cutting people’s heads off. Were it not for the fact that this episode trots along so briskly, and features the almost Tivolian comic naiveté of Matt Lucas’s Nardole, it might be pretty dark.
But Moffat has gone back to the grand guignol feel of ‘Deep Breath’ and put better jokes in to give the horror a cartoonish physicality. Decapitations occur with such merry abandon (the Headless Monks could learn a thing or two), it’s only when you stop and think after the credits that you realise the premise is as eerie as last Christmas’ brain eating-crabs.
The restaurant scene aboard the super-villain star-liner Harmony & Redemption is even more gruesome than Capaldi’s introductory episode – and many that have followed – but his Doctor’s one-liners make the skull-splitting and head-scorching feel, again in the best way possible, almost cartoonish, Itchy & Scratchy-ish.
But then the jokes, like the Harmony & Redemption, come crashing down, onto a planet we’re familiar with in portent only: Darillium.
The banter is put away as The Doctor organises his final night with River from the bricks upward. Were this any other episode at any other time of year, the convenience of building and booking a date would feel trite. But at Christmas, when we expect a bit of magic and the odd miracle, it fits.
Especially as we want to see a piece of plot first talked about in 2008 happen before our eyes – even if you do think it clashes with the ‘Last Night’ minisode on your Season 6 DVD, where it’s heavily implied 11 is taking River on a final date before The Library.
After all the jokes and ripostes and deceptions, it’s a lovely moment of openness and honesty between The Doctor (haircut, check, new suit, check) and River. Or at least as honest as it gets between the monolith and his missus.
As the towers sing and what should be an incredibly sad way to end a pantomimic hour ends with a cheeky but pleasing get-out: a night on Darillium happens to be close to three decades in length. Fan-ficcers, start your engines.
This is the final piece in River’s Gordian timeline. We’ve come full circle now. No more ‘Shhh, spoilers’. It makes sense that this should be the very last time we see her. But when has River ever let making sense stop her?
If it is a farewell to her character (on screen at least – she’s starring in Big Finish’s ‘The Diary of River Song’ very soon) then it’s the best possible point you could leave her: an episode that fully proves her character can survive, even thrive, without relying on her own mystery. Or, indeed, her husband(s).
Aired at 5.15pm on Friday 25 December 2015 on BBC One.
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