‘Doctor Who’ Christmas special review: ‘The Husbands of River Song’

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).

Doctor Who The Husbands of River Song

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.

Doctor Who The Husbands of 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.

Doctor Who The Husbands of River Song Peter Capaldi Twelfth

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.

Doctor Who The Husbands of River Song King Hydroflax (GREG DAVIES)

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.

Doctor Who The Husbands of River Song Alex Kingston Peter Capaldi

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.

Doctor Who The Husbands of River Song (ALEX KINGSTON)

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.

> Order ‘The Husbands of River Song’ on DVD on Amazon.

> Order ‘The Husbands of River Song’ on Blu-ray on Amazon.

What did you think of this year’s Christmas special? Let us know below…

> Follow Rob Smedley on Twitter.

  • Aaron Brookes

    Personally I loved it, after the slight disappointment of the underuse of Gallifrey in the season finale, this was a welcome episode (I know that no doubt Gallifrey will be back in S10, and come on, is anyone NOT thinking that Rassilon will be a villain that goes throughout the season unnoticed by the Doctor?).
    The pacing was spot on in my opinion. However in parts it was blindingly obvious they was going for the ‘big reveal’ of the Doctor to River, which did detract a bit, I mean, River’s meant to know basically everything about the Doctor, surely she should know he was taking the mick with the TARDIS thing?
    Davies played a excellent villain, even with his limited screen time, which was to be expected, I mean, this is Doctor Who after all. The same can be said with Lucas as well, limited screen time but really shone in this episode.
    The chemistry between Capaldi and Kingston was as fluent, funny and realistic as I had thought it would be.
    The main downside to me isn’t one of the episode, it’s the fact that this is most likely the last time we will see Kingston as River Song, due to it coming full circle. Remember in the Library, I believe she said ‘You picked me up in a new suit and a new face’ or something to those effects, and it basically is now closed with them visiting the place he knows is the last time they are together.
    I’d give it a 9.5/10, simply because while they was next to, or even nothing wrong with it, I hesitate to give full marks to a Doctor Who episode, because there’s ALWAYS room for improvement with them.

    • Daniel

      Nope – I really think this was a perfect episode of Who and by some distance the best Christmas special to date. I can’t take half a mark off for the possibility that this might be River’s only outing with the 12th Doctor as surely the massively positive reviews tonight highlighting their amazing rapport and the great fan reaction will ensure that they find a way to have them and that takes it back to the full five out of five for me. Gosh it really was a cracking episode.

      • Aaron Brookes

        Sadly not, it’s been basically confirmed. I’ll copy and paste a extract I’ve just read.

        ‘It was noteworthy for closing the book on River Song’s timeline that began with her debut, at last showing her and the Doctor go to Darillium. It also showed the Twelfth Doctor’s first and only encounter and interactions with River, as this would turn out to be the final time the Doctor ever saw her. For River, this was the final adventure before she met her demise in the two-part TV: Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead, as the events she would describe to the Tenth Doctor in that story are all realised in this special.’

        • Colin-Matthew Gunn-Jarrett

          Where did you read this?

          • Aaron Brookes

            It’s on the Tardis wiki page, which is a community one, which means it could be false, however Moffat has confirmed it, even changing a novel to make it the first, last and only time the 12th will meet her.

          • Colin-Matthew Gunn-Jarrett

            Yes I would agree on the wiki page it is more then likely false. But Moffat does lie. A LOT! Which novel has he changed?

          • Dr. Moo

            “Big Bang Generation” which was originally intended to feature 12 meeting River. River’s role was given to Summerfield instead – someone I hope to see with 12 on TV at some point.

          • Colin-Matthew Gunn-Jarrett

            That is interesting. Big Bang was always meant to be a Benny book as far as I knew to tie-in with Benny’s 10th anniversary (or was it 15th).

  • Daniel

    Full five stars from me. Peter Capaldi just continues to wipe away the memory of any other actor in the role and simply can do no wrong.What a gift he is to his writers. His give and take with Alex Kingston also reminded me of classic Hollywood screwball comedy. Surely after seeing how spectacular that pair is together, they are going to find a way to allow at least one more return timey-wimey visit.
    What a glorious series this has been from the first moments last September and now ending on his piece of Christmas perfection. The acting of course was stellar, but there were gorgeous moments like the scene falling in the snow and the production values were glorious. We are so lucky to be in the golden age of the show and I, for one, simply don’t care if we have to wait a few months longer than usual if we continue to get the sort of quality this series and tonight’s Christmas special offers. Best of all, it wasn’t one of those which required you to have copious amounts of alcohol to bear watching – looking at you Voyage of the Damned, Runaway Bride, Next Doctor and End of Time!

  • Dr. Moo

    A great episode that delivered everything I want from a Christmas Special: Fun, adventure, a memorable villain and an emotional moment to cap it all off. That it FINALLY fills in the one remaining gap (that we know of) in River’s story is a bonus. Up there with A Christmas Carol tied for best Christmas Special to date, The Husbands Of River Song had it all.

    Personal highlights:
    – the presence of all the previous Doctors in River Song’s spotters guide, even the War Doctor, and that the events of First Night/Last Night are addressed. That’s fan service done right!
    – finally getting to see the Singing Towers.
    – the Doctor’s “bidding war” before the ship crashes is one of 12’s best moments to date.
    – Matt Lucas, just in general; it’s about time he was in Doctor Who.
    – the Doctor’s “carol singers will be criticised” sign; I need to get myself one of those.

    Overall another great episode, bringing 2015 to a head (buh-dum hiss!) as one of the best years ever to be a Doctor Who fan.

    • Edward Delingford

      Christmas Who really doesn’t get better than that. I’d argue that Last Christmas has a more cohesive and intriguing story line and The Snowmen still can’t be beat for visual sumptuousness but Husbands of River Song is the most purely enjoyable package of the lot. Christmas Carol remains a sentimental favourite but I can see this one topping many people’s lists as their favourite Christmas outing and one which can be enjoyed by the casual viewer but really appreciated by the fan. Can I say it again? Kingston + Capaldi = acting bliss.

      • the one random guy 1

        personally i think this was the worst Christmas special since the 2005 reboot , i found it dull and Capaldi coming from heaven sent and hell bent, this was sad, this episode was terrible in my opinion, it could have been so much more. SO MUCH MORE (hehe references) anyways that was what i thouht

    • Lady S.

      I laugh way too much at this:
      River: You are very quick!
      Doctor: ..for a doctor…
      River: Yes! *smacks his arms and walk away*
      Doctor: Seriously?

      hahahahahhaha I dont know why but….oh my god

      • Dr. Moo

        It’s the little things in the way the two actors play that moment and others like it that makes the episode work so well. I must’ve watched it four or five times now (thanks iPlayer!) and I’ve noticed new little things like that every time. The performances in this episode are spectacular.

  • Ron H

    Loved it. I loved that the Doctor has finally done something nice for River. His next bit of charity should be to rescue her from that library computer. After all, she only lacks a body and the one she shot by that lake would make an excellent replacement.

  • Edward Delingford

    Corker. Apart from Name of the Doctor that might be the first time I have loved every minute of River’s presence. Capaldi and Kingston – wowee, not THAT is what you call real grown up chemistry between actors and characters. We are a million miles from Wose and her Doctor and their juvenile stomach churning antics and big moony eyes. Steven Moffat just completely *gets* the show and the character of the doctor – thank the Lord we have adults now both in front of and behind the cameras.

    Nice end to what is without doubt the best year ever in the modern show. Lovely to see Peter getting the chance to show how slapstick is done with his usual utter class but matched zinger by zinger by Alex. Steven Moffat is on fire too this year and this special just hums along and might very well be one the very few which viewers will be happy to turn to again and again (along with Christmas Carol). Even family members not too thrilled with this year’s run, loved and were entertained by every second of that. I like that the fan servicing parts were interwoven so beautifully into the story too, so everybody gets to enjoy it on a number of levels.

    What a great year to be a Doctor Who fan and great to know that it has never been in safer hands. Now off to bed and dream dreams of Alex and Peter being cast together in a Noel Coward comedy – surely any theatre producers watching last night would know that they have gold on their hands if they can make that happen.

    • Helles

      This one really was written for both fans and casuals – Steven Moffat got it spot on. Loved every single minute of that. Hope it rates really well. This is the golden age of Doctor Who and it has improved out of sight since the dark days of Tennant.

      • The dark days of Tennant – isn’t it funny that David wins every poll as the best Doctor ever – and why do you feel it is necessary to say how good this episode was by putting down other Doctors – this was a great episode and a great series this year and in my mind the first good Christmas episode that Steven wrote that he did not rip off the story line from something else – Peter C and Alex were brilliant in this episode

      • Cheryl Rosecrans

        I’m not sure how you can consider Tennant’s days dark. Over all his episodes gave us some of the finest momnts of Doctor Who from the moment he stepped into the role. The Impossible Planet, 42 and Midnight are not only superb episodes in of them selves, they showed stage quality acting. Considering he is a stage actor that is to be expected. The writing of Russell T and crew was excellent. In comparison Moffat gave us such wonders as a Town Called Mercy and the need to shove an agenda down our throat. Tonight’s episode was superb, the writing was fast paced and Moffat did an excellent job, but the reason it shined was because of the chemistry between Peter and Alex. Pairing her with Smith always felt wrong.

      • Tom Jameson

        As a casual I have to tell you I was clueless as to what was going on. If they have to have this on Christmas afternoon, it should be a stand alone episode that everyone can access. This episode was full of characters and in jokes that someone who only watches this episode because they are waiting for Christmas SCD has no idea what’s going on. A waste of an hour on Christmas afternoon.

  • Colin-Matthew Gunn-Jarrett

    Is this River’s final episode? The Doctor in effect gave her another 24 years of adventures to look forward to. I don’t think this is the last we see of her. Well I hope not for sure.

    • Helles

      I loved that bit about granting her 24 extra years. No way they won’t bring River back. When you have such sizzling chemistry between two actors, you’d be a fool to not use it again. Fan demand is going to be high too after quite a bit of moaning about series 9, seems everybody – casual viewers and fans – just loved that unreservedly.

      • wisconsingal

        Sign me up for a set of River/12 adventures. The character just so much better with 12 and writing and acting in tonight’s was the very best we’ve ever had with River. Everything I love about the show at the moment too was there tonight – great writing, great acting and tying all of the loose ends up so we get a completely new start for the doctor next year. Might just be the episode of Who I’ve enjoyed the most since Day of the Doctor.

  • Veronica Fae Fabbri

    It doesn’t clashesh though. River says he cancelled at the last moment

  • wisconsingal

    Beautiful, silly, sad and just lovely. The best River Song has ever been written and played and makes you wish that we could just have an entire season with River in the Tardis with 12 where she belongs. Mr and Mrs Who – would totally watch that!

  • Steven Walker

    I do think they get around the Mini-sode with the stuff about how he’s always canceling that date. You can imagine something happening to interfere after 11 has that little chat with himself. It may be some wand-waving from Moffat but I’m totally cool with that since this was such a satisfying send off for River.

  • Ella

    I finally enjoyed River…I didn´t mind her earlier but she was always just there, blaming the Doctor for something, saying “Spoilers” and 11 was like a lost puppy next to her. It is great to see Alex working with a more experienced, mature actor like Peter who can do anything and it simply…worked better.

    • Edward Delingford

      Great point. I agree. I always thought Alex was great but never thought River worked with either David’s or Matt’s doctors but just perfect with Peter’s. I think having a more mature and experienced actor like Peter allows for greater characterisation and for Alex to work in synch with them, rather than just delivering the lines. Alex always dominated any scenes with Matt and David and needed to act opposite someone like Peter who has the same level of acting quality and experience as she has. It does make me wish though that we had seen Alex and Peter earlier than this – perhaps in series 8 – so we could have enjoyed more of their amazing chemistry.

  • ElleOz

    Now that was lovely and the warmest and most sincere we’ve ever seen River. Alex and Peter worked so well together – never could buy someone like River being attracted to Matt’s or David’s doctors who seem too immature and goofy. Nice to see she finally gets together with a real grown up version of the doctor. I think River would also work well with Chris’ grumpy doctor.
    When the actors have that great chemistry together, the writers have it much easier. This really worked well as Peter and Alex sizzled from the first moment. Alex just never looked comfortable with David and Matt as actors, even putting aside the age differences.

  • Anemone999

    I enjoyed it. As others have said, it might have been nice to have a more substantial story, but, its existence was more than justified by the ending.

    We actually liked this way more than the new Star Wars movie and makes you wonder why Americans can’t get more original content onscreen.

    It seemed that sometimes past companions have struggled to get footing where River Song seems to fit naturally. I hope they can work Ms. Kingston in again somehow.


    Absolutely the worst Dr Who Christmas special ever!!!! What did it have to do with Christmas?

  • Brizvegas

    Really lovely and worked a treat. One of the very best Christmas specials ever IMHO. Capaldi and Kingston together were sublime and as commented before, possibly the most comfortable and natural pairing of any companion/major player with any doctor in the modern series. Hope they can get Alex back again while Peter remains the doctor. Great ending to a superior series.

  • John McJohnson

    Very good episode. Loved it. Not quite perfect because it’s hammy in places but loads of fun. 8/10

  • Laura C

    I want to see her first falling in love with the Doctor, and I’d like that to be twelve.

    • Dr. Moo

      Watch series six.

  • Peter

    Sherlock coming soon, I’m so excited !! I’m proud to be a fan of Sherlock. If you don’t have BBC iPlayer streaming in your country, watch it with PureVPN.

  • knuckle

    If Tasha Lem is “Mel Reborn” we have atleast one more date with River … Let 12 take a bit of “flesh” back to the library and a regeneration scene by the end … tie up loose ends

  • Conor Dunne

    .The author of this article made a big mistake. Rob says a night on Darillium is close to 3 decades in length. In the episode the Doctor says that it is 24 years.