2nd Opinion: The Husbands of River Song
David Selby and Connor Johnston give their verdicts on this year’s Christmas special.
It’s not difficult to imagine this as Steven Moffat’s last episode of Doctor Who. For the first time since the Davies era ended – and correct me on this if I’m wrong – we finish a series with no loose ends (or at least, none which have been deliberately left open to interpretation), and an episode that resolves the oldest untold story of the Moffat era: Darillium.
In a way, reviewing this episode ends up with us summarising the Moffat era. Here we have a traditional Moffat era farce (by no means a complaint; everyone deserves a pantomime), filled with references to the era we seem to be nearing the end of. Of course, that’s not completely true, as the episode itself engages critically with the Moffat era far more than any reviewer has, challenging the criticisms of the fairy-tale generally directed at the era, culminating in the final moment – on-screen text, a convention of fairy-tale storytelling, fading away until only the truth remains: happily. The truth is one emotion – a last stab at optimism. River Song is wrong: the Doctor is sentimental and in love enough to end his story this way.
It was wonderful to see a two-hander between Mr and Mrs Who, especially considering the dazzling chemistry between Peter Capaldi and Alex Kingston. This feels like the closest we’ll ever get to River Song as a companion, though the story more encourages the approach that it’s the Doctor who is companion to River Song, with her own edgy and amoral version of Doctor Who taking centre-stage.
And then there’s the final scene. Those who know me particularly well will know that, despite its flaws, I really enjoy Miracle Day, but something that never quite worked was the Blessing – the actors did a fine job with their reactions but the execution was terribly underwhelming and perhaps just a little provocative. Yet here, in 2015, television has mastered both, capturing both the beauty of a natural phenomenon and the weight of the spectators’ reactions (this is also helped by Murray Gold, whose score for the Singing Towers scene is really quite something). It’s astonishing that one of the most vivid ideas in Doctor Who, and one that’s been left to the imagination for over seven years, was executed in-series without being disappointing.
Everything ends, and everyone is finally beginning to come to terms with that fact. Just as the Doctor this time accepts that fact that trying to change the events of his companion’s exit is wrong, Steven Moffat himself accepts that it is finally time to begin writing the last chapter. If Series Nine is the spectacular finale of Moffat’s Doctor Who – which has been, by the way, an absolute pleasure to cover – Series 10 is starting to look like its epitaph.
“Every night is the last night for something… Every Christmas is Last Christmas. Happy ever after doesn’t mean forever, it just means time. A little time.”
While Russell T Davies traditionally justified the relevance of his Christmas Specials primarily with their setting, Steven Moffat has conversely relied on the themes of Christmas in the form of goodwill, love, spirit, family and generosity by embedding them through his scripts to make his specials seasonally appropriate. This year’s special, “The Husbands of River Song”, is no different to Moffat’s previous scripts in the way it banks on humour, stunning imagery and a profound emotional climax to pull off a truly spectacular finish.
The main attraction for this year’s special is of course the dynamic between Alex Kingston’s River Song and Peter Capaldi’s 12th Doctor – which luckily does not disappoint. Throughout the whole episode, even through River’s ignorance, the two play off each other amazingly. Peter Capaldi constantly pushed himself past his artistic limits all year – and, gifted with a very differently toned episode than his usual outing, he presents yet another dimension of his incarnation we’ve grown so fond of. For Alex Kingston, the episode and specifically its final act is a character highlight for River Song – whose charisma and originality has remained intact throughout her many appearances. The special also allows for a more intimate look inside the character’s personality specifically regarding her life without the Doctor and more prominently the toll the unorthodox nature of her relationship with the Doctor has on her emotionally. “Husbands” is an episode that not only warrants the contributions to such a sound and impressive legacy – but honours it in the best way a fan of the character could hope for.
It simply wouldn’t be Christmas without a heavy helping of comedic guest stars to lighten the atmosphere – and though there was no role quite as prominent as that of Catherine Tate or Nick Frost, the special still serves up a confident list of performances to sweeten the deal. Probably best served in my eyes was Matt Lucas’ ‘Nardole’ – who although has a limited amount of screen time and even an even smaller amount of character development comes off as instantly lovable and inherently hilarious. Greg Davies’ ‘King Hydroflax’ is nothing too rewarding and does verge upon jarringly shouty at some moments of the special – but still serves to become one of the more successful Christmas villains and ensures the audience a few good hearted chuckles. On the other end of the spectrum ‘Ramone’ struggles to become anything other than forgettable, and ‘Flemming’ though blessed with a few brilliant one-liners and a confident portrayal doesn’t carry enough narrative significance to really take flight.
The script of the episode is riddled with Moffat’s charm and wit – with each line of dialogue subtly impressing in its own way. The showrunner’s creativity flows throughout the entire script – and though not featuring any concepts as iconic or original as the Weeping Angels, the Silence or even the Dream Crabs from “Last Christmas” – it’s still an entertaining and clever narrative. Not to be ignored is the production value, that while has been present throughout the entire Ninth Series is particularly impressive in this year’s Christmas special, conveying an array of stunning landscapes even better action sequences. Douglas Macinnon delivers an episode striking enough to challenge ‘Flatline’ as his own personal magnus opus. The realisation of the ‘Shoal of the Winter Harmony’ and the streets of Mendorax Dellora stand out as two specific highlights – coming second only to the Singing Towers of Darillium themselves which transcend even the greatest moments of CGI that the show has seen. Similarly, Murray Gold completes his decade on the show with a hauntingly beautiful score sure to have many grasping at the straws for a Series 9 soundtrack release.
The final third of the episode remains to be one of the most profound sequences of the show’s history – fitted with a conclusion that leaves casual viewers and fans alike equally fulfilled and moved. River’s speech reflecting on her love for the Doctor and the ‘impossibility’ that this love could ever be returned is a notable highlight as the significance of the episode is slowly revealed. The Doctor’s ‘Hello Sweetie’ and River’s realisation comes with such a strong emotional crescendo it’s hard not to feel yourself swept up in the scene. From there on our investment in the Doctor and River’s dynamic grabs hold – and doesn’t really let off until the episode’s end. Darillium itself achieves the greatest achievement of all in the way it impossibly meets the expectations one has for the towers since their first mention. The symbolism of the towers channelling the beauty of their relationship and River being the Doctor’s ‘song’ most awards a level of sincerity and heart to their pairing – and as well as Kingston and Capaldi worked together, it seems a point of exit far to beautiful and appropriate to ever touch again.
And so another year of Doctor Who has reached its end – and what a year it’s been! Skaro, Trap Street, Gallifrey and now Darillium, 2015 has seen us travel to every corner of our imaginations, rarely stopping to take a breath. Throughout the year we’ve laughed, cried and celebrated as Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman and Steven Moffat took the show to the peak of its quality. It’s been an absolute pleasure to work alongside David in bringing you the ‘Second Opinion’ series this year, and though it’s been my first I’m sure I can speak for my co-writer when I say your continued enthusiasm and feedback has been Heaven Sent. From ours to yours: Happy Holidays – and all the best for the new year!
“May you all live happily ever after”