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Sunday, 25 December 2016

Doctor Who - Christmas 2015: The Husbands of River Song

Episode:826|Serial:263|Writer:Steven Moffat|Air Date:25-Dec-2015

This week on Sci-Fi Adventures, I'm reviewing Doctor Who's 2015 Christmas special, The Husbands of River Song... during Christmas 2016. So I'm both incredibly late and incredibly timely, which seems perfectly fitting for Doctor Who.

The episode follows on from the season 9 finale Hell Bent, which left the Doctor a little unhappy for a number of reasons. It also left him without a companion, but that's okay as rogue archaeologist River Song is going to make a surprise return! Probably. It's possible that the trailer was a cunning trick and only her husbands ever show up, but that'd be a bit of a let down.

I'm going to recap the episode and share my thoughts along the way, so this is going to have massive SPOILERS for the entire story and anything leading up to it. Everything afterwards is safe though, and not just because it hasn't aired yet by the time I'm writing this.

Oh, the episode's started then? The way the camera spent the first minute swooping across snowy rooftops adorned with lights had me waiting for someone to announce what's coming up this Christmas on BBC One.

The Doctor's parked his TARDIS on a human colony planet 3328 years in the future, but he hasn't stomped out looking for a monster to save/defeat like he usually does, he's just hanging around the control room with holographic antlers on (the TARDIS thought they'd cheer him up). Hang on, when was Sleep No More set? Okay, that was the 38th century, this is the 54th century... hey the human race survived the sleep monsters!

Comedian Matt Lucas knocks on the door asking for 'the surgeon' because there's a medical emergency, and the Doctor actually goes along with him! It doesn't seem to occur to him to maybe admit he's not a trained medical professional so the guy can keep looking for the person who's actually qualified to perform potentially life-saving surgery (who turns up moments after they've gone).

That is a ropey looking flying saucer.

It crashed just outside of the village that the Doctor's parked in, which probably contributed to the medical emergency. Matt Lucas (who still hasn't got a name) assumes the Doctor already knows all of the details as it was arranged beforehand, and the Doctor's not eager to correct his misconception. Maybe he's just bored and wants something to do, I don't know.

The saucer opens and a hooded woman walks out to meet him.

It's River Song, the love of the Doctor's life (and possibly his wife, I forget how that worked out)! Only she doesn't recognise him, because she's never seen his 12th incarnation before.

She's unimpressed by the surgeon Nardole's brought to her doorstep, and a little surprised he doesn't entirely match her photos of him. The Doctor protests, saying that he's had a haircut and he's in his best suit, which is interesting as back in River's first episode she says:
"The last time I saw you, the real you, the future you I mean, you turned up on my doorstep, with a new haircut and a suit."
She might have neglected to mention that he was wearing a new face as well. But then that would've been a spoiler.

Anyway she's in need of a surgeon as her husband is dying. Cut to opening titles!

They've X-Mas'd the opening credits! There's snow everywhere, ice on the logo, baubles instead of planets; I don't remember them doing this for Last Christmas back in 2014. Thankfully the music's the same though, I don't think I could cope with a Christmasified version of the Doctor Who theme tune.

Speaking of the music, Murray Gold has not been subtle this episode. It's been pretty obnoxious.

Whoa, River's husband is a Space Marine!

He actually King Hydroflax, ruler of 4 billion subjects judging by the number of people this operation is being broadcast to right now. He's definitely the ruler of the warrior monks circling his operating theatre, armed with sentient laser swords and genetically engineered anger issues. Plus he's a bloody Space Marine!

By the way, there's something really familiar about the shots of his followers on the TV screens:

The Husbands of River Song                                                               The Matrix Reloaded
Because they're taken from The Matrix Reloaded! Yeah I know these two shots aren't exactly identical, but look at the woman in the bottom right of the of the first image. Now look at the top right of the second image. Same exact person, same exact place.

Anyway, there's a lot of people watching and waiting for the Doctor to save their leader's life... so he decides to use this opportunity to go on a rant about the pointlessness of monarchy, until River drags him off into another room so that she can refresh his memory on the plan.

She uses this giant World is Not Enough hologram to demonstrate the projectile lodged inside Hydroflax's brain, which just happens to be the most valuable diamond in the universe. Hydroflax was leading the assault on a vault, there was an explosion and he got diamond shrapnel in the face. So it's more like Die Another Day then really. Sorry, next time I reference James Bond movies I'll pick some that anyone actually remembers.

Hey the Doctor's still got his sonic sunglasses! I thought that once he got his screwdriver back we'd be done with them (especially as he left them in Clara's diner), but nope. His sonic potential has doubled. I guess it makes sense he didn't pull out his screwdriver though as that'd give the game away immediately. River's still under the impression that he's the surgeon she's hired to carry out her devious plan.

Basically her husband has a diamond in the head and she'd like removed. His head that is, it'll be less hassle that way. A bit harsh maybe, but as far as she's concerned she married the diamond. Unfortunately Hydroflax stomps in and reveals that he heard their whole conversation!

And then he takes his head off and sticks it on the holoprojector! Because... he's upset I guess? He's got cybernetic life support equipment plugged right into his head so he can happily go on breathing and talking in this condition just as well as if he were an actor with his head sticking through a hole in the table. Hang on... weren't those monks supposed to be carrying laser swords?

King Hydroflex is apparently not a good man to piss off as he's got a reputation for eating his enemies, dead or alive. He doesn't even need the nutrients, he's a head on a robot suit!

Well just a head now really, as River manages to turn the tables by just pulling out a ray gun and shooting all the guards. She calls it a sonic trowel though, as she's trying to compensate for not having a sonic screwdriver.

The robot body's got a mind of its own, but is unwilling to kill them if it puts its head at risk, which gives them the opportunity to drop the head into a bag and simply teleport out of there into the snow outside. Or transmat, whatever they call it in Doctor Who. He's got a great voice by the way, the robot.

The Doctor can't help but laugh at how ridiculous it is to be lying in the snow listening to the threats of an angry bag, which is good considering how screwed up he was after the events of the last three episodes. It's nice to see him recovering a little. In fact laughing is practically out of character for him considering how grumpy he usually is.

He's soon given something to be grumpy about though, as his wife kisses another man she claims is her husband. Ramone doesn't actually know it himself though, as she wiped her memory. The episode's also revealed that she's had two wives, so she's been quite busy.

Ramone's been out looking for 'Damsel', which is River's codename for a Time Lord she knows has to be in this place at this time, but he's had no luck finding him yet.

To be fair to Ramone it's not easy trying to find a man with 12 faces, especially when the photographs he's been given look so strange. I don't just mean that they're obviously screencaps of episodes instead of photos an actual human would take, they also seem like they've been digitally composited into the shot. Maybe that's just because of the weird colour timing though.

Anyway, it turns out that River deliberately crashed Hydroflax's ship here so that she could get the Doctor's help with her escape.

The trap street set from Face the Raven looks really nice with decorations up and a bit of snow.

River and Ramone can't find the Doctor (or at least a Doctor they recognise) but they have at least found the TARDIS. I love the sign he's put up by the way: "Carol singers will be criticised."

So River comes up with a new plan: steal the time machine, bring it back a second later, the Doctor will never know. It's not like she hasn't done it before. The Doctor's a tiny bit alarmed to hear that River's basically been borrowing his house behind his back, but he cheers up when he realises that it's finally his turn...

...he finally gets to react as if he's never seen the TARDIS control room before! It's bigger on the inside! 40 seconds he carries this on for, exclaiming how his entire understanding of physical space has been transformed. His grasp of the universal constants of physical reality has been changed forever!

The music tried to spoil the moment, but that was a downright joyful scene. Especially with River mocking him the whole time, completely unaware of who he is.

But then she manages to one up him by revealing she has a secret stash of brandy hidden right under his nose.

The thing is, these round things appeared at the start of season 9, during Capaldi's second year, so if she's never met this particular incarnation before she shouldn't know about this. I guess she really has been sneaking in while he's been out.

While they're having fun, Hydroflax's body has decapitated Nardole and uploaded his head to steal the information within, much to the poor guy's annoyance. It soon catches up to Ramone as well, giving him the same treatment. Turns out the machine has the capacity to store several severed heads at once and keep them alive. It's also got cool bendy extendible arms and Buzz Lightyear style spring-loaded wings!

The robot then manages to get inside the TARDIS in a frantic scene that's very hard to screencap but with some quick thinking the Doctor manages to trigger the de-materialisation and knock him off balance.

Turns out that River set the coordinates to bring the TARDIS to an intergalactic spaceship! A spaceship with a cyborg-proof lock on its baggage hold, which puts that crisis on pause for a while once she and the Doctor get out and seal the door. Of course the TARDIS is in there too so getting back out might be a problem.

River's also brought magic pixie dust that ties her hair up, disintegrates her trowel and gives her a purse. Maybe it's just a hologram like the Doctor's antlers at the start, I dunno.

She lets slip her age here, revealing that she's actually 200 years old by this point. She also reveals that the ship they're on requires passengers to have 1 billion credits and proof that they've murdered multiple innocents to get onboard. Even the staff here are pure evil, this is a bad place for bad people to drink nice champagne.

They've got to hang around for a while to wait for a buyer for the diamond, so River decides to read her diary. She's definitely got a bit of Time Lord in her; 200 years and she's still using the same diary. Ashildr the immortal Viking would've had a quarter of a library filled by now.

River's a little sad though, as she's running out of space, and that's not a good thing when your diary is a gift from a time traveller. The Doctor's a bit sad himself, as River confides in him that the Doctor's not someone special to her, just someone she finds useful every now and then.

That likely would've been more convincing if she hadn't already sacrificed her Time Lord regenerations and torn time apart to save his life. Plus she'll eventually go on to die for him, and he knows it, thus the limited amount of pages in her diary.

The buyer soon turns up, tears his head open, and pulls a sphere from the gooey insides containing a link to his bank. Payment is made, the Doctor gets some insults in, the bag is given over. Everything's great.

Then it turns out that he's one of those 4 billion worshippers of Hydroflax, which might explain why he also carries his valuables in his head. In fact he's brought some other Hydroflax fans as backup, they're sitting all around the dining room right now, so when they all start chanting his name it dawns on the Doctor and River that it'd probably be unwise to let him see that the bag contains his severed head.

Anyway stuff happens, the heroes survive it, and Hydroflax's body escapes the hold to reunite with his head. And then it disintegrates him, because he was close to dying from diamond-related brain damage anyway. So now the sparkly diamond's been freed from its cerebral vault and it's lying right there on the table...

But River and the Doctor are in no position to grab it, as they're being held by ship's security. Every one of them a serial killer!

I like how this guy's feelers kind of look like a moustache, and the actor would surely be twirling them right now if he didn't have concerned make up people glaring at him from the sidelines. Flemming here has a plan to keep Hydroflax's body happy: they'll use River's diary to locate the Doctor and decapitate him! Then he'll have the smartest head in space.

He starts reading out places she's visited, to River's very sincere annoyance, which reveals that for her this takes place right after The Angels Take Manhattan in series 7.

River explains that she'd make terrible bait for the Doctor, as she loves him but he's never loved her back. He can't, it's not in his nature. A scan from the robot confirms that's what she truly believes. It's not hard to tell why she might believe that though, as the Doctor's so weird he's got half the fanbase believing he's asexual despite having a granddaughter. He was already the most eccentric man from an eccentric race even before spending a significant portion of his life as Tom Baker.

She tries to convince the robot to scan the whole ship for a Time Lord with two hearts and a stupid coat to prove that he isn't here, and the Doctor's obviously a bit concerned about this. Then she turns around... and finally sees him.

"Hello sweetie."

She has a line here about him doing his roots, which incidentally is the same thing Kate Stewart said to him when she saw his new regeneration. Though it turns out that most of what River's been saying here was just to keep their antagonists busy until 2pm, when a sudden meteor strike is due to cripple the ship.
Flemming: "How could you know?"
River: "I'm an archaeologist from the future. I dug you up."
I love it when the series uses time travel properly. Take a diamond from a monster, sell it to monsters, let them all die in a crash. Now she's incredibly wealthy and she even gets to keep the diamond!

Though they still have to escape the robot. Fortunately for the Doctor, the solution just falls out of the sky. He catches the banking sphere from earlier and gives it to the robot, who turns out to be extremely open to the idea of walking away from this with a whole lot of money. But he learns the hard way that trying to hack into all the banks in the galaxy at once is a bad idea and he's crippled by firewalls.

I had some genuine concern here that the Doctor would get his head cut off and then they'd reattach it later. That's what the last season has done to me, I've got no faith that the writers won't take it too far any more.

The Doctor joins River up in the bridge with the aim of saving the ship, but River's distracted when she recognises the planet they're heading for. It's Darillium, where the Doctor promised to take her to dinner (and then cancelled).

He realises they're in real trouble here and tricks River into teleporting into the TARDIS to save her while he continues to fix the ship. So she brings the TARDIS to the bridge materialises it around him, while she continues to fix the ship.

But with 10 seconds left the two of them realise that for once this isn't a group of people worth sacrificing their lives to save and they make a run for it.

Even inside the TARDIS it's still a pretty violent crash landing, enough to knock the two of them unconscious. She'll be pissed when she wakes up and learns her secret brandy's been smashed. Plus the Doctor's gone and swiped the most valuable diamond in the universe.

I love the tiny bit of one-take time travel he does here, as he pops his head out to see the burning wreckage outside, walks over to activate the console, then walks back in the same shot to open the doors again and reveal it's now morning.

Outside he finds a man covered in soot who keeps calling him 'sir'. The guy's been looking for survivors without luck, but his fortune soon changes when the Doctor gives him the most valuable diamond in the universe and tells him to build a restaurant right here in front of the Singing Towers. He wants him to return the diamond to the folks Hydroflax 'stole' it from and get the reward money, not sell it, but it's still going to make the guy immensely rich.

Another short jump and there's a restaurant there, though he still needs to wait four years to get a table on the balcony. Not a huge problem for a time traveller.

River wakes up to find the Doctor waiting for her on the balcony... and Ramone waiting for her along the way! The robot body was discovered in the wreckage and fixed to remove the evil bit, and he's been working here ever since. Nardole's in there too so it's not a perfect arrangement, but it could've gone worse! It's funny, because the goofy comedy tone has more or less faded away by this point (along with the comedy music thankfully).

The Doctor arrives to give her a gift, which surprises her because she doesn't think he's ever given her a present before. I guess she forgot about the diary then.

It's a steampunk sonic screwdriver of her own! THE sonic screwdriver from Silence in the Library in fact, looking considerably shinier than when we last saw it. So this is definitely the last night she'll spend with the Doctor before her death, but she at least seems to live a long while in between.

I guess that's what the set up with the sonic trowel was about earlier, to give her a ridiculous prop of her own to be replaced with something respectable.

The two of them look out at the Singing Towers and River notices he's crying. She recalls the events of the Last Night mini-episode which apparently ended with him taking her here for dinner, revealing that he actually cancelled at the last moment. She's heard stories that this is the last night they spend together and she's worried it's true, but he won't tell her.

Way back in her first appearance during season 4's The Forest of the Dead she said: "You took me to Darillium to see the Singing Towers. What a night that was. The Towers sang, and you cried. You wouldn't tell me why, but I suppose you knew it was time. My time. Time to come to the library. You even gave me your screwdriver. That should have been a clue."

I'm not sure that entirely matches this scene, as she seems to be a bit more aware of her fate here, but it's definitely close enough. Not bad considering that there's been 7 years between the episodes.

Though some dialogue cleverness the Doctor admits he cares about her and he really needed her about now (after the crap he went through last series). He's not going to tell her this is their last night together... but he does let slip that nights on this planet last for 24 years.

Or as happy as you can be spending two decades without sunlight, listening to rocks singing at you.


Okay that's about as close as we're ever going to get to a proper ending to the whole run of Doctor Who. Which I suppose makes sense as The Husbands of River Song was originally intended to be writer Steven Moffat's last episode as showrunner.

I didn't think any episode could've really continued the thread of series 9 after Hell Bent conclusively concluded the Clara saga, but he only went and did it. It's yet ANOTHER episode about the Doctor dealing with the departure of a companion. Though this time he's a lot more accepting of it and he's not desperately tearing time apart to save her. Sure he's got a scheme in play to temporarily save her mind but he's not cheating to continue her corporeal existence.

Every now and again the Doctor has to be reminded to bend his rules to save someone (like in The Fires of Pompeii and The Girl Who Died), and every now and again he has to be reminded to follow the rules and walk away (like in The Waters of Mars and Hell Bent), but this time he's in a place where he's capable of both allowing events to play out to their necessary conclusion and spend the last night with River that he's been retconned into chickening out of once before. In fact he even arranges their final night by planting a diamond seed and fast forwarding until it grows into a restaurant for them, which is a classy use of time travel.

It was a bit strange for a Christmas special to have such a strong connection with an episode from way back in the David Tennant era, but I'm glad they've filled in the missing piece that completes the circle. Plus we finally got what Let's Kill Hitler failed to deliver on: an episode where The Doctor knows River but she doesn't know him... kind of. River's arc seemed conclusively concluded already, considering that we've been there for her birth and death, and all the really important things in between, but now her story's been wrapped up with a bow on top. Just in time for her to have lots of other adventures in the audiobooks.

I really liked this episode by the way, I'm not sure I've mentioned that yet. It's a really nice looking, fast moving story, which had the sense to slow down for some closure at the end. The music seemed to be working overtime to sabotage all my joy, but it somehow failed, so even that wasn't a problem. To be fair it has a soundtrack perfectly suited to a goofy farce, but I don't much like goofy farces! I want Doctor Who not Dunston Checks In.

The best bit was Capaldi's gleeful reaction to getting to see the inside of his own TARDIS for the first time. In fact it's nice to see him cheer up in general, as series 9 was starting to get me down. Second best bit was the robot's bendy extendible arms and pop out wings, I loved that thing. Greg Davies' performance as Hydroflax's organic component had me worried for a minute that they'd gone and reanimated Rik Mayall's head... but it all worked out in the end!

Doctor Who will return with The Return of Doctor Mysterio! On television anyway, I haven't decided if I'm going to write about it yet. Next on Sci-Fi Adventures I'm getting back to burning through season one Deep Space Nine and Babylon 5 as fast as I can, with Babylon Squared.

Merry Christmas by the way, if you're into that! Feel welcome to leave a comment.


  1. Okay, I am impressed; how did you manage to spot the re-use of the footage from that Matrix sequel we should all have forgotten about?

    I'd forgotten how much I liked this episode; The Chrimble episodes tend to be a bit naff -- or worse! -- but they got this one right. I'm a bit wary of today's one, as I don't know if they will be able to pull off superheroes on a BBC budget but we'll see.

    1. The same way I spot most things: someone else pointed it out to me!

      I'm coming into this new Christmas episode with zero hype or concern, mostly because I haven't been thinking about it at all. They forgot to show any Doctor Who this year, so I keep forgetting that it's going to be on today. I'm sure you won't have to wait another 12 months to catch me praising or whining about it though.