The Doctor Who Christmas specials are almost always some of the show’s better television. Even ones that are inarguably silly, like “The Next Doctor,” usually manage moments of sincere emotion. I credit “Last Christmas” with being the episode where I finally warmed to Peter Capaldi’s Doctor. So “The Husbands of River Song” had a high bar to clear.
For the most part, it did so handily. Alex Kingston remains a one-of-a-kind actress who has proven able to hold her own with three different Doctors on television. Really, there hasn’t been anyone like her since Nicholas Courtney played The Brigadier. Like The Brigadier, it’s arguable that in their shared adventures, it’s actually The Doctor who is the companion.
The story revolves around River, now into her 200s thanks to age-augmentation technology, trying to steal a valuable diamond from an evil cybernetic warlord. The Doctor gets drawn into her plot, but finds that his wife doesn’t recognize him no matter how many hints he drops or even when he outright tells her.
It’s amazing how Kingston makes every Doctor seem awkward and boyish, even when the actor playing him is five years her senior. There’s something about her flexible morals, open sexuality and incredible competence at everything that tends to unnerve our favorite Time Lord.
Capaldi handles it best of all the Doctors, though. There’s this fantastic moment where River finally realizes who he is as they're facing down a mob of angry murderers. The Doctor just looks over at her and says, “Hello, sweetie,” and you can tell he’s just been waiting centuries to hit that exact line at that exact time. Moments like this make “The Husbands of River Song” unforgettable.
There were some problems, though. River goes on and on about how The Doctor doesn’t really love anyone back the way people love him. It’s kind of a hard sell from the woman who is supposed to know him best, especially after we just watched him spend 4 billion years punching through a diamond wall to save Clara. It was an odd theme to dwell on.
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The plot was also extremely predictable, and by the time the episode is two-thirds over, the ending can be seen a mile away. Granted, it’s still a very emotional ending that bleeds directly into River’s death so many seasons ago, and it does provide a payoff for fans who have been waiting to see this much-speculated moment between them.
It was, as they say, all about the feels, and though the episode got the tears out of me that it wanted, it also felt as if so much of everything else that was going on was filler until the end. Greg Davies was wonderfully hyperbolic as the nominal villain of the episode, King Hydroflax, but he’s little more than an exquisite mustache-twirl. Ultimately, nothing he or his robot body does actually affects anything.
I was also disappointed that Paul McGann made no appearance as the Eighth Doctor to bridge River’s time on television with her new Big Finish Audio series that was released the next day. There still seems to be some reticence to fully connect the two mediums together, at least on the television side of things.
As Christmas specials go, “The Husbands of River Song” was near the top. An outing with River, no matter how sad, was a nice way to leave Clara behind and prepare for the next season with a new companion. It closed the door on the troubled timeline of River Song, and in a way we got to see a complete purification of the Twelfth Doctor. For the first time since he began, he is truly alone. I can’t wait to see what happens next.