Wednesday 30 December 2015

Doctor Who - The Husbands of River Song

When I write my reviews for this site, I don't include numerical marks of any kind. I don't give something 4 stars or something else a score of 9 out of 10. However, when I post links to my reviews on other sites that include such markings, I will often grudgingly apply one. But the truth is, I prefer not to give marks, so that's why you don't see them in the reviews themselves.

This is for a couple simple reasons. Primarily, it's because I find that a simple number doesn't really tell a lot. There's far more nuance to anything than a single score could ever provide. Not only that, different people assign different meanings to scores. One just has to look at the various review threads on Gallifrey Base to see this. One person can call a particular episode terrible and still give it a score of 6 out of 10, while the next person will offer all kinds of praise and give exactly the same score.

But even if everyone were to agree on how good any particular score is, there's still a lot not conveyed by it. If “5 out of 10” means mediocre, does it mean that the whole thing is mediocre or that it's mostly really good but let down by some major part being poor? Perhaps it's the reverse of that, mostly bad but with a major redeeming feature? Or is it all over the place and just sort of averages out to 5? Since all these things need to be explained anyway, I feel it's just better to go ahead and explain them and not worry about assigning a number to go with them.

I've often commented that Steven Moffat's Doctor Who stories can be a mix of brilliance and annoyance, and “The Husbands of River Song” is a definite example of this, and one for which a numerical score would definitely not convey any indication of how good or bad it is. It's definitely an entertaining episode, which is ultimately its main objective and thus is a success. It has some funny moments, some touching moments, and great performances from its two leads. But it also has some terribly unfunny jokes, a paper-thin plot, poor characterisation, and some rather poor performances from several of the guest stars. It also manages to make you both love and hate River Song at the same time—which may, I admit, be intentional. It all makes for a bit of a confounding episode.


The Husbands of River Song” is a story that is very much about the relationship between River and the Doctor—or more specifically the relationship River has with the Doctor, which she certainly believes to be one-sided. This episode gives us a greater insight into River than we've ever really gotten before, and for that, I certainly have to commend it.

River Song has always been a confounding character. On the one hand, she is presented as an independent adventurer with a career and a life of her own. She is intelligent and competent. Yet with each successive appearance since her début in “Silence in the Library”, her independence has been whittled away. Her whole life revolves around the Doctor. This is an unfortunate truth of pretty much every character in Steven Moffat's Doctor Who, but it's taken to its most extreme with River. The Doctor is the centre of every significant moment of her life that we've seen until now, from her birth until her death. Even her career as an archaeologist comes about entirely as a way for her to find the Doctor. She seems to have no existence without him.

Of course, one could argue that since the show follows the Doctor around on his adventures, that we're only seeing the portions of River's life that happen to interact with his, and that might just make it seem like the Doctor is a bigger part of her life than he really is. It doesn't change the fact that she devotes her entire life to him, sacrificing her regenerations and eventually her life for him, and in “The Wedding of the River Song” is even willing to sacrifice the entire universe for him. However, surely she does get up to other things when he's not around and doesn't spend every moment of her life going from one adventure with him to the next (just in a different order than he experiences it), which some episodes can give the impression she does.

"The Husbands of River Song” finally gives us a glimpse of what she gets up to when the Doctor isn't around—and when she's not specifically looking for him. Having her not recognise the Doctor's latest incarnation is actually a move of genius because—for part of the time, at least—it means she gets to behave in a way that is not defined by him. She actually gets to be herself—or at least, she should.

What we end up seeing of her is in many ways, the opposite extreme to what we've seen before and what we see later in the episode. I refer more specifically to her attitude towards the Doctor here. She steals his TARDIS when he's not looking and returns it to the exact spot and time she took it—apparently without him noticing. She code names him “Damsel in Distress” because he needs saving all the time. She says that he's nobody special except for his usefulness from time to time. She even seems to imply that she's just been conning him all along, manipulating him for her own gain. In all likelihood this is all just an act on her part to bolster herself in the eyes of this surgeon she's hired (without knowing that he is, in fact, the Doctor). But if it's an act, then just who is the real River Song?

By the time she finally recognises the Doctor, however, she's back to declaring him the most amazing person in existence, equating him to the stars themselves, defining her life around his, as detailed in her diary. It's the other extreme of her character, one that is just as over-the-top, and is the side of her that we normally see in episodes in which she guest stars.

I do like the ambiguity of her character that this episode tries to present—two different ways that she presents herself depending on who she's with. It's a very human quality to put on a metaphorical mask of who we are based on who else is around at the time. Unfortunately, I don't think the episode really succeeds in making this as believable as it could be partly because these two versions of River are so over-the-top. Granted, she's always been an over-the-top character, so that's less of a concern here. But there's also the fact that the side that's supposed to show her life away from the Doctor still focuses most of its time on defining her independence of him in terms of him, since even when he's not around (or when she thinks he's not around), she spends most of the time talking about him. I suppose that's the confounding nature of River Song.

We do get to see some of her life truly independent of the Doctor though, and it's not actually the most endearing. She is plotting murder (albeit of an evil conqueror who has killed countless others) and arranging for the sale of stolen goods to other murderers (albeit ones she knows will soon die in a meteor storm), and she doesn't seem to care at all that two of the people who have helped her (one of them another of her husbands) are beheaded and “uploaded” into a robot. She has also apparently erased Ramone's memory of their marriage simply because he was “annoying”. This may be an attempt to add a bit of moral ambiguity to her character, but since this aspect of the story is treated as comedy, it's really not that successful. Steven Moffat has a tendency to shunt off the less savoury sides of ostensibly good characters via comedy, and it's something that I, personally, find quite annoying. No character should be perfect, of course, but those non-perfections should also have consequences. But I've talked many times before of the lack of consequences in Moffat's Doctor Who.

It's in the final minutes of the episode that we finally get to see what may be the real River Song. At the restaurant on Darillium, she can finally shed the over-the-top acts and be herself around the Doctor. Indeed, these final moments are incredibly touching. Peter Capaldi and Alex Kingston have a great chemistry together (more so, I think, than Matt Smith and Kingston had), and they are able to wonderfully bring across a bitter-sweet, somewhat tragic scene of two characters who care a great deal about one another and are afraid to lose each other—even if the Doctor isn't willing to admit how much he cares, and River isn't willing to admit that he can care.

I am also particularly impressed at how accessible the closing moments are to casual viewers. River's history on the show is pretty complex and hard to follow sometimes, even for the most committed of fans, and this ending relies on a just a couple of lines of continuity from an episode that aired seven years ago. Moffat loves to throw in nods to old continuity, sometimes (as with the Sisterhood of Karn in “The Magician's Apprentice” and “Hell Bent”) in ways that are completely inaccessible to newer viewers. Yet here, what's happening is made very clear, and viewers don't need to remember those couple of lines from “Forest of the Dead” or even to have seen the episode.

I've commented throughout my reviews of Series 9 that there's been a lot of inconsistency with the Doctor's character, and that pretty much continues here. To be honest, I really like the Doctor in this episode. He's charming, and I love getting to see him laugh. However, he is a rather different character to what we've seen before. I really hope there is a greater consistency to his character from here on out. Peter Capaldi is a brilliant actor and he deserves a consistent character. Note that this does not mean that the Doctor cannot change and develop. He absolutely should; he just needs to do so in a believable manner. The Doctor getting to react to the interior of the TARDIS as if it's his first time, however, is the highlight of the episode. That scene is a pure joy to watch.

The other characters in the episode don't fare all that well. Of course, the story is about the Doctor and River and so it's natural they would get less attention. Nevertheless, it would be nice to see some attempt at characterisation. Hydroflax is a pure caricature. Ramone is pretty much a non-entity with no character whatsoever. And I'm not really sure what to say about Nardole. I'm not even entirely sure who he is supposed to be. Greg Davies's performance as Hydroflax is over the top, but that actually fits the character, and Rowan Polonski as Flemming adds a nice level to the character that's not really present in the script. Otherwise, I find the performances of the guest cast to be incredibly flat and uninteresting. Part of this may come from some rather uninspired direction resulting in numerous scenes where people just kind of stand around. That said, Peter Capaldi and Alex Kingston manage to carry the episode and make it possible to enjoy it despite its other flaws.

Some final thoughts:
  • Why do future towns always look like the present, especially in Christmas specials? It can be a nice touch to have a specific future time emulating the present, but all of them despite being in numerous different time periods?
  • The opening images of the crashed spaceship and the town are some of the worst cgi in recent years.
  • I love the sign on the TARDIS saying, “Carol singers will be criticised.”
  • While the Christmas-themed title sequence is rather cheesy, I do like the tree ornaments replacing the planets.
  • I really wish Moffat would drop the “battle of the sexes” jokes. They're unfunny and annoying.
  • I love the line, “Happy ever after doesn't mean forever.”
I don't have as much to say about “The Husbands of River Song” as I do many other episodes. It has its ups and its downs. It's fun. It's annoying. It's confounding. But for a Christmas episode, it does what it needs to, which is to be accessible to casual viewers and to entertain. In the end, that's what really matters. The episode may defy a numerical score, but it can certainly be enjoyed.

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