Doctor Who Christmas Special: “The Husbands of River Song”

Doctor Who's surprising jaunty Christmas special scores points merely by dint of being watchable without resort to the saccharine or the mawkish, and whets the appetite for series 10.

I should have detested Doctor Who Christmas special. I’ve got nothing against the idea of Christmas specials as such. It’s just that, over the last decade, I’ve never seen one I like. I have come to tolerate them — like I tolerate Jar Jar Binks in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, or the cloying sense of rich people’s entitlement operating as a subtle reinforcement of contemporary class distinctions in Downton Abbey. (I may have missed the point with that last one.)

I therefore expected nothing from “The Husbands of River Song”, and that perhaps explains why I ended up quite enjoying it. Once you get past the broad humour and the stunt casting — Little Britain star Matt Lucas makes an appearance, gurning his way through the insubstantial role of Nardole, a lackey of one of the husbands of the episode’s title — there’s much to admire. Alex Kingston’s spunky professor doesn’t always get the best lines here, but she nonetheless steals the show as River Song, finding herself in a situation not often encountered in her previous dalliances with the Doctor (Peter Capaldi). Whereas in the past, it has always seemed as though she has the jump on her Time Lord beau, this time it’s the Doctor who knows what’s really going on — from the moment they meet, she simply fails to recognise him, thanks to his regeneration (from Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor) in the meantime. The reveal, when it comes, is simply delightful.

But we mustn’t get ahead of ourselves — spoilers. The Doctor sets the TARDIS down on Mendorax Dellora, also known as Planet Anywhere, and is immediately mistaken for a surgeon summoned to save the life of King Hydroflax. The sight of six-foot-eight Welsh actor Greg Davies being reduced to the stature of a disembodied head raised a chortle, and Davies chews the scenery — being a head, it is pretty much all he can do — with aplomb. It transpires that Hydroflax is River’s spouse, and she confides to the Doctor that she only married him for the diamond lodged in his head, which she now proposes to steal, simultaneously ripping off the entire Indiana Jones franchise and the raison d’être of the love of another aging spacefarer, archaeologist-cum-petty thief Vash (Jennifer Hetrick) from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Eat your heart out, Patrick Stewart.

This being Doctor Who, things don’t work out that smoothly. Hydroflax is just a little bit ticked off at the prospect of having his skull gouged open for the sake of a get-rich-quick scheme, but doesn’t really have a say in the matter, as River and the Doctor make off with his head in a bag and — ahem — head off to a galactic restaurant to meet some shady characters desperate to buy a priceless diamond. This leads to some hilarious mugging from Capaldi as he attempts, with commendable sang-froid, to pass off Hydroflax’s muffled protestations as indigestion in front of a suspicious maître d’ (played by a wonderfully obsequious Rowan Polonski). Given Capaldi’s edgy and frequently emotionally taut portrayal of the Doctor, it’s easy to forget his background in comedy. His stint as potty-mouthed spin doctor Malcolm Tucker in The Thick Of It stands him in good stead for moments such as these; the whip-smart delivery of writer Steven Moffat’s one-liners, the wittily terse exchanges between him and Kingston, and the subtle alterations in expression bespeak an actor not only at home in the role, but also having a great deal of fun.

But where “The Husbands of River Song” really surprised was in the denouement. Having spent the entire story preparing the audience for River’s comeuppance, Moffat pulls a bait-and-switch; what seemed like an ancillary plot point about River’s life without the Doctor is suddenly propelled into centre stage, and a couple of beautifully observed scenes between the pair follow. The admixture of melodrama and weepy sentiment that pervades Christmas specials in years gone by suddenly falls away, and some bona fide character development takes its place that might even lead dyed-in-the-wool fans to shed a tear or two, such is its tenderness.

So “The Husbands of River Song”, contrary to its predecessors, actually carries all the hallmarks of being a substantial installment, rather than a bit of festive fluff, the televisual equivalent of warmed-over turkey and stuffing. The episode has its fair share of misfires, such as the head-splitting scene, which was gruesome even by the standards of last series, and felt strangely out of place in a festive episode. But it scores points merely by dint of being watchable without resorting to the saccharine or the mawkish. Roll on, series 10.

RATING 7 / 10