Well, wasn’t this episode a holly-jolly 90-degree turn from from the oft-scary and routinely-serious bent of the rest of the previous season of Doctor Who! This episode should make lots of “casual” DW fans very happy, as the tone of this episode is decidedly light-hearted in nature, a definite break in the storm of the recent plot lines. As quintessential Doctor Who “it girl” River Song, Alex Kingston has had the pleasure of playing against several excellent incarnations of the Doctor, but her interactions with Peter Capaldi in this episode may be the most free-flowing and naturally-pleasing tandem yet. “Christmas Special” episodes are almost exclusively reserved for either regenerations or good old-fashioned Who comedy fun, and while “The Husbands of River Song” may not necessarily be a groundbreaking or universe-shattering episode, it has got the fun and the laughs in spades.
WARNING: What you’re about to read contains spoilers about this episode and possibly other episodes/seasons of Doctor Who. Proceed at your own risk/reward!
RECAP: After randomly landing the TARDIS on a rather-poorly-redressed version of the alien “trap” street from this season’s “Face the Raven” and “Hell Bent” episodes, the Doctor is quickly consigned into service by none other than River herself – whom the Doctor recognizes, but she does not return the favor (more on this in a moment). She is in need of a medical doctor, however, to remove the head of her “sham” husband, King Hydroflax, who has the largest diamond in the universe embedded in his brain. Hydroflax, whose head is already detached from his organic body and residing on top of a large red robot that seriously resembles Baymax from the Disney animated film Big Hero Six, doesn’t want to be decapitated and killed, as one might expect, but that doesn’t stop River and the Doctor from snagging his noggin, tossing it in a bag, and making a bead for the TARDIS – with robo-body on autopilot and in hot pursuit.
How does River know about the TARDIS if she doesn’t recognize the Doctor? She has tools that alerted her to its approach, and she is indeed on the lookout for the Doctor – as she tells Ramone, one of her other “husbands,” The Doctor can only have twelve different faces, and she now knows all of them (and even has photos in a handy pocketbook for good measure). Her lack of knowledge of the Doctor being given a thirteenth regeneration, coupled with her belief that the Doctor is nothing more than a simple accomplice for her at this point, leads to the funniest moment in recent DW memory: the Doctor gets to pretend that he doesn’t realize that the TARDIS was going to be “bigger on the inside” upon River letting him into the ship, and Capaldi absolutely knocks it out of the park while chewing the scene. Amazing stuff.
The Doctor and River knock about for a bit on an interstellar luxury cruise ship where she finally realizes who he really is as they meet up with and ultimately end up on the bad side of a potential buyer for the diamond – the interested party happens to be a devout follower of Hydroflax and is none too pleased to see the King’s head in a bag. A well-timed (or poorly-timed, depending on your point of view) meteor shower strikes the ship, which does allow for our heroes’ escape, but also causes the ship to head for a crash-landing on Darillium, a planet River recognizes as one that the Doctor has often promised to take her to, but he keeps cancelling the engagement. The reason becomes clear: due to their reverse-flow timelines, the Doctor knows that this will be the last time he will ever see River before her death (as shown to us in 2008-s episode “Forest of the Dead” during the Tenth Doctor’s run).
>>> The episode, while not necessarily adding much to the significance River’s overall storyline and impact on the Doctor’s, is rife with references to what has come before in regards to her appearances in the series. The most obvious, of course, is when she told the (Tenth) Doctor about their final night together before her death – as her character recounted it back in 2008: “The last time I saw you, you turned up on my doorstep with a new haircut and a suit. 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 my time… you even gave me your screwdriver – that should have been a clue.”
>>> River’s Sonic Trowel is a nice “tip of the hat” to her roots as an archaeologist, and it’s kinda fun to see the Sonic in yet another form. It also bears noting that, at the conclusion of the episode, the Doctor gives River her own Sonic Screwdriver, which is a bit of a retcon from the above paragraph where River mentions that the Doctor gave her his own Sonic.
>>> As my wife astutely pointed out to me, among River’s possessions in this episode was a red fez, which we all remember as being infamously worn with affection by the Eleventh Doctor. In fact, the Eleventh Doctor first discovered his affectation for the particular headgear in the 2010 episode “The Big Bang,” where he “borrowed” one from a museum exhibit… and it was promptly taken off his head and shot into disintegration by none other than River Song herself.
CLOSING THOUGHTS: It’s a fun episode that I hate to term as a “throwaway,” but I believe that Capaldi’s Doctor needed an adventure like this to “shake off” the heaviness of losing Clara, and hopefully let the Doctor focus on bigger and better things for next season. I know I, for one, will be waiting with bated breath!
PRINCIPAL CAST FEATURED IN THIS EPISODE:
Peter Capaldi as The Doctor
Alex Kingston as River Song