Doctor Who has produced major tonal oddballs when it comes to its Christmas Specials. During the Russell T. Davies era, the specials would start as incredibly goofy larks involving cruise ships or spider aliens, only to veer off into unexpected dark territories involving death, destruction or the darkness at the heart of The Doctor. For better or for worse, Steven Moffat’s Christmas specials have largely kept a fairly consistent tone, boasting some great episodes (“A Christmas Carol,” “Last Christmas”) and some ungodly dull ones (“The Doctor, The Witch and the Wardrobe,” “The Snowmen”). “The Husbands of River Song” feels more akin to a Davies-era Christmas installment—it bounces along carelessly like a hyper child on a sugar high only to suddenly swerve into an emotional conclusion. And while the whiplash is not quite as apparent as in the typical Davies fare, there’s no mistaking that it is there.
While visiting a human colony, The Doctor is mistaken for a “surgeon” and taken to visit the colony’s ruthless leader, King Hydroflax—a being with a human head and the body of Baymax from Big Hero Six. To The Doctor’s shock, Hydroflax is married to none other than River Song, who he last saw as a digital ghost back in “The Name of the Doctor.” Providing a nice twist to their typical flirtatious dynamic, River does not recognize The Doctor, as he’s regenerated past his known faces.
River’s devotion to Hydroflax makes infinitely more sense after we learn that she’s only after him for his head—specifically, the priceless diamond that is lodged in his brain. Once River has succeeded in removing Hydroflax’s head from his mechanical body (which apparently is also a sentient being) it’s a slapstick-heavy race to escape before the body retrieves its head and destroys our heroes.
Certainly, the abundance of levity is a welcome relief after the heaviness that permeated the final third of the show’s most recent season. At the same time, such an approach does make the hour feel a bit slight and lacking anything to really latch onto. For the majority of the episode’s running time, the big draw is Alex Kingston making her return as River. If ever there were a case to be made for a female Doctor, Kingston has made it time and time again over the past few years. Of course, what gives River the edge is her more ruthless, unscrupulous personality, and seeing Capaldi’s confounded reaction to some of her plans is pure gold.
The lighthearted tone shifts once The Doctor and River find themselves cornered on a galactic cruise ship (because that’s always a popular Who trope). After learning that River could lead him to The Doctor, the mechanical body responds by disintegrating Hydroflax’s head and demanding that River lead him to The Doctor, so that he might gain his head. River responds that she has no idea where The Doctor is and, what’s more, he would never care about her enough to “When you love The Doctor, it’s like loving the stars themselves. You don’t expect a sunset to admire you back,” she says. Only after seeing the look in The Doctor’s eyes does she realize that elderly man next to her was once the fresh-faced young upstart with floppy hair and a bowtie. “Hello sweetie,” The Doctor whispers, re-appropriating one of River’s more famous catchphrases. It’s moments like this that truly give what could have been a fun, if decidedly unmemorable Christmas episode its beating heart.
After quickly dispatching Hydroflax’s body via typical Doctor resourcefulness (it involves overloading the body’s system with a bank transfer device and isn’t horrible interesting), The Doctor decides to fulfill a long-delayed promise to his quasi-wife—a date to see the Singing Towers of Darillium. Or, more specifically, he gifts a diamond to a lowly Darillium worker and travels into the future to where the worker has established a celebrated restaurant near the Singing Towers. The meeting is a melancholy one—although River is happy to finally be going on her long-awaited date with her husband, she also knows that this may very well be her final night with The Doctor (indeed, The Doctor even provides her with the sonic screwdriver she will be using at the time of her death in “Silence in the Library”). Looking out at the beautiful, digitally rendered image of the Singing Towers, River draws a comparison between The Doctor and the towers, as to be in love with a figure of his stature is akin to being in love with a monolith. Speaking as though she’s become familiar with Steven Moffat’s tropes, River begs The Doctor to figure out a loophole for how she could avoid her inevitable fate. He responds that there is no way to escape the end. That being said, a night on Darillium lasts 24 years, so their supposed “last night” is set to last a long, long time.
When River first encountered David Tennant’s Doctor nearly seven years ago in the “Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead” two-parter, she commented on how young he looked. Her experiences with Peter Capaldi’s much older Doctor in “The Husbands of River Song” certainly puts everything in perspective.
Despite its frequent tonal shifts, the episode provides a poignant swansong for the character that Steven Moffat created back in 2008. Whereas her apparent “final” appearance in “The Name of the Doctor” acted as little more than a nice epilogue, “The Husbands of River Song” sends her off in a blaze of glory, highlighting the fantastic energy and charm that Alex Kingston brought to the role. In a season that has factored in plenty of goodbyes, this is about as perfect a goodbye as could be expected. It’s a perfect Christmas gift for the Doctor Who fans.