Saturday, 26 December 2015

Review: Doctor Who 9.13: The Husbands of River Song

Ten years into the run of the Doctor Who revival, and Christmas specials have rather an odd position in the show's makeup. They can't be too dense or packed with mythology, or they'd exclude a large proportion of the audience who only watch on Christmas Day. But, despite this, both RTD and Moffat have on various occasions packed the Christmas specials with huge, important arc stories. The Husbands of River Song is a very odd attempt at both, having some elements designed for mass consumption and some rather more complicated story work related to Moffat's old messy stalwart, River Song, whose presence on the show in my mind is as welcome as a Jar-Jar Binks cosplayer in a Star Trek convention.
Can we just look at how unpretty this poster looks? It's horrid.
     The Doctor arrives on a human colony in the future at Christmastime, but ends up running into River Song and her servant Nardole (Matt Lucas, Little Britain), who don't recognise Twelve as The Doctor and instead think that he is an assassin they tasked with killing Song's genocidal cyborg husband King Hydroflax. River reveals that her marriage to Hydroflax (Greg Davies, The Inbetweeners) was a ploy to steal the space-diamond from inside his head and sell it to a high bidder, and when The Doctor physically removes the still-living Hydroflax's head from his autonomous body, it chases them into the TARDIS, which River uses to escape. She and The Doctor head off to meet her buyers on a space-ship built for rich genocidal killers, but they turn out to be adherants of Hydroflax's religion and so River is forced to crash the ship on its final destination - the Singing Towers of Darillium. Just after River works out who Twelve is, she also remembers that the Singing Towers is the location of their last night together, and it seems as though her story is about to come to a close.
     I'd made it fairly clear before that I wasn't happy about River Song coming back to the series - her story was convoluted, ridiculous and tiring. There were only so many times I could put up with River's smug caricature popping up as one of Moffat's go-to female archetypes. Strangely enough, though, that archetype seems to not be in effect here - River is a lot more clueless, a lot more fallible, even though this is supposed to be near the end of her adventures with The Doctor. While I wasn't happy that her timeline was being dragged up yet again, I did enjoy the slickness and subtlety with which the "Singing Towers of Darillium" prophecy was fulfilled - especially as that particular thread had already been rather less-than-satisfactorily explored in a DVD extra a few years ago (during the height of the show's River-mania).
     And, of course, that level of continuity made those elements of the story a little impenetrable to a lot of watchers, who certainly don't remember minor one-line mentions from a story which aired seven years ago. Despite how much Moffat and his fandom claim that the show is as strong as ever, ratings are falling steadily, and there's a growing feeling, however accurate, that "it's not as good as it was." It feels a little arrogant of Moffat for this special to unload all of this continuity on us at Christmas without batting an eyelid towards explaining those previous connections, especially as the show has been trying it's best during Capaldi's run to forget the period of the show where most of River's adventures happened.
Greg Davies works as a bumbling school headmaster, but does
not have the presence to play a genocidal alien warlord.
     Aside from that, the episode was... well, it was fine. It was harmless. The episode was clearly trying, in the bits where it wasn't asking you to consult the TARDIS Wiki, to be humourous. The problem was that the whole thing was imbued with gallows humour, from casual talk of murder, mutilation and beheadings to charming races of genocidal conquerors. This extended to the visual style too, with lots of images of exchanging heads and people literally extracting things from their brains while still conscious which, while funny in say Red Dwarf, felt very out of place for 5ish on Christmas Day. It also jarred with the main comedic thrust of the episode, a very Sarah-Jane-Adventures-style misunderstanding in which despite repeated hints, River doesn't recognise The Doctor until the pivotal moment of the climax.
     I didn't expect much from The Husbands of River Song, and I didn't get much, either. Moffat apparently wrote this episode with the intention that it be the last thing he wrote for Doctor Who - until he decided to carry on and write Series 10. I was surprised given that description that this episode wasn't even more ridiculous than it turned out to be, although I don't think I want to know what that looks like. All I know is that however much Moffat's writing has changed to become a little more subtle and little less offensive, the general meh-ness of this episode is a clear demonstration if any was needed that Doctor Who really needs, if you'll pardon the reference, a regeneration.


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