Doctor Who Christmas specials are a mixed bag. Over the past few years, we’ve had Santa Claus (a hallucination caused by “dream crabs”), an army of evil snowmen, and an episode in which a Welsh opera singer tamed some flying sharks by singing to them.
Since Christmas specials air when most of the audience is ready to take a postprandial nap, the show often finds it hard to hit the right note of seasonable sentimentality while steering clear of outright nonsense.
With this year’s episode, “The Husbands of River Song,” showrunner Steven Moffat managed it for the first time in years.
River Song was introduced in Moffat’s memorable episode “Silence in the Library,” shaking up the usual dynamic between the Doctor and his human companions. Thanks to the tricky nature of time travel, David Tennant’s Doctor had no idea that he was meeting his wife for the first time—but at this point in her timeline, River had already been married to him for decades.
The moment where the Doctor finally reveals himself is one of the few convincingly romantic scenes we’ve seen throughout their relationship.
River pops in and out of the show with a devil-may-care attitude, always asserting her independence from the Doctor’s own adventures. But at the core of their relationship, you could always sense a certain insecurity. “Never let him see the damage,” River tells Amy Pond at one point. “And never, ever let him see you age. He doesn’t like endings.” You get the impression that her adventurousness is partly spurred on by a desire to stay one step ahead of the Doctor, never staying long enough to remind him of her own mortality.
In “The Husbands of River Song,” this idea came to a head. The episode begins as a fast-moving heist comedy, with River enlisting the Doctor to help decapitate a cyborg king (one of the titular “husbands”) so she can steal the diamond embedded in his brain. The twist is that River doesn’t recognize the Doctor’s latest regeneration (Peter Capaldi), giving him a chance to see how she behaves when he’s not around.
This conceit could easily have gone wrong, especially when you consider Moffat’s dodgy track record when writing about women and relationships. Luckily the episode took a surprisingly sensitive turn in its final act, revealing a new side to the Doctor’s marriage. It turns out that, while River puts on a brave face, she never truly believed that she was worth the Doctor’s attention—or that he really loves her at all.
The moment where the Doctor finally reveals himself is one of the few convincingly romantic scenes we’ve seen throughout their relationship, and it only could have worked with Capaldi in the role. Most of River’s appearances took place during Matt Smith’s run as the Doctor, but their interactions were often just played for laughs: the Doctor lurching awkwardly away from her sexual overtures or exploding with indignation at her teasing. Capaldi plays their relationship with real tenderness, helped by the fact that the two characters finally look and feel more age-appropriate as a couple.
The final scenes of “The Husbands of River Song” call back to other heartfelt moments in the show’s run: Rose tracking down the Doctor at Bad Wolf Bay, or a young Amy Pond waiting for a TARDIS that never arrives. It feels like a fitting epilogue to River Song’s story, although we doubt the show will resist the temptation to bring her back for more.
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