Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Husbands of River Song - "Hello, sweetie."

The Husbands of River Song - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia 

xmas 2015 (Overall Series Story #264) | Previous - Next | Index

"One should always have something to sensational to read on a spaceship."
We learned recently that the next Doctor Who episode to broadcast will be the 2016 xmas special, which will be followed by Series 10 in the spring of 2017, so this was the last new Doctor Who we'll see for a long while. (We also learned that the forthcoming Series 10 will be the last for Steven Moffat, who Chris Chibnall as his replacement ... but more on that later.) These developments distract a bit from my intent to discuss this episode for its merits, as did the broadcast of that other Moffat holiday special, "The Abominable Bride," heightening our linked awareness of all these irregular husbands and wives swirling around their common creator (well, co-creator, well, current co-creator working off characters created long ago by someone else) in an inseparable year-end event. I'll resist the urge to talk about the Sherlock special with this one though, despite my sense that there are revealing comparisons to be made between this one and a story in which a genius male characters notes that the suffragettes are the right side of history, but we learn they are also a secret society of murderers. Not that an immediate connection leaps out, but whether we're talking about River here, or Mary and John in Sherlock, we're talking about empowered, adventurous female characters who are still tightly bound to extraordinary male characters. (There's also the justifiably murderous women who are linked to the investigator who uncovers their secrets, and there's the memory of Irene Adler's connection to Sherlock.) The two specials coming out at about the same time makes considering them together inevitable, but impractical for this post.

And then there's this: though no one xmas special puts me off the idea the tradition, enough is e-freaking-nough. How many snowy Doctor Who stories incorporating yuletide themes, however great the stretch ("The first available slot I have is Christmas Day in four years' time,") do we need? Maybe the answer is "more than one," but I feel certain we've exceeded the recommended dose. Concerned as I am about this Chibnall bloke, my first reaction to the breaking news was, basically, "*groan* Not another xmas special." (I'm trying not to talk about the showrunner news so much, but doesn't a run of Halloween specials in the Ben Wheatley era sound intriguing?) Still, that's also more than ought to be crammed into this review.

Before ticking off the problems with "The Husbands of River Song," and there few, my basic stance on this one is that it is perfectly fine for what it is. Delightful, even. The hard left to farce after the last few episodes of Series 9 was a relief, if it seemed to come rather suddenly -- generally speaking, we're accustomed to a little more buffer between our series finales and the xmas special-- and it's not the worst way to send off the River character. A twenty four year-long night on Darillium leaves her plenty of room to enjoy life and have adventures with the Doctor at the tail-end of her augmented lifespan.

The characters, with the exception of poor old Nardole and probably Ramon, get happy endings and or relatively just desserts. The viewers get to enjoy a romp with plenty of hammy humor. As a stocking stuffer, this isn't bad at all.

"I have an irritable bowel."
Considered as anything more than a stocking stuffer, it gets trickier. If we think too hard about River's motivations and her means to her ends, she's not going to be a likeable character for long. Erasing her husband Ramon's memory of their marriage on a whim? Employing a surgeon to kill a patient? Marrying a monster as part of an incredibly complicated and risky scheme to extract wealth from doomed criminals? If we knew she was planning to do something with that wealth to do something for Hydroflax's oppressed peoples, that might something we could credit her for, but no evidence of any such motive was given that I noticed. No reason, we are assured, to mourn for the cannibalistic, genocidal Hydroflax (now there's a character for a holiday special!) nor for any of the passengers or crew aboard the Harmony & Redemption intergalactic cruise ship, which is convenient. But, ultimately Nardole's and Ramon's fates as severed heads in a gundam would seem to be largely due to her scheming? Not that they are blameless in taking on the risk of getting involved in her plans...

Where's there's righteousness for us to revel in would seem to be in the Doctor's refusal to bow to Hydroflax, and his accompanying monologue against monarchy. One might wish there'd been a bit more barb in that exchange, but that's just nitpicking. But even he comes across as wanting, if only slightly, on the character front. It's not even that taking River to dinner at the Singing Towers of Darillium is putting her in line for her imminent demise in the library, as I think many of us might also question. (Shouldn't he delay that as long as possible?) It's his tone when he encounters the would-be rescuer at the crash site. Something about class jumped out when I read Jameson on Chandler's Marlowe, the PI cutting across class lines as an outsider. The Doctor is like this. He mixes with all classes, but should never be contemptuous or condescending to the working classes, and his attitude toward Alphonse borders on, if it's not actually, patronizing. Moffat's writing Alphonse as instantly deferential to the Doctor contributes to making that scene cringeworthy. Here we have the Doctor as philanthropist, using charity and a figurative pat on the head to guide a working class ethnic character in his career, engineered to serve the Doctor's ends. It just doesn't sit right.

The biggest problem I had with the episode wasn't the dodginess of its morality and it's failure to live up to my anti-capitalist hopes. It's a plot goof that undercuts the fabulous scene of the Doctor and River on the balcony at dinner that hurts this episode the most, and may be the chief reason I'll be glad to see Moffat go.

The goof is this: River would have had to have known the planet they were crashing on was Darillium since she did the archaeology on the crash, presumably in the shadow in the Singing Towers. She should not have been surprised to recognize where the ship was crashing. Kingston plays the dawning realization that River's correct to be concerned about the few pages left in her diary perfectly. But, baked into River's plan, which included the expectation she would run in the Doctor (code name: Damsel), was the understanding the Harmony & Redemption was going to crash where it did. This flaw spoils the illusion of cleverness. Moffat has a reputation for crafting delightful puzzle box stories. But, sleight of hand is always like this: the trick loses its magic when you see what you're not supposed to, and this, despite the high points of his run, is ultimately why Moffat has to go. He's flirting with brilliance, but regularly papers over incoherence, and that's the sort of thing I routinely rail against the JN-T era for. Justly, I believe.

"Nobody really understands where the music comes from. It's probably something to do with the precise positions, the distance between both towers."

"All anyone will ever tell you is that when the wind stands fair and the night is perfect, when you least expect it but always when you need it the most there is a song."
So, it's flawed, yes. But Capaldi and Kingston are so good together that what does work, and the fact that is ultimately, to my mind, a stocking stuffer, actually make this my second favorite of the abundant xmas specials, after last Christmas's "Last Christmas." If only every Christmas were last Christmas.

  • Jane chimed in with her ranking of the xmas specials in the comments of the Sandifer post:
    • The Time of the Doctor
    • The Snowmen
    • A Christmas Carol
    • Last Christmas
    • The Husbands of River Song
    • The End of Time
    • The Christmas Invasion
    • The Runaway Bride
    • The Next Doctor
    • Voyage of the Damned
    • The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe
  • My off-the-cuff ranking would be:
    • Last Christmas 
    • The Husbands of River Song
    • The Next Doctor
    • A Christmas Carol
    • The Snowmen
    • The Runaway Bride
    • The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe (Oops, this is lower, upon review, than my current rankings indicate I last assessed it. Need to check myself here.)
    • The End of Time
    • The Voyage of the Damned
    • The Christmas Invasion
    • The Time of the Doctor
  • Going in, I wondered how much time would they put between Clara departing and this adventure? Indeterminate.  How long, and how much longer, will the Doctor be companionless? Left open.
  • Speaking of Jane, she's improved my mood on Chibnall. [comment]  I had forgotten he did "42," which is criminally under-rated. That she defends "The Power of Three," a sign that I may be under-rating it. Chibnall still give me pause though. Broadchurch S2 and Gracepoint were snoozers. Word on the street, again leaning on Jack Graham for his commentary, is that his Camelot was utter shite.
  • I'm not sure how the Stephen Fry reference was supposed to work there, in that exchange where they tick off each other's spouses/romantic entanglements?
  • I think it was one Jack Graham's tweets that spotlighted the concern Moffat may be low on ideas. We've already had a scene of the Doctor in a restaurant where all the other patrons turned out to be baddies. So when the other diners turn out to be with Scratch, it feels like the "they're all clockwork droids" scene in "Deep Breath" getting recycled. I love the play on having the background characters we, as viewers, are trained to ignore, turn out to be something more hiding in plain sight. And I dug it when Sherlock did it with the serial killing cabbie. There's an old saying about being third on a match though ...
  • So many charming moments. The Doctor laughing at the head in the bag, and commenting how long it's been since he had good laugh. All the mentions of him being a doctor while he's waiting for River to recognize him. This is better than it really has a right to be for how over the top it is. Like playing up the bigger on the inside gag. And the revelation that River routinely sneaks the TARDIS off for adventures. And he didn't know about the liquor roundel. I'm a sucker for all of it.

Additional Resources:

Tardis Wikia Entry transcript

Sandifer for Eruditorum Press
What holds it together, though, is that Capaldi and Kingston are just good together. Capaldi has not been entirely well-served by the efforts to give him outright comedy episodes thus far (which is different from saying he’s not been well-served by the comedy bits), but this works for him. The trick, I think, is that it’s really played as an episode of River Song, with Alex Kingston serving as the main hero (which is nice, as despite that always having been the premise of River she’s never actually gotten to do it) and Capaldi misbehaving in the margins. It’s reliably funny and charming, and its quality is a lot of why the episode gets away with overstretching its plot so much.
Charlie Jane Anders for io9
So on the one hand, River Song is a wild and individualistic explorer, who is busy cavorting around the galaxy when she’s not trading saucy banter with the Doctor. But on the other, her whole life story revolves around the Doctor, even more than most characters on this show, and she seems to have a pathologically one-sided devotion to him. (He’s responsible for her birth, her childhood brainwashing by creepy aliens, her career choice and her death. She’s created as a weapon against him, gives up regeneration for him, and finally gives her life to save him. It’s a storyline that never quite holds water, despite having many fantastic moments along the way.) [We all need a bigger flow chart. - CM]
A.V. Club review
For Peter Capaldi and the Doctor, this Christmas special finds him walking in the footsteps of both his immediate predecessors, particularly Matt Smith’s 11th Doctor. The result is … well, it’s not bad, honestly. But it’s absolutely a weird episode, and it probably doesn’t have quite enough genius and emotion in the end to quite justify the oddness of its construction.

Vulture review
An unquestionably great moment: River's deliriously impassioned speech about what it means to love the Doctor, the truth of his identity finally dawning across her face, and the sly look on Peter Capaldi coupled with him uttering "Hello sweetie." She must have felt like a real idiot in that moment, because few Doctors instantly scream "I'm the Doctor!" with as much clarity as Capaldi.
TV Tropes page

The MarySue review
This year’s Christmas special gave River Song’s entire journey context, and I was thrilled about that. It’s unlikely that we’ll see River Song again (unless the Twelfth Doctor visits The Library), so “The Husbands of River Song” was a wonderful send-off for one of the best, most nuanced female characters in the Whoniverse.

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