DOCTOR WHO has been going from strength-to-strength under the pure acting talent of Peter Capaldi. The past two series have been a welcome change from the devolving inanity that the Matt Smith era was becoming. The only caveat to this was last year’s Christmas special. With its random storyline and lack of proper motivation the 2014 Christmas episode felt like a lesser part of the Capaldi run thus far. Thankfully it appears that the team have learned from those failings and have come out of the corner with a much stronger effort in The Husbands of River Song.
The episode starts off mundanely enough, with Matt Lucas knocking on the TARDIS door asking for a surgeon. “Close enough” says The Doctor and the story whisks us away on an adventure filled with (amongst other things) the head of a mad warmongering despot (King Hydroflax, as played by comedian Greg Davies), his headless robot body on a rampage for a new head, a jewel heist like nothing we’ve ever seen before and the return of Professor River Song.
A carry over from the Matt Smith era, River Song (Alex Kingston) should be recognisable to anyone who has been watching the past few years of Doctor Who. This is because she kept popping up in the most ridiculous of ways and by the end of it there was almost a collective sigh at the possibility that she would finally be allowed to disappear from the screens for good. Inevitably though she turns up again in this episode and one couldn’t help but wonder how in the world they were going to milk this, already dry, well once again. The biggest shock of this episode is that we end up actually liking poor old River Song again in a way that makes us feel guilty for disliking her to begin with.
The beauty of this episode is that River doesn’t actually know who The Doctor is in his current guise. Instead of an unbearable back and forth throughout the episode we are treated to some fun dramatic irony and the payoff is actually very effective. Without giving too much away about this episode, for those of you who haven’t seen it yet even up to this late date, the really great moments are the ones where Capaldi and Kingston are able to get away from the other characters. Their dialogue is witty and emotionally charged even before the reveal. This only goes to highlight how great of an actor Capaldi is, a character like River Song is only ever really as good as the person she’s playing against, in the hands of Matt Smith she became completely farcical but in the hands of Tennant or Capaldi, there is great pathos in her story. At heart River is a tragic character, cursed to love a man but living a life out of synch with each other, the only really good stories occur at the emotionally high moments in their lives and it is more the fault of Moffat that the allowed the other companions to overwhelm River Song’s story. But luckily those pesky companions are out of the way giving Song a chance to shine.
What else can be said about this episode that can’t be said of any other episode of Doctor Who? The music is good, the special effects are great, the comedic moments are very funny and the overall mix creates a solid episode of Doctor Who goodness. Where a Doctor Who episode really shines, however, and this is particularly true of the Christmas specials, is the moments between the characters. This is one of the stronger episodes to have come out recently and this is because the focus is entirely on the characters rather than the wacky stuff happening around them. While there is wacky stuff, and it is very wacky, it never overrides the feeling that something meaningful is happening between the people on the screen particularly the two leads.
What is good about this episode is that you feel that the production team is more confident in how they’re presenting Capaldi’s Doctor. Where the previous Christmas special fell short was that, too often, you felt that the story was only tip-toeing around the real meat of this new take on The Doctor and the effect on the audience was quite jarring. This episode feels a lot more confident and, as a result, feels more playful which is a much more enjoyable viewing experience than watching something that is too self-conscious.
Overall I enjoyed this episode. It’s a standard Who episode that plays around with conventions we were used to from previous offerings. My only criticism of this episode is that it feels as if I can only really enjoy it in comparison to other episodes. It’s a solid piece of Who but it doesn’t really push any boundaries, which you’d expect from an hour long episode. It sits comfortably and offers the audience an enjoyable experience but doesn’t play around with our expectations as the previous series has done. It’s a solid Christmas episode, low on innovation in terms of the story but high on entertainment value.