After the melodramatic melancholy of “Hell Bent”, there was only one direction “Doctor Who” could go for this year’s Christmas showstopper, especially with it coming so quickly after the series finale. “The Husbands Of River Song” playfully picks up with the Doctor’s old would-be paramour and takes him on one of her adventures, with him playing the companion for once.
After being put through the ringer so thoroughly during his parting from Clara, it’s nice to see The Doctor taking some well needed rest, even if it is hiding grumpily – the TARDIS herself thinks he needs cheering up – from the seasonal festivities on a human colony world in the year 5343. A case of ‘close enough’ mistaken identity brings him face to face with River Song (Alex Kingston) who’s up to her neck (actually, not just her neck) in a scheme to recover the Halassi Androvara – the universe’s most valuable diamond – from the head of King Hydroflax. Things get more complicated, though, when it becomes clear that River has no idea who the Doctor is.
From the moment the festively snowy updated opening titles crash in, it’s clear that Moffat’s in a light and frothy mood this Christmas, and so it is we’re treated to a screwball romantic caper, a Whovian “Bringing Up Baby” that, like the 1938 classic, relies heavily on the talents and chemistry of the two leads.
Luckily, Capaldi and Kingston provide enough sparks to get even the most recalcitrant yule log ablaze. It’s kind of fascinating to see River in full flow, running the show with her own retinue of companions and hangers on. Without the Doctor looking over her shoulder (as far as she knows), she’s more ruthless than our favourite Time Lord is comfortable with.
The plot is a little bit flimsy and has Moffat’s trademark Christmas approach of throwing ideas onscreen with such gleeful abandon that enough sticks to make it just about work. The elite cruise liner of supervillainy is a cute idea, or as cute as the idea of genocidal exclusivity can be for an early evening Christmas special but doesn’t really go anywhere and the true nature of Hydroflax allows for a longer spell with our underused guest stars (Matt Lucas, Greg Davies) than you might otherwise expect.
The thing is, it’s all so utterly delightful – and you’re so full of Christmas dinner – that it feels churlish to dislodge the drift of Quality Street wrappers to raise your arm for a dismissive ‘Bah. Humbug!’ gesture. There are some standout moments, such as the revelation that River has regularly ‘stolen’ the TARDIS for her own purposes throughout the Doctor’s timeline before returning it before he notices. The Doctor finally getting the chance to do the ‘bigger on the inside’ reaction is likewise priceless but perhaps the finest point is when an oblivious River delivers a touching monologue on what it’s like to love the Doctor only to realise as it draws to a close that he’s standing right beside her.
And it’s here that Moffat reveals his secret weapon. In amongst the heist and hijinks, there’s a tender and touching exploration of the relationship between River Song and The Doctor. Thanks to the (apparent) similarity in ages this time round, there’s a stronger authenticity to the relationship and the doomed and timey-wimey nature of it seems keener than ever before. In a touching and ever so slightly tongue-in-cheek finale (that sees the Doctor use time travel to propose and fund the construction of the very restaurant he and River are destined to spend their last ‘night’ together in) Moffat cleverly leaves it precisely balanced: if this is River’s last appearance it’s a fitting end for the character, if not there’s room left for a few more adventures. All in all, it’s the perfect tea time treat for Christmas Day and a worthy capstone to a sensational season of “Doctor Who”.