Steven Moffat isn’t stupid. He knows that television audiences take their cues from the characters rather than from any knowledge of things they might not have seen, otherwise Coronation Street wouldn’t have kept picking up new viewers these last five decades, and the Eastenders Christmas episode wouldn’t expect any extra viewers over those its regular episodes get.
There is far more continuity required in order to fully appreciate a Christmas soap than there is in a regular Doctor Who Christmas Special, and a goodly number of the people bidding Downton Abbey farewell will be ones who haven’t engaged with the characters therein for considerably longer than the period since the last ongoing episode was broadcast. No, the way continuity works is that if the characters’ emotional reactions sell the situation to the audience, then the audience doesn’t necessarily need to know how that situation arose. If the Doctor is taking River Song to Darillium and they’re both looking upset about it, you don’t need to know what it signifies – simply that it signifies something bad. The last ten minutes or so of The Husbands of River Song more than justified the character’s return to the series, even though it felt like her story was finished being told last time we crossed paths – and more than that, the first fifty minutes was all the validation the episode itself required.
This was Steven Moffat telling the kind of Christmas Special he’d always had in him, ever since his first series finale unhitched the viewers’ expectations of how the author of Blink might see fit to conclude a year’s worth of Doctor Who; Moffat’s previous specials have essentially been beholden to the season and its themes, but here he took his cue from Russell T Davies and cross-stitched The Runaway Bride with Voyage of the Damned to create an episode that was essentially a screwball comedy disaster heist movie in space – the kind of subjects that can only come together successfully in a series as carefree and unfettered as Doctor Who. If this was to be the showrunner’s last episode – as it appears that at one point it was – then having tied up his ongoing storylines with Hell Bent, here he was freed up to write whatsoever he chose. And of course, he chose his most recognisable recurring guest character.
Previous Christmas episodes, when unencumbered by a regeneration, have promoted themselves on the celebrity – and occasionally the talent, and sometimes both – of the guest star. Whether that be Catherine Tate or Kylie Minogue, or David Morrissey, Michael Gambon or even Claire Skinner. Only last Christmas’ Last Christmas has bucked the trend by not having any particular acting or plot contrivance around which to hype itself to the Yuletide audience, but this year Peter Capaldi’s second seasonal special revolves around a different kind of conceit; is it possible to cheat on yourself with your own girlfriend, in analogous terms. Or, to put it another way, what would happen if you met your own wife and she didn’t recognise you? The beginning of a new regeneration cycle has given Steven Moffat the perfect excuse to find out.
Moffat’s Doctor Who has often used the science fiction aspect of the series to analyse and reflect real everyday concerns of the viewers, albeit filtered through a very intricate prism. Series Nine – in spite of Jenna Coleman’s apparent uncertainty about taking part – explored various aspects of breaking relationships in a manner that truly reflected the possibilities inherent in the “all of time and space” conceit, and while The Husbands of River Song might seem like an unconnected coda to what has gone before, what Steven Moffat is actually looking at here is what comes afterwards; what comes after the couple have broken up, what follows when one partner has dissolved a relationship that the other was still engaged with? In The Husbands of River Song, ostensibly the title character is the one who walked away and the Doctor the one that was left behind, but by the episode’s end it’s clear that the tables were on the other feet, so to speak – just as they ended up being at the end of Hell Bent. Both episodes finish with a reverse, and both episodes concern the idea of time having run out for one of the Doctor’s friends; in many ways, rather than being a self-contained coda to the last five or six years of Doctor Who, The Husbands of River Song is actually a spiritual sequel to Series Nine and, just as The Time of the Doctor before it, an opportunity for Steven Moffat to cross some Is and dot some Ts for those who weren’t paying attention. Whether by accident or design, this is consummately intelligent storytelling – and deceptively so.
And it begins so beguilingly. There’s a little less Christmas in the plot for a change, so there’s a little extra Christmas in the execution; the titles and snowy dissolves are a nice touch that disguise our destination. But we begin in a beautifully white landscape with a fantastically fantastical effect (with a nod, repeated later in case you missed it, to Citizen Kane) that belies how far Steven Moffat now is from his “dark fairy tales” of the eleventh Doctor’s tenure. Instead we’re thrown straight into a situation like something out of The Key to Time season, complete with larger than life characters (and there are none larger than life than Matt Lucas, thankfully playing to his strengths rather than intruding on the story) and outer space variations on recognisable story tropes. But with robots with human heads. We’re definitely in Graham Williams territory here, Mendorax Dellora an ersatz Ribos (this might almost have been a tribute to Anthony Read, who died a few weeks ago) but with the plot, concerning as it does a MacGuffin hidden inside a human head, skewed firmly towards Read’s replacement Douglas Adams; there are elements of at least half the stories of Season 16 of the classic series, if not more. But whereas Adams’ storytelling was often concerned with the mundanity of minutiae sometimes at the expense of any greater meaning (which might explain his infamous deadline-shattering writer’s block), Steven Moffat integrates the Adams-isms into a story more like something his predecessor Read might have greenlighted (much as Moffat is essentially “doing an RTD” with this episode itself), whereat character and import are brought to the fore, somewhat burying the sci-fi. Moffat skewers Season 16 inside the artifices of Season 17 (he’s always had a thing for the Graham Williams era) and presents us with fifty minutes of modern Doctor Who that skates perhaps as closely as any other 21st century episode ever has with the feel of the past.
The meat of which is, of course, the relationship between the Twelfth Doctor and River Song. There are some tremendously funny moments, and it isn’t until those final few minutes that the reason this was worth doing becomes obvious, but throughout the entire episode the objective is always bubbling under the surface. The word “husbands” (plural) might even metaphorically have meant the various incarnations of the Doctor, but by throwing the first of the new regeneration cycle into River’s world, Moffat is able to shine a light not just on the notion of what River’s like when the Doctor isn’t around, but on the idea of what happens to someone we still love when they’ve advanced beyond us. It takes until the plot resolve for Moffat to turn those tables; the first three-quarters of the episode is an enjoyably and ostensibly superficial romp – perhaps not quite as fast and funny as it might have been – that deceives us into accepting a certain relationship between the two characters, one in which this “new” Doctor is beholden to her dominance given that she’s the one who has it seems left him somewhere behind. But gradually Moffat introduces the diary and the thought that perhaps she’s overcompensating, and then drops the bombshell that for all River’s bluster, the relationship as we thought we knew it was never quite what it appeared to be. And then, just when we’ve got a handle on all of that – and just when the Twelfth Doctor has convinced us he’s moved on from being the remote alien struggling with humans and their emotions that the last two years have characterised him as – Moffat throws in Darillium and makes the Doctor’s mind up for him.
It’s a moment for everyone who was ever dumped unceremoniously; an infusion of agency for those who never had any influence on that kind of decision. But it isn’t played with jealousy or revenge; instead it’s simply time catching up on people, which is really all that real life ever throws at us anyway. The last ten minutes of The Husbands of River Song are some of the saddest and yet quietly the angriest and most profound the series has ever produced – at least since Series Nine finished, that is – Doctor Who straying firmly into soap opera territory with two middle-aged actors playing out the last flaring embers of a relationship that’s doomed not to continue, and all against a backdrop of heads popping open or being co-opted into King Hydroflax’ life-support machine; something for every member of the family, then. You didn’t need to be acquainted with River Song to understand what was going on, Alex Kingston and Peter Capaldi walked you through it when the dialogue wasn’t laying it out.
If this was where Steven Moffat and Doctor Who were to have parted company, it would have felt appropriate; The Husbands of River Song is funny, a little bit clever, and totally far-fetched but completely logically so, and has an undercurrent of something much more philosophical than its surface deceives us into expecting. And it also has the sense of the ending of things, the parting of ways, that drops an elegiac quality into the melange of RTD-style Christmas madness that Moffat has finally produced. It’s perhaps not the best of Moffat’s Christmas episodes, but it’s another amazing example of how he manages to pack a significant amount of humanity and insight into something that looks and feels so improbable and so frivolous. And it’s got a robot with human heads; what more can you ask for at Christmas?