The Husbands of River Song

The Husbands of River SongTARDIS
This one’s from DWM #495…

Wherein I make a slightly catty remark at the end about how long it was going to be until Doctor Who was back on telly.

DWM #495

This might make me a Bad Fan, but the true significance of the final sequence in The Husbands of River Song was lost on me. That was, until I sat down to write this.

As part of the usual kind of checks I do, I googled the planet name ‘Darillium’ – the location of the restaurant the Doctor and River visit at the end of the story – to see if it’d had some prior life in Doctor Who.

It got quite a few hits.

“The last time I saw you, the real you, the future you… you turned up on my doorstep, with a new haircut and a suit. You took me to Darillium to see the Singing Towers. What a night that was. The Towers sang, and you cried.” This was Professor River Song, on the day she died, as depicted in the 2008 story Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead. Our first meeting with the precocious archaeologist; her final bow. “You wouldn’t tell me why,” she continued, “but I suppose you knew it was time. My time… You even gave me your screwdriver.”

Why hadn’t this stuck with me? Why didn’t I appreciate the import until now? Maybe because I’m suffering from confirmation bias when it comes to River. Because of her hither and thither storylines, I’ve just rolled with it, enjoying the character for who she is, but assuming it’s all pretty spurious.

Watching this, I might as well have been – and here comes another phrase from our own peculiar argot – your Non-Fan Friend. But as modern Doctor Who is always anxious to also work for those with whom it has no history, particularly at Christmas time, there’s some validity in that experience, isn’t there?

So what did I get from the final section? Definitely the pathos, definitely the beautiful performances from Peter Capaldi and Alex Kingston. I loved how, as their conversation grew more intimate (“Are you crying?”/”No, it’s just the wind”), their eye contact diminished, neither of them able to look at the sentiment square on. And the way they didn’t kiss at the end was beautiful.

But those details aside, I confess I was puzzled why this goodbye – one of many for Prof Song – was given such emphasis, other than it played into the Doctor’s recent acceptance, following the departure of Clara, that all things must have an ending. “Every Christmas is last Christmas,” he said, a maxim he’d coined in the 2014 special, but delivered a year on with a terrible new insight.

Oh, I wish I’d understood it all at the time. That this adventure marked Mrs Who’s penultimate encounter with Mr, and thus our very last in her company (well, maybe). Moreover, it also meant there was a solid bottom to the story. Because on my original viewing it had actually felt pretty inconsequential – a slightly laborious caper that was crying out for a bit more invention. That’s not to say it didn’t sparkle at times. One won’t truly take umbrage against an episode that features: “You can’t shoot the head in the face!” But most of what went on just slid off me.

For example, comedy guest stars Greg Davies and Matt Lucas surely did what they were booked for, but that kind of expectedness leaves no space for surprise. Davies gave us an old-school shouty baddie; blunt and functional. And Lucas did his funny voice. Meanwhile, there was a perfectly nicely-realised robot-monster stomping around, rather like the same things that were voiced by David Mitchell and Robert Webb in Dinosaurs on a Spaceship. But it was hardly a top-drawer threat. And in fairness, it was never supposed to be, becoming more a comedy vehicle – in every sense – for Lucas.

The biggest obstacle, however, is that I could never adjust to the Doctor becoming complicit in River’s scheme. Accepted, he does initially question the morality of what she’s doing, but once it’s laid out that Hydroflax is reportedly bad (and our hero has no first-hand knowledge of this), the Time Lord then just falls in with the plan. It’s not even a particularly funny plan, making it seem as if this is a decision based wholly upon the necessities of the plot. There we have it, he is to help in the sale of a living head, which is to be butchered by whoever has the right cash.

Putting that anomaly aside, this is a slightly different Doctor to the one we’ve seen of late. Aware, I think, that he’s suffered some kind of loss – how much he remembers of Clara is uncertain – he’s reverted a little to his spikier persona. As the adventure begins, the emotional drawbridges are up. There’s that sign hanging off the TARDIS, ‘Carol singers will be criticised’, and I liked very much how the time ship had attempted to improve his mood with hologram reindeer antlers. Christmas is yet another thing he is loudly anti, and in direct contrast to his previous self, who in 2011’s The Doctor, The Widow and The Wardrobe was all about the festive season.

More thrillingly, we also have his rage against King Hydroflax. In his Tenth guise, in 2007’s Yuletide special Voyage of the Damned, the Doctor saved Buckingham Palace from the luxury space liner, Titanic. But on the 25th just gone, he rails about the monarchy being “an entirely pointless stratum of society who contribute nothing of value to the world and crush the hopes and dreams of working people.” Mere hours after The Queen’s Christmas Broadcast too. I love it. A thoroughly antiestablishment Doctor, angry, but wittily so, and this time choosing a target with real weight. Now this, I can get behind. He’s for the proletariat. There is undoubtedly something very Pertweeian (it’s a word!) about Peter Capaldi’s take, but all the same, you can’t imagine him presenting the necessary flourishes in the Royal court of Peladon, can you?

Similarly, where the Third Doctor once purred, on the topic of money, that “gentlemen never talk about anything else,” this one takes the more cynical viewpoint, “Nothing is protected like money,” and uses that as a means of neutralizing Hydroflax’s rampaging robot body. If I were to describe his incarnation as the ‘punk-rock Doctor’ that would hardly be a new insight, but the ethos is at its most apparent in these scenes.

Nevertheless, it’s Christmas, and thus there is also an element of redemption for the weary traveller. To be clear, the spirit of the season has nothing to do with that – it’s the sheer absurdities accompanying River that crack the Doctor up. “I haven’t laughed in a long time,” he confesses, after the pair have momentarily dangled in the air, like Wile E Coyote, before collapsing into a snowdrift. Cartoon hilarity is also a part of the Doctor’s world, and her return reminds him of that. Life doesn’t always have to be about death, and from hereon in, he follows the fun, feigning disbelief at the TARDIS’ interior dimension. “Finally it’s my go!” he chuckles, and then hamming it up outrageously. “I’ve always wanted to see that done properly”.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of River’s return is seeing how she fits into the current version of Doctor Who. Because she does now seem to belong to a slightly different phase of the show, which makes her failure to recognise her husband all the more apt. While he keeps dropping characterful lines, waiting for her to twig, she’s set on a different template for the Time Lord – the sillier guy, who wore a fez (which she still carries in her holdall). It’s also notable that this reappearance presents a different aspect of the professor, a picture of her without him. A person who has always had her own motivations and equipped to make her own impact upon the plot, here she is even more dynamic than ever. “You, with me!” she barks at the Doctor, as he becomes her supporting cast. And yet, there are still reflections of him, even when she’s purposely undermining his reputation. Her codename for him, ‘Damsel’ – as in ‘in distress’ – is hilarious, but surely it’s only so because that appeals to her sense of humour. Later on, still in ignorance of his presence, she lays it all out: “The Doctor does not, and has never, loved me… he doesn’t go around falling in love with people”. And then: “It’s like loving the stars themselves”. Would it be fair to say that despite everything, she will always remain in his orbit?

Despite that faint whiff of worship, when recognition finally comes, the two click into action, equal partners, relying on the other’s skills. She’s as close to a true peer as he has found, they’re almost interchangeable. So much so that it is he who ends up pulling out the old River catchphrases, a “Hello sweetie,” and then the inevitable, “spoilers”.

As we leave the couple, they’re promised a Happily Ever After. More prosaically, that’s 24 years spent gazing into the night, which is akin to how it’s going to feel while we’re waiting for Doctor Who to eventually return to our screens.

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