26 December 2015

Doctor Who Christmas special "The Husbands of River Song" review

The Christmas specials of Doctor Who have always been somewhat light hearted affairs for the most part, low stake romps that are more focused on entertaining as much as possible in the space of an hour or so than they are adding anything of canonical value to the Doctor Who universe. And that's OK in my books - a Christmas special is a Christmas special, something to be enjoyed while dinner is still going down and everyone is a little bit sleepy. And from that perspective, "The Husbands of River Song" is a fine episode of Doctor Who.

Starting off on the human colony of Mendorax Dellora on Christmas Day in the year 5343, we follow The Doctor as he is mistaken for a surgeon and bought to the dying King Hydroflax in order to operate on him - where he finds out that he is more than a little familiar with Queen Hydroflax, who he knows better as River Song. After she reveals to The Doctor (and, inadvertently, King Hydroflax) that she only married her new husband for the diamond embedded in his skull, the two of them end up fleeing with King Hydroflax's head, still alive and sentient when detached from the robot body which houses it.

It's a caper in other words, an escapade, the kind of "and then..." story telling that is perfect for a lazy Christmas afternoon. "The Husbands of River Song" doesn't require any real knowledge of Doctor Who to be enjoyed beyond the fact that River and The Doctor are married and that she has never met this latest incarnation of The Doctor, and it is here where the episode gets much of it's entertainment from - it's instantly clear that Alex Kingston (who plays River Song) and Peter Capaldi have great chemistry, and seeing them on-screen together is a real treat. And I say this as someone who has never been a fan of River Song as a character - for much of her time on the show she was an unbearable, two-dimensional, sassy know-it-all, but that's been toned down significantly here and the character is all the better for it, making her feel like a real person instead of the poorly written response to claims of sexism that she felt like throughout much of the Matt Smith era of Doctor Who.

And for an episode more focused on comedy than drama, it certainly has the right cast. Comedian Gregg Davies and Little Britain's Matt Lucas appear as King Hydroflax and Nardole, a servant of King Hydroflax, respectively, and although Matt Lucas doesn't have a huge amount to do in comparison to Gregg Davies (who is, in effect, the episodes "big bad"), he's very funny as the bumbling, somewhat clueless servant whenever he appears. Gregg Davies plays Hydroflax with the perfect amount of grandeur, self-important swagger, and is exactly as funny as you would expect after seeing him in The Inbetweeners, but surprisingly it was Capaldi who gets the biggest laugh - after a season of Doctor Who that I think it's safe to say may be one of the darkest since it's revival in 2005, Capaldi really gets the chance to show off what a warm and funny presence he can have, highlighted in a scene where he pretends to be amazed by the interior of the TARDIS just to see someone "do it right".

Fans of Doctor Who will also enjoy seeing something of a conclusion to the River Song story that we've been watching over the last few years. There is certainly a feeling of finality between The Doctor and River by the time "The Husbands of River Song" ends, and although I don't think for a second that this is the last we will see of her, I do feel that the on-going saga of her relationship with The Doctor can be put to rest now - if (when?) she does reappear, I'd like to see an acknowledgement of their history together and nothing more, freeing both characters from a relationship that, in truth, never really worked for me.

"The Husbands of River Song" isn't going to set the world on fire, and that's OK. It's just a funny, light-hearted episode that doesn't require much knowledge of Doctor Who to enjoy while at the same time rewarding those in the know, moving quick enough to keep you involved, containing enough laughs to justify the lighter tone and refusing to overstay its welcome. It is, in short, the exact thing I look for in a Christmas special of Doctor Who - and really, what more can you really ask for?

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