After a heavy ending to season 9, “The Husbands of River Song” brought Capaldi’s 12 and perennial favorite River Song together, providing the perfect opportunity for two veteran actors to interact with great relish. It was quite the Christmas treat, if a bittersweet one, as all Christmas specials and River Song stories must be, considering we first met her at the end of her timeline in Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead. (If you’re new to Who and haven’t seen my favorite two episodes, please go get your life. I’ll hold. No, I mean it. Go.) While the 11/River chemistry was always fantastic, Capaldi and Kingston brought equal years of experience, depth, and comedic timing to the story, and I loved every minute they were together. The caper itself was perhaps not my favorite, but still brought so many quotable moments. All aboard the good ship Doctor Song!
In a giant spaceship on a snowy planet, River has “married” a diamond buried inside of the murderous cyborg King Hydroflax’s head. She invites a surgeon under the guise of saving the king, but as per usual her goal is the treasure; the Doctor inadvertently answers the call, landing in the repurposed Diagon Alley set. Was it really that expensive to set up? She densely remains clueless to his identity even as he growl’s “River!” After all, this face isn’t on her complete set of wallet photos, code named Damsel in Distress, since she’s had to save him so many times. Of course, her plan goes wrong, despite her sonic trowel for the assist, and the cyborg “uploads” her hapless assistant and second husband Ramone’s heads. She even mentions her second wife. Oh, River!
The Doctor and River abscond with the king’s talking, threatening, swearing head stuffed in a bag to sell the diamond on a glamorous space liner dedicated to ferrying the worst criminals in the universe. Naturally, she is notorious even there. As they wait for the buyer, River notes sadly that her diary is almost full, pretending that the Doctor is nobody special to her. Meanwhile, the king’s cyborg body, stowed in the dead-locked luggage compartment, talks the charming blue fish-pig-like maitre d’ into betraying River in favor of creating the ultimate KingBot with the Doctor’s head. After the buyers reveal themselves to be fanatical Hydroflax devotees and corner River for information, she declares that while she is of course in love with the Doctor…
“When you love the Doctor, it’s like loving the stars themselves. You don’t expect a sunset to admire you back. And if I happen to find myself in danger, let me tell you, the Doctor is not stupid enough, or sentimental enough, and he is certainly not in love enough to find himself standing in it with me!”
Pause for swooning
In anticipation of its victory, the KingBot vaporizes Hydroflax’s head, leaving the diamond in a pile of ash, but if there’s one thing the Doctor and River do best, it’s escape. Unlike their captors, they’re unsurprised at the meteor shower that hits the ship as it flies past Darillium, but she does complain that he keeps cancelling a promised dinner date at the Singing Towers. The maitre d’ asks indignantly how she knew, and River replies:
“I’m an archeologist! I DUG YOU UP! See you in 400 years!”
The Doctor disarms the KingBot with the payment pod—and hundreds of the best firewalls in the known world—while she attempts to slow the ship’s descent. The ship is too far gone, so the Doctor retrieves her with the TARDIS, and tries to do it himself… Then she turns around and does the same to him. They argue over who is more important of the two to save, and, hitting a stalemate, just make it inside the TARDIS as the ship crashes, knocking them both unconscious.
Waking first, the Doctor goes forward a bit in time and encourages a rescue worker to build a restaurant at the Singing Towers, funding the venture with their pilfered diamond. He then fast forwards again to make a reservation for 4 years in the future to get the best seat on the balcony, hopping forward once more before River awakes. She stumbles out of the TARDIS to find a glittering, glowing romantic restaurant and employs one of the more fun gimmicks of the episode, a spray-on wardrobe change. The Doctor, waiting for her on the balcony in a new suit, gifts her with her own sonic screwdriver because that whole trowel thing was “just embarrassing.” And also, you know…
“Why? Why would I give her my screwdriver? Why would I do that? Thing is, future me had years to think about it, all those years to think of a way to save her, and what he did was give her a screwdriver! Why would I do that?” the 10th Doctor, “Forest of the Dead”
River grows sad. Their legend says that the last night they spend together is at the Singing Towers of Darillium. He looks somber, and she asks if he’s crying (he isn’t then, but he noticeably tears up later when she’s not looking), then begs him like Clara to figure something out, to fix it. Little does she know, the fix, such as it is, is already in her hand. The Doctor grumpily mopes that there are no happily ever afters, but River disagrees.
“Happily ever after doesn’t mean forever. It just means time. Just a little time.”
The conversation turns metaphorical as they gaze at the Singing Towers. He wonders why she’s ignoring the towers, and she answers that they’re ignoring her, but that’s to be expected. He waxes poetic about the creation of the sound and how nobody truly knows where it comes from or how it happens…
“But when you least expect it, always when you need it most, there is a song.”
And those nights on Darillium? Last 24 years.
Notes & Quotes
While River as Melody Pond gave the Doctor her regeneration energy in Let’s Kill Hitler, she still has an unusually long lifespan for a human, as she says she’s 200 years old so far, explaining how she’s gotten into so much trouble and run across the Doctor so many times.
Some Whovians assert that River doesn’t truly mean anything to the Doctor, but this episode seems to prove that he does love her, or at least that he once did, when he felt such things. This Doctor almost seems past feelings, but I liked that he was curious and willing to accept that her experience of their relationship may have been much worse than it was for him, something previous versions never considered.
Double meaning in “there is a song”—the sound of the TARDIS… and her. Aww!
After watching 12 go through billions of years in the confession dial to conquer his own world, we should feel the true weight of River’s exclamation in “Silence in the Library” that he’s “so young.” He’s obviously younger than Capaldi, but 10’s heartbreak with Rose sets the stage for 12’s willingness to stop at nothing to save his companions. Just when I thought that episode couldn’t get better, it did.
When he checks her pulse, it plays audibly, in contrast to his situation with Clara.
The TARDIS dresses the Doctor in antlers for Christmas without his knowledge, then whines back at him when he bawls her out for trying to cheer him up.
Before she realizes it’s him, River chastises him for using her name (she learned his real name when they got married) and asks how he knows her. The Doctor quips, “People usually need a flowchart.” This is a nod to the big River Song Timeline Flowchart you need to keep her and the Doctor straight. Good luck.
The Doctor dramatically pretending to see the TARDIS for the first time: “Oh. My, God! Oh, it’s bigger! On the inside… than it is… on the outside! My entire understanding of physical space has been transformed! Three-dimensional Euclidean geometry has been torn up, thrown in the air and snogged to death! My grasp of the universal constants of physical reality has been changed forever. Sorry. I’ve always wanted to see that done properly.”
River throws a red fez out of her bag to make room for the head.
Sign on the TARDIS: “Carol singers will be criticised”
When he first reports to River’s ship, the Doctor says he’s had a haircut and is wearing his best suit. Reference: “You turned up on my doorstep with a new haircut and a suit. You took me to Darillium to see the Singing Towers. Oh, what a night that was!”—River, “Forest of the Dead”
River implies that she’s stolen the TARDIS many times without him realizing, then reveals a liquor cabinet in one of the Round Things.
Mentions of Aldeberan brandy and the sweet trolley during the “auction” for Hydroflax’s head, as well as the cricket-ball payment linking all the banks together, are a shoutout to Douglas Adams’ Restaurant at the End of the Universe and Life, the Universe and Everything.
The Doctor refusing to bow to Hydroflax (and referencing the Time Lords): “Yeah, my back’s playing up. It simply refuses to carry the weight of an entirely pointless stratum of society who contribute nothing of worth to the world and crush the hopes and dreams of working people.”
River: “What’s that face? Are you thinking? Stop it. You’re a man, it looks weird.”
Doctor to River: “Stop holding my hand, people don’t do that to me. Don’t hush me. I’m not a hushing person.”
River to the Matre d’: “Hush, Mummy and Daddy are busy.”
Doctor: “You look, er, amazing.”
River: “Doctor, you have no idea whether I look amazing or not.”
Doctor: “Well, you’ve moved your hair about, haven’t you?”
River: “Well done. It’s very sweet of you to try.”
Doctor Who - The Husbands of River Song
“The Husbands of River Song” was a well-choreographed, humorous, mature turn at the story between the Doctor and River with beautiful visuals and timing. While certainly a bit too weird for the non-Whovians you might have been visiting on holiday like I was, it was satisfying, sweet, and sad for long-time fans. All of the side players were on point, the aliens were creepy and campy, and both Kingston and Capaldi were at their best. While it seems like a bit of a gut punch right after losing Clara to see River’s last official story, there is still wiggle room for a backstory we haven’t seen, like Jim the Fish. I mean, everyone knows Jim the Fish. Bravo!