TV Happy Boxing Day. I had planned to wait until January before reviewing yesterday’s Whoverfest but after sitting through the first forty minutes of the Harold Lloyd silent The Kid Brother and not laughing once due to the high number of jokes which are at his expense through bullying with half my brain writing the following in my head, I realised that it was best to get it into this infernal, extraordinary machine rather than having the words bouncing around waiting for them to flow through my fingers. You’ve probably read most of the following in one of the professional reviews which turned up online within seconds of the episode ending but I haven’t read any of those. About the only pieces of writing I’ve tended to pay attention to about any episode this year have been my old colleague from Behind The Sofa Frank who's now posting to the Frame Rated blog and Graham in the monthly consociation proceedings.
As is so often has to be the case when a Steven Moffat script is making a statement, let’s begin at the end. Once The Husbands of River Song concluded, many of the tweets advertising the wares of those being paid to do this sort of thing before Christmas asked readers what they thought of the archaeological academic’s final adventure, even though everything about the story is designed to eek out her story for a good while yet. One of the problems inherent in the character is that when he created this treasure in season four, Moffat narratively locked in a bunch of story points which would indicate what her penultimate adventure would entail. Like the Doctor’s limited regenerative cycle there was always going to be a point where the writer would need to circumnavigate these details, not retcon them as such, but at least provide an re-interpretation.
That’s what I think Moffat is doing here. Apart from the additional two hundred years mentioned reminding us that River’s a Time Lord and therefore capable of many millennia of life and seemingly designed to give the ironically named in this instance Big Finish a massive gap to fill, if this final date is to last twenty-four years, there’s clearly enough wiggle room to indicate that not all that time will be spent on Darillium. Far from being her final adventure, the whole substructure of this seems designed to both honour her description of their final encounter from The Forest of the Dead and circumvent it, thank goodness, if required. Anyone else wonder if we’ve even seen her introduction into being a “companion” full time for the next season? It’s certainly very interesting that we’ve not had announcement yet about Clara’s replacement …
As a quick sidebar on the Big Finish stuff, and note I haven’t heard The Diaries of … yet, but The Eternity Clock game apparently establishes that she uses a mnemosine recall-wipe vapour whenever meeting earlier incarnations of the Doctor so as not to pollute the timeline and fictionally to keep with the spirit of him not knowing who she is during Silence in the Library (even though it makes a nonsense of her complaint about him not recognising her). As an alternative, doesn’t Hell Bent also provide a nuWho-hewn method for this to be the case? And given that, what’s to stop her and Tenth even having audio adventures together? Or with any of the Doctors? At this point I’d certainly welcome an appearance in one of The Early Adventures with Fraser subbing in as a Pat against her. Imagine her turning up in a Tom and Lalla story. I’m giddy with anticipation.
None of which really explains how she doesn’t recognise Twelfth as the Doctor for reasons other than comedy. Time Lords have tended to identify each other irrespective of their outward appearance, even, if Ninth in Dalek is an indication, able to know if there’s another member of their race in existence anywhere in the time vortex. Moffat seems to have decided to ignore that now. Twelfth didn’t suspect Missy in Dark Water and now River spends most of Husbands (an abbreviation which sounds like a nineties sitcom starring Belinda Lang and Jenny Funnell) entirely oblivious to his presence, even in the face of an orgy of evidence that this random stranger is the love of her life. It’s all completely worth it for the look on Capaldi and Kingston’s faces when the penny drops (in favour of Donna) but it’s still a nagging irritant through much of the episode.
Which is, sigh, part of the problem with Husbands (co-starring Daniel Hill as "Trevor"). Like so many of these kinds of stories with their overwhelmingly poignant conclusions featuring huge story points which are likely to be the thing most people, well ok fans, talk about, not everything which occurs in the run up is top draw entertainment and you can boo all you want but I’ll just give you my best Craig Revel Horwood disdain face in return. The whole robot business is rubbish, and inane rubbish at that, right down there with many of the underpowered antagonists we’ve endured during the Moffat era. Perhaps Hydroflax plays well with children with its jolly big red (Hero 6) and Lego friendly replaceable heads, but it’s not a patch on anything in the panto parts of season 17 this story is pastiching with its references to how a wife might consummating her marriage without knowing the particulars of her spouse’s anatomy.
The guest cast doesn’t really help. The first time I saw Matt Lucas was inches away from me in the foyer at The Pleasance at the Edinburgh Festival in 1998 coming out of a show I wasn't attending dressed in a chicken outfit in the process of removing its head, sweat pouring off him. “It’s fucking hot in here” he said to no one in particular which is probably the funniest I’ve ever seen him be. I’m also immune to Greg Davies as a performer and although in all fairness he’s barely given leeway to do much more than Crowden his way through the mania much like the Doctor and River I was certainly happier when he existed simply as a silent cranial carbon carrier in a bag. Even the usually good Philip Rhys, previously known for his “outing” of Patterson Joseph as the Eleventh Doctor on News 24, decided that ham was the way to go and ended up as the Pork Sausagemeat we’ve just bought reduced to 20p from Tesco.
Nevertheless through all of that Capaldi and Kidston crackle and pop and have the most formidable of chemistries. A reader (whose anonymity I’ll be happy to break if he wants me to) noted via email recently that when Eleventh said in his regeneration scene that his new body might need time to “bed in” it was an indication of what was to come with Twelfth. I suggested in reply that the show is always at its best when it doesn’t require this sort of close textual reading and it would have been handy if this had been made plainer that his regeneration had gone a bit wonky while the new Doctor was being an utter bastard (or words to that effect) but does at least allow for a certain retrospective appreciation even if you couldn’t pay me to watch Kill The Moon or The Caretaker again for fun. Whatever our fellow Whoever says in polls, Robots of Sherwood was the best story of that season. Yes, it was.
Either way, at this point season eight has become an aberration and by now Moffat et al have simply decided to let Capaldi be Capaldi. As Graham says in his After Image slot in the Christmas number of DWM, “in 2015 we had the Doctor again. Just the Doctor in all his glory.” The root of that seems to be to let his performance to dictate the differences to Tennant and Smith rather than trying to write it in. Don’t runaway from allowing him to be Tuckerish or present the light comedy that has been his hallmark since Local Hero. Give him big speeches. Allow him to be romantic, to laugh (and what a laugh!) and cry and be passionate. When he bares his teeth while smiling, yes it might look like the award ceremony at a garden fence convention, but its extremely potent and gives him the approachability of Ninth, who was equally sullen at times but surprisingly huggable.
If River had arrived during series eight, the atmosphere would have been equally electric but probably also with an unhealthy toxicity. Would that version have baulked at her homicidal tendencies or agreed to them? Isn’t it important that he does offer that contrast? Notice how Doctor Professor Song’s moral compass swings back towards something north of the righteous whenever she’s in his magnetic pull? The way Kingston deftly modulates her performance in Husbands is remarkable, shifting gears the moment her love seems in danger in a moment which feels like it was written to be played for laughs, swatting her devotion into a punchline but her quiver of her voice draws straight into the drama. I adore this character and this actress. Can you tell? Twelve episodes and a couple of Christmas specials next year. Please?
Anyway, that’s quite enough of Boxing Day spent on this. Thanks to the River shipping, Husbands (created by Stephanie Calman) is pretty high up the league table of Christmas stories, even if it pretty much dumped the seasonal attributes early ala Planet of the Dead. Rather like soap operas, Doctor Who tends to save its big events for the festive episode when presumably the most people are supposed to be watching and I’d be interested to know how many of the not-we caught the significance. But given the rating (5.77m), it’s not really clear how many of those people were watching. Regardless, it was just what I needed yesterday and when it oscillates around in rewatches it’ll be a welcome respite after the grimness of the previous two seasons. Now all we need is an official announcement of when exactly we can expect the next season of Doctor Who. Someone said the word “hiatus” to me the other day and I nearly lost my head.