I’m just going to say it right now: after watching “Hell Bent,” I really didn’t know what to expect from Doctor Who‘s Christmas Special “The Husbands of River Song.” This is especially true as it was Steven Moffat that wrote the episode.
I mean, it could have been an entire episode where River doesn’t even know who The Doctor is and after a fanciful waltz of not knowing who he is, dealing with science-fictional talking decapitated heads he doesn’t say anything and she never knows: and somehow we’d be expected to get something some moral lesson from the entire thing as The Doctor sails, alone, throughout the cosmos until the next Companion comes along. I strongly suspect that I’m not the only one who was thinking that it could have very easily gone in this direction: a timey-wimey circuit winding nowhere.
But then something happened. It’s very easy to do, when you think about it. Doctor Who is often seen to be the journey of one Time Lord and his Companions, but we often forget that there is another party. That’s right. Sexy the TARDIS takes The Doctor to wherever he needs to be. This is an established fact from Neil Gaiman’s Doctor Who episode “The Doctor’s Wife.”
So here is how I choose to see what happened in “The Husbands of River Song.” Sexy pretty much figured Clara to be a phase in The Doctor’s life. You know: the date that your parent knows isn’t necessarily good for you, and will probably not be around forever but decides after a while to not interfere and just let the phase run its course. So here Sexy is by the end of “Hell Bent,” getting rid of all that graffiti from her surface, and deciding that The Doctor should have a new screwdriver and give those glasses something of a rest.
Then, eventually, she probably gets tired of his moping and takes him into the future on another world where, coincidentally, his parallel-travelling wife also finds herself in the midst of another scheme. She’s even playful about it: putting antlers on The Doctor’s head when someone approaches them to ask for a doctor.
And The Doctor, predictably, starts off as his usual grumpy old man self: perhaps even more so than usual as he knows his memory has been tampered with. But then he is reintroduced to River Song in the middle of another madcap scheme of hers, and she doesn’t even know who he is.
And then he meets her husbands: well, at least two of them in name. One is a tyrant who is a head on a robot body more malevolent than he is, who has a diamond stuck in his head that River is ultimately married to, and the other is a poor man who gets interrogated by the tyrant’s robot body and made into a talking head as well. At first, The Doctor is jealous: madly, quietly, seethingly jealous.
But then he takes that jealousy and decides to revert to his best feature from the beginning of his incarnations: being a troll. He goes along with River’s schemes, hams up a reaction to being in a ship that is “bigger on the inside” and generally asks snide questions and makes clever insights about River’s state of being. Finally, here, the tables have turned. When he first met River, he had no idea who she was and she had all the spoilers. Now, The Doctor is the one who has the keys to her Star Wars Episode VII so to speak, and begins to make the best of a bad situation: essentially having the time of his life.
It could continued something along these lines for a while: or even had their reunion trollishly teased and then subverted. Instead, they carried the tyrant’s head in a bag (The Doctor hilariously calling him a talking bag and in a rare of genuine mirth laughing hysterically at the situation) and they go to a luxury liner ship that is exclusively the domain of rich and powerful dictators and mass murderers to sell the diamond in the tyrant’s head.
As an aside, I would posit that The Doctor, having exterminated the Daleks and other evil races over and again, should have had a royal suite reserved exclusively for him on that ship. But anyway.
It turns out the buyers of the gem are all worshipers of the tyrant and it is when that revelation and all the mummery before it comes to a head, along with a poetic rendition of River Song’s love for The Doctor, that she finally realizes that her companion is her husband. Then they bicker like a married couple, outsmart all the baddies, complete with a line from River stating that she is an archaeologist from the future who has already seen their dead bodies four hundred years later, and they escape.
But it doesn’t end there. You see, The Doctor takes the diamond and finances the creation of a fine restaurant and hotel near the Singing Towers of a planet that he always promised to take River to, except he knew this would be their last night together ala “Silence in the Library.”
Finally, he brings her to this place that he made long ago. And, for the first time ever, we actually see this Doctor do something that he had never done before. We’d seen the Twelfth Doctor laugh, rage, scream, detached, bitter, and sarcastic. But we had never seen him cry. It’s at this point that we see him say something to his wife. This is the woman to whom he told his true name, and the one person who knows all of his regenerations: including the one that he never talked about to anyone else from The Time War.
He says something to her that challenges if not outright blows all of the best one-liners of Casablanca right out of the water. And we find out on this planet, with their last night together, that nights on this planet last … twenty-four years. Suffice to say, as the episode ends, it is no coincidence that The Doctor has also brought her a sonic screwdriver.
It seems as though The Doctor’s other wife, Sexy, knows what’s best.
“The Husbands of River Song” almost make up for the events of “Hell Bent.” Almost. As I’ve stated before, I hope that River Song manages to find a way to re-evolve herself from the Library database and incarnate once again: so that we can definitely see her continue to interact with The Doctor. Or at the very least we know that she underwent life-extension treatments to add two hundred years to her own lifespan in lieu of the regenerations she seems to have lost. Anything could happen with those addition two centuries: if not more.
It was a good episode to end off the year with and one that was completely and utterly deserved by The Doctor and Doctor Who fans alike.