Funny, sad and bonkers. This year's Doctor Who special had it all.
|Merry Christmas, River. (Image copyright: BBC)|
If my eyes weren’t so overloaded Christmas cheer that I was hallucinating, in the title sequence of this year’s Doctor Who special there were spinning Christmas tree decorations replacing the usual planets, as well as a snow-covered TARDIS. It was a lovely touch that heralded arguably the most Christmassy of all the Doctor Who specials, as well as developing the theme of last year’s festive outing, that we should make the most of the people we love because they won’t always be around.
Steven Moffat always delivers a good Christmas yarn when he mines the vein of melancholy behind the tinsel in seasonal fiction, the stand-out template for that being A Christmas Carol, which he did the Doctor Who version of in 2010. Not surprising really, as that and Frank Capra’s movie It’s a Wonderful Life, the other perennial Christmas favourite, are both time travel stories in disguise. Pleasingly that remained the case here, with the gradual realisation that here we were seeing the final reel of the Doctor’s relationship with River Song (the always watchable Alex Kingston).
Before that all came into focus in the final third, we were treated to the crash-bang-wallop of a bonkers story that can easily stand side by side with any of the family-friendly epics by Dreamworks on telly over the holiday. A giant robot that collects different heads, one of which belongs to King Hydroflax (lovable Greg Davies, the second actor in Doctor Who this year to channel his inner Blessed), which has ‘the most valuable diamond in the universe’ lodged in its cranium. Add in the comedy of River not recognising the Doctor because he’s only supposed to have 12 regenerations and you’ve got quite a festive frolic. Amid all the romping around, explosions and shouting, it was a shame that more wasn’t made of the great, dark idea of a space liner ‘where [genocidal criminals go] to kick back and relax.’ What a line, though.
This was probably the funniest Christmas special, with excellent visual and verbal jokes. My favourite was Hydroflax being a piss take of those old-fashioned Doctor Who villains who made constantly unfulfilled threats. Removed from his robot Transformer body and stuffed in a holdall, Hydroflax’s bullying became progressively sillier until the Doctor burst out laughing because he was ‘being threatened by a bag.’ A memorable conceit, too, was the way the Doctor kept jumping the TARDIS forward along the timeline of the restaurant opposite the Singing Towers, from giving a local the idea to build it to his last night there with River.
Really, though, if ‘The Husbands of River Song’ was worth watching for anything it was the interplay between the Doctor/Capaldi and River/Kingston. Which brings us back to that underlying sadness. The Time Lord’s curse is that he knows nothing lasts and, impressively, the final scenes were the pay-off of a story stretching back eight years, a long story arc even for Doctor Who. In his life like crazy paving, the Doctor also sometimes has the heart-breaking knowledge of when people’s time is up, and his 24-year night with River was her last stop before 2008’s ‘Silence in the Library’. Capaldi’s so good by now that he can do the gravitas just by raising an eyebrow, so it was good to see him cut loose in the comedy antlers scene, as well as the classic ‘It’s bigger on the inside!’ sequence where, happily for us, he was allowed to ham it up outrageously. And Capaldi has got the chops for romance, too: his reaction to River slowly realising who he was was rather beautiful.
The frenetic mood changes were expertly handled by director Douglas Mackinnon. He also made ‘The Husbands of River Song’ look great, from the human colony planet that looked like an idealised Christmas version of your own high street, via River's red flying saucer to the must-have toy-in-waiting Hydroflax.
Funny, melancholy, intense and totally mad. No wonder Doctor Who works so well on Christmas Day.