Happy Endings: The Husbands of River Song

I’ve never been a big fan of River Song. There, I’ve said it. She’s a very popular character, but I’ve always been rather…indifferent to her appearances. I don’t dislike her, but the news that she was returning for the Christmas special didn’t fill me with anticipation. I have to admit, however, that “The Husbands of River Song” was a pleasant surprise.  The key to getting this non-fan of River engaged with her was apparently placing her in her proper genre.

The Doctor and River find their happy ending (and, for the first time ever, I kind of want to cosplay River).

It’s difficult for me to put my feelings about River Song into words; to fully explain them would require an entire post. However, thanks to this episode, I realized what might be my fundamental problem with River: I have never found her to be a particularly believable character. I find her lacking in character development. She is a very competent character, but her relationship to the Doctor defines her identity. Without the Doctor, who is River? It’s impossible to know. Plus, with the timey-wimey-ness of their meetings, it’s difficult to get a handle on how River has grown or changed as a character.

However, in this episode, Steven Moffat discovered a genre in which River could flourish: the screwball comedy. River almost perfectly fulfills the requirements of the heroine of a screwball comedy. She’s witty, eccentric, assertive, and an agent of chaos. Most screwball heroines aren’t quite as ruthless as she is, but, then again, most heroines don’t find themselves in a sci-fi/screwball mashup.

Screwball comedies also feature a switch in traditional gender roles, with the heroine controlling the action and pulling the man along. In a traditional screwball comedy, a woman, who is a force of nature, enters the man’s life through unusual circumstances and proceeds to turn his life upside down, until they reach their “happy ending.” If that doesn’t describe the relationship between River and the Doctor, then I’m not sure what would.

I’ll admit that the first time through, I wasn’t sure how I felt about the episode. I was focused on trying to make sense of the plot (I mean, just what is River’s plan to get rid of the diamond, really?). However, the more I thought about it, the more I appreciated how cleverly Steven Moffat had actually written a true screwball comedy; in a screwball comedy, you generally don’t have a terribly believable or realistic situation. You might end up with two people taking care of a leopard or a wife returning on the very day a judge declares her legally dead and her husband remarries. When I considered it as an example of a screwball comedy, it worked for me. The chemistry and interaction between the leads is the most important aspect, not the logic of the plot.

The supporting cast is truly just there to move the plot along and not take too much focus from the leads, and they succeed in that. As is typical of a screwball comedy, the leads meet an eccentric cast of characters during their journey. Despite rather limited roles, both Matt Lucas as Nardole and Greg Davies as King Hydroflax make an impression and seem to thoroughly relish the absurdities of their characters.

 

King Hydroflax and a character who was visually striking yet I completely forgot he existed until I saw this picture.

The cruise of only horrible people was an interesting touch (and a way to make the death of a cruise ship full of people something that doesn’t put a damper on the fun of the episode), even if that was, perhaps, my least favorite section of the episode. Nevertheless, I did enjoy watching the Doctor and River try to improvise a way to make the sale of the head of King Hydroflax into something that would work for the buyers.

The most inventive aspect of the story, however, was the cyborg body in search of a human head. As long as you don’t think about it too hard, it is a fairly successful comedic antagonist suited to the tone of the episode. It’s dangerous, but doesn’t kill its victims; that’s good because killing off the only redeemable members of the supporting cast wouldn’t keep the breezy tone required of a screwball comedy.

Additionally, all of the absurdities of the episode stemmed from taking the most common elements of screwball comedies and adding them into the Doctor Who universe. Many of the original screwball comedies dealt with love triangles and the idea of remarriage; hence the many bizarre marriages of River: King Hydroflax/the diamond, Ramone, her second wife… Having River not recognize the Doctor was also another classic trope of the screwball comedy: mistaken identity. Overall, this was a good blend of screwball and science fiction. It’s far more effective than some of the previous attempts at combining genres in Doctor Who (yes, I’m talking about you, “A Town Called Mercy” and “The Angels Take Manhattan).

Just about the only element that isn’t at the forefront are the class issues at the heart of many screwball comedies (their heyday was in the 1930’s, after all), but it is set in the right kind of ambiance; there’s plenty of luxury and opulence on display and Alex Kingston gets to wear all those gowns.

A still from one of my favorite screwball comedies, Libeled Lady. Why, you might ask? Just because I can.

A still from one of my favorite screwball comedies, Libeled Lady. Why, you might ask? Just because I can.

Which leads me to another important reason that I preferred River’s appearance this episode to most of her previous ones: chemistry. Screwball comedies can only succeed if you have great chemistry between your leads. I never really cared for River’s chemistry with Matt Smith’s Doctor (although I did think she worked well with the tenth Doctor). The whole “Mrs. Robinson” gag wore a bit thin for me and it never really felt like Smith’s Doctor could keep up with her. The chemistry between Peter Capaldi and Alex Kingston is better. Exactly why they have chemistry together is difficult to say. It could have to do with age, but I think a lot of it has to do with the subtlety of Capaldi’s acting; he can say so much in just a few words, or, sometimes, no words at all. For most of the epusode, the Doctor and River interact in the traditional screwball comedy manner; there is lots of witty repartee, fast paced banter, and sarcasm. Yet as the episode progresses, they both sincerely reveal how much they care about each other in a very in-screwball way.

The ending is where the episode shifts gears, yet it didn’t feel disjointed from the rest of the episode. The shift from banter to sincerity happens subtly; more madcap action follows River’s heartfelt speech about the Doctor before the episode settles into its more serious final scene. The setting is perfect for a screwball comedy, even if the events are not. The suit, the evening gown, the nice restaurant…all of these things keep the glamour that one might find in a screwball comedy and visually connects the scene to the rest of the episode, despite the shift in tone.

The ending is where the episode deviates a bit from a screwball comedy. The fact that the ending has a few important purposes means that it becomes a bit more sincere than the story that preceded it. I always felt that we could not be done with River Song after “The Name of the Doctor” because there was still one scene that I didn’t feel that Steven Moffat could leave unwritten: the Doctor and River’s final night at the singing towers. Since Moffat loves to make the viewers feel, I couldn’t imagine that he would not want to write the scene in which the Doctor must send River off to her death and is powerless to stop it. I also can’t help but feel that Steven Moffat is doing his best to ensure that no other writer can ever use River, since he made a point of saying that River has not seen any faces beyond his first 12, but that’s another story. However, the scene does not play out as high drama, as I thought it might. It’s a very understated and quiet scene that would be a perfect farewell to River, if this is, in fact, her final appearance.

The ending also shows that forgetting Clara has brought the Doctor to a better headspace. He accepts that since he has already seen River die he can’t do anything to change it, something that the Doctor would most likely not have been able to do just a few episodes ago. Instead, both he and River focus on having a good time while they still have time, thus living happily ever after.

 

River threatens the head of King Hydroflax with her sonic trowel.

“The Husbands of River Song” is about ninety percent fluff, but it was the perfect episode to cap off what has been a rather brutally dark season. It’s not going to be one of my favorite episodes of all-time, but I think it is one of the better Christmas specials. It sets out to be a fun romp and it succeeds. It’s a strange thing to say about an episode that ends with the Doctor and River’s final night together (although said night is 24 years long), but yet it’s true. Even though the audience, the Doctor, and even River herself know what’s coming next for her, the episode ends happily. I guess it proves that Orson Welles was correct when he said, “if you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.”

Thoughts on The Name of the Doctor

As a general rule, the finales of Doctor Who have never been among my favorite episodes of the season. I loved “The Pandorica Opens”/”The Big Bang,” but other than that, if I’m going to choose a random episode to watch it’s not going to be a finale.  I feel like the finales often end up overstuffed with ideas and so action oriented that the characters get a bit lost (and I’m not always sure that all of the ideas add up in the end).  Plus, there is just about always a big reset button to get out of whatever trouble the universe is currently in, making it as if none of the events ever happened, which gets a bit formulaic.  Especially with this being the lead in to the fiftieth anniversary special, I was a bit apprehensive about “The Name of the Doctor,” but thankfully I was wrong to worry.  While “The Name of the Doctor” was not probably not my favorite episode of the season, it was a strong ending that has left me eagerly awaiting the anniversary special. Needless to say there are going to be plenty of spoilers in this post.

Clara realizes that she must become the "Impossible Girl"

Clara realizes that she must become the “Impossible Girl”

The story begins with Clara helping (or attempting to help) all of the Doctor’s earlier incarnations before it switches to Victorian London and Madam Vastra meeting with a condemned man (who has murdered 14 women) hoping to save his life with information.  He apparently can hear the whispermen, and has learned about Trenzalore and the discovery of the Doctor’s biggest secret.  He states, “the Doctor has a secret he will take to the grave.  It is discovered.”  This causes Vastra to have a very clever “conference call” with Jenny, Strax (who is enjoying a weekend off, fighting in Scotland), Clara, and River.  Each member joins the conference call by entering a trance-like (or, in Strax’s case, an unconscious) state because time travel has always been possible in dreams.  The call is abruptly ended, however, when the Victorian group comes under attack of the whispermen; Jenny is murdered (but Strax does manage to bring her back to life) and Vastra and Strax are kidnapped.

The whispermen are the new henchmen of the Great Intelligence, who still has no form, but takes on the appearance of Doctor Simeon. He has kidnapped the Victorian trio to force the Doctor to travel to Trenzalore to save them.  The Doctor realizes what awaits him in Trenzalore and why it is the one place he must never go: it is the site of his grave.  Unfortunately he must go to save his friends, so he and Clara (and a projection of River who is still linked with Clara’s mind because of the conference call) set off for Trenzalore.  To make a long story short, the Great Intelligence wants access to the Doctor’s timeline, which is all that remains of him inside the tomb.  The tomb can only be opened by saying the Doctor’s name, which we thankfully don’t hear because River says it off-screen.  Once inside, the Great Intelligence enters the Doctor’s timeline, destroying himself, but also killing the Doctor everywhere in his timeline at once.  Clara realizes the only way to save the Doctor is for her to enter his timeline as well, which will result in her being fragmented amongst it so that she can help him.  The episode ends with the Doctor entering his timestream to save Clara and the two of them encountering a mysterious unknown version of the Doctor.

This episode delivered in both being a satisfying way to wrap up the Clara mystery and a fitting tribute to the history of the show.  I loved the way that Clara was inserted into clips with past Doctors.  And I especially loved her interaction with the first Doctor, telling him which TARDIS to steal.  It was a great way to show all of the different people who had played the Doctor without having to deal with the fact that they are quite a bit older (although I still do love seeing the Doctor interact with himself).  There were also a few other references to the past, such as the Great Intelligence’s mention of the other names for the Doctor, including the Valeyard.

This episode also delivered a satisfying and unexpected explanation of the truth about Clara.  She really was just an ordinary girl who became the “impossible girl” when she entered the Doctor’s timestream. All the different versions of her came from that moment, and each new version was born and grew up somewhere different, but would end up helping the Doctor in some way, with no knowledge of the others.  That also explains how the Claras could share some characteristics without actually being the same person, since they were all copies of the same person, but growing up under different circumstances made them all turn out slightly different.

The Doctor and his friends gather around the Doctor's "corpse"-the scar left from his travels through time.

The Doctor and his friends gather around the Doctor’s “corpse”-the scar left from his travels through time.

I also liked the pacing of this story more than the previous year’s finale, “The Wedding of River Song.” While that episode has some interesting ideas it was so fast paced that everything just kind of flew by.  This one was fast paced, but it allowed certain moments to have some space and be developed a bit.  For instance, time was allotted to the conference call, allowing for some humor in what is basically a fairly serious episode, but also it allowed the presence of the whispermen to be gradually felt, and allowed a sense of menace to build throughout the scene.  Jenny’s gradual realization of what is going on was an eerie and slightly disturbing moment, which wouldn’t have had the same impact if everything in the episode moved at the same breakneck pace as the previous year’s finale.

The pace also slowed down at other emotional moments, allowing for some great character moments and performances.  Matt Smith gave an excellent performance in this, as did Alex Kingston and Jenna-Louis Coleman.  The moment that really stands out for me was when the Doctor realized just what was waiting for him at Trenzalore and began to cry.  A display of emotion like that from the Doctor is very unusual and I thought that Matt Smith played it well.  To see the Doctor break down added to the sense of doom about going to Trenzalore, but Matt Smith kept it very subtle, as if he just couldn’t quite keep all of his anguish inside.  I’ve always thought that Matt Smith is better than any other Doctor at showing the darkness the Doctor carries with him, reminding us just how old he really is, despite his youthful appearance.

I’ve also never been the biggest fan of River.  I don’t dislike her, mind you, but I’ve never loved her character.  I’m also not a “shipper.”  I actually prefer my Doctor to be a bit more asexual than the recent incarnations of the Doctor have been, which is perhaps why I’ve never been a huge River fan.  That being said, however, I thought she was excellent in this story.  The idea that this was the digital River from the library was a nice parallel with the fact that they were also visiting the Doctor’s “corpse.”  Her goodbye with the Doctor was very touching and was a fitting farewell to the character.

There’s a great deal more to discuss, but I think I’ll save that for another time.  I enjoyed the finale.  I’m not sure all of the timey-wimey stuff actually works, but I’m really not in a mood to nitpick it.  The only part of the story that didn’t completely work for me was the part with the whispermen and the Great Intelligence. I felt that their part of the story was not particularly fleshed out.  I thought Richard E. Grant did a great job, and I was glad to see his role expanded, since he wasn’t given much to do when he first appeared in “The Snowmen.”   The whispermen were creepy and I liked the look of them, but I was left wishing a bit more had been explained.  Where did they come from? Did the Great Intelligence create them (they are a bit more practical that the Yeti)?  What exactly are the Great Intelligence’s powers? Also, how did the convict know about Trenzalore and know who to contact about it?  Still, none of this really diminished my enjoyment of the story as a whole.

The tomb of the Doctor

The tomb of the Doctor

Overall, I really enjoyed this episode.  If this had been the fiftieth, I wouldn’t have been disappointed.  It managed to play tribute to the history of the show, while still introducing new developments and twists.  The episode covered a range of emotions and tones without missing a beat.  While some of that credit goes to Steven Moffat, I have to say that the director, Saul Metzstein, did a great job of navigating the tonal shifts in the script (and was largely responsible for the better pacing too, I would assume).  It was moving, funny, scary…all while being engaging and entertaining as well.  It was quite a ride and a great lead in to the anniversary special.  I also loved the way that the Moffat played with the meaning of the title.  It was a relief that the Doctor’s biggest secret was not, in fact, his actual name, although it was the password protecting his secret. The real, important name is the one he chose, which is a promise, and his secret is a version who did not live up to the name.  Of course, this led to the cliffhanger ending in which John Hurt is revealed as this incarnation of the Doctor, the one who didn’t keep the promise of the name.  Who is he?  My suspicions are that he had something to do with the Time War, but that’s probably too obvious.  I guess we’ll have to wait until November to find out.