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.”