Friday, January 1, 2016

Merry Christmas (I Don't Want to Fight Tonight): An Overanalysis of The Husbands of River Song

It could be argued that, since taking over as head writer, Steven Moffat has actually only been writing one very, very long story:  the story of Gallifrey's return.  The first episode Moffat wrote as head writer, "The Eleventh Hour," featured the ominous warning from Prisoner Zero: "The universe is cracked. The Pandorica will open. Silence will fall."  This set off an entire plotline that would span the entirety of the Eleventh Doctor's tenure, as we eventually discover that "Silence will fall" is a religious slogan from a church that is dedicated to ensuring that Gallifrey does not return.  The Twelfth Doctor's tenure, so far, has largely been about the negative consequences of Gallifrey's return to the Universe.  Steven Moffat has stated openly that the reason River Song appeared in this Christmas special was because, when he wrote it, he thought it might be the last episode of Doctor Who he ever wrote and, if so, he wanted to put River in it.  We now know that Moffat will still be heading series 10, largely because he is having difficulty picking a successor, but "The Husbands of River Song" stands as a would-be finale to the Moffat era.  Where "Hell Bent" ties up the Gallifrey plotline in a nice little bow for the next showrunner to follow up on, "The Husbands of River Song" ties up another thread in the Gallifrey return story.  While River may predate Moffat's tenure as head writer, she quickly became inextricably linked to the larger Gallifrey plotline, the deadly product of a cult dedicated to preventing Gallifrey's return by absolutely any means necessary.  A softer, gentler side of the plot, it's a perfect way to put the finishing touches to the story on Christmas day.  While there's certainly some darkness to it, "The Husbands of River Song" is one of the most beautiful, romantic, dynamic episodes the series has ever done.  It might even be my new favorite.

This is pretty clearly the final episode for River Song.  I mean, are there ways they could potentially bring her back?  Sure.  They've brought so many people back from the dead it's pretty hard to believe that death is a real problem in the Doctor Who Universe.  But more than likely, River is being retired with this episode.  It puts a pretty tidy little bow on the whole story that's a bit difficult to unwrap.  Now, if we string all of River Song's episodes together in order, does it all line up perfectly?  No, not at all.  There are plenty of problems with it.  Why is River surprised that she's going to die at the end of "Forest of the Dead" when the Doctor pretty much confirmed to her that she's heading to her death at the end of this episode?  Why is she surprised to find that the Tenth Doctor is the youngest version of the Doctor she's ever met when she apparently has a rolodex full of pictures of all of his first 12 regenerations in order?  Why does she tell the Doctor in "The Time of Angels" "It's so strange when you go all baby face" when we now know that that's the only regeneration of the Doctor she had met at that point?  How does the new Big Finish audio series The Diary of River Song, in which River meets the Eighth Doctor, even work?  (It's already out, but I haven't listened to it yet.)  But of course you can kind of wave all of this away with River's admission at the end of "The Wedding of River Song" that she often lies and pretends to not know things that she does to avoid spoiling anything for the Doctor.  If anyone ever tries to resurrect River again in the future, "River lies" will surely be used as the explanation.

I have been slowly showing my new girlfriend the Steven Moffat era over the past few months, but we skipped over series 4 because I wanted to jump her straight to my favorite Doctor and, also, because fuck Donna Noble.

Pictured above:  Donna Noble

So a few weeks ago, in preparation for this episode, I doubled back and showed her "Silence in the Library"/"Forest of the Dead," and boy am I glad I did, because this episode does not make sense without that particular context.  I had no idea that we'd be going down that road in this episode, particularly because the Series 5 DVD set has a mini-episode that implied that the Eleventh Doctor was the one that took River to the Singing Towers of Darillium, but then that was explained away in this episode by acknowledging that the Doctor keeps making plans to take her to Darillium but keeps cancelling for very obvious reasons.

As soon as I got to my second viewing of this episode, I realized that the episode is telegraphing the twist from very early on.  Most notably, I can't believe that I missed the Doctor saying early on in the episode that he had a new suit and a haircut, just as River had said in "Forest of the Dead."  I have to admit, I always took her comment about a "haircut" to be a euphemism for "new regeneration," and I think, in the end, it both was and wasn't.  But, like I said about the last episode, Moffat likes to make sure that, if he's killing off a character, he finds a way to kind of save them, but not really.  River was already granted a stay of execution in "Forest of the Dead" by being saved to The Library's computer, and she's given another one in this episode when we find out that her last night with the Doctor on Darillium will last 24 years. I loved her speech about how "Happy ever after doesn't mean forever. It just means time. A little time."  I'm 31.  Personally, I feel like 24 years is a pretty nice, long chunk of time to have with the person you love.  Finally, the Doctor and River get to live together, like a real married couple, not running around the Universe and jumping from adventure to adventure, but living for 24 years with the Doctor on this beautiful planet.  And for all of those 24 years, it's Christmas night.  That sounds like a wonderful life.

"Every time a cloister bell rings, a dead companion gets its wings!"
It's a distinctly Moffat-y ending, because Moffat is pretty much the only writer of the television series who figured out that if you have an immortal character in a time travel show, you're actually completely free to do an episode that lasts as many as 4.5 billion years, let alone a mere 24 years.

The only negative things I can say about "The Husbands of River Song" was that Matt Lucas was in it, playing River's idiotic man servant Nardole.  Matt Lucas co-created, co-wrote, and co-starred in a short-lived sitcom called Come Fly with Me with David Williams, who previously appeared as the Tivolian in "The God Complex." I think you can still find Come Fly with Me on Hulu.  An ex-girlfriend recommended it to me, and she didn't even have a glowing recommendation of it, but pretty much just said "It's not good, it's just sort of generally pleasant to have on in the background while you're doing stuff."  So I watched the pilot and what I witnessed was about 30 minutes of the most boring piece of blatant racism that I had seen since The Blind Side.

I don't know about England, but in America, we call that "blackface."
Come Fly with Me is such a horrendous piece of shit that I have a prejudice against anything that Matt Lucas and David William do now, especially Matt Lucas, as he's the more annoying one.  But thankfully the rest of this episode was so good, it cancelled out Matt Lucas's terrible presence.

I think this episode has so many amazing tender moments.  The set design for the restaurant on Darillium was transcendent.  The realization on River's face as she realizes the man next to her is the Doctor is truly a wonderful piece of acting from Alex Kingston.  The episode breaks a lot of the rules, as it has virtually no connection to present day Earth, it's carried entirely by two actors over the age of 50, and it largely only make sense in the context of an episode that aired seven years ago.  It's not in keeping with what Steven Moffat said when he first started as head writer that every episode should be a jumping on point for new viewers, but then Moffat has never taken his own advice on that point anyway.  It's a terrible episode to initiate a casual viewer with.  It is a lovely Christmas present for the dedicated fans.

Also, I created a Spotify playlist out of all the songs that I named my blogs after this year, so you can listen to the whole season as a playlist (okay, technically the Christmas special counts as part of the next season, but who cares).  Click the link above to check it out!

Hybrid Moments: An Overanalysis of "Hell Bent"

If you want to scream, scream with me!
At this point, I'm starting my damn blog post so late that, by the time it's finished and published, we'll be welcoming Rupert Grint as the 16th Doctor (that sounds like a Mark Gatiss casting choice if I've ever heard one), but I guess better late than never, so here we go...

Star Trek:  Deep Space Nine had an amazing episode in the fourth season in which a freak accident causes Captain Sisko to wander lost through time, never able to decide where or how long he will appear, and his son, Jake, spends his entire life trying to figure out how to save him. Executive producer Ira Steven Behr said about the episode: "A love stronger than death. Usually that's romantic love, but for this show, this series, we chose the love between a father and son. And it worked like gangbusters. Everyone could relate to it."  It's true that when people think of great love stories, they think of romantic love.  But for most of us, our significant other isn't the only person we love so much that we're willing to go to any lengths to save them.  For many of us, that's also a parent, a sibling, a child, or even a friend.  "Hell Bent" is the great story of one man's love for a friend.  Not a romantic love--well, there was a little flirting towards the beginning of their relationship--but the slightly paternal, always challenging, strong friendship between two people, and a non-romantic love between them so strong that one was willing to literally break the Universe in half to save the other.  And that makes for a beautiful story.

I watched this episode at a viewing party at a bar with my friends from Mile High Who, with a bunch of new members there to join us, so I was trying my hardest not to start bawling openly during this episode, but at the moment when the Twelfth General told Clara that the Doctor spent 4.5 billion years trapped in the confession dial, I lost it and couldn't stop myself from crying.

Mostly the Doctor was just trying to one-up Rory.

A lot of people, since this episode have aired, have claimed that this revelation now means that the Doctor is even older, clocking in at a whopping 4,500,002,000 years old.  However we need to remember that, while "Heaven Sent" takes place over the course of 4.5 billion years, it only occurred to the Doctor as 3 days.  He may have experienced it over and over again, but he was essentially reborn each time and never retained the memories of his previous times through the confession dial, so from his perspective only added 3 days to his lifetime.  I think we can still say that the Doctor is about 2,000 years old.  He didn't really live and feel the 4.5 billion years, so I don't think that can count as his age.

I predicted that the Doctor's statement at the end of "Heaven Sent" meant that he was the Hybrid because he's half human and half Time Lord according to an often ignored line from the 1996 movie where the Eighth Doctor says that he is "half human on [his] mother's side." My Mile High Who cohost Shelley said that she thought his statement meant that Ashildr was the Hybrid.  As Shelley and I were both in the same room together as we watched this episode, we both shouted "No!" at the screen when Ashildr asked if the Doctor truly was half human.  We were both quite pleased at where Moffat went with that bit of the script, managing to quite deftly avoid a huge civil war within the fandom, or a straight up Han-Shot-First style revolt, by refusing to either confirm or deny the "half human" line.  The Doctor's simple response of "Does it matter?" doesn't force Moffat to do any major rewrites of cannon, but also makes it quite clear that we are not going to explore the possibility, even if it is true, and I'm fine with leaving it there.

The episode never specifically names who exactly the Hybrid is, but I actually like Ashildr's suggestion that the Hybrid doesn't actually refer to a single person, but the combination of two people, who together become the most dangerous creature in the Universe.  I was originally skeptical of the part about the Doctor and Clara playing Russian roulette with a mind eraser, but in hindsight, it makes perfect sense.  It wasn't just because the Doctor wanted to keep Clara safe, but to destroy the Hybrid, one of them had to stop remembering the other, or else the Universe would be at risk of fracturing as the Doctor tried to save Clara.  Many people at the event I went to called this the "Donna Noble thing," but I had to correct them and remind them that, in fact, in the series as a whole, Donna was the third companion to have her memory of the Doctor erased upon departing the TARDIS.  It happened to Jamie and Zoe before her (although, admittedly, that was retconned in a weird combination of fan theories and external Universe material called "Season 6b" that the BBC has inexplicably declared to be cannon).  Still, I feel very bad for the Doctor in losing his best friend.  He'll probably need some cheering up (from River, of course!).

Fear the hybrid!

I had this inkling in the back of my head that I never quite expressed out loud that Steven Moffat might just put some sort of twist on Clara's death.  I find that Moffat, whenever he kills off a character, likes to find a way to allow them to sort of keep living but not really.  River got saved in The Library.  Amy and Rory got to live out the rest of their lives, just not in their own time period.  It only makes sense that he would have found a way to kind of save Clara while still killing her off.  As some of the people around me at the viewing party suggested, a spin-off about Clara and Ashildr traveling through time together in a TARDIS disguised as a 50's themed diner would be pretty amazing.

And I loved Clara's take on her death, because it really put a weirdly positive spin on it.  Her insistence on not having her memory erased spoke so much about who Clara is now and who she has become.  She never asked the Doctor for safety, that's true.  She wanted to live the life she could with the Doctor, regardless of the consequences.  There were episodes this season that hinted that Clara was getting to be too much of a daredevil, a thrill seeker, an adrenaline junkie, that she was starting to act like she was immortal.  Quite the contrary, she simply didn't care because the risk of death was always worth it to experience life with the Doctor in the TARDIS.  It's a different take on being a companion than I've ever seen before, and certainly gave her a dignity in death that the only other dead companion, Adric, never achieved.  The little trick of this episode bringing her back only temporarily, trapped in a moment in time, also gives her the chance to say everything that's important for her to say to the Doctor before she leaves him.  He needed more than just her warning at the end of "Face the Raven" to keep him from turning cruel and hateful from the death of his companion.  He needed a partial memory wipe combined with a big cathartic sense of closure with Clara, followed by a reminder that what made him special to her in the first place was that he was never cruel nor cowardly.  I'm not saying it will erase the pain of losing Clara completely, but it's probably just what he needed to keep him from spinning completely out of control in Clara's absence.

I have to say, from watching "The Day of the Doctor," I somewhat wondered if Moffat had forgotten about the events of "The End of Time."  I know many people are going to respond to that by saying that "I wish I could forget that episode, too," and they're not wrong.  It's not a very good episode, but it has excellent parts to it.  To be more precise, I really think there's a very good 42 minute episode in there that got excruciatingly dragged out into 2 1/2 hours.  The revelation of why the Doctor had to destroy the Time Lords was mind-blowing and perfectly dark, and I really wanted to see that followed up on, yet "The Day of the Doctor" seems to go out of its way to avoid talking about the evils that the Time Lords have committed, namely wanting to destroy the Universe.  Yet Moffat didn't forget about these atrocities, but was perhaps just keeping them out of "The Day of the Doctor" to avoid turning such a celebratory anniversary episode into a humungous bummer.  But "Hell Bent" makes it quite clear that Moffat has forgotten nothing about what happened in "The End of Time," and the Doctor's showdown with Rassilon makes that quite clear.  Rassilon has now regenerated into Donald Sumpter, as Timothy Dalton was busy, but it gave them an opportunity to make him probably the only actor to ever appear alongside both the 3rd and 12th Doctors in an episode.  That the Doctor begins by banishing Rassilon and the High Council from Gallifrey works perfectly and lines up very neatly with cannon, allowing us now to reestablish Gallifrey in the Doctor Who Universe without the complications brought into it from "The End of Time."  Gallifrey will be a rebuilding planet, certainly, and the Doctor is, again, the Lord President for the umpteen millionth time in his life, but I'm pretty sure he handed that duty off to someone else shortly after the events of this episode, most likely The General.

I do have to comment on the brand new Sonic Screwdriver.  I know a lot of crybabies complained about the temporary retirement of the screwdriver at the beginning of this season, but I liked it, as it forced the writers to find some other ways to get around things.  Plus, the Sonic Sunglasses look really good on Peter Capaldi.  Since I'm writing this after "The Husbands of River Song"aired, I know that the Sonic Sunglasses have not been retired now that the Sonic Screwdriver is back, and I'm fine with that.  The Screwdriver got a much deserved short rest.  But I do have to say that the new one, while a nice pretty blue color, is the most phallic design they've ever done for a Sonic.

It looks like a Transformer's robot penis.

One thing I'm not entirely sure about, and this is something that many of the Mile High Whovians also brought up, is where Gallifrey stands now.  Is it back in the Universe?  Or is it still hiding in a corner somewhere, terrified to reestablish its presence.  I guess that's for us to see next season.  But first, it's time to revisit our old friend, River Song, for Christmas!