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!

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