“Are you acquainted with the criminal River Song?”
So, she’s back. After a period in the middle of the Matt Smith era where Doctor Who appeared to be becoming The River Song Show, I’d thought I’d be annoyed to see her again, despite Alex Kingston’s scenery chewing antics. But actually it turns out a break can be good, and it was genuinely nice to see River back.
With Christmas episodes, I generally have lower expectations of the show than usual, not unfairly. After all, it has to appeal to a broader audience than usual, and be comprehensible to them even when they’ve overindulged in turkey and mulled wine. Sometimes, though, the Christmas specials don’t even match up to that – I never cared for The Runaway Bride, and too many of Steven Moffat’s have been so obsessed with being “the most Christmassy one ever” to have much of substance behind the saccharine schmaltz.
Thankfully, the Capaldi Christmas specials we’ve had so far have had a bit more substance to them. I’m still in mixed minds about the inclusion of your actual Santa in last year’s, but it did deliver a bit of real dramatic heft as Clara dealt with her grief over the deceased Danny Pink. Likewise, this year’s was a broadly comic caper with a well-judged bittersweet ending, as River edged one step closer to the death we saw when we first met her.
“I’m going to need a bigger flowchart,” muttered the initially baffled Doctor early on, but actually, by River’s usual timey-wimey standards, this pair-up was fairly straightforward. We established early on that this was after her marriage to Eleven, but (obviously) before her death. Later, we learned that, from her perspective, she’d just left Manhattan – placing this in her timeline between The Angels Take Manhattan and Silence in the Library.
While Alex Kingston gelled well enough with David Tennant, she later became established very much as an integral part of the Matt Smith era – is Steven Moffat now hearking back nostalgically to his own work? Kingston and Smith had a superb chemistry, but Peter Capaldi is a very different Doctor to either of the two we’ve seen her with before. Would the chemistry still be there?
As it turned out, yes, though in a very different style than before. We know already that this Doctor is (thankfully) not so romantically inclined to those around him as the previous two. The interesting consequence of that was that his relationship with River came across very much like one of two people who used to be in a relationship, but had had enough time apart to realise that they still cared deeply for each other, despite that being over.
Mind you, that took a while, as River spent much of the episode comically failing to realise that this was the Doctor. I’m not sure how well-judged that was – she may know the rules of regeneration, but knowing the Doctor’s knack for breaking the rules, it seemed uncharacteristically dumb of her to take so long to twig.
The moment when she did, though, was beautifully played, a deft shift from the heartfelt speech to their usual light comedy bickering. It also showcased the clever inversion of their usual relationship, where she knows more about what’s going on than he does, nicely pointed up by his smirking use of her usual catchphrase – “hello sweetie”. In fact, his earlier remark – “finally, it’s my turn” – seemed to refer not just to his caustically sarcastic version of the usual “it’s bigger on the inside!” bit, but also to the situation as a whole. For once, he had the drop on River – and he clearly loved it.
The comic caper of River’s swindle involving the Halassi diamond was well done, although not really anything we hadn’t seen before. Moffat seemed to be channelling the absurdist comedy of the Graham Williams era, in particular season 17. Though I also found myself reminded of another time-travelling female archaeologist of ill repute – our very own Professor Bernice Summerfield. Between those two and Star Trek’s Vash, the dodgy female archaeologist is becoming quite the SF staple. And I must admit, the ‘sonic trowel’ made me laugh out loud.
Some nice performances from a guest cast composed mostly of comedians contributed well to a fair laugh quotient. As an actor, Greg Davies may have basically only one performance, but a cyborg version of The Inbetweeners’ Mr Gilbert in space was exactly what was required. His ranting head in a bag was one of the ep’s comic highlights, outshining Matt Lucas’ amiably dumb and timid Nardole. Phillip Rhys was as easy on the eye as ever as Ramon, but also brought an unexpected talent for comedy to a role that, basically, was trading on his looks.
So we got a fun romp in classic caper style, with some amusing characters and a surprisingly good pairing between Capaldi and Kingston. Douglas MacKinnon’s direction responded well to the nuances of the script, delivering broad comedy well but switching on the head of a pin to the tragic, notably in the scene where River and the Doctor were competing to sacrifice themselves and save the crashing ship. Though the Doctor’s heroic declaration to River that, “nobody on this ship is worth as much as you”, would have carried more weight if we hadn’t already established that everyone on the ship, even the staff, had a history of mass murder!
The heart of the ep, though, was that final sequence at the Singing Towers of Darillium. With the actual plot over, Moffat took a bit of time to re-evaluate the relationship between these two characters. Unsurprisingly, with actors of the calibre of Peter Capaldi and Alex Kingston, it was a joy to watch – and didn’t feel like it outstayed its welcome after the plot itself was done.
True, River’s foreknowledge of her impending death is a repeated Moffat trope, but it’s given real pathos by the knowledge that she really will die – and actually stay dead (eventually). The Doctor’s musing on what “happily ever after” really means was beautiful and bittersweet, and both actors got to display their talent for shedding a tear on camera. True to form, Capaldi’s was restrained and subtle – mine wasn’t.
So, is this the end for River? Well, no, actually that happened in The Name of the Doctor, when even her saved shade gave up the ghost. But with the visit to Darillium, the nearly full diary, and the final puzzle piece of her own sonic screwdriver, it might seem like this is the last we’ll see of her. Thing is, with her appearances all over the place in her own timeline, that’s far from a certainty. Let’s face it, the lady’s had more farewell tours than the Rolling Stones. But you know what? I’d actually really like to see her again. Now that really is a Christmas miracle 🙂