The Husbands of River Song

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The Doctor is mistakenly recruited by River Song to help save her mortally wounded cyborg husband, King Hydroflax.

After the epic and emotional events at the close of series nine, we find the Doctor here seemingly at a loose end. He’s parked up on Mendorax Dellora at Christmas, but not participating in the festive revelries. Hell Bent saw the Doctor set up for new adventures, without his Time War survivor guilt or memories of Clara. Apparently this was to create a clean slate for a potential change of show-runner, as Steven Moffat hadn’t signed up to stay on into series ten. Things aren’t ready to move on just yet, with no new companion announced, and no new arc starting in this story.

But The Husbands of River Song isn’t just treading water. The most ground-breaking element of the story is the lack of a human lead character. One of the central tenets of Doctor Who since its return has been human-centricity; the perceived need for human point-of-view characters, or for the story to threaten Earth or human beings. As Russell T Davies famously said during the Eccleston era,“If the Zogs on planet Zog are having trouble with the Zog-monster … who gives a toss?” Although Mendorax Dollora is a human colony, the human characters, Nardole (Matt Lucas) and Ramone (Phillip Rhys) invite little sympathy and are soon decapitated by River’s new husband, King Hydroflax.

Having the Doctor travelling with another de facto Time Lord recalls the popular pairing of the Fourth Doctor with Romana. The Aldebaran brandy in the TARDIS drinks cabinet recalls the drink from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, Doctor Who writer and season seventeen script editor. On the strength of this episode, I don’t feel like the show runners need to be concerned about having non-human companions adventuring alongside the Doctor on alien worlds for any reasons other than budgetary ones. The highlight of this episode is the witty dialogue, which Peter Capaldi and Alex Kingston excel at. The Doctor taking a back seat allows his comic side greater prominence. His wry delivery is a joy, especially of lines like, “Just a thought, you probably shouldn’t do that in a restaurant.”

This is an unexpected return for the character, with River’s story seemingly having run its course in 2013’s The Name of the Doctorand Big Finish acquiring the rights to use her in the recent The Diary of River Song. In the past she has proved a divisive character with fans, and I saw one or two tweeters claiming they wouldn’t be watching this Christmas on the strength of her name in the title. This story does her a lot of favours. By making her the protagonist of the adventure, she is less the one-note, smug presence of some of her appearances. This time she does not know the Doctor’s future, and she might be somewhat rehabilitated with the curmudgeonly old guard by the dialogue about the Doctor being above loving her back.

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With River not recognising the Doctor (the man she married a shape-shifting robot facsimile of) she’s all about her newest spouse, Hydroflax (Greg Davies). The cyborg king is like a twisted version of the Doctor, in that he too changes faces to survive. With the original royal head mortally wounded by a diamond, the body lives on and attaches new heads to the neck of it’s hulking metal body for information. Like the scene from Deep Breath, where the newly-regenerated Doctor is asking what he’s trying to tell himself with his new face, Hydroflax also demands information from his new faces, only at gunpoint.

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With Hydroflax’s head in a bag, and his body in pursuit, the action moves to the luxury starship Harmony and Redemption. The story shares a little DNA with previous Christmas special Voyage of the Damned; with the severed human head atop mechanical body villain as well as the space cruise. We learn that this cruise is for wealthy super-villains, and I couldn’t help but hope we might catch a glimpse Davros at a table tucking into a clam, or Sil being served a platter of marsh minnows.

Many Doctor Who fans are concerned about the ability of the casual viewer  to enjoy a story, and I think this episode effectively sets up River’s backstory; especially with the shorthand of the lovely fold-out collection of Doctor photos (broken into two shots for classic and modern-era Doctors). For the completist, the final scene at the Darillium restaurant, and the gifting of the sonic screwdriver, make real River’s recollection at her death scene in Forest of the Dead.

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Order Doctor Who series 9 on DVD:

Doctor Who – The Complete Ninth Series [DVD] [2015]

On Blu-Ray:

Doctor Who – The Complete Ninth Series [Blu-ray]

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