Saturday, December 26, 2015

In Which I Review the Doctor Who Christmas Special (2015)

Merry Christmas, everyone! I hope my dear readers are having a lovely holiday and are ready for another round of great storytelling in this the final chapter of our favorite fairy tale (that we're going to get until next Fall, at least). This year's Christmas installment, "The Husbands of River Song," is the sort of genre bending I expect from my beloved Who. On the one hand, it's a fairy tale full of chance encounters, mistaken identities, a compelling love story, a super villain, a cheeky hero, and with a good moral lesson at the end. On the other hand, the story accepts the limitations of reality and knows that there is always an ending. I must admit that I experienced some trepidation with this years Christmas offering. While season nine of Doctor Who was mostly very good, Moffat's Christmas episode are usually hit or miss. Last year's episode entitled "Last Christmas" was decent enough as was the one three years ago (Clara's first Christmas episode); the ones in between were lackluster and dull and, frankly, the less I say about Matt Smith's final episode (also a Christmas special) the better. So it was with some strong hesitation that I tuned in to watch as the twelfth Doctor met his wife, River Song, first the first time wearing this particular (Scottish) face. And, dear readers, I was blown away. This episode was jovial and happy instead of feeling maudlin (as sometimes Moffat tends to get). It was the perfect mix of witty charm, heartfelt sadness, and epic adventure. In short: everything you want out of Doctor Who. Grab a disembodied head, prepare to commit some murder (it is Christmas after all), and let's go! 

River Song has never been a favorite of mine. I know that might be blasphemous to some, but while her story is passably interesting, I've never found it to be anything more than a riff on "The Time Traveler's Wife" novel but with a more (Moffat trademarked) timey-wimey complexity than I have neither have time nor energy for. Her relationship with the Doctor (any of them) is sweet, but I was rather shocked when Moffat had the pair get married several seasons ago. I think, like River professes in this episode, I never really expected the Doctor to love her back. Yes, he loves all his companions because, as the Doctor says to Ashildr in this season past, they are his mayflies and they remind him of the wonders of the universe, the selfsame wonders he's forgotten how to see. River is a horse of a different color from your Roses, your Marthas, your Amys, and your Claras because River is more like the Doctor in that she's got the Time Vortex spinning in her blood. She has the same time traveling, adventure seeking, shock and awe predilections that the Doctor has and in the past that's the reason why they can't stay together too long; like Ashildr, two immortals (semi-immortal in River's case) seeing the Universe would most likely end badly. But mixed in with those (admittedly complicated) feelings, I've never imagined that the Doctor loved River the same way she clearly loves him. River is Amy's daughter and the Doctor cares for her by that virtue alone. The Doctor married River as a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy and felt responsible for her after Amy was taken and River was raised the way she was. He respects her independence and her own unique lifestyle (apparently she married Stephen Fry AND two other women? You go, River Song!) The Doctor would never want harm to befall River, naturally, but he wouldn't go around putting labels on River like "love of my life" or "soul mate." To her credit, River understood that the Doctor is an ageless god and never made any demands of loving affection on him; that, more than their actual story, made the pair enjoyable to watch. However, after this episode, I get the sense that the Doctor does love River quite a bit, but it took him a long time to really accept that. He had to lose the people he loved most (remember, he's hot off the story of knowing that he's lost Clara but not remembering her at all) and face the knowledge that he's going to lose River for good, no loopholes, in order to understand that while he might be a sunset, he can admire and love her back.

This understanding from the Doctor brings me back to the fairy tale aspect of this year's Christmas story. I've always been fairly critical of Moffat and his inability to let go of some of the most high fantasy fairy tale aspects in his years on the show. He tends to play the "true love saves the day" card a bit too much and he rarely has consequences to some of the bigger thematic issues he's addressing with his characters (Clara's addiction thesis, anyone?) because it will ruin the fairy tale aspect. However, Christmas episodes are a bit special in that this is a time when it's okay to whip out some fairy tale magic and have that "happily ever after" ending because of the nature of the season. Christmas episodes in Doctor Who tend to focus on something treacly be it family, second chances, hope, unity, and so on and so forth. This isn't to say that Doctor Who doesn't often focus on those themes, but at Christmas they do come out in full force; in other words, a dead father can come back to life in a Christmas episode. It can be a bit too saccharine and sweet for anyone who wants science-fiction or meta cosmic storytelling, but it works for the show since it's only once a year. This year the theme hammered home is all about how stories end, they must end; the twist here is exploring that it's okay because you can live happily until the end which is maybe the most un-treacly sweet thing Moffat's version of Doctor Who has ever done. For example, the past season dealt with the Doctor refusing to let his and Clara's story end to the point where he became "an enemy of time and space." In this episode, River assures him that the ending doesn't matter, only the story. I do believe we are looking at the final chapter of River and the Doctor. The Singing Tower of Darillium, the Doctor giving River her Sonic Screwdriver, and the almost full diary all led to one thought: the Library is coming. River Song is going to get a message asking her to come to the universe's largest library and there she will meet the 10th Doctor and Donna Noble, and there she will die. It's how we met River and, after many years and several backwards adventures, it's time for her to go. Not everything can be avoided. The ending doesn't matter though; it's how the life is lived before the ending. The final moment of the episode show a title card that reads "and they lived happily ever after" with snow wiping away "ever after." The point, the message, our Christmas lesson this 2015 year is that it's more important that River and her Doctor lived happily for their final night together, even if it is not ever after. There is no loophole, there is no clever plan concocted at the last second to save River from her fate. Time is going to march on and River is going to go to the Library and die but our takeaway is that the life she led was a happy one; she had a final moment with the Doctor. For everyone on this Christmas, Moffat wants to remind us that endings happen; they must. Companions leave or die; Doctors regenerate; and, yes, showrunners move on. But until the ending comes, we should live happily with our memories and with those we love for as long as we can. And isn't that really the message of all fairy tales? Not to live happily ever after; no one can do that unless you're truly mythic. But, simply, to live. You can't expect a monolith to love you back, but normal, everyday humans (and Time Lords) do, can, and will. It's a sappy message, but that doesn't make it any less relevant. So, as they say in all the best fairy tales: the end.

Miscellaneous Notes on The Husbands of River Song

--How about a really big round of applause for Peter Capaldi and Alex Kingston? Their chemistry was off the charts. Simply wonderful considering that they've never been together on this show until this one episode while Alex had two episodes with David Tennant and many more with Matt Smith.

--This episode was hilarious. Moffat always knows how to write a funny line, but this year it felt like every line was a funny one:
"You don't look much like your pictures." "That's an ongoing problem for me."
"I'll kill the lights. You kill the patient."
"Stop holding my hand. People don't do that to me!"
"I'm an archaeologist from the future. I dug you up!"

--I approve wholeheartedly of the TARDIS making the Doctor wear Wilf's antlers.

--I didn't really mention it, but also in the realm of fairy tales, the Doctor is a bit of a Grinch at the start with his "carol singers will be criticized" sign. An adventure with River helps his heart grow three sizes. And because it's Christmas after all!

--The Doctor's moment to shine comes when he has to pretend to be amazed at the TARDIS being bigger on the inside.

--"I'm an archaeologist! Look! I've got a trowel!" The Sonic Trowel is 100% better than the Sonic Glasses.

--The plot of the actual episode was overall very good. The villain was presented as being bad enough that I didn't care about the moral implications of River wanting to kill Hydroflax. Unlike a lot of Moffat penned episodes, this one wasn't overly convoluted but still clever. I didn't feel like I needed a road map to understand how we got from point A to point B.

--Fun reversal of fortune with River being unable to recognize the Doctor. I did love how this exasperated the Doctor every time he tried to drop hints that he was, in fact, her Time Lord husband.

--It's hard to say where we're going from here--new adventures and a new companion certainly. Most likely, this is the last episode until well into 2016. Everyone enjoy their 24 year-night with the Singing Towers of Darillium!  

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