5 December 2018: It Takes You Away review added.
26 November 2018: The Witchfinders review added.
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THE HUSBANDS OF RIVER SONG
We really don't want to review this. We don't think we're even qualified. So we're going to recuse ourselves, at least sort of.
Unlike with other episodes, what you think of a Christmas episode is very much inflected by context. It's designed to be seen on Christmas Day in cold weather, amid a fog of sentimentality. Also, if you're British, by this point on Christmas Day the odds are fair that you're at least semi-drunk. (We mean that in a very caring way.)
For us, none of that applies. In this particular part of the Southern Hemisphere, we've already time-travelled to Boxing Day. Christmas is 365 days away and we want nothing to do with it. What's more, it's summer. We don't want to be inside watching something with truckloads of fake snow. We'd rather be at the beach. We'd rather be having a barbecue. We'd rather be having a barbecue at the beach.
So we don't think we're qualified to evaluate whether The Husbands Of River Song is a good Christmas episode. We can tell you what we thought of it, and we will. But bear in mind we don't think it's necessarily a fair evaluation.
First of all, we're going to take a stab at guessing what people who saw it in the right context thought of it. (We honestly have no idea, but that's never stopped us before.) Did they smile mistily, chuckle heartily, and raise a glass to a splendid Christmas entertainment? We're going to say: probably? Even very probably? There's broad comedy, there are tender emotional moments, and there are lashings of snow. Sorted. Job done. What's more, Peter Capaldi and Alex Kingston are acting their hearts out. If you like River and saw this on Christmas Day, we're guessing you thought this was one of the best Christmas episodes in years. And we wouldn't argue with that. We're betting that for a large section of the audience it hit all the right notes: funny and bittersweet. And fair enough too.
For us, though…ugh. We can't even.
Yes, really that bad. We all agreed that if we weren't committed to at least making a token stab at reviewing it, none of us would have made it to the end.
For a start, the humour for us just doesn't work for this Doctor. Peter Capaldi gives it his all and there's zero wrong with his performance, but we just don't think that madcap zany thing jibes with the character. It's so awkward it makes us squirm. Nor are we fans of the humour in general. Matt Lucas is terrific but thrown away, as is Greg Davies. The rompy thing probably seemed perfectly apropos on Christmas Day, but it's just not our bag, man.
What kills the episode stone dead for us, however, is River.
We think we've made our feelings about River passably clear. For us she is a horrific Mary Sue whom Steven Moffat persists in putting equal to, or even superior to, the Doctor. That this is the case was confirmed by Moffat himself. When speaking about this episode, he said that when he wrote it he thought it might be his last Who episode ever so he wanted to bring River back as his goodbye. Of course. Who else would he want his last episode to be about but his own very, very special character?
And he again underlines that very, very special character in the episode itself. River can repeatedly steal the TARDIS without the Doctor's knowledge. She knows the TARDIS better than him. She even says she can do the Doctor's life better than he can.
Nopenopenopenopenope. This is the Doctor's show. No matter what any showrunner may fondly imagine, no pet character can compete wth him. If they do, something has gone wrong at a fundamental level.
What's more, we detest the clumsy portrayal of the character. We're glad Moffat here shelves the completely wrong word "psychopath", which does not mean what he thinks it means, but unfortunately he's left the behaviour intact. If she were an Indiana Jones-style artefact thief, fine: it could be all swashbuckly fun and yo ho ho. But she goes way beyond that. Does Moffat seriously expect us to think the Doctor could fall in love with a cold-blooded murderer? Yes, the murder doesn't actually happen and the murderee is a very nasty man, but it's the thought that counts. What's more, River's happy to sell her plunder to the heavily evil. What, exactly, is attractive about any of this?
Moffat deals with this problem fairly cunningly: he packages up all this stuff with River's assertion that she doesn't love the Doctor and has been using him all along. When it later on becomes clear that that was a festive bollocks pie, there's a kind of "she's really nice after all" aura hovering around that we think is meant to trick the viewer into forgetting, or at least forgiving, the murder et al stuff. Never mind about that! Look over here at Alex Kingston being adorably vulnerable and touching!
Sadly for the success of the episode as far as we're concerned, we can't forget that stuff. Or the central failure of River as a character at all. As a result, by definition this episode was never going to get out of the starting gate as far as we're concerned. The terrific performances, the bitterweet ending, the delightfully understated bond the two actors so beautifully portray left us utterly unmoved. We're just grateful that this might (this is Moffat, after all) be River's last appearance.
If you loved this episode, great. We wouldn't argue with that at all. It's all about how you feel about River, and where you were when you sat down to watch. Since neither of those things were working for us, it was doomed from the start, but if your mileage varied, we're happy that somebody else got some fun out of it.
River says she knows she's close to dying because the diary given to her by the Doctor is almost full. But come on. We know the Doctor's time travelling gives him a certain level of omniscience, but even he can't predict how much she's going to write in her diary.