Sunday, 3 January 2016

The Husbands of River Song written by Steven Moffat and directed by Douglas McKinnon

This story in a nutshell: A head on a robot, a romp with River and tying up of loose ends...

Indefinable: There is a huge difference between the old git having a mid life crisis of series nine and the ageing romantic that appears in Husbands and that difference is I wasn't hoping my sofa would swallow me up. Capaldi can be charm personified if he wants to be and he gets the chance to beguile his audience in the Christmas special in a very subtle and attractive way. Which is infinitely preferable to big tanks and electric guitars. When he's seen to be having fun and enjoying peoples company, this Doctor shines which is especially odd given this incarnations beginnings and as total wanker. Even the Doctor has to surrender to the absurdity of this story and laugh his ass off, practically rolling about in the snow as he does. It's a delirious sight. In one of those moments when you wonder why it hasn't been done before the Doctor gets to play the awestruck visitor to the TARDIS and have a moment of astonishment. I think he enjoys it a little too much and I was quietly delighted in my mildly drunken stupor. Capaldi is just having a blast with this adventure, isn't he? It's like he's leaning back and stretching after a season of propping up some less than stellar episodes.

Hello Sweetie: A miracle has occurred. Not only does Alex Kingston appear to be ageing backwards (because River genuinely looks younger than in series five, six and seven and about ready to head to the library) but I have honestly never found the character of River Song as palatable as I did here since her very first adventure. Moffat has done both the character and actress a huge service in my eyes, he has almost single handedly redeemed her after taking her on an overcomplicated and highly smug tour of the Doctor's life in Matt Smith's time on the show. Here I thought River was smart, silly, warm and likeable - the last word being especially important. He didn't oversell her sexuality or undersell her intelligence. And her rapport with Peter Capaldi is to die for. Halfway through this story and I was thinking 'couldn't we have had two season with these two rather than the Doctor and Clara?' which is not something I ever expected to whisk up in my head. She brings the smiler out in the Doctor, the romantic. Without there being any sense that they might tear each others clothes off any minute, there is a romantic chemistry between the pair of them that warms the heart. Like the weight of their history together binds them and keeps them close. Does Alex Kingston deserve a place in the titles? Of course she does. Regardless of what I think of the character, she has certainly done her time. She's a fixed point in Doctor and that should be recognised. The Doctor's assertion that to make sense of River's timeline requires a flow chat is amusing, simply because I'm sure many fans have tried (and succeeded) to build one. There was a wonderful, wonderful moment when River rants about the Doctor not being present or giving a damn about her where you really felt how much she loved him because she could be honest knowing he wasn't there...and then realising she has been with him all the time. It's glorious. And it's the best 'hello sweetie' of the series and it isn't even delivered by River.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'My entire understanding of physical reality has been transformed!'
'The crash of the Byzantium! Didn't they make a movie of that?'
'You don't expect a sunset to admire you back!'
'I'm an archaeologist from the future. I dug you up. See you in 400 years!'

The Good:

* Whilst I have no idea why other planets would celebrate Christmas in exactly the same way that we do (I mean if you think about the for a single second it makes no sense, even if it is a human colony) I have to admire the way that Mendorax Dellorans commit to the idea. And since I'm something of a Christmas whore I couldn't help but be swept up in the general yuletideness of the opening scene, with warming lights bouncing off snow, icicles hanging from the TARDIS and a gorgeous carol to guide us into the story. The vertiginous swept into town is simply delightful.  Although I swear that is the same hidden street that Ashildr did her alien smuggling in.
* It's nice to see the other half of the Little Britain duo stepping into the Doctor Who given that both David Walliams and Matt Lucas have been staunch supporters of the show ever since it returned to our screens. If I'm honest, Willaims got the stronger role (or at least the meatier one) but Lucas does acquit himself well here, essentially playing the same bumbling fool he delighted with in Alice in Wonderland and The Wind in the Willows. He's a fun, goofy performer and whilst I would have liked to have seen him get his teeth into something dramatic just to see what he was made of, comedy is what he is known for so a comic character he plays. I think that's fair. And if there's ever a space for a daft buffoon in a bobble hat in Doctor Who, it's Christmas.
* I love it when a story switches location half way through to provide some fresh sights and the contrast between Mendorax Dellora and the Harmony and Redemption means that the story suddenly takes a massively different aesthetic. It's the Titanic all over again, stylish and mannered with a host of weird looking aliens. Like Time Heist, Douglas McKinnon is very comfortable bringing affluence to the screen and the surroundings are fashionably covered. Here we're introduced to Flemming, a gloriously slimy Maitre d' who dogs the Doctor and River's steps for the rest of the episode. I love his idiosyncratic design and the performance. Whilst the Hydroflax stuff wasn't really to my taste, this mix of double crossing and one-upmanship was far more palatable, if still not exactly vintage Who.
* It's not until we reach dinner with the star crossed lovers that we realise the significance of this meeting between the Doctor and River. Her diary is nearly full and the Doctor would have known exactly how long that diary would need to be to cover all of her adventures. That means it's time to go to the Library. And the mere thought of The Silence in Library and Forest of the Dead makes me all of a tingle. Suddenly I was aware the story was going to put the final piece of the jigsaw into place and my interest perked up considerably.
* The representative of the Sholl ripping his head in half to remove payment. The most jaw droppingly gross thing the show has done since Halpen scalped himself in Planet of the Ood. Yum yum.
* A time traveller (or at least somebody who is close to a time traveller) reading a book that lists the best exploding restaurants so you can eat for free. Now that's Douglas Adams. SF creativity at its finest.
* Let's not stress this enough because I have spent the last five years criticising Steven Moffat's inability to turn out decent characters that aren't just there to service the plot. The final scene of The Husbands of River Song is extraordinarily good, genuinely moving and driven by awesome characterisation of both leads. Like the scenes between the Doctor and Davros in The Witches Familiar, Capaldi comes along once a weight of history has been built and enjoys magical moments with these characters because of it. But the performances, writing and music are just beautiful and I was like putty in Moffat's hands. In a methodical fashion that reminds me of Revenge of the Sith, it all slots together with established history as perfectly as possible. Every once in a while it all comes together. It might not happen as often as I would like these days...but that doesn't make it any less special when it does.

The Bad:

* I'm not sure what I think about the whole Hydroflax storyline. I think I have come to accept that the Christmas specials (on the whole) are going to be a bit of fluff (which is why Last Christmas surprised me by having so much character resonance) but this is daft science fiction on a level that I'm not even sure Douglas Adams would sink to. Hmm...maybe he would, but it would be a lot smarter and the lines would hit you between the eyes. I'm not entirely sure what Moffat is trying to do or say with the storyline, it is simply a lot of romping about with a giant robot that removes heads from peoples bodies and utilises them as mouthpieces. It's not even a story with a beginning, middle and end, it just introduces the idea and then runs around on the spot with it and then dumps it when the River storyline takes over and gains dominance. Hydroflax is basically a way in for her to meet up with the Doctor again and to end up where she needs to be to meet him for the last time. He's a plot device, not a character. And that sums up Moffat's approach to characterisation rather neatly (although strangely he compensates amazingly in Husbands in the last ten minutes). Is it especially funny? The idea and the visuals are quirky but not especially hilarious (although Greg Davies' decapitated head chatting away on a table cannot help but raise a smirk). Does the idea have any intellectual merit? Not at all. Would it turn people off who don't like science fiction? Definitely. Is the plot deliberately a little naff so the Doctor/River relationship can take centre stage? Moffat stated he wanted some fun after a very serious season gone by and he does achieve that aim. It's frothy and enjoyable but in no way necessary. If it wasn't for the last ten minutes of Husbands, I don't I would revisit it again for a long time. In fact I have only seen the episode through once and I've watched the last ten minutes several times since. The Hydroflax robot is so rubbish he is defeated by a number of online bank security firewalls.
* 'Are you thinking? Stop it, you're a man! It looks weird!' Sexism is sexism, even when it is pointed at men. Still it's nice to know Moffat goes both ways.
* I learnt something interesting about Douglas McKinnon's direction in this episode that I hadn't considered before. I had always thought that he had grown into his role as a director of Doctor Who, that with each story he had found his confidence. But I don't think that is the case at all now. I think he responds differently to the sort of material he is directing. Subtle horror and character drama are his forte. Action and adventure, not so much. Which is why The Sontaran Stratagem and Cold War are quite awkwardly brought to the screen whereas Listen and The Power of Three work much better. His action sequences in Husbands are a joke; confused, hysterical and out of control. I couldn't figure out what was happening with all the reaction shots and screaming. It's the sort of material that makes you wonder what is on ITV. Husbands occasionally tips over into farce (my least favourite comedy sub genre) and it's during the moments when I think the script is trying to be dramatic.
* Familiar elements ahoy: Christmas obviously and the countless River Song references and tying up of her plot, headless people and monks, a restaurant turned sinister, a head in a bag being tossed around the TARDIS Anybody who says this is Moffat on autopilot has a point.
* Moffat couldn't one last bit of timey wimey nonsense, could he? The Doctor couldn't just take River to Derilium. Oh no. He has to arrange for the restaurant to be built first. I suppose it gives the diamond a purpose.

The Shallow Bit: Ramone. Hubba hubba.

Result: Have we reached a standard of writing worth of Peter Capaldi's talents? Don't make me laugh. And I'm long past thinking that he will be handed the sort of scripts his talent justifies on a regular basis. However if you can get past the general retardedness of the central narrative of The Husbands of River Song, there is a great deal to enjoy here. It's not a patch on Last Christmas but it does have a thread of sentimentality to it that enveloped me and left me feeling as though I had been embraced by a close friend in an intimate moment. When the Robot Matt Lucas lumbered out of the spaceship to comedy music going 'naaah I don't like this!' I could hear the hearts of po-faced Doctor Who fans breaking and Christopher H. Bidmead having a conniption fit. What Husbands has that elevates it high above it's naff narrative (Naffative? Maybe a little too Pip'n'Jane) are the performances of Peter Capaldi, who, as ever, is waving a flag for the series and Alex Kingston and together they perform a magic trick. They turn this bizarre pantomime into something extremely watchable, their chemistry lighting up the story in every scene. Just when you think the whole piece is going to be as disposable (and cheesy) as a piece of belly button fluff Moffat pulls off a massive coup at the climax by expertly weaving this story into River's character arc and providing some closure for the character. It's performed in a way that feels perfectly natural and the feeling of romance and closeness between these two characters who have been through thick and thin together is palpable. I grabbed my own husband and gave him the same look that River gives the Doctor at the end of this story. I was enchanted. With one story Steven Moffat has redeemed the character of River Song for me and finally handed her some material that makes Alex Kingston shine brightly. What a way to depart. I wouldn't want Doctor Who to lose its place in the Christmas schedules but I think the relevance of a festive adventure is getting a little stale. Without this dovetailing into River's narrative so beautifully it would be almost entirely worthless. How about something truly daring on Christmas Day? Murder the companion (and keep her dead). Have a story that takes place across several Doctors over several years (bring back Tennant, Smith and Capaldi for subsequent adventures with a continuing narrative). Tell a truly creepy Burtonesque Christmas Special that crawls under your skin and drop all the sentiment. Or don't feature any Christmas elements at all and just tell a rock solid story that happens to go out on Christmas Day. I don't want to be the pooper at the party but we've amassed almost a seasons worth of adventures that are drowning in Christmas. Because once again I question what is in this for the audience at large when the best parts of the adventure are reliant on your knowledge of the past. A desperate puppy jumping up at you wanting to be loved at an awkward moment, that's Husbands. But do you know what? By the end you've looked down and fallen in love a little bit and before that fairytale ending flies of the screen you're having a cuddle: 7/10


Anonymous said...

I'm not sure if it's because I have a very similar thinking or approach to things like you have, but I find myself usually agreeing not only in your reviews but also in your likes/dislikes of characters. While I find Tegan more tolerable and fun than you (specially audio Tegan), I share your feelings about all the new series companions (from the love for Donna to the dislike for Amy). With River, the character, I have always been on the fence. In the hands of a lesser actress she would have been something insufferable , smug and shallow, but somehow, Alex makes her likeable. I don't know if you have listened to The Diary of River Song box set but I recommend you to, in the hands of other writers she positively shines.
What annoyed me to no end during the Smith era was all the fanfare that preceded her appearances, writing "hello sweetie" in weird places, throwing herself out of windows for dramatic effect and all the sexual innuendos and smugness in her writing
In this story I also enjoyed her more than all the previous appearances, I had fun with her

The Doctor: oh dear, the "bigger on the inside" moment was pure gold! Capaldi has a great comedy timing and I wish we could exploit his comedy side more often. The glasses and guitar annoyed me because it tried too hard to be "cool"

The episode in general: I just switched off my brain to avoid the dodgy science and stuff annoy me and just enjoy it as a christmas special

Anonymous said...

I really enjoy your reviews *but* I find the use of the word retardedness totally unnecessary. It'd be like using the word 'faggotry' or something equally as insulting when all you really meant 'a camp runaround'. Could you use an alternative in the future? (Just a suggestion)

Guy said...

I think this might be my favourite episode of the Capaldi era it's just fun and no Clara in it thank goodness. I wish this was how Capaldi was written most of the time an old romantic suits him really well and he bounces off River far better than that Matt Smith did if she had been his companion instead of Clara things might have been very different.