Sunday, 9 April 2017

So I Married An Axe Murderer

Doctor Who
The Husbands Of River Song
2015 Christmas Special

It’s Chriiiiistmaaaaaaas!  (2015.)  A time to relax, and where Doctor Who is concerned, pretend the finale didn’t happen.

Put your feet up and forget about Clara, for starters.  No longer must the Doctor contend with a plucky Mary Sue, with her convoluted past and weird universal importance, her (apparent) obsession with him marked by that I-could-take-or-leave-you lack of any genuine interest.  No longer will he have someone running rings around him, doing everything he can only better, showing little respect for her supposed best friend and suggesting a writer that thinks the Doctor is some sort of runner-up prize.

So obviously the thing to do next is an episode about River Song.

This week, Peter Capaldi is me.
What’s left to say about her?  (Well, indeed.  But here we are anyway.)  A time traveling relationship could have been fascinating for the Doctor, but just putting things in the wrong order isn’t enough: you need someone the Doctor would actually want to spend time with, who would mean even more to him than a companion.  And River isn’t that.  With all her Doctory bells and whistles (now including a “sonic trowel”, an “augmented lifespan” and a secret drinks locker in the TARDIS), she’s just another Mary Sue.  If time itself weren’t constantly sticking them together, he’d have very little reason to make her acquaintance.  Alex Kingston has always played it how it’s written, and fair enough.  Sadly she’s written as monumentally full-of-herself and clawingly desperate to be a fan-favourite.  Oh, and she’s a psychopath: a word Steven Moffat uses with all the wisdom and moderation of a toddler discovering a bag of poo, though thankfully he keeps the bag sealed this time.  (The Doctor is a psychopath too, remember?  Psychopaths are cool!)

So, having killed her in her second episode, then revealed her entire torturous back-story, and later said goodbye to her again as a hologram, all that’s left is ticking off more of the things she’s talked about over the years.  Like her trip to the Singing Towers: last stop before the Library, last time the Doctor will ever see her.  And we already know how it’ll go down – Doctor in a new suit, sad look on his face, unspoken sandwich board that says YOU DIE SOON, SOZ – so rather like Clara’s spin-off ending, this victory lap is for the die-hard River fans only.  (As for putting one directly after the other, I can’t think of anything more redundant the show could have done.)

As for the scene itself, new suit, sad expression, Singing Towers… yep, it sure is that thing they said it was.  What does it add?  There’s drama to be had, with River realising her time has come and the Doctor having to accept it too, even going so far as to say that Happy Ever After is just a lie we tell ourselves.  The trouble is this is Doctor Who, and anyone who saw the last episode knows what they’re like for this sort of thing, i.e. Steven Moffat is completely obsessed with killing his characters and simultaneously obsessed with not.  So of course River’s “last night” can actually go on for 24 years.  Here we go again, refusing to face consequences, pretending that a long and comfortable retirement with plenty of wiggle room is anything remotely bittersweet.  Boo ruddy hoo, enjoy your quarter of a decade with your feet up.  At this rate, we’ll probably return to find her in the Library, lightly snoring.  But oh well, a portion of fandom can tick off the Singing Towers now.  Worth it.

The journey to this moment is ostensibly one of River’s wacky adventures (set at Christmas) with the Doctor tagging along.  She somehow doesn’t spot that it’s him, as she’s only aware of the Doctors up to Matt Smith and apparently she can’t take a hint.  There is fun to be had, especially when the Doctor gets to “have a go” at reacting to the TARDIS for the first time – his theatrical amazement is an easy episode highlight.  But this is also a scene where River casually admits she steals the TARDIS whenever she wants: “I can take it, do whatever I want for as long as I like, pop it back a second later and he’ll never know.  He’s never noticed before.”  Oh, how I hate this, obviously.  Yet again we’re putting River above the Doctor, or rather putting the Doctor in a dunce cap.  It’s taking a character of unknowable mystique and catching him asleep on the lav.  And it’s really hard not to suspect that the reason for this superiority isn’t, deep down, just the laddish sitcom trope that River is a magical woman and the Doctor is one of us loveable, clumsy, haven’t-got-a-clue men.  That’s certainly how it’s written and played.  “Are you thinking?  Stop it, you’re a man, it looks weird.”  For Christ’s sake, Steven, if you want to write more Coupling then go away and do it.  Doctor Who isn’t Coupling.

There’s not much to say about the story itself leading up to that.  It’s all Christmas froth, aka stuff he’d probably turn down the rest of the year.  So we’ve got River being “married” to a warlord that’s just a human head in a robot suit; the head has a diamond in it, which is what River’s really after so she can return it to its real owners.  Ha, not really!  She’s stealing it to sell to some criminals, something she’s evidently excited about and proud of.  Lovely.  The criminals are the Shoal, those hollow-headed dudes who appeared a year later in The Return Of Dr Mysterio.  I had absolutely no memory of them when I saw that, which kind of makes sense after their less than scintillating one scene in this.

Oh, you lot again.  (Timey wimey.)
Once again: POCKETS.  You're getting goo on everything, FFS.
Various other bits of flotsam include Matt Lucas as Nardole, who also showed up in the next special (after 2016’s slight lack of episodes) and he’s coming back for Series Ten.  So what’s he like?  Er, he’s like Matt Lucas doing a squeaky voice as if he’s on CBeebies.  Sorry, is there more?  He’s a talented and versatile comic performer, and probably an excellent actor since that seems like a transferable skill, but you wouldn’t know it here.  Squeaking and hamming, and at one point being decapitated but in a silly sci-fi way that’s played for laughs (imagine that, a death scene with no consequences), the character’s main distinction is being slightly too annoying to forget.  I have no idea why they’re making him a regular.  Greg Davies plays the evil disembodied head, and he’s mildly amusing as he screams revenge threats, but then that’s all there is for him to do.  There’s an entire ship full of people at one point, apparently all utterly awful – so much so that the Doctor and River leave them to die in a spaceship crash.  They’re “not worth it,” he pronounces afterwards.  Except why not?  He’s happy enough with River, who delights in telling everyone shes a psychopath.

The meat of the story is the Doctor for once seeming to be one step ahead of River.  (You’d think all this not-recognising-him business would go somewhere, but no, she’s just pointlessly thick this week.)  It allows him to observe her with some detachment, since he is basically a guest in an episode of River Who.  And apart from a wry smile at the novelty of being in this position, he doesn’t like what he sees, with her cavorting with genocidal maniacs, planning to off people for the jewellery in their heads, and wiping her partners’ memories (of things like marriage) because they’re “annoying”.  Even so, by the end of the episode he’s taking her to the Towers for 24 years of marital fun.  In a rare moment of sense, River announces that although she loves the Doctor, she knows he couldn’t possibly reciprocate.  Damn right, but then here we still are at the end, pretty much acknowledging that he does after half a dozen years insisting that it’s a two-way street.  I’d be grateful for that re-examination of her character if it worked at all in context.  Either she’s his obsessive follower or his wife; they’ve left it too late to throw in that other possibility.

This doesn’t make me mad like Hell Bent.  It’s poor, obviously – a bit of “ehh” Christmas flim-flam, it tries to do something interesting with River Song which may be categorically impossible, and otherwise just floats along under a snow machine.  Peter Capaldi sells the length of time they’ve known each other and lets the Doctor have a good time, and Alex Kingston does her thing, but to a non-River fan, all of that’s futile.  River is beyond done now, and the one thing I know for sure about her relationship with the Doctor is that it tends to be the worse for him, so let’s just count our blessings and wave her off.  Again.  And cross our fingers this time.

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