How the latest Doctor Who Christmas special finally saved River Song



This weekend The Husbands of River Song aired. It was dumb as paint. But it was also a lot of fun and it corrected some serious River-Song-shaped-flaws.

Before we can talk about the triumphant return of the River Song we once knew and loved, we have to first relive what went so horribly, terribly wrong.

Believe it or not, it's been well over seven years since Silence in the Library, where we were first introduced to the intriguing archaeologist/maybe-wife of the Doctor, River Song. Back then we knew incredibly little about this mystery woman, but we did know that she was fiercely independent, knew how to take care of herself and had no problem circumventing the Doctor's wishes when he was being a fool. And she also was willing to die for the greater good, the Doctor's opinion be damned.

And, okay, fair play, River mostly remained that character through 2010's Season 5 finale, The Big Bang. Even then, River was possessed of her own free will. Sure, she spent something like 1,800 years inside a perpetually exploding TARDIS, but that could've happened to anyone. She was still the one who'd blow a fez clean off the Doctor's head just a soon as throw him a compliment.

But then, heaving dramatic sigh, Season 6 happened. Oh, sure, it started out well enough, with River convincing Amy and Rory to lie to the present, living Doctor about his future, dead self, but then ... but then ...

The moment in A Good Man Goes to War when River was revealed to be Amy and Rory's daughter, designed by an order of military clergy to be a half-timelord psychopath with the sole purpose of manipulating and destroying the Doctor, I knew we were headed off a cliff and into the "NO, WAIT, STOP THIS THING YOU ARE DOING, MOFFAT" ravine. And, indeed, between Let's Kill Hitler and The Wedding of River Song, we, the Doctor Who viewing audience, were assaulted by one of the worst character assassinations of all time.

Gone was our multi-dimensional hero who loved the Doctor but wasn't going to follow him around like a sad puppy, and in her place was a catch-phrase-bleating self-parody whose entire existence was quite literally tailor-made for the Doctor. A Time Lady River? Sounds pretty neat, in theory. Too bad that reveal was used as nothing more than a plot device so that she could sacrifice her regenerations in an effort to learn to stop obsessing over hating the Doctor and start obsessing over loving him instead. Swell.

Oh, and that potential wedding we were all so excited to find out more about? Bit of a shotgun affair, turns out. Nothing romantic about it, and, wouldn't you know it, poor River couldn't even get her own agency as a wedding present -- just a forced scenario where she must wed the Doctor because "something, something universe goes splodey" and "because the Doctor said so." Boo.

On top of it all, River spends many of her days and nights in a prison, all to perpetuate a lie at the behest of, who else, her husband.

In fact, I would contend that not since the self-birthing demon pregnancy fiasco that was Cordelia Chase in Angel Season 4 has there been such a universally reviled character arc.

Doctor Who spent decades being a show that could oft be boiled down to "Smart man explains things to pretty, scared, shouty girl". Even the best of companions still spend an inordinate amount of time pointing at things and saying, "What's that, Doctor?" So having River Song, a woman who existed entirely independent of the Doctor but who was an integral part of his life all the same was important. Having her lose that independence in favor of an existence that boils down to "I was born for the Doctor" wasn't just a disappointment -- it was a betrayal.

Thankfully, though poor Cordy only got the briefest and most vague of retcons, River (and the entirety of Who-dom) received a perfect Christmas present in the healing form of The Husbands of River Song.

Don't get me wrong, I meant what I said at the top -- this episode is REAL DUMB. The plot is literally "River marries an evil king to get to a diamond lodged in his head and then has to run away from his even more evil robot body." So, yes. Dumb.

But in the midst of all that silliness something incredible happens -- River gets back to being the independent, three-dimensional hero we all used to know and love. She spends the entire front half of the episode not even realizing that the Doctor is right in front of her, and, as such, we get to see what she's "really like" when the old ball-and-chain ain't around.

And what River is in "The Husbands of River Song" is unsentimental. She's a harsh pragmatist that stands in stark contrast to even Capaldi's often devil-may-care Doctor. No incarnation of the Doctor would look at a cruel king like Hydroflax and think, "Yeah, I guess if he died that'd be fine and dandy, but it's the diamond lodged in his skull that I want." No part of that sentence sounds like the Doctor or any companion he's ever had. But it's very River, because she's one of the few characters on Doctor Who who can see the big picture without being such an egomaniac as to thing she's the one to fix it.

Even better, we get to see all the various and complex ways River feels about the Doctor. For one thing she has a code name for him -- the Damsel. You know, because he's such a self-involved dip that she needs to get him out of trouble a fair amount of the time. River even swipes the Doctor's TARDIS every so often when he isn't looking for her own purposes, which usually involve theft, general trouble-making and joyrides.

And yet despite all that, River's love for the Doctor is never diminished. If anything, it's strengthened, because we realize that, even though she does have multiple husbands (not all of whom are evil or robotic), and even though she frequently describes the Doctor as a hapless ninny, she also has a profound respect for him. After all, despite his many blunderings, the Doctor does occasionally save the whole of creation from itself. And while, unlike Clara, River never shows any signs of wanting to be like the Doctor, she does acknowledge the beauty in his life's ambition to appear whenever and wherever children cry.

When River does realize the Doctor's been with her the whole episode, she confesses that she sees the Doctor as almost monolothic, an immortal with so many experiences and lifetimes as to be impossible to completely know or tame. But far more importantly, her actions reveal that she doesn't need the confirmation that she is loved by him. She knows she's pretty dope all on her own. Getting to love and know him is just icing on the cake of her already exciting existence.

But, of course, the Doctor does love her. And so he should -- she's his wife, the one who has saved his bacon more times than he'll ever know and whose moral code isn't based on anyone's thoughts and beliefs but her own. Despite her upbringing, she winds up challenges him not by design, but almost by accident. In a world full of people who struggle to keep running with the Doctor, The Husbands of River Song reminds us that River is satisfied running a marathon all her own, and if the Doctor feels like running alongside, well that's just gravy.

Yes, it's sad that the end of this Christmas-lite story takes place at the Singing Towers of Darillium, because any good fan knows that River's final diary entry is about that adventure for a reason. But it's also joyous, because, despite years of stripping away her agency and dimension, here among the merry Christmas mayhem, River regained everything she'd lost and then some. For the first time since A Good Man Goes to War, River is whole. And if there's a better Christmas present a Doctor Who fan could hope for, I can't think of one. 

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