Doctor Who Christmas special review: “With funnier escapades and sharper banter this could have been a classy screwball comedy”

Our Christmas grinch finds a few things to love in this hectic caper, which saves its sparkle till the end

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★★★  Regular readers of my reviews may recall that I don’t enjoy Doctor Who Christmas specials too much. Apart from the fact that they come around far too quickly, occur too frequently in the run of the Time Lord’s adventures (once in every 13 episodes and fewer actual stories, if you consider two-parters), I cannot stand the twee trappings of Christmas, the fake snow, the tinsel, the abysmal songs, the reindeers and Santa. Bah! 

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But, as Steven Moffat told me a few weeks ago, “You’ll be pleased – there’s not a lot of Christmas in [The Husbands of River Song]. It starts with a big bit of Christmas at the beginning and then we ignore it and go off on a chase with Mr & Mrs Who.”

So, to some extent, I am pleased. The Yuletide drivel is dispensed with pretty soon after Peter Capaldi has doffed his daft antlers and gone trudging through the snow. And I’m always up for another blast of Mr & Mrs Who, and adore Alex Kingston as River Song, who last appeared two and a half years ago.

The Doctor Who Christmas special (of which this is, staggeringly, the 11th since 2005) has to appeal to a wide range of punters. Or at least try to. Really, it’s taken the place of the BBC’s traditional family film in days of yore, and is scheduled after a lot of the day’s indulgence has passed – feast consumed, booze quaffed, gifts discarded and jollity waning. It needs to dazzle, to amaze, amuse and entertain all but the most befuddled family members. To that extent, I can imagine The Husbands of River Song succeeding, perhaps more than other efforts in recent years. 

It’s hard to gauge, though. I saw a work-in-progress version in late November with a bunch of TV journos who for the most part filed out of the screening room at Broadcasting House considerably less jolly than they’d appeared entering it. A Radio Times colleague watched a preview and deemed it “dreadful”. There was a far more positive reaction from the audience at a BFI screening on 16 December, among them many parents and children. I sat with Katy Manning, the delightful star of 1970s Doctor Who, who loved the special, found the ending extremely moving and, days later, told me she was still chuckling at the idea of Greg Davies’s head in a hold-all.

To my left sat two boys who seemed reasonably engaged and became restless only during one or two longueurs. I noticed they sat bolt upright and gasped when they realised that the Doctor and River had been sitting in the front row all along and were then walking up on stage for a Q&A.This is the magic of Doctor Who. And Capaldi and Kingston do have something of their on-screen characters about them. In person, as on television, they sparkle and look like they’re just passing by Earth between space-time adventures. (Which can’t be said for all Doctor Who stars, I can tell you.) 

Perhaps what I enjoyed most about the special was the chance to see Capaldi’s Doctor and River together on screen. Let’s not forget, since his debut and across some 25 episodes, we’ve only seen the 12th Doctor paired with Clara, interacting with her on various levels of joy and angst. Series nine became, as Moffat told RT, “quite dark towards the end so I thought it was time at Christmas to take it back up.”

The tone is appreciably lighter, this Doctor is the happiest we’ve known him, even at one point flat on his back laughing – something inconceivable in those last few episodes. He’s all loved up to find River and bemused, cheesed off and, ultimately, delighted that she doesn’t recognise him. For once, he is one step ahead of her. And she doesn’t know what’s around the corner for him. He’s able to observe her in action (with admiration and disapproval) and, finally, announces himself using her trademark greeting, “Hello, Sweetie.”

I particularly loved the moment when he pretends it’s his first time inside the Tardis. His gawping and gaping and OTT spiel are very amusing. “Sorry, I’ve always wanted to see that done properly.” But, but, somehow I’d hoped for more… It’s hard to pinpoint what is lacking from this episode but it feels as though, with an extra twist, funnier escapades and sharper banter for the duo, this could have been a classy screwball comedy. It’s a hectic caper, is all.    

As for the Christmas decorations… Well, snow flakes and heinous baubles infiltrate the title sequence. Yuk! The new monsters and their flying saucer have a toy-like, almost Toy Story, appeal, but the gigantic lumbering robot with detachable heads does little for me. Maybe it will excite the Time Tots. The two guest artists best known for comedy may draw in their fans and the passing curious. Greg Davies enters into the spirit of this knockabout tale, while imbuing warrior King Hydroflax with all the might and wrath of a disgruntled headmaster. And if I never glimpse another gormless goofball from Matt Lucas’s gallery of indistinguishable dweebs, I’ll be happy. The bug-headed maître d’ and the head-splitting aliens leave little impression. I liked the design of the massive interstellar cruise liner, which immediately reminded me of a similar vessel, the Empress from Nightmare of Eden (a 1979 Tom Baker serial). Deliberate, I wonder?

The plot to extract the diamond lurches towards the final reel; indeed, the jewel eventually funds the splendid restaurant with “the finest table in all the galaxy”, where the Doctor and River stop and gaze upon their future. This for me is the standout sequence – elegant, romantic but also poignant, and with brilliant performances from the leads.

If you’ve been keeping track of their romance, fragmented across eternity, you’ll know that this is destined to be one of their final encounters. Let me remind you of Forest of the Dead (2008) and River’s words moments before she died in front of David Tennant’s Doctor: “The last time I saw you, the real you, the future you, I mean, you turned up on my doorstep, with a new haircut and a suit. You took me to Darillium to see the Singing Towers. What a night that was. The Towers sang, and you cried.” Seven years on, Steven Moffat neatly picks up on that almost word for word and presents it to us. We can now rewatch Forest of the Dead and picture River having been with Doctor 12.

We see the Singing Towers, two Monument Valley-style pillars of rock, battered by time but as iconic as the Doctor and River whom they clearly echo. She senses he’s hiding his sadness and she knows that her diary he gave her long ago is almost full. The end is coming. She hopes for a loophole but he’s blunt with her: “Not everything can be avoided. Not for ever… Every night is the last night for something. Every Christmas is last Christmas… There’s no such thing as Happy Ever After. It’s just a lie we tell ourselves because the truth is so hard.” It’s a grown-up message to impart to everyone watching, cutting through the sentimental crap, which is just one thing I admire Steven Moffat for.

Then, beautifully, he lets the Time Lord play his last card and tell River that a night on Darillium lasts 24 years. “I hate you,” she blubs. “No, you don’t,” he retorts. They face each other, in love, but spare us a ghastly snog.

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Twenty-four years…! That’s one hell of a night. I said to Steven Moffat the next series should begin with the Doctor staggering from his police box, looking somewhat… drained.