Apologies for posting this several days late but … Christmas, you guys. Cookies, Champagne punches, sleeping like housecats…you know the drill. Every year, we wind up posting the Doctor Who Christmas Special review several days late and every year we spend those several days wondering if we should even bother since presumably a good portion of our readership is also full of cookies and punch at the moment. But every year we come to the same conclusion at roughly the same time: leaving our opinions unexpressed is almost physically painful, you guys. It’s a release valve kind of thing.
Now, having said that, our opinions are all the hell over the place on this one. Lorenzo, who is not what one would call an active Doctor Who fan, but has enjoyed plenty of episodes in a passive, looking-over-his-laptop kind of way, said at the end of the episode, “I know this show is supposed to be whimsical or whatever, but this was just weird and silly.” Tom had to agree, but found himself defending the episode nonetheless. Yes, the whole thing with the guy’s head was weird, loud, and too broadly played. If you’re only a casual viewer of the show, as Lo is, then you’re probably not going to have a lot of patience with these types of stories, which are, one could say, part of a long Doctor Who tradition. As is so often said whenever a particularly silly episode of this show airs, one has to remember that for all its international success and increasingly sophisticated storytelling, Doctor Who will always be a show that occasionally panders to the children in its audience – or, to put it more accurately, panders to those in the audience who want child-like entertainment. This becomes even more true when discussing a Doctor Who Christmas episode, which have always been (in the Nu Who era, that is), broadly played whimsical pieces with heavy doses of sentimentality. In other words, holiday family entertainment. Insofar as you can say such a thing about an episode that starred a decapitated head.
So yes, the main story was rather loud and kind of dumb and because it’s meant to appeal to the whole family on Christmas day (rather than just hardcore Who fans), it’s perhaps not uncommon for a viewer to feel that the characters are all acting slightly off from their normal selves. The Doctor was more or less fine, but we got to see an entirely new side of River, which was both revelatory and a little irritating. Then again, that’s pretty much always been her character to a T: revelatory and irritating. Even so, it took us quite some time to get used to a River who thinks the Doctor is nowhere near her. Apparently, she’s still, after everything she’s been through, a bit of a psychopath. Granted, she appears to be a psychopath who visits her psychopathy only on people who deserve it, but it was a bit of a shock to see how much the Doctor reins her in when he’s around her.
That could’ve been a disastrous way of depicting her, considering how badly her character development was bungled over the course of her time in the series, going as she did from bold, smart adventurer to a woman whose entire life was seeming constructed around the Doctor’s. What had been a fun, charismatic and interesting character was turned into a “wife” the Doctor seemed to find annoying at best; a Doctor groupie who never understood how little she meant to the man she worshipped. But Steven Moffat seems to have been spending much of his latter days on the series either correcting previous mistakes in the narrative or answering specific criticisms of his work. It’s rather clear the charges of sexism leveled against him have been powering and informing a lot of the storytelling this season and with this episode, it seems like he wanted to take the chance to correct some of the poor work done on this character as well as to address certain criticisms of her portrayal.
Because we come to find out that she has an entire (very active and very colorful) life that has nothing whatsoever to do with the Doctor – except in the sense that she has apparently been routinely stealing the TARDIS right out from under him for years. It turns out she was never clueless about how badly the Doctor had treated her nor was she unbothered by it. Instead she was pragmatic and a little hardened by her relationship with him; taking from him what she could get out of him, telling herself that he needed her more than she needed him, and ultimately, admitting in a beautifully played and written monologue that you “don’t expect the sunset to admire you.” In other words, she always knew how one-sided their relationship was and made some (in retrospect) healthy choices as to how she wanted to frame him in her life. It subtly recasts (and probably retcons) her entire arc into something that gives her a little more agency and control over herself, even if it does make her do and say some pretty crazy things to compensate for it.
Additionally, in one fell swoop, that final scene gave the viewers something we honestly never thought we’d see or even thought we should ask for: a true marriage between the Doctor and River. For all the talk about how she was his wife, the only part of their relationship that ever seemed remotely like a marriage was their bickering. He never truly appeared to be attracted to her and in fact, there were many times over the years where it felt like he actively disliked her. But when the Doctor revealed that her final night was going to be 24 years long and he intended to spend it with her, we admit, we got a little teary-eyed ourselves. Yes, it was ultimately just a silly fluff of family entertainment wrapped in a particularly loud and bombastic package, and maybe River got played out as a character several years back. And sure, it’s not always a good idea for a creator to go back over their work and try to correct weak points through some heavy retconning (because none of this lines up with the River we saw in “Silence in the Library”), but it’s hard for us to deny how pleased we were that River Song, who was once one of our favorite characters in Who lore but had tumbled down the list due to some extremely poor storytelling choices, finally felt like a well-rounded (albeit a bit nuts) person who more or less got the life she deserved and wanted for herself. Maybe it wasn’t a great episode, but it had great heart and the ending was surprisingly satisfying.
Besides, even if the rest of it was shite, it’s hard to deny that Peter Capaldi and Alex Kingston have INSANE chemistry with each other. So much so, that it kinda feels like the whole relationship with Matt Smith’s 11th Doctor was a huge mistake, in retrospect. They should have saved her for Twelve, because now we find ourselves, to our complete surprise, wishing we could be treated to just a few more adventures with the two of them together.
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