This year’s Christmas special sees the return of River Song—for the last time? It’s likely. But you never really know….
In the year 5343, a man named Nardole is searching for a surgeon employed to attend King Hydroflax. He stumbles upon the TARDIS and believes that the Doctor is the surgeon in question, bringing him to a crashed ship where River Song appears. She implores the Doctor to save the life of her husband, Hydroflax, and takes him aside to discuss the surgery. The Doctor is bothered by the fact that she does not appear to recognize him. She admits that her marriage to Hydroflax is a sham—she married him for the diamond lodged in his skull known as the Halassi Androvar, and has no problem killing him for it because he’s a murderer who eats his enemies. Hydroflax overhears their conversation and has his mechanical body detach his flesh and blood head, daring her to take it. She does, and asks a man named Ramone to teleport herself and the Doctor while defending herself with a sonic trowel.
They are teleported a bit too high above the ground, resulting in their landing on their backs in the snow. The Doctor begins to laugh at the absurdity of the situation with River eventually joining in. Ramone shows up, who River introduces as her actual husband (he doesn’t remember this; she claims she wiped his mind of it because he was “being annoying”). It turns out that River deliberately crashed Hydroflax’s ship because it was a place she thought most likely to encounter the Doctor—whom she refers to as “the damsel.” It turns out that she has pictures of every single one of his faces except the current one—she doesn’t know that the Doctor was granted a new set of regenerations—explaining why the doesn’t know Twelve.
Hydroflax’s robot body takes Nardole’s head, believing that he has info on River. The Doctor, River, and Ramone arrive at the TARDIS, and River says that if the Doctor doesn’t show, they’ll have to steal the ship. She goes in and the Doctor gets the chance to pretend to the be person who talks about how it’s bigger on the inside. When the TARDIS won’t take off, the Doctor suggests that the ship has a failsafe that prevents it from taking off when a body is half-in half-out—and they only have Hydroflax’s head. Outside, Ramone is tricked by Nardole, who is being coerced by the robot suit to lure him. The suit then takes his head and forces its way onto the TARDIS. With the whole body on board, the ship immediately goes to the coordinates River set, which is the starship Harmony and Redemption, a cruise that only carries genocidal passengers and murderous staff. River asks the Maitre’d Flemming to deadlock seal the baggage hold so that Hydroflax’s body can’t follow them onto the ship.
At dinner waiting for the buyer of the diamond, River takes out her TARDIS journal and the Doctor asks about it and why she seems sad. She tells him that the diary is almost full, and that the person who gave it to her would know how long it needed to be. The buyer arrives and pulls a device out of his head that can transfer funds from banks all over the galaxy, which he will use to pay her. It turns out that Scratch, along with everyone in the restaurant are people who honor King Hydroflax, so handing Scratch his head might not be the best idea. The Doctor puts a spin on it, suggesting that it’s far better for that. In the meantime, Flemming is tricked into the baggage hold, and has to release the Hydroflax suit in order to avoid losing his head. He also tells the suit that he could obtain a much better head than Hydroflax’s, which has undergone too much stress on its journey; the Doctor, who is known a River Song’s husband.
The suit vaporizes the head, leaving only the diamond behind, then asks River where the Doctor is. She insists that he’s not there, tearfully explaining that despite the information the suit has, the Doctor does not love her and would never be here for her. The Doctor is moved and approaches her—when River turns and looks into his eyes, she realizes it is him.
It turns out that River has the perfect escape plan because she looked up the ship in the future. They’re standing in the right place to survive the meteor shower that hits the ship,and she catches the diamond on the way. The Doctor gives the bank node to Hydroflax’s suit to destroy it with information, then they head to the bridge. River realizes that the ship is about to crash on Darillium—home of the Singing Towers where she reported to spend her final night with the Doctor (back when she first met him in “Silence in the Library.”) The Doctor teleports River into the TARDIS to keep her safe while he tries to save the ship. She materializes the TARDIS around him to save him. They both emerge onto the bridge and finally decide that the space cruiser is a lost cause, heading back into the TARDIS and both getting knocked out front he crash outside. The Doctor wakes and emerges first into the wreckage, right outside the Singing Towers. He finds a rescue worker there and gives him the diamond, advising him to build a restaurant on the spot. Then he goes forward into the future to book a reservation at that restaurant, and then four years further into the future to attend that reservation.
River wakes and goes outside to find a hostess, who tells her that that Doctor is waiting for her at their table. It turns out that Hydroflax’s robot body is there with Ramone and Nardole’s heads still present; they were pulled from the wreckage and reprogrammed to be a waiter. The Doctor is there in a new suit, and he gives River a present—her own sonic screwdriver. Then they watch the towers, and River asks if the stories she heard are true, if this is truly their last night together. The Doctor won’t admit to it, but they argue about endings, and the Doctor insists that there is no such thing as a Happily Ever After. River insists that Happy Ever After isn’t about eternity, it’s about having time. She asks how long they have—
—and the Doctor reveals that one night on Darillium lasts 24 whole years. And they lived happily ever after…
I’m a great big sap, and if you’re not, you probably won’t like what I have to say about this episode. Which is that it’s beautiful and resonant and lovely, and everything I ever wanted out of a River Song episode. Especially from the potential last one.
Sure, there are things about this episode that are clunky. The parameters and abilities of Hydroflax’s suit don’t really make sense as they’re described throughout the episode, and the choice to have an entire cruise full of murderers is a clear out to prevent the Doctor and River from having to save anyone on this particular trip. (It’s a clever out, though.) Hydroflax himself is a confusing sort of villain. He seems fine with dying at first, only to really care about protecting himself later on. Not everything in the plot adds up, although that’s sort of par for the course with Doctor Who Christmas specials because they’re more about making you feel stuff.
And this one is a doozy.
This story is pure sentimentality, and I mean that as a compliment. It’s about who we love and how we love them and why we need people and when. It’s about the pain of endings, and the need to be seen by people completely. It is the last true hurrah of the Doctor and River Song, and I’m so gratified that Capaldi was the one to do it, because he’s the only one who could get it just right.
Full disclosure: I have had a problem with River Song since season five. And that’s because the character who was hinted at in her first appearance is not the woman we normally saw on the show. Once Amy and Rory showed up it was all about her secret identity as their daughter, and all about how her entire existence revolved around the Doctor in every possible way. The suggestions that Moffat originally made about River’s agency as a part-time companion, as a woman who came in and out of the Doctor’s life as she saw fit, as someone who had absurd adventures across the universe that were entirely her own, that was all discarded in favor of a woman who spent most of her time obsessing over the Doctor to the exclusion of her own story. It was baffling.
This River is the one I had been waiting for, searching for. She’s a bit careless and incredibly dangerous and entirely cavalier. She does what she wants because she wants to. She’s aware of the fact that “archaeologist” and “thief” are sometimes the same thing. (Indiana Jones would be annoyed at the conflation. He would also be wrong.) This River Song frequently steals the TARDIS when the Doctor is nearby so she can use it for whatever she has planned, then pops it back before he notices. This River forces the Doctor to tag along while she handles the situation. She’s not always kind and she’s definitely not safe. That little mean streak in her is part of what makes her interesting, the sort of person who would callously erase her husband’s memory of their marriage because he annoyed her. She’s not always right, but you can count on her to act. The River who we met in the Library finally reappeared on the show.
It was also nice to have her pansexuality confirmed, even if it was only in passing. (We already knew that she’d dated androids and found nearly everyone in Lux’s expedition attractive, but the center focus on the Doctor made it impossible for us to learn anything else about River’s romantic life.) I wonder what her wives were like….
Moffat employed clever workaround in this episode—it was already suggested in the season six webisode set that the Eleventh Doctor took River to the Singing Towers (the mini-sode was “Last Night”); he was dressed in a tux and made made mention of them heading there—but the plot avoided the complication by having River mention that he kept making the reservation and canceling it. A smart move for sure; it never sat right that the moment happened off camera, given its importance in their relationship.
What we are given in its stead is so much more. Because the way that River was used throughout Matt Smith’s era always felt a little cruel. She spent most of it in prison, popping in and out for joyrides, always there for the Doctor even though we’d been led to believe on River’s introduction that he was always there for her. So we finally learn what it all feels like from River Song’s end, that despite the intensity of their relationship, she knows the Doctor doesn’t love her in the same way that she loves him. That he is her “damsel,” as she says, but she’s sure he doesn’t see her as his white knight.
Except that the Doctor is a bit older and wiser now. And while he may not love her in quite the same way, he surely loves her deeply in his own. That gradual approach as she rambles on about him, the pure affection and sadness in his face, that soft reply of her old line (because it’s his only chance to say it first): “Hello, sweetie.” Only this Doctor could get it across, could make it clear how much she matters. And when they make it out alive, the way they always do, the Doctor doesn’t just set up a dinner date, he creates the date from scratch, years in the making. He gives her that night at the Singing Towers of Darillium.
We know it’s the end for them, that this is their final bow together. And the talk of goodbyes is sad, but true as ever—that happy endings don’t last forever, that even the Doctor cannot get out of certain finite rules in the universe, a point which has been made abundantly clear to him of late. He tells River he can’t fix this, can’t change it around the way he always does, and it’s almost too much to bear, especially in light of what the Doctor and River have both recently been through in their respective timelines.
And then we get our Christmas gift—one night on Darillium is twenty-four years. The end is a lengthy thing, with room to breathe, to savor, to experience. How fitting: the gift of a Time Lord is time itself.
Knowing that is a relief because River deserves this happy ending and because the Doctor does too. He has just lost the memories of his dearest friend after doing everything in his power to get her back. And in his hour of need, River appears for one last adventure—
—his faithful white knight after all.
Random goodness and meta asides:
- Um, I am all about the TARDIS giving the Doctor holographic antlers to try and cheer him up. I am all about the TARDIS doing anything to try and cheer the Doctor up. Does she play bouncy music? Stock the kitchen with ice cream? Explode random panels so there’s fun stuff for him to fix?
- Loved the opener with the snow everywhere. I squealed like a small child about it.
- The Doctor’s joke about how his relationship with River required “a flowchart” is a meta nod to the many fans who have made flowcharts to that exact purpose.
- I would love a sonic trowel, please. That was an excellent idea, River, keep ‘em coming.
- Watching the Doctor flip out about the TARDIS interior the way he thinks people should do it is one of my favorite moments in the entire series, hand down.