How the Doctor Who Christmas Special Finally Gave River Song the Husband She Deserves
The following post contains spoilers for the latest Doctor Who Christmas special titled “The Husbands of River Song.” But it also contains some great insight from River herself, Alex Kingston. So make sure you’ve watched the episode (go ahead, we’ll wait) and then come back and read what she has to say about Dr. Song’s first ride in the TARDIS alongside Peter Capaldi.
Everybody needs a secret weapon. For the most recent versions of the Doctor, it’s the sonic screwdriver. But for Doctor Who show-runner Steven Moffat, it’s the character River Song played by the fantastic Alex Kingston. The actress may have just taken her final ride in the TARDIS for the latest Christmas Special and spoke with Vanity Fair about how she became the most powerful weapon in Moffat’s arsenal and why she was grateful her character got such a loving goodbye.
Moffat wrote his first River episode before he was given the reins for the series and that two-parter—Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead—saw Dr. Song interact memorably with David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor before (sort of) dying. Kingston thought she would never return and if this were most any other show, that would be it for Dr. Song. But this is Doctor Who, a time-traveling series that needs only shrug and mutter “wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey” in order to bring River back for more. And that’s exactly what we got during Matt Smith’s three seasons. Much, much more. In fact, it was Alex Kingston who Moffat called on to make sure his first episodes in the position of show-runner with a brand new Doctor (Smith) and companion (Karen Gillan) went off without a hitch.
“We shot that season out of sequence. There was a tremendous pressure on them to succeed but I think, ultimately, everybody assumed they would fail because David had created such a beloved character in the Doctor,” Kingston told Vanity Fair over the phone. “My episodes, four and five, were the very first thing they committed to film just so if they were a little unsure and that lack of surety showed it wouldn’t be revealed in the first episode.”
Moffat couldn’t resist calling on Kingston to help him, once again, smooth over a Who transition. “Obviously, we’ve just lost Clara so I didn’t want to go straight into a new companion,” Moffat said in reference to the departure of Jenna Coleman’s character. But Moffat admits he had another motivation: “I brought River Song back in because I thought there’s a possibility I’d never write it [Doctor Who] again so that’ll be my goodbye. I hadn’t written River for a couple of years and I’d always loved writing for her and I’d missed her.”
When asked how she felt about being Moffat’s secret weapon, Kingston joked, “Bring Alex in! I know. I should hope that I’m a little bit more than that!” But Kingston’s character is in the rare position of having been special to three versions of the Doctor; an honor only Elisabeth Sladen’s Sarah Jane Smith can also claim. But she’s also a character that, while hugely popular, reflected some problems of the Moffat/Smith era.
First of all there was the tangled web of River/Melody and her whole mythology. Moffat grew a little dependent, for awhile, on creating female characters who were puzzles for the Doctor to solve. But, more frustratingly, River never truly got her romantic due as the Doctor’s wife. David Tennant’s Doctor greeted her mostly with suspicion (and, ultimately, sympathy) having never met her before and Matt Smith’s treatment of her was often combative or exasperated. “It’s stupid. You embarrass me. Why do you have to be this?” he famously flung at her just before an uncomfortable wedding scene that many consider to be the pinnacle of a dysfunctional relationship.
Dysfunctional relationships became a little de rigueur for Moffat both on Doctor Who and his version of Sherlock starring Benedict Cumberbatch. Eleven’s iciness towards River is similar to Sherlock’s iciness towards, well, everyone. It’s an unfortunate narrative tick that Moffat seems to have shaken off during Capaldi’s most recent season. Then Capaldi and Moffat doubled down on the warmth for the Christmas Special.
When River tearfully explained to a room full of enemies that her feelings for the Doctor were entirely unrequited, it felt like a catharsis for the audience as much as it was for the characters. And when Capaldi’s Doctor looked at her with dawning horror as to what he had put her through and, then, complete tenderness, it went a long way to heal years of a love story that sometimes felt one-sided and rarely felt particularly loving.
Best of all, that sweet echo of River’s famous greeting from the Doctor did nothing to dampen the fizz-pop energy Capaldi and Kingston shared throughout the episode. Kingston has always known her way around a quip but she found the ideal scene partner in Capaldi. Moffat compared their dynamic to Mr. and Mrs. Smith but it’s much closer to the screwball charm of His Girl Friday. Theirs is a chemistry that just works. As Kingston puts it, “I described working with Matt, Karen, and Arthur [Darvill] as spending a day with a basket of puppies. But with Peter its very different because he’s much more focused. He’s just so funny with the faces he pulls on-screen. He’s one of those actors that when you’re actually working next to him you don’t actually see it. He’s brilliant to watch.”
More than anything, Kingston says, she’s glad her character got some proper closure. Speaking about River’s previous sort-of send-off in Matt Smith’s penultimate episode, The Name of the Doctor, Kingston explains, “I didn’t really know my role in it. For me, it was sort of a strange episode. It ended in a way that I felt I was somewhat left hanging with no idea or confirmation or anything that my character would be back. In the time in-between meeting fans, of course, that was the overriding question. ‘When is River coming back?” I said, ‘You’ve got to tweet Steven and ask him.’”
Whether or not we can thank the tweets, it seems Moffat decided River deserved a proper goodbye. So how do you say goodbye to someone who has already had her death scene? It’s always tricky to map out the interactions between River and the Doctor. (As Capaldi’s Doctor meta-joked in the Christmas Special, most people need a flow chart to figure out the love story of two time travelers.) But as River makes it very clear in this episode, she’s never met Capaldi’s version of the Doctor before. So that rules out any pre-existing adventures between the two. The episode ends with River and the Doctor enjoying a dinner date at the Singing Towers of Darillium something that, the episode takes care to remind you, immediately precedes River’s deathly adventures in the library. (We weren’t kidding about that flow chart.) So since there are no more options for adventures with the 10th, 11th, or 12th Doctors and since River never met the first nine incarnations, this is probably it for her. Peter Capaldi got the honor of taking River out for one last ride.
If Matt Smith had his way, though, he never would have had to share Kingston with another Doctor. “I said this to Steven [Moffat]. I was like, ‘Listen, just don’t! Just not Alex. Anyone else, but don’t give [Capaldi] River… I am really proud of the fact that Alex was part of number Eleven’s life. My wife!” Smith told a Comic-Con audience in 2014. “I was very conscious of it potentially not being easy for Matt,” Kingston says.
But, as it turns out, it may be Steven Moffat who is the most possessive of the Doctor’s wife. “He knows my character really well and he’s the only one who writes for her,” Kingston says. And by tying up her story in a neat bow, Moffat ensured he will stay the only Doctor Who writer to tale the story of River Song. Then again, the nights are long on Darillium and who knows what wibbly-wobbly antics a time-travelling archeologist might get up to? But, to quote River Song, “When you run with the Doctor, it feels like it’ll never end. But however hard you try you can’t run forever.” It was a hell of a run.
See you in the Library, Sweetie.
Happy New Year.
Posted on December 30, 2015, in Doctor Who, Science Fiction, Uncategorized and tagged BBC, BBC America, companion, Doctor, Doctor Who, doctorwho, fandom, History, husbands of river song, Peter Capaldi, regeneration, River Song, Steven Moffat, TARDIS, The Doctor, Time Lord. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.