This year’s Doctor Who Christmas Special, which has become as much of a tradition as the Queen’s Speech, tries to be many things. It has to reintroduce the character of River Song, while re-establishing her connection to The Doctor all while creating a story about an insane king whose life is at risk. It has to be a comedy romp that provides a fun River Song story while also attempting to provide a bit more closure to her story.
River and The Doctor’s story has become incredibly complicated throughout the show’s run and it is difficult to figure out at which point in River’s timeline this episode takes place. Matters are complicated further due to the fact that River has never seen The Doctor’s current face, meaning that for much of the episode she has no idea who he is. While at first this is a cute idea it becomes old fast, the only great scene gained from the ruse is The Doctor pretending to not know the TARDIS is bigger on the inside, Peter Capaldi having great fun pretending to be a clueless companion.It is wonderful to see Alex Kingston again, even if we learn very little by way of new information about River. In many ways this is the River Song show with The Doctor acting more as her companion, an interesting dynamic shift. The best scenes of the episode come from the interactions between River and The Doctor, and while Kingston and Capaldi lack the same chemistry that formed between her and Smith, it is fun to see the two together.
The episode is at its worst when it becomes too bogged down with the King Hydroflax storyline, as it has a hard time establishing the cyborg as a genuine threat to River or The Doctor. The most valuable diamond in the universe has become lodged in Hydroflax’s brain and is slowly killing him. River simply wants to sell the diamond and doesn’t much care what happens to the mad king when it is removed. Much of Hydroflax’s presence is felt through his cyborg body which detaches itself from his head in order to track down the pair. This is an absolute waste of the talent of Greg Davies who gets very little to do as Hydroflax, spending much of the episode as a head in a bag.
The Hydroflax story is quickly ditched towards the end of the episode, with his cyborg body being quickly dispatched by The Doctor, making it clear that really it was all a cover for the true story they wished to tell: the last time The Doctor sees River. The show has dodged the idea of showing this final night in the past, raising questions of whether we would ever see it on screen.River gets one of the strongest scenes of the episode, as she describes what its like to love The Doctor, a being who can probably never love her in return. However this scene ends up feeling dragged out, which although it’s revealed to be a way to delay her pursuers, does ruin the moment somewhat. The Doctor’s final scenes with River, which may be the last time we ever see the character, are sweet and do feel like a good close to the character.
While the story is quite paper-thin, the Christmas special does provide closure to the story of River Song, providing a scene I had wanted to see for years. I can’t help but feel that I would have preferred to see these moments with Matt Smith in the role however, as he was The Doctor most associated with the character. As it stands it’s a good end to River’s story, which feels like it misses a few opportunities.