Those of you who read the last Doctor Who review I did (if not, feel free to go back and check, I’ll be right here when you return) might remember that I was expecting this particular episode to be the dead spider under my Christmas tree. That was because it’s an episode about River Song: archeologist, wife to the Doctor and full-time insufferably smug ball of “isn’t she great” flawlessness, whose presence tends to improve Doctor Who episodes in the same way that chainsaws tend to improve heart surgery.
And then I actually watched it. And…well, maybe it’s a Christmas miracle, or maybe my heart’s just grown three sizes in the interim, but you know what, I don’t think that episode was actually too bad. There are still better Christmas specials (including last year’s Last Christmas), but it was fun and funny, with some genuinely great moments sprinkled over it like snow on a Christmas card. Also, I realise that I just praised two Moffat episodes in a sentence there. Soon they’ll be taking my Fan Card away.
This is unashamedly one of those episodes where reviewers start using words like “romp” and “whimsical”, as opposed to the grim and contemplative nature of the last few stories. There’s not that much in the way of serious threat until the episode hits its climax. The villain is a stomping bright-red robot body whose head spends most of the episode ranting in a bag (who’s entertainingly played by Greg Davies of Inbetweeners fame) and there’s so many snappy one-liners between the Doctor and River that Joss Whedon would probably ask them to tone it down a bit. Furthermore, after a bit of buildup, it turns out that the answer to “what does the Doctor think of all that premeditated murder and bouts of theft River gets up to without him” is apparently not much, since there’s no point where he actually calls her out on it.
But it’s Christmas, so I guess if they were going to do a silly stand-alone adventure to watch while sleepy and a little bit drunk, it was probably a good time to make one. At the risk of sounding too invested in the welfare of fictional characters, after losing Clara and getting murdered every day for four and a half billion years the Doctor’s earned a light-hearted adventure (indeed, one of the quietly sad moments in this episode is the Doctor acknowledging he can’t remember the last time he laughed). Speaking of laughter, as a comedy episode this one works quite well – the funniest moment being the part where the Doctor finally gets to be the one to have a “it’s BIGGER on the INSIDE” moment with the TARDIS.
Moffat also gets a chance to show his propensity for coming up with cool and striking concepts and just casually tossing them in his episodes for five minutes. There’s the Shoal of the Winter Harmony, who can casually rip their heads in half down the middle and keep precious trinkets in the gore, there’s the Doctor offhandedly having a restaurant built so he can book a table a few hundred years in the future and, similarly, there’s River studying famous historical ship-crashes so she can travel back to them and steal the loot. There’s also the Starship Harmony and Redemption: a voyage of the damned for the universe’s finest genocidal monsters, where even the staff have body-counts. (Incidentally, that last bit’s a neat narrative shortcut to get around the fact the Doctor doesn’t actually save anyone this episode).
What else? One technical complaint that did come up around this episode was that bits of the dialogue could be hard to make out, due to some mumbling from the actors and some particularly loud pieces in the score from Murray Gold, and for me the use of subtitles did become necessary halfway through.
Then there’s the feisty, gun-toting elephant in the room: River Song herself. She’s always been the femme fatale with a murky past who constantly flirts with the hero while draped in an air of superiority, and in that respect she’s the same as she ever was. And the same as Missy ever was. And the same as Tasha Lem ever was. And the same as over in Sherlock Irene Adler ever was. But though she’s still not my favourite character, at least Moffat levels some of the complaints made about her this time. Here, more than in any other episode, we see that River has a life separate of the Doctor, and now that we’re at the end of her character-arc it’s easier to see how she’s earned that air of superiority.
Yes you heard me right, we’re finally at the end of her character-arc. The Doctor gets a new haircut and a suit, meets her at the Singing Towers of Darillium and gives her his screwdriver, all of which was prophesized all the way back in Forest of the Dead (so points for continuity). And if there must be a Christmas moral to be found in this solid standalone episode, I suppose that’s it. Once again, “every Christmas is last Christmas”. All good relationships must come to an end, so it’s pretty great to have one day a year to meet up with the ones you love, show them you care and party in the face of winter.
Enjoy the rest of your holidays, everyone.