30 December 2015

TV Review: Doctor Who - The Husbands of River Song

It's Christmas, which means Doctor Who's on the box! As River's boys assemble onscreen, what did the husbands of Kroagnon think of it?

Dave: Well good morning Matthew!
Matt: Good morning Dave!
D: How are you today?
M: I'm well thank you. How are you - looking forward to the new year?
D: Yeah, good thank you. Both looking forward to it and not. As I'm a student, January brings exams. Which are less than ideal.
M: Eurgh, yes, I remember that.

D: But shall we have a chat about The Husbands of River Song?
M: Yes, let's. Overall I thought it was probably Moffat's best Christmas special.
D: Really? I disliked it as much as all his others, bar The Snowmen.
M: Yeah, The Snowmen is the only other one I really like.
D: I suppose my main problem is River Song herself, who's a character I've never really taken to.
M: I think you know how much I detest A Christmas Carol (along with The Twin Dilemma, it's one of the episodes that goes all-out at ruining the character of Doctor Who). 
D: Yes, and while I don't dislike A Christmas Carol as much as you do, it's never worked individually or within the context of the rest of the series for me. 
M: [The Doctor, The Widow and theWardrobe was a bit cloying and dull. Time [of the Doctor] was a stodgy, plot-heavy Christmas pudding and Last Christmas kind of just happened. 
D: Wardrobe was just plain rubbish in my book. Time was the same, as well as being both too involved with and not committed enough to its agendas.
M: I thought River was less problematic in this one than she has been; I liked the role reversal where the Doctor, for once, is a step ahead of her. We've never really seen that before.
D: Yeah, that was an interesting take but sadly that was about the only thing I liked about the episode in terms of its plot.
M: I thought it was a little contrived that she takes so long to twig Capaldi is the Doctor. But maybe she's just with the audience on that one! It does seem to have taken people a long time to start warming to him. But I thought he was utterly fabulous in this.
D: Yes, normally she's shown as being all-knowing and able to sense him at a hundred yards, so it made a refreshing change at least. I thought Capaldi was alright, but he didn't seem that into the script, and I didn't think it suited him that well. I don't think it's a problem putting him a lighter-hearted setting but in the moments where it's him spearheading the comedy, he never really seems comfortable. He comes alive at the end, where it's more intimate, but like in Series 8, the broader bits aren't as successful in my book. Perhaps that's why it's taken audiences a while to warm to him - he doesn't have the universal appeal in the show itself (even now) of Tennant and Smith, and even Hurt to an extent.
M: Yeah, it's odd isn't it. For all that the Hurt Doctor is meant to represent the Doctor who didn't work, he's much more instantly likeable and cuddly than the Capaldi Doctor. But that's probably more a reflection on the reason it's hard to buy the "War Doctor" than anything.
D: I was thinking about that the other day actually. The War Doctor is supposed to be so different he's not called The Doctor, but you have to temper it somewhat so he doesn't just become A N Other Pissed Off Time Lord. If Hell Bent's Rassilon is the alternative take on an anger-fueled Time Lord in Moffat's repertoire I'll take the interpretation we got any day.
M: Hell Bent's Rassilon isn't fit to wear Dalton's gauntlet. He's an impostor.
D: [laughs]
M: The real Rassilon ascended to become a creature of consciousness alone, to lead the Celestis in Mictlan (little book nod there). 

M: Back to this episode, I thought keeping Capaldi at the edge of the action was interesting - Kingston gets most of the centre stage stuff - like the big scene where they remove Hydroflax's head and the climactic showdown with the robot.
D: Yes, all the big plot moments were hers but I think it's a credit to Capaldi that he still emerges as the lead, and not just because it's his show.
M: I thought it was interesting that River seems to spend her time alone pissing about stealing jewels and marrying various men/diamonds.
D: It's what pretty much everyone assumed she was doing anyway though, wasn't it? When not in the Stormcage at least.
M: I would say that's hardly the behaviour of a "female Doctor", but given what we learn about Tennant and Smith's offscreen adventures I'm not so sure. Poor Liz 1, Marilyn Monroe, Cleopatra...
D: River was never meant to be a female Doctor in my eyes (possibly with the exception of her first story), more what the Doctor would aspire to be if he had fewer morals.
M: I agree: she's never been a female Doctor. She's a femme fatale foil.
D: Perhaps what he (particularly Smith) daydreamed about but would never actually commit to in the way she does. I think Series 6 was the real assassination of her character for me, and Husbands took me right back there.
M: She's not really designed to have stand-alone adventures - she's defined as being the mysterious woman who knows more than she's letting on. It's a kind of classic film idea dropped into Doctor Who. She's entirely defined (literally, on screen) by her relationship with the Doctor. Which means Husbands is odd because it's the first time we've really seen what she gets up to when the Doctor's not about. Even he seems appalled by it. Which means The Diary of River Song will be interesting listening!
D: Are you getting that one?
M: Yep.
D: Ooh, I look forward to the review! I agree that River is defined by who the Doctor is, but I think even she acknowledges that, with the wallet of faces, and always being on the lookout for him. It's presented like this was one of the few adventures for her where he doesn't show up, as well as for the audience (to begin with).
M: What did you think of Greg Davies and Matt Lucas' turns in this? I thought they were mixed. Greg Davies was huge fun playing the same kind of role he specialises in - the giant, furious tyrant. It was a perfect bit of typecasting. Matt Lucas' role was a bit thankless.
D: I thought they were both pretty serviceable, but no more. The humour of the script just didn't work for me, it was too forced.
M: I think it was a self-consciously 'funny' script. But Moffat's biggest critical success pre-Who was Coupling, and Husbands fits into that vein.
D: I still haven't seen Coupling sadly! Nardole was very much the token idiot. Between him and the handsome one, was there a commentary on the Doctor? Hydroflax has the dense sidekick because he's the baddy, and a big lumbering one at that, and River has the clever, handsome Ramone because she's supposedly glamorous and intelligent. But the Doctor here has no-one. Is that what the episode is really about? I doubt it.
M: I'm not sure I saw that thematic depth to it. It was another story about endings. River knew her time was nearly up (the almost-full diary), and the Doctor knows it too. 
D: I think the Doctor also knows he's just come from an ending, even though he can't remember the specifics. That's a whole other issue if he can't remember Clara (does he remember how/why he regenerated for example, after she was the one who got him more lives) but that's a discussion for another day.
M: The final scenes on Darillium, and the (weird) gift of the [Silence in theLibrary sonic screwdriver (which I'd always assumed the Tenth Doctor provided) were cute.
D: I wouldn't go as far as cute, but they were the scenes that got the closest to emotionally involving me. I was watching with my dad, and they just made me cringe the hardest. Probably not the response the production team wanted. Moffat really likes endings as a theme doesn't he? In almost every story of his, at least in his era, that's the theme, and like you noted the Doctor's death has been the theme of four of his five series. Plus Series 6-9 focused heavily on companions leaving.
M: Yep - but it's usually deferred endings. In the previous episode it was Clara who gets to fit more adventures in before her pre-ordained death. Here, there's the "24 years" bit, and you realise that River's trip to the library could be deferred indefinitely. The Eleventh Doctor made a habit of getting out of his own ending - in the Pandorica, Lake Silencio, Trenzalore... So it's fitting that Amy, Rory, Clara and now River - all the Moffat companions - receive the same get-out. Poor Danny Pink. Was it something he said?
D: Yeah, perhaps deferring the (inevitable) end could be something to be said about Moffat's time on the show - especially at the moment...
M: It's interesting you say that, because I understand Husbands... was meant to be Moffat's final episode. How do you think it works as a swan song to his "era"?
D: Oh really? That's an interesting new light to see it in. I suppose it works well as a circular ending (fitting for River) since she was in the first story shot in his era. I don't think it's an amazing conclusion to his five series but I think it would be a successful stepping-off point if that makes sense. Particularly ending on that scene on the balcony.
M: I think it's a nice ending. It does nod towards some of the criticisms of River. Her speech about not expecting a sunset to love you back, for example.
D: Yes, she's quite tempered here compared to previous appearances, but even so she still grates on me.
M: I like your point about the loop back to Time of Angels - that starts the Moffat era with a spaceship crashing, and Husbands ends it in the same way. Neat.
D: Yeah, the more I think about, the more Husbands is to The Time of Angels what Hell Bent was to The Witch's Familiar. Oh you are clever.

M: So, the bits I liked - the treatment of River, the tone of the story (elegiac without being sentimental), Greg Davies as Hydroflax, the wallet with the photos of the first thirteen Doctors, the callbacks to The Time of Angels... The bits that didn't work for me: nothing egregiously terrible. I'm not sure I liked the laboured bits about the stories of the last night on Darillium - those didn't seem to be very honest to the Library episodes.
D: I'd have to agree, although there was a lot more I disliked. One thing I did really like which we've not mentioned were the visual effects. They were supplied here by Axis rather than Milk, and I think particularly the saucer and the bits in space looked amazing.
M: Yeah, the whole thing had an almost toyshop look to it which worked in the context of a Christmas episode. The big red robot as a physical effect, but then the big CGI bits were really lovely. And Darillium did look suitably pretty.
D: Definitely. Though I thought it was a bit of a job to actually get to the Singing Towers bit. I wonder which studio will be used going forward.
M: Which studio - and when...?
D: I still think we'll get a few episodes - even if it's just five or six - next year. Do you think it'll only be a handful of specials?
M: I'm guessing either another Season 7 scenario, or quite possibly a gap year.
D: Season 7? So twenty-five 25-minute episodes? Works for me!
M: [laughs] Imagine if they did a Season 7 now. Fans would be appalled - he's stuck in one place, it's all very worthy and serious, Liz is too know-all, the Doctor is too dour...
D: [laughs] Yes, I don't think it would go down too well!
M: If the crew are doing Class, it kind of limits their availability to also make Doctor Who until the spin-off is in the bag.
D: Yeah, Class will be a big job, no doubt. How closely it'll be tied to the main DW universe is something I've been wondering about if it's not going to feature any existing characters as protagonists.
M: I hope Danny Pink's ghost turns up to offer helpful advice. Let's wait a couple of years and they can do Clara and Company with the CGI K-9.
D: Surely we're all still waiting for Kamelion and Company? Don't tell me you didn't work out that all the stuff with Ashildr was his origin story?
M: They could just cancel the Capaldi series and do Clara and Me - An Adventure in Space and Time.
D: I think you'll find it's Clara and I.
M: The impossible girl and the woman who lived. They could go and pick up the girl who waited as well.
D: Please no.

D: Just looking over 2015 as a whole, how do you think the series has done both personally and in the public eye?
M: I think 2015 has been a bit of a shock.
D: In what way?
M: The ratings haven't exactly collapsed, but they've been disappointing. And I don't think only in the UK. In amongst everything else on TV, I'm not sure Doctor Who has stood out. And I think there's probably been more excitement and interest in Sherlock than Doctor Who. Cumberbatch is always in the news, in a way Tennant was in the late 2000s. Capaldi - not really.
D: That's partly the marketing team's fault, but at the same time if it was that good, it'd spread quickly, almost regardless of publicity. I know Mrs M is a fan anyway, but how's it gone down with him?
M: Liked it, didn't love it. General indifference.
D: OK. I think that's probably a similar overall reaction to mine. My dad - who's the only other person I know in real life who watches even half as much as me - thought it was rubbish. So bad that he didn't even watch the last four episodes. And he thought Husbands was embarrassing. He generally loves Moffat's episodes too, completely coincidentally as he never looks nor cares who writes or directs anything. On a similar note, we watched Birdman the other day and he didn't even notice that it was apparently one continuous shot.
M: 2015's been a weird one for Doctor Who: everything's been crammed into the last few months of the year, and I think it's struggled to build momentum. I think that probably reflects a bit of disillusionment with Series 8 - that didn't exactly shed viewers but I'm not sure it hooked them either. And with no new cast member for Series 9, and a really low opening night rating, it's just been hard to get people excited.
D: Beyond the hardcore viewers, I don't think there's been much interest from casual fans, particularly now it's so easy to watch something later.
M: Compare it to 2013: You had Series 7b, the big Capaldi reveal, the anniversary, the Christmas episode which everyone knew was a farewell to a much-loved character. Then Deep Breath - beautifully directed, but cold and pitched oddly and I think a lot of the goodwill from the anniversary has been lost. Does that make Series 9 the modern Season 22? Definitely feels like we're in for a hiatus! Capaldi as the initially unlikeable Doctor - a bit Twin Dilemma-ish there. Scary times!
D: I think that's a very accurate comparison. Coming off the back of 2013, not many would've thought that this would be the situation just two years later. I don't think Capaldi's to blame, as he's a superb actor. I just don't think his era's clicked with the public the way they expect(ed).
M: Yeah. I like Capaldi. I'm not sure about the 12th Doctor. Deep Breath was not pitched for families - too dark, too disturbing, too cold.
D: That's how I feel about his whole era to be honest. If he was turned down a bit - if the darkness was in patches, not the reverse - then I think we'd be looking at a better overall image for the show now. I pity Edward Russell!
M: They should have gone with a Robot - get people comfy with the new Doctor in a frothy story before you go dark. If you went from Planet of the Spiders to The Ark in Space the tonal shift would be horribly jarring. Robot smooths that a lot. Time and the Rani, for all its faults, is a better introduction for a darker Doctor than Deep Breath. And I like Deep Breath.
D: I agree. I actually rate both of them about the same.
M: I think Series 8 goes all-out to surprise and disturb the audience. And it succeeds. But at the cost of cooling the enthusiasm that was definitely there in 2013.
D: Yep. As much as 7B was a bit disappointing, it did well in building up to the anniversary, and engaged more viewers by being more accessible.

D: But, back to the present! If you had one prediction for the Doctor Who universe next year what would it be?
M: Moffat's successor will be announced - 5:1. Capaldi's successor announced - 7:1. I think they'll both be gone in 2017.
D: Ooh, interesting! Do you think their last episode will be shown next year, or just filmed next year?
M: I think it'll be filmed late next year, perhaps. But possibly early 2017. It depends when the next season starts recording.
D: Any ideas who might replace either of them?
M: None whatsoever. Reading between the lines, I think Toby Whithouse might have been one choice, but the fact Moffat seems to be staying kind of implies that hasn't come to pass.
D: It would be a shame to have two consecutive gap years, especially when Doctor Who's run has felt shorter than ever the last few years.
M: I think Moffat is probably fully engaged with Series 4 of Sherlock right now, and the BBC will no doubt be doing some thinking about how to build the ratings again next year. I would not be surprised if the next series doesn't begin with a 2016 Christmas special and run early 2017, and then follow that pattern. There seems to be a reluctance to run series either side of Christmas these days - so I don't think the special would be "mid season" - it'll either be the start or a stand-alone.
D: Yeah, I can see that working. But I think they might also put out a special prior to Christmas.
M: That could work. Who knows, eh? Who knows.
D: Well not us, that's for sure!

M: What's your Husbands score then? Mine's a solid 7/10.
D: I'd go for 3/10 at a push, I think.
M: Ouch! So that would be an aggregate of 5/10. No Golden Commendation then. I think that's why Moffat's stayed on - to have another crack at winning it!
D: [laughs] It must be. Thanks for a fun chat as always Matt!
M: Thanks Dave. Have a great New Year, speak in 2016!
D: You too!

And a happy new year to you all at home.

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