‘Doctor Who’ Christmas Special Lives Up to Expectations

It’s that special time of year when something magical happens: The ‘Doctor Who’ Christmas Special, of course! Happy Holidays Whovians!

Bernard Cribbins as Wilfred Mott in Doctor Who “Voyage of the Damned” (S4CS) Photo: BBC Gif: docorwho via Tumblr

Christmas time for Doctor Who fans is a slightly emotionally distressing and generally confusing time of year. In seasons past, things have ended on notes that have left fans to deal with the likes of regeneration, a new companion, the Titanic 2, stories of hope and love and so much loss. Like an immense of sadness ranging from the utterly absurd to the extremely disappointing (i:e “The Next Doctor”/”Last Christmas”). The Doctor usually travels on these particular adventures alone. Twice now, he’s met his future companion in a Christmas episode, but this year took a different perspective and instead teamed the Doctor up with River Song.

My opinion on this matter is well documented, and now that we finally have the episode to actually draw on, I can confirm that my opinion goes unchanged. Seriously, is the nightmare over?! I’m actually asking. If someone knows Steven Moffat please find out and get back to me because I need confirmation that this wasn’t a tease. It was barely tolerable knowing that River was returning but if this was some kind of story to get the future retcon treatment and not the conclusion to River’s story that it ended up turning into I will lose the last shred of respect I have for Doctor Who and that’s already in a fairly precarious state.

I understand that, at its heart, this show is a children’s show but there are so many elements to it that go beyond that. Until it actually behaves like a children’s show. This usually happens during the specials because what better way to celebrate Christmas than to get everyone around the TV for some Doctor Who? And this special was no exception. But here’s what I don’t understand, we know how I feel about River, but what do people like about her? Because here’s the thing about this episode, there were about a million things in the first 17 minutes alone that had me rolling my eyes.

It starts with River calling herself a doctor for about a nanosecond. Yes, she’s a PhD but taking it to the place she does where she initially behaves like him is something that has gotten so old. Clara did it a lot. Clara did it more than was acceptable. What happened to being strong based on being exactly who you were? Martha never called herself the Doctor? And she was a doctor! She was Martha Jones! More importantly the only person who has the authority to even remotely associate with that title is Donna and she can’t remember it. So let’s stop playing that game.

But in the interest of the holiday season and goodwill and all that I can kind of sort of let that aspect of the early part of the episode go. It doesn’t really happen again until River produces her TARDIS key and tells him that she’s taken the TARDIS lots of times. That woman has lost all creditably to be anywhere near that blue box (can’t stop her from being around the mad man it seems). She tried to stop it from making its iconic noise so I don’t care if the TARDIS at one point taught her how to fly it.  Again, though I think I can let this go. It’s not my favorite thing. I’m not excusing River or more specifically Moffat but these are small issues. In the same way that I could not stand the Doctor repeating her catchphrases back to her, which was like watching a certain showrunner stroke his own ego.

The major function of the episode was actually much deeper. People will find all kinds of joy in the conclusion to River’s story. The Doctor and River finally go to Dallirium to see the singing towers. But there was an underlying point throughout the episode that has been a major issue with Steven Moffat’s version of Doctor Who. And that’s why I don’t understand why people like River so much.

She’s seen as this vivacious, strong woman but she’s not. She’s in love with the Doctor. Her entire story revolves around the Doctor. She held the freaking world hostage and forced him to marry her in order to then help him save it. She went from being programmed to kill the Doctor to being utterly obsessed with him and there’s nothing healthy about that version of a relationship. No matter how much she switches the narrative around in her head, calling him a “damsel in distress” or tossing out small lines like, “You’re a man stop thinking it’s weird” does not make her some kind of leading female icon. Because in the end, River needed saving. She couldn’t do it herself. Even worse the whole episode was wrapped around the idea that River is married to multiple men.

This was silly. She’s a time traveler, of course she’s probably been married lots of times but it was so much worse than that. River exists in a world where there are no consequences. Prior to Clara’s Time Lord-y return in the season nine finale, it was River who was the definitive example of what happens when you let Steven Moffat go around and create things consequence free.

She can go and steal the TARDIS and cause all manner of havoc and it doesn’t seem to matter. We know she doesn’t abide by the same rules as the Doctor. She admits it herself that she will kill a man for a diamond. But here’s where I have my biggest issue with the episode. When we find out that River is married to King Hydroflax (Greg Davies), it’s because she has a literal vested interest. He has a very important and rare diamond lodged in his head. River isn’t above murdering him for it but that’s besides the point.

There is a line that is repeated several times, “I basically married the diamond” and while it seems to mean nothing, it is easily one of the most egregiously rude things that Steven Moffat has ever stuck into one of his episodes. It’s subtle but it’s so insulting. Here we have a character who completely bases her entire life off of the Doctor but is literally judged by the man himself for wanting a big rock.

If this isn’t a nasty comment about how woman feel about marriage, I don’t know what is. I get that I was definitely looking for something to be mad about. That is no secret. But who knew I wouldn’t have to actively look? I couldn’t see my own horrified face while I was watching but I know it was there because people kept asking me if I was okay and I could only hold the remote and say that I just wanted it to be over. Was this line supposed to be funny? Because it wasn’t. Now perhaps it went unnoticed by others because you would think I would be here celebrating that River gets the sonic and next time we see her within her specific timeline she’ll show up in the library. But I can’t. Because I’m offended for her.

Not only is River’s story about an unhealthy obsession but she marries the Doctor and then in this Christmas special gives a whole speech about how she doesn’t believe he ever loved her. Here’s the thing. That speech was full of so much nonsense. Why is it okay to be so wholeheartedly obsessed with him with no hope of reciprocation? The way it was executed said that she was hoping the Doctor would show up and profess his eternal love for her because she was in mortal danger of her own creating and the thing is that’s exactly what happened! The Doctor was there to not only save her but validate both of their feelings, which have never felt genuine.

River is only as important as her husbands. At least that’s what this episode says. There’s a huge agency issue and that’s a whole other topic that will be discussed at some point but she’s important because she’s married to the Doctor. She’s important because she’s married. King Hydroflax is important because of the diamond. And then that diamond becomes the restaurant where River and the Doctor see each other and recognize each other for the last time.

Alex Kingston as River Song in Doctor Who Photo: BBC Gif: amythegloriouspond via Tumblr

This is exactly why I have so many issues with River and with any episode she’s in. What we get out of this is an explanation that a woman is only as interesting as the men in her life. It’s Steven Moffat making a joke but actually commenting on some very real issues and not in a helpful way. River is a harmful character to the show and I would go so far as to argue that she’s worse than Missy but then Missy also called the Doctor her boyfriend when we first met her so really they’re the same.

Again this is an ongoing problem that has yet to be fixed and one I have commented on repeatedly. There’s a lot to talk about with this particular aspect and I honestly didn’t expect to even have to bring it up in the Christmas Special but here we are!

My overall expectations for the episode were low and this is exactly where they stayed. I’m glad I had fair warning that River would be in it and I really hope that this is finally the end. I was under the impression that River and Eleven had already gone to Darillium in one of the “Night of the Doctor” mini-episodes but then we had Moffat rewriting himself again so who knows.

I’m not opposed to the silliness of the episode. In a lot of way, I’d prefer silly. “Christmas Invasion” is a great example of expertly walking that line between appealing to children and adult. It’s an imperfect episode, it has the impossible task of introducing a new Doctor in the newly rebooted series. And it has ridiculous scenes like the Doctor losing his hand (which ends up being extremely important to the overall story and was not just done for the sake of it!) but it also has heart. And Ten…Okay, it’s actually not even a little bit fair to compare the two because I’m super biased, I just wanted an excuse to talk about it.

But that’s the thing. I want the show to appeal to the adults who watch. And this Christmas special did manage to have a moment that worked in exactly the same way that “Christmas Invasion” works for me. I’m pretty sure it will go down as not just a great scene but a favorite Capaldi scene. When River explained the TARDIS being bigger on the inside Capaldi looked so perfectly affronted and then he realized the absolutely perfect situation it created. When he straightens his jacket and says, “Finally! It’s my turn,”  it looks like the moment an actor gets the part they were born for! And the way he reacts to the TARDIS is so well-played. Even River is enjoyable in the scene with her ambivalence to his reaction. We’ve all been there. In fact seeing companions or just one-time TARDIS riders react to it will never cease to be a joy in the same way we all have our own memories about the first times we saw those doors open. It also helps that the Doctor added just a touch of sarcasm and I do love that aspect of the Twelfth Doctor.

Peter Capaldi as the Doctor in Doctor Who Photo: BBC Gif: me13in via Tumblr

All in all, it’s probably no shock that I’m frustrated, but unfortunately, I don’t have a TARDIS or know the guy who does. I’ll have to spend the hiatus until season ten sorting through that frustration. Lucky for us, there’s still lots to talk about while we wait and you can expect all kinds of commentary. Moffat is sticking around for season ten a fact that will launch me into a never-ending commentary on how badly I need this to change. The good news is the Doctor has a new sonic! Though the sunglasses apparently are still around, which is confusing, I thought that Clara had them? And the most fun thing to look forward to is the announcement of a new companion!

So what did you think that River’s story has finally reached its conclusion? Do you think this was the last we’ll see of her? What about your hopes for the new companion? Anything in particular you’d like to see? Share your thoughts in the comments! Happy New Year Whovians!

Doctor Who returns for season 10 in 2016.

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