Discussing Doctor Who: The Husbands of River Song

Doctor Who Christmas special Husbands of River Song

We finish out Doctor Who season 9 with the Christmas special, “The Husbands of River Song.”  They’ll be plenty of “spoilers, sweetie,” as I break down this episode with—as always—my friend Kevin Harvey, author of All You Want to Know About The Bible in Pop Culture.

Previously, we talked about each episode from the season: “The Magician’s Apprentice” and “The Witch’s Familiar,” “Under the Lake” and “Before the Flood,” “The Girl Who Died” and “The Woman Who Lived,” “The Zygon Invasion” and “The Zygon Inversion,” “Sleep No More,” “Face the Raven,” “Heaven Sent” and “Hell Bent.” We also shared our thoughts on the entire season 9.

Now, let’s get into what might be the last adventure with the wife of the Doctor.

As an epilogue to season 9, what did you think of “The Husbands of River Song”?

Kevin: When we left the Doctor at the end of “Hell Bent,” he had been wiped of all memories of Clara, so how do we get back into his adventures and not pretend that the last three or so years didn’t happen? Will the companion who affected him more than perhaps any other still have a lasting effect, despite him not remembering her?

We’ll probably have to wait until next season to really be able to answer that, but something very subtle at the beginning of this episode made me smile. When Nardole knocks on the TARDIS’s door asking for the surgeon, what does the Doctor do? He helps out this stranger immediately. The reason this made me smile was because Clara’s final message to the Doctor, written on his chalkboard, was “Run you clever boy, and be a Doctor.” So a Doctor he was going to be.

But if I may also rate it as a Christmas episode, this one is near the top for me. My favorite has always been “A Christmas Carol,” and I’m also quite fond of “The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe” (and I have no doubt you love that one too). “The Husbands of River Song” may fall after those two, mostly because of the wonderfully funny script. After the very dark and serious tone of season 9, this was a nice break, and probably just what everyone needed after the tearful goodbye(s) of Clara.

Aaron: That is a great catch about him being a Doctor and fulfilling Clara’s wish. I hadn’t thought about that. But I agree that this is the perfect epilogue to the season. I used that term intentionally because it almost serves like a Marvel post-credit scene. It’s connected to the season before it, but it often acts as a pallet cleanser. We have a reminder that the Doctor can be funny and the show can be fun, after such a heavy season and finale.

We haven’t had these types of adventures or straight up romps with the Doctor since Matt Smith’s 11th Doctor. I’ve missed those. But even this one had some serious turns. That poignant last act, starting with River realizing the Doctor is standing beside her, turned on a dime, but did so seamlessly. (Thanks to Capaldi and Alex Kingston.)

I’m not sure where I would rank this among the Christmas specials. Outside of the Narnia allusions, “The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe” was a bit disappointing to me. “Voyage of the Damned” may have been my favorite. Ignoring episodes like “The End of Time” and “The Time of the Doctor” where we see regenerations and pivotal events, this was one of the best standalone stories. I would place this along with “A Christmas Carol.” It was a great, fun episode—definitely better than Capaldi’s previous one, “Last Christmas.”

How much did you miss River?

Aaron: I didn’t realize how much until this episode. She’s such a fun, unique character in one way, I mean, she’s married to the Doctor. I don’t think anyone else can say that. Not to mention, she actually knows his real name.

She knows more about the Doctor than almost anyone and that gives her an advantage over most, but (as we saw) he can still surprise her. That extended (and complex) history coupled with interesting new facets of their relationship make them great on the screen together.

But in another way she’s like a good version of Missy. Since we’re just a few days removed from Star Wars, I’ll say Missy is River Song on the Dark Side. River and the Doctor have a flirty, quip-filled, light on the surface, but very deep relationship, similar to the Doctor and Missy. In that way, I thought this episode and River provided a nice bookend to season 9 that began with Missy.

Kevin: I’ll always enjoy seeing River, because she was the central figure of my favorite season ever of Doctor Who, when we find out exactly who she is. The last time we saw her, though, was in “The Name of the Doctor,” which wasn’t a great episode for her. So I’m glad they gave her at least one more episode to be more of herself in. Much like Peter Capaldi, Alex Kingston has such great range and can turn on a dime from witty banter to making the audience a little emotional.

I love that they brought her back for this one episode, because River is exactly who the Doctor needed at this time. Though he doesn’t know that he is missing Clara, there is still a hole in his life that he probably can’t quite figure out, and having another adventure with his wife is just what he needed.

Do you think we’ll see her again in a future episode?

Kevin: My guess is no. I think the writers wanted to give her a better send-off than in “The Name of the Doctor,” and since we’ve already seen her die (oddly enough, in her first appearance on the show), I can’t imagine giving her character a better goodbye than she got in this episode. But then again, Kingston and Capaldi played off surprisingly well together, this being their first episode with each other, so maybe the show runners will try to make that work a little bit longer.

Aaron: I agree. I suppose, since nights are 24 years long on Darillium, we could see more interactions between the Doctor and River. But as much as I love River and the Doctor’s interplay with her, this serves as a brilliant end to her run on the show. It perfectly closes the circle of their timeline and relationship. Much like Clara, River could come back, but their conclusions this season were essentially pitch perfect.

This was a great week for one-liners and quips. What were your favorite quotes?

Aaron: There are so many, but I’ll focus on two funny moments and one serious.

When River reveals her plan to steal the TARDIS:

Then when the Doctor says, “Finally” and gets to offer the most over-the-top reaction to the TARDIS being “bigger on the inside,” Capaldi just nails it.

In an episode full of silliness, that poignant moment when River realizes it’s the Doctor and he says, “Hello Sweetie” … that gets me every time.

Kevin: Yes, Capaldi’s overreaction to “discovering” the inside of the TARDIS was perfect. But there are plenty of other funny moments too.

“How do you know me?” (River) “Well, it’s a tiny bit complicated. People usually need a flow chart.” (The Doctor)

“You’re probably gonna need a mop.” (The Doctor to the warrior monk just before he goes to begin surgery on King Hydroflax)

“Better avoid deck seven, then.” (The Doctor muttering to himself after River explains the function of a button on his own TARDIS that he probably shouldn’t have been pressing all the times he has)

What spiritual takeaways did you notice from the episode?

Kevin: For me, I really liked River’s big monologue in the final act when she was making the case for why the Doctor was not going to show up to rescue her, how he was not small enough to have fallen in love with her as she did him. Unfortunately, her feelings in that moment are probably very similar to how many feel about God and what they feel is an inability to count on him in the times when they need him the most.

But the truth is, God did fall in love with us, long before we loved him, and that’s why he made himself “small”—his Son—to rescue us all. The fact that he does love us so personally is what, in fact, makes him so huge. Why would the Creator of the universe love us as he does, when we certainly don’t deserve it? That may be just what River finds herself asking about the Doctor at times.

Aaron: That was the first thing that came to my mind as well. How could you not connect with her saying, “You don’t expect a sunrise to admire you back”? But as a Christian, how could you not smile knowing what God has done for us? As the brilliant Creator behind the beautiful sunrise, in Ephesians 2:10 He still calls us His creation, handiwork, or masterpiece.

River comes to realize the Doctor does in fact love her and has come down to her when she needs him most. We share that with her, knowing that Christ loves us and descended to us in our time of greatest need.

For more about Kevin, he blogs at BibleInPopCulture.com, where he talks about the intersection of faith and culture, and you can catch him on Twitter at @PopCultureKevin.

This video, while obviously not explaining everything, does a good job giving brief connections between River in this episode and her previous appearances, especially her first (or last depending on the way you hold the flow chart).


  1. Shelia

    I would love to see more Kingston and Capaldi episodes! They were fantastic together. River’s speech, her realization, and the banter following was beautiful. River is one of my favorite characters. I do appreciate the spiritual parallels you drew. It is sometimes difficult to realize that God came to me.

  2. Kinda surprised that you didn’t address the elephant in the room that was inherent in the title of this episode, that being the plural of “husbands”. Since this is after Manhattan for River she may be acting even more reckless than usual. But she is from the same time period as Jack Harkness and as such is apparently bisexual. Originally I believe Eleven took River to Darillium but Mr Moffatt decided to let her character have a more satisfying ending for the fans and had Twelve do it. Twelve is very forgiving, see Clara’s betrayal after Danny’s death and also the forgiveness in the Zygon Inversion. From a biblical viewpoint then this would make River and the Doctor somewhat analogous to Hosea and Gomer.

About Author

Aaron Earls

Christian. Husband. Daddy. Writer. Online editor for Facts & Trends Magazine. Fan of quick wits, magical wardrobes, brave hobbits, time traveling police boxes & Blue Devils.