Who’d be Doctor Who at Christmas? Granted a prime slot at 5.15 pm on Christmas Day, when many of us are just stumbling down from the dinner table and collapsing on to the sofa, the task list facing the Doctor makes merely saving mankind look like a doddle:
The Christmas Doctor Who is required to be Christmassy, suitable for both adults and children, not so obscure as to be meaningless to non Whovians, but obscure enough to offer something to fanatics; it needs to be a standalone story but one that’s compatible with Doctor Who’s limitless mythology, and ideally it should throw in a couple of supporting roles for some guest stars, because that’s traditional.
It would be simpler to construct a working Tardis than to write a script that met each and all of those needs. Instead, for yesterday’s episode writer Steven Moffat made a bold call, by anchoring the whole jamboree around the return of River Song. To those without a working knowledge of the Who-niverse, the return of River Song might sound like Michael Flatley is making a comeback. To others it will have elicited squeals of delight that Song, a sort of quasi Mrs Who played by Alex Kingston who has cropped up several times since Doctor Who was revamped in 2005, was back.
The hope must have been that those who were indifferent to River’s return would be swept up in the cosmic caper that followed, in which the Doctor and River were chased across the galaxy by a nine-foot cyborg played by the comic Greg Davies. King Hydroflax – for it was he – had the most valuable diamond in the universe embedded in his brain. River had married this monster in the hope of decapitating him and getting her hands on the gemstone. But Hydroflax’s body got wind of the scheme and set off in pursuit of his own head.
The caper, though, was Doctor Who on autopilot, devoid of jeopardy or genuine high jinks as we found ourselves on an intergalactic cruise ship peopled with galactic super-villains in risible prosthetics. Evidently the entire Hydroflax lark was a contrivance to get River Song and the Doctor to a specific place: Moffat was interested in the fate of River Song, a character he created, and bookending her relationship with the Doctor. The rest was tinsel on the tree.
First, though, she had to work out that the man she was gallivanting around space and time with was the Doctor at all. The running gag was that River didn’t recognise him, because the Doctor she’d married had been played by the actor Matt Smith, a strapping twentysomething with a lantern jaw, whereas this reincarnation (Peter Capaldi) looked more like his Grandpa. While Capaldi and Kingston did their best to do screwball, this joke got a frightful flogging, in a low-rent comedy of errors that soon lost its lustre.
It was a shame that so much time was spent with River not recognising the Doctor, because once she did, and we got past the skylarking, their romance was charmingly played out. The best scene was the final one, which alluded to all of their shared experience without the lay viewer really having to know what they’d shared. You could see it in their eyes and their tears, and I would guess that it will have been as affecting to the young as it would have been to the old, to Whovians and non-Whovians alike. What they shared, you’d fain call it, was love. And so the Christmas Doctor Who began with disappointment but ended in surprise: I was expecting more laughter and more action, but I wasn’t expecting to be touched.