|In this image, Clara is cleverly disguised as Professor River Song.|
It’s December 25th, 2015. The Lewisham and Greenwich NHS Choir are at number one with “A Bridge Over You,” a 2013 song pushed to number one in protest of Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s efforts to extend the hours of junior doctors. Justin Bieber, who supported the campaign, is in number two, three, and five, while Adele is at number four, a complete lack of any shift in the charts since Hell Bent. One Direction, Coldplay, and Stormzy also chart. In news, the Paris Accord on climate change is agreed upon, while Kellingley Colliery, Britain’s last deep coal mine, closes. Donald Trump calls for a complete ban on Muslims entering the United States, and Martin Shkreli is revealed to have been the purchaser of Once Upon a Time in Shaolin and arrested on securities fraud charges.
While on television, Moffat’s final episode. I mean, yes, there are fourteen others. But never mind about all of that. Moffat has said that when he wrote this he didn’t know if he’d be back. I once heard an idea—I’m pretty sure it was Douglas Hofstadter’s originally, though Chris O’Leary uses the same image to talk about “Ashes to Ashes”—of writing a book that in fact ends in its middle somewhere, so as to remove the sense of coming to the end provided by the actual physical book. There are several things suggested for what to do with the excess pages, scaling up from leaving them blank to actually constructing a book that can go on for some time after it has reached its ending.
I would suggest that the Moffat/Capaldi era is something like that. It ends with The Husbands of River Song; the remaining fourteen episodes, good and bad (and there are several in each basket), are in a fundamental sense unnecessary. It is not that Moffat stayed too long—nothing about Series 10 is such a dramatic falling off from the mad and imperious glory days of Series 9 as to justify that claim. It is simply that the actual ending is here.
In this regard, two elements present themselves as inevitable in hindsight. The first is River Song herself. Having already had her first appearance serve as the beginning of the Moffat era eighteen months before the end of the Davies era, her appearance here provides a symmetry as convoluted as her timeline, and as effective to boot. The Name of the Doctor was never an entirely satisfying denouement to River’s story, in part because it was just never entirely satisfying period, but also because both the idea that River’s fate in Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead was unfixable (as opposed to inviolate) and the idea that the trip to the Singing Towers could be squared away in a three minute farce released as a DVD extra are wholly untenable.
Ultimately it is the latter that Moffat opts to revise, which is probably the better choice, since it works as a final story for River (and indeed requires that anyone else who wants to use her going forward has to go to some pretty extreme lengths to do so), whereas effectively resurrecting her would be something of a white elephant for Chibnall. And so instead of dealing with the Singing Towers of Darillium in a three minute farce in the special features section he deals with it in an hourlong farce on Christmas Day.
Which is the other inevitable element. Aside from comedy shorts, Moffat has never really indulged his native form within Doctor Who. That’s not to say it hasn’t informed his work—as we’ve noted, the skills involved in writing a good farce are closely related to those involved in writing a convoluted time-travel plot. But he’s never just gone ahead and done a Doctor Who story that’s a straight farce. (And his farces are tragically all very straight.) And so of course it’s how he opts to go out: by writing the one obvious Moffat Doctor Who story he’s avoided doing for a decade. In a very real sense, the Moffat era could never truly feel “done” until it contained something like this.
This does mean that the first swath of the episode can feel comparatively disposable. Certainly it’s an episode built around anticipation; we’re set up immediately to desire the moment when River figures out the Doctor’s identity, and this moment is withheld until the climax. That leaves the bulk of intervening storytelling with little to do beyond larking about for forty minutes. There is, of course, nothing wrong with Peter Capaldi and Alex Kingston larking about for forty minutes. Indeed, after two and a half Riverless years it would have been unsatisfying not to just revel in it for a while.
But the sense of slenderness doesn’t just come from the fact that the leads are doing comedy set pieces for almost the length of a regular episode. There’s also a distinct lightness to the adventure in question, which amounts to the Doctor tagging along while River has a relatively minor adventure stealing and selling a diamond. There is no sense that this is not an adventure River could have handled on her own. The stakes are never particularly high, essentially swinging from “actively being menaced by a giant robot” to “not being actively menaced by a giant robot.” More than ever before the Doctor is essentially serving as a prominent guest star in her show than having an adventure of sufficient size that River’s appearance is warranted.
It is this that provides perhaps the most significant clue to how Moffat envisions his ending: decidedly non-epic. In this regard he’s suited by going out with a Christmas special instead of a season finale. Hell Bent would have, by most standards, been a fine way to close out an era, but it is without question a story long on bombast and grandeur. Moffat seeks, it seems, something considerably smaller and introspective. This does not, pointedly, mean melancholy; neither this nor his second attempt at a quiet finish are quite that, even as both of them are clearly fixated on death. This would be the artful option in going small, akin to Davies’s mooted one-part finale for the Tennant era; something where the lack of grandeur is in its own way audacious. Moffat, however, seems to want to just write a small funny story; a quirky finish seemingly aimed more at pleasing himself than at any concerns about his reputation or legacy.
Of course, all of this ignores the final fifteen minutes, where the episode actually seeks to earn its emotional resonance. Darillium doesn’t actually come up until about ten minutes before the end, and the actual Singing Towers scene is a five minute concern at the tail end. I say none of this to diminish its importance to the episode; as I said, it’s the bit where the actual emotional impact lives, and the bit that ties back to Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead to provide an actual bookend to the Moffat era. But it’s essentially another short. Once Nardole and Ramone’s fates are resolved and the Doctor enters the scene, there’s nothing in it that actually depends on anything that’s come before in the episode.
What it does follow up on fairly directly, however, is the previous two episodes, with which it forms a remarkably coherent arc about loss and grieving. Even if the Doctor does not remember Clara, for the audience it’s only been three weeks since the last time he lost the most important person in his life. And the contrast between them is striking. The Doctor and River spend a bit of time feuding over which of them should die in a space ship crash before they realize that the correct answer is neither of them, but for the most part there are no angst-laden heroics on the Doctor’s part in trying to avert River’s fate. He does not go too far or lose sight of himself. He is kind and clever and finds a way to let River go with grace and compassion, getting an extra twenty-four years with her in which, no doubt, they have all manner of adventures. He may not remember Clara, but it’s clear here that he’s learned his lessons.
And what of Moffat, as he completes his fifth year on Doctor Who and comes to the spiritual end of his run? What has he learned? In some ways this is an odd story to ask that of. After all, its nature is essentially that it’s a Doctor Who story that Moffat could have done at any point after River’s introduction in the Davies era. It’s not something like Heaven Sent that depends on the fine margins of craft and skill he’s acquired over five years, or something like Hell Bent that’s developing on and elucidating themes and techniques he’s been exploring. This is basically a Coupling episode with head-stealing robots. Indeed, the final scene makes basically the same emotional move as the end of Coupling. In an entirely valid and meaningful sense, it’s as though Moffat has not progressed at all, and has ended his time on the program by returning to the exact point he was at before he went “all right, if they’re going to keep reminding me I’m not working on a sitcom anymore and have a real budget then I’m going to write Rose Tyler hanging from a barrage balloon in the middle of the Blitz.”
But go and watch the final episode of Coupling again. (Or, better yet, just find the final scene on YouTube and skip the awful transphobic bits.) The final scene is emotionally touching, yes. But it also essentially removes Susan from the narrative, rendering her an object in Steve’s story. This isn’t bad or wrong per se. Like most things Moffat writes, Coupling is about clever men learning to be better people. But that is the extent of its perspective. Moffat has always valued women, but from a perspective of male self-loathing. And I’ve always sympathized with this, for reasons that are a bit more obvious to me than they were at the time. But over time Moffat’s engagement with all of this has grown more substantive. Women stopped being vehicles for male transformations of consciousness and started to be figures who he recognized as being pushed out of the narrative by male egos, whether redeemed or not. And while still clearly interested in male redemption narratives, over the course of his Doctor Who writing he becomes progressively less willing to sideline women in order to get there, and progressively more interested in telling their stories.
So yes, The Husbands of River Song is a story about the Doctor being better at accepting loss than he was three weeks ago. But it is one that, in its resolution, keeps the emotional perspective on River. The Doctor’s accomplishment is framed as grieving in a way that does not erase or diminish her. He does right by her in a way she doesn’t expect, but the focus is on her relief and healing in the face of this, not on his cleverness. Like Coupling, it’s a story of a woman causing a man to become better. But in the final moment it opts to be her story, about the ways in which she experiences the change from a man who lies by omission to her over the course of their entire relationship to a man who understands that happiness and eternity are unrelated concepts. The Husbands of River Song is a story Moffat could have written at any point in his tenure, yes. But he waited until he could do it right. And now, at last, he’s done.
Except, of course, not. Ultimately everyone’s preferred successor, Chris Chibnall, was unable to start on the show until 2018 given his existing Broadchurch commitments, and while there’s some evidence that looking for a fill-in showrunner was considered, ultimately Moffat was persuaded to stay, as the saying goes. But with Chibnall needing two years, Moffat having a season of Sherlock to do, and Capaldi requiring the same knee surgery as Matt Smith (making him, worryingly, the third consecutive actor to suffer a major injury on the series) it was clear that his postscript season, as it were, would require another of the six-month transmission delays he’d taken prior to Series Seven and, to a lesser extent (given that he made two specials in the gap), Series Eight. But as the series was at this point running in the autumn, such a gap would mean an entire year would pass with no new Doctor Who. And as the world would quickly discover, a lot could happen in a year. But before we get to any of that, there’s one final satsuma to unwrap from the glorious renaissance of the late Moffat era.