“It’s like loving the sunset. You don’t expect the sunset to love you back.”
In the by-now-ubiquitous Doctor Who Christmas Day special, the Doctor meets up with his old pal/wife (and daughter of bygone companions Amy and Rory Pond) River Song, caught up in an audacious plan to steal a diamond from the murderous King Hydroflax involving, well, marriage. (Hence the title.)
It’s a troubling story which continues the last series’ overall trend of subordinating and fridging characters with marginal identities to Moffat’s monolithic Doctor-god. Moffat has form for writing interesting and transgressive female characters who ultimately get undermined by male counterparts: the transgender Missy, chased out of a hitherto fertile storyline about moral ambivalence for being jealous of the Other Woman Clara in The Witch’s Familiar; “I-don’t-even-want-a-husband” Me, reduced to the Doctor’s cosmic housekeeper in The Woman Who Lived (although, it has to be said, redeemed somewhat in Hell Bent); Sherlock‘s Irene Adler, originally the only woman who ever beat Sherlock Holmes, rewritten as a lesbian who turns straight for Sherlock and is ultimately outwitted and humiliated by him. The Husbands of River Song continues the trend: the polyamorous, independent and deeply feminist River reveals that, in fact, she only has One True Love, who is, of course, the Doctor.
If it were only that, well, it would be irritating. But Moffat humiliates River by implication by having her declaim her love in high romantic fashion, all unknowing, while the Doctor is standing next to her. She likens him to the sunset, to the stars; most importantly, she notes that the Doctor doesn’t love her back, because he’s not “that small, that ordinary”.
By implication, River, the kickass archaeologist with the sonic trowel, the daughter of Amy and Rory, half-Time Lord, time traveller, the woman who carved “hello, sweetie” in the oldest rock in the universe – she is “small”, and she is “ordinary”. We are supposed to believe that this articulate, arrogant woman would really say that of herself – and, furthermore, can’t recognise, can’t even admit the possibility of recognising, the supposed love of her life right next to her.
What’s so frustrating about this is that without the stupid romantic storyline which Moffat seems to be, excuse me, in love with (before River there was Clara, and before Clara it was Amy, and why is it always women that the Doctor makes “friends” with?) The Husbands of River Song could have been a good episode. We might have had the Doctor and River romping through the universe as equals, sparks flying, sonic devices squawking, spaceships crashing. There could even have been some light flirting.
Instead, we have demeaning storyline after demeaning storyline, with the Doctor reigning triumphant over everyone.