Honestly, Christmas seems to come around earlier every year. We take Doctor Who Christmas specials for granted now, given that they’ve been a staple of BBC One’s schedule for well over a decade, but it’s weird when you think about it that such a disproportionately high number of the Doctor’s adventures have a festive flavour. This one goes big on the Christmassy trappings early on – snow and decorations everywhere for the first few scenes, a wintery title sequence – and then proceeds to ignore Christmas in favour of concentrating on telling the best story, which is sort of fair enough.
The only further concessions to the occasion are the presence of two big comedy stars in guest roles. Greg Davies is very good at doing anger funnily, and so is the perfect choice to be a villainous head in a bag. It’s very odd to see Nardole before he became a recurring character, and I’m guessing that Moffat came to regret decapitating him when he decided to bring him back. His role here is not yet at companion levels of sophistication, and is a much more straight-forward comic relief job, which Matt Lucas is obviously going to do well – I love that he got his face shaking thing in.
But of course, this story is all about River, and a fascinating glimpse at what she’s like when the Doctor’s not around. She certainly does things he wouldn’t approve of, and I remember being worried at the time when it was implied that she was just a con woman who’d done a number on him. Of course this wasn’t the case, but I’m not still not entirely sure how much of her callous, mercenary behaviour was an act and how much was the real her.
Neither her or the Doctor seemed to give a shit when the cruise liner crashed and killed everyone on board, for instance. OK, it was made clear that all those people (staff include) were evil war criminals, but the Doctor isn’t judge, jury and executioner. I thought he was off to save people when he started making those short time hops, but instead he was arranging for a restaurant to be built.
Luckily, these closing scenes are clever and heart-warming enough to redress the balance and push these doubts away. In retrospect, this episode feels like Moffat beginning the process of wrapping up his time on the show – bringing River back one last time to fill in all the remaining gaps, and draw her story to a close. A 24 year long bunk-up is a much happier ending than most time travel love stories.