Season 9 is too ordinary a title for the year Doctor Who just had, so I’m proposing an upgrade: Doctor Who: The Fourth Awakens. Season 4 has its fingerprints all over season 9, but while most of this year concerned itself with Donna, the companion we regained and then lost, the Christmas special is more interested in River — the companion we gained and lost all at once, but not forever, exactly. What is forever to a time traveler? Spoilers.
It’s Christmas in the year 5343, and the Doctor has parked the TARDIS in a remote human colony that he seems to have no plans to get to know. If anything, the TARDIS — which has taken to giving him hologram antlers to cheer him up — probably led him here against his will, knowing who would find him. Sure enough, a man by the name of Nardole comes calling. Nardole mistakes the Doctor for a surgeon, which is almost understandable, but actual surgeons generally don’t answer, “Close enough” when asked if they’re surgeons.
The expert surgeon in question was summoned by none other than the foremost representative of real curly hair on television, River Song. River needs someone to operate on her husband, and that husband is not any incarnation of the Doctor, much to our Doctor’s dismay. But would an alternate-timeline wedding really hold up in court? Would any of River’s weddings? It feels right that River runs around the galaxy using marriage to her own ends; in this case, she married a king for the diamond lodged in his head. She doesn’t care about him. She just wants the Doctor to cut off the king’s head and hand it over.
The Doctor objects — not just to the murder, but to the fact that River is all for it. He tries the usual moral arguments, but River doesn’t recognize his face as one belonging to the Doctor, and she wasn’t around when the Time Lords gave him extra regenerations for Secret Santa. As far as she knows, those 12 faces are all he gets, so this guy is just a surgeon who needs to do his job. That argument is put on hold when the king appears in the room with them both. He’s been listening, and River is in trouble.
There is one bright spot: They don’t actually have to kill the king to remove his head. King Hydroflax’s head is screwed in to a giant metal body — think Jarvis from Iron Man, minus the empathetic qualities, plus anger issues. With a bit of quick thinking and an assist from River’s sonic trowel (“Do you realize how ridiculous that sounds?”), the Doctor and River bag the king’s head and teleport out of there.
River may not recognize the Doctor, but she is looking for him. She parked the king’s flying saucer here because this location intersects with the Doctor’s timeline. To that end, she has a guy named Ramone — who, yes, is also her husband, though she’s wiped their wedding from his memory — canvassing the area for the Doctor as she knows him. (“Codename: Damsel in Distress. Apparently he needs a lot of rescuing.”) When that fails, she decides to just borrow the TARDIS, as she apparently does all the time. He’s never noticed before. The Doctor glares: “Maybe he’ll notice now.”
Inside the TARDIS, the Doctor gives the dramatic “It’s bigger on the inside” speech that he’s always wanted to hear from newbies, but when they have trouble taking off, he drops the act. River still doesn’t recognize him. But she does appreciate the surgeon’s insights: The box is hardwired not to fly when a life form registers as inside and outside at the same time — as the king currently is. That delay gives the king’s body time to catch up, stealing the heads of both Nardole and Ramone before tracking River to the TARDIS.
At least they can take off once the king’s body is inside. River has the coordinates set for a space cruise ship not unlike the one the Tenth Doctor visited in (What else?) season 4. There is one key difference: Everyone here is an indiscriminate murderer. (“This is where genocide comes to kick back and relax.”) River has a meeting set with a potential buyer; she never planned to return the diamond to its rightful owners after all. While they wait, she reads her diary, Oscar Wilde-style: “One should always have something sensational to read on a spaceship.”
The Doctor prods. If the diary is sensational, why does she look so sad? River admits that it’s nearly full, and the man who gave it to her was the type to know exactly how many pages she’d need. She talks about the Doctor like he’s nobody special. The Doctor, who would definitely attend his own funeral if given the chance, just keeps prodding, his face falling a little more each time. They’re interrupted by River’s buyer, Scratch, who casually opens his own head at the dinner table to hand River a sphere capable of transferring funds to the account of her choice. She gives him the king’s head — only to learn that Scratch filled the dining room with his own people, and they all want this diamond for the glory of King Hydroflax.