Alex Kingston isn’t even in “The Return of Doctor Mysterio” — like, not even a clip of her as River Song — and yet she steals the show again.
No, River didn’t appear in this year’s Doctor Who Christmas special — that was last year, when “The Husbands of River Song,” saw Kingston’s fan-polarizing character finally arrive at her next-to-last stop in a time-crossed love affair with the Doctor.
A year later, “Doctor Mysterio” is the first new Who episode since “Husbands” — and although River wasn’t visible, she was definitely present as a character. Her fate in the two-part episode that introduced her, “Silence in the Library”/”Forest of the Dead,” looms large over a grieving Doctor (Peter Capaldi), who knows that moment is approaching for him and dreads it, even though they got to spend their final, 24-year night together at the Singing Towers of Darillium.
Matt Lucas as the obsequious Nardole, Song’s assistant in “The Husbands,” has been returned to “normal” (his head reattached) by the Doctor and now serves as sort of a companion/valet in the TARDIS. And he’s not so much a toady this time around, confronting the Doctor again and again about the need to own up to his grief. Nardole is going to be sticking around for Series 10, and he’s taking the Time Lord’s care and feeding seriously. It’s a very different kind of companion from what we’ve seen before.
Another way River dominates is more subtle. The villainous organization that’s a front for alien invasion, Harmony Shoal, has a nautical-musical name that certainly evokes River Song, aka Melody Pond … and this is shades of a previous Christmas special, when “The Time of the Doctor,” Matt Smith’s swansong, presented Orla Brady as Tasha Lem, Mother Superious of the Papal Mainframe, who (like River) knew how to fly the TARDIS, traded flirtatious barbs with the Doctor and fought off alien mind conditioning to avoid betraying him. Sound familiar?
Whether its name is coincidence, deception or just the showrunner messing with us, we may not have seen the last of Harmony Shoal: One of its operatives appears to have assumed the identity of a U.N.I.T. officer at the end of “The Return of Doctor Mysterio,” and it’s not the kind of subtle thread that’s likely to be left hanging by the time Steven Moffat is done with his tenure as executive producer.