The relationship between the United States and Britain is never more "special" than at Christmastime: mince pies and plum pudding, Victorian carolers and Boxing Day sales. Long fueled by seasonally classic films from "A Christmas Carol" to "Love Actually," the electronic hearth now allows Americans to share the great British tradition of Christmas Day television in real time with the "Doctor Who" (BBC America) and "Call the Midwife" (PBS) Christmas specials.
Ever since David Tennant morphed into the 11th Doctor during an episode titled "The Christmas Invasion," the modern "Doctor Who" series has included a two-hour special tied to the holiday and its traditions. Often including high-profile guest stars (Kylie Minogue, Michael Gambon, Nick Frost) and allusions to other seasonal narratives, these episodes may further the action of the previous season, but then again they may not.
This year's special, "The Husbands of River Song," takes full advantage of the Doctor's famously elastic relationship with time and space to bring back his mysterious wife (Alex Kingston). Ever since she first appeared as a time-touring archaeologist in 2008's "The Silence in the Library," River Song has been a compelling portion of the Doctor's timeline.
Wielding her own sonic screwdriver, a diary filled with "spoilers" and an ability to helm the TARDIS, River often appears to know more about the Doctor than he does himself, including his actual name, which has never been uttered during the entire run of the series.
In "The Husbands of River Song," however, the situation is reversed. Peter Capaldi's 12th Doctor knows exactly who River is, while River, believing that the 11th regeneration (Matt Smith) was the Doctor's final face, does not seem to recognize him.
Indeed, she is now not only married to someone else, someone with a very rare diamond lodged in his head (hence the need for medical assistance), but she appears to be someone else. Someone with nothing good to say about love or marriage, someone who cannot bring herself to speak of the Time Lord she purported to love for all those millenniums.
If "The Husbands of River Song" is less Christmasy than most of the previous specials, it is a splendid gift to fans nonetheless. River has provided one of the longest and most tantalizing threads of the series — the Doctor has had many companions but only one real partner with abilities and knowledge to match his own. Their relationship has always been a push-me-pull-you of sacrifice and salvation amid all manner of chaotic plotlines. To see them deal solely with each other is a treat, especially given Capaldi and Kingston's very adult chemistry.
On "Call the Midwife," a lovely and thematically ambitious series too often overshadowed by its more glamorous cousin, "Downton Abbey," the holiday is far more traditional but equally eventful. The series' main conceit — a group of midwives serving London's East End during the 1950s and '60s — ensures any number of high-drama events, while the setting — the sister-supervised Nonnatus House — provides a spiritual backdrop.
This year, television itself plays a role. Even as perpetually eccentric Sister Monica Joan (the splendid Judy Parfitt) bemoans Nonnatus' lack of a television as part of a general refusal to keep up with modern times, a television producer chooses the local church to be part of a BBC holiday special. This, and an unexpected health scare, throws the vicar and the ever-helpful Shelagh (Laura Main) into a tizzy but ensures an opportunity for Main to sing, which is always a blessing.
Miranda Hart's wonderful Chummy is MIA, and other Season 4 story lines only barely creep forward — Trixie (Helen George) is still sober, Patsy (Emerald Fennell) still hiding her love for Delia (Kate Lamb). Like many Christmas specials, this one pauses to examine the emotions of the season. In this case, that means the nature of home and, through the spats of Sister Monica Joan and her complicated relationship with Sister Evangeline (Pam Ferris), the complicated nature of family.
Based on the memoirs of Jennifer Worth, "Call the Midwife's" tone of clear-eyed optimism allows it to chronicle all manner of serious topics — incest, abortion, spouse abuse, child abandonment and the grinding reality of poverty — without becoming too dark or jaded. If this episode seems unapologetically constructed for two or three cathartic moments, well, why not? "Call the Midwife" is all about embracing the laughter and the tears, and it's Christmas, after all.
'Call the Midwife Holiday Special'
When: 9 p.m. Friday
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under 14)
Where: BBC America
When: 9 p.m. Friday