The Problem With River Song

With the Eleventh Doctor now passed into Whovian memory, it would seem that the Era of River Song has ended as well. And while it should be bittersweet, it is also honestly something of a relief.

Let me be clear—I happen to love River Song. Well, let me be clearer… I love what River Song might have been. And it’s telling that what she became is a symptom of everything that fans are lately bemoaning about Doctor Who.

The mysterious introduction to River Song in season four’s “Silence in the Library”/“Forests of the Dead” two-parter leaves a trail of clues that paints a fascinating picture of her relationship with the Doctor. We find out that she knows the Doctor intimately, that they might even be married, that he comes whenever she calls him, that she’s an archaeologist with a taste for adventure and her sexuality has more in common with Captain Jack Harkness than any other character on the series. (Remember, she states that Mr. Lux is the only remember of their expedition that she doesn’t fancy and that she’s dated androids before. Not too picky, then.) We know that her Doctor is a future incarnation, and it seems possible that she has bounced off of other versions as well, given her lack of surprise at running into Ten.

Doctor Who, River Song, Alex Kingston, Tenth Doctor

What makes River interesting is the fact that she is remote for the Doctor. Rather than living on the TARDIS, we learn that she is largely in charge of their time together; she calls the Doctor, he attends, they run off and enjoy the time. Then he deposits her back where she was. It was potential for the Doctor to have a relationship with a companion that was nearly angst-free. If River didn’t travel with him fulltime, there was no danger of losing her too quickly. The next time a note reached him on the psychic paper it could have been three days from the last trip for her, but decades for him.

In River’s introduction, she has all the power: she is the one who calls the Doctor, she is the one who scolds him when he’s being obstinate, she is the one who rallies the group and moves them along. In a telling move for the Davies era, it is she who grabs the Doctor’s hand when the first run together, not the other way around. She is taking him on as a companion in that first meeting. Ten is so moved by her near-death plea to preserve their time together, to never rewrite a word, that the loss of her hurts him as though he has known her for centuries. We’re left with the impression that she is one tough act to beat.

Doctor Who, River Song, Alex Kingston

Then River returns.

And she’s still feisty and competent and one step ahead. But everything that makes her special, that recommended her from the get-go is stripped away from her step by step in the service of complex plotting. It starts with the revelation that she is in prison for a terrible crime—the murder of the Doctor. He’ll come when she calls, certainly, but only to free her from the tedium of a dark cell. So much for having a life of her own on the other side. To make things more involved, the Doctor finds out that River has a closer connection to him than he had anticipated; she’s the daughter of his current companions. And then she is kidnapped as an infant and brainwashed to kill him. So River essentially spends her formative years with an existence that orbits around the Time Lord. She has no ambitions of her own, no purpose beyond his destruction.

Doctor Who, River Song, Alex Kingston, Eleven, Amy, Rory

Once River realizes that killing the Doctor might be a mistake, she promptly gives up all of her regenerative energy to save his life. (You can’t really blame her for the choice; she’s just beginning to recover from her conditioned psychopathy and her parents essentially tell her to save him.) So she winks away thousands of years of her own future for a man she really doesn’t know, having no idea how that’s going to turn out for her. And then in order to get to know that man she saved better, she becomes an archaeologist… so she can find out everything possible about the Doctor.

Let me reiterate; River Song’s occupation as an archaeologist is retconned so that it’s all due to her obsession with a man who is nearly a stranger to her. Not because she adores history, or loves to explore, or needs to answer unanswerable questions. It’s because she doesn’t know her future boyfriend all that well, and textbooks are the easiest place to find him at the start.

Because outside forces still want her to do the job she was programmed for from birth, River is press-ganged to kill the Doctor once again. But rather than let that happen—she went to school to learn to love the guy, come on!—she decides that she’d rather destroy the universe than fulfill that function. But the universe has to be righted, so to appease her, the Doctor agrees to marry her.

Doctor Who, River Song, Alex Kingston, Eleven

So to put it another way, their marriage is not due to any sort of trust built or great romance between them. It is to mollify River the way one might a tantrum-throwing child. “Hey, if I put on a fake ceremony and agree to make you important to me, will you not let every living thing die? Thanks.” Didn’t River get her education in the 51st century? Isn’t is possible (or even likely) that 3000 years from now there will be passages and rights outside of the marriage that allow people to show their affection for and dedication to each other? But apparently being the Doctor’s wife is everything that she was ever hoping for, and she promptly puts the timeline right once they give their ‘I do’s.

In addition, River Song’s sexuality is practically never addressed again. Who knows about those liaisons that she claims in the future? They’re clearly irrelevant once her importance to the Doctor is established. Which isn’t to say that River Song’s sexuality ever needed to be important to her character—but establishing a person with a wide range of tastes in that regard and then proceeding to ignore those tastes once that person is in a heteronormative relationship… well, it sort of leaves a bad taste in the mouth. As though it was used in the first place to make her ever-so-intriguing and then discarded as soon as she finally had the man in her life.

Doctor Who, River Song, Alex Kingston, Eleven

River’s journey, while heartbreaking, exists as a simple countdown. When we first meet her, she is surprised to find that Ten doesn’t know her, and that lack of recognition is immediately painful. But once we get to the heart of that dilemma in Season 6, we learn that River has always existed in this odd limbo with the Doctor, waiting for the inevitable point in their history where he knows her less and less with each encounter. Her confusion in their first meeting no longer plays—it should have been resignation, perhaps, but not the shock that we see in the Library. Is she just acting, then? We know she is pretending through half of her time with Eleven and Amy because there are things she is not allowed to reveal for fear of confusing the whole timeline.

Everything that makes this character interesting and dynamic is pared down so she makes a good mystery, something to fit into Steven Moffat’s puzzle box universe. What’s distressing is that every time he explains a bit of her away, we’re left with the clarified image of a woman who is entirely defined by her relationship to one person, specifically to one man. And while the Doctor does clearly have feelings for River, they are not of the same caliber, not nearly so encompassing. So on top of all this, she’s putting all of her life’s energy (quite literally) into a person who doesn’t focus the same sort of passion on her. It diminishes River, makes her so much less than she seemed in the beginning, an adventurer with her own plans and dreams, someone who the Doctor had to respect and acquiesce to on occasion. Because Gallifrey forbid the Doctor ever has to answer to anyone other than himself.

Doctor Who, Weeping Angel

And this is in keeping with many problems fans pick out as Steven Moffat continues building his own mythology with the show. The Weeping Angels, one of the most terrifying villains on television after a single appearance, have now been reduced to gimmicky pop-ups that barely hold up under scrutiny. They are meant to “kill you nicely,” but suddenly in Season 5, they have an army and will blow a hole in the universe. One of them is the Statue of Liberty, and can apparently amble through New York City without being seen by a single person. Angels are waiting in a forest to grab Clara in “The Time of the Doctor” because… just because. Because scary. Because danger. Danger that has nothing to do with the central plot of the episode.

The Silent arc is the same. Those besuited fellas desperately needed explaining. So in the twilight hour we get something to grab onto—Why are they working with an organization that wants to kill the Doctor? They were commandeered by a splinter sect of a religion that we’ve never heard of previously. A religion with a great deal of power that we’ve never seen before. A one-off, the same as the splinter sect that snapped the Silents up (because we only find out that Madame Kovarian and her cohorts are a religious lot in “A Good Man Goes to War” and it is never really brought up again). These ideas are not laid out ahead of time—they are decided in the moment, for whatever the plot needs to create a lot of explosions and heroism.

Take this example: The Pandorica will open and Silence will fall. Except then the Pandorica did open and there was no Silence, so now… Silence will fall when the Question is asked! Except it didn’t the first dozen times we were told that the Question was Doctor Who, so now… the Question comes on the Fields of Trenzalore, at the Fall of the Eleventh? These aren’t clues—they are morphing tag lines to keep people interested and guessing. But they have to shift every time the story shifts and no longer accommodates the same mystery.

The same as most details surrounding River Song’s entire character.

Doctor Who, River Song, Alex Kingston

Which isn’t to say that there are no affecting moments on the show where River is concerned—it’s quite the opposite, in fact. But those moments are not grounded in any sort of devotion to her continual development as a character. You see the frustration, don’t you? It’s easy to gloss over, to just watch and enjoy, but on more careful inspection you find that nothing means anything. Everything just gets written over for a bigger speech, more tears, another world/universe saved because the Doctor is brilliant and that’s what he does. And the Doctor is brilliant, but so are the people he loves. So are Amy and Rory, so is Craig, so were Sarah Jane and the Brigadier, Rose and Martha and Donna, so is Captain Jack Harness. So is River Song.

So was River Song. But she never quite showed us her real potential. We never got to see her date an android or excavate a lost civilization or save an entire species because the Doctor comes when she calls and no one else.

And that’s the woman I feel cheated out of knowing.


Emily Asher-Perrin still loves the River Song she thought she was going to meet. You can bug her on Twitter and read more of her work here and elsewhere.

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