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The Ruining of River Song

Doctor: River, you know my name. You whispered my name in my ear! There’s only one reason I would ever tell anyone my name. There’s only one time I could. – Forests of the Dead, 4.9

Emperor Winston Churchill: What happened to time?
The Doctor: A woman.
Emperor Churchill: What’s she like? Attractive, I assume.
The Doctor: Hell. In high heels. – The Wedding of River Song, 6.13

Perhaps no plot arc is more illustrative of Steven Moffat’s “woman problem” than the implosion of Doctor Who’s River Song. Moffat has taken River from her initial appearance as a self-possessed, independent woman who challenged the Doctor intellectually and emotionally, to a codependent figure whose entire life from birth to death is tragically defined by her association with the Doctor. In the process, Moffat wasted an opportunity to push both the Doctor and the show into new and exciting territory, and embraced some of the worst tendencies of the show when it comes to gender and power.

River was introduced “Silence in the Library/Forests of the Dead” (4.8/4.9) as a character who at some future point would have a relationship of unprecedented trust and intimacy with the Doctor – that is, the sort of relationship the Doctor had spent centuries carefully guarding himself from. The Doctor openly scoffed at River’s claim that her more advanced sonic screwdriver was a gift from his future self: “I don’t give my screwdriver to anyone.” River’s retort – “I’m not anyone” – was amply proven when she revealed her knowledge of the Doctor’s true name, information no other character on the show has ever been privy to.

Whatever her precise link to the Doctor would turn out to be, it seemed that River would be a fundamentally new sort of character on Who: someone the Doctor would “trust completely.” River’s singularity in this respect was what made her sacrifice to save the Doctor and their future together (“Forests of the Dead”) so emotionally impactful – both the Doctor and viewers felt the weight of her loss without even knowing her yet.

This suggested dramatic future growth for the Doctor’s character, and a transformation in the nature of a show that at its core has been about a man on the run from the responsibilities and vulnerabilities that permanent attachments bring. The Doctor’s time with his previous companions had always had an expiration date, and he’d always avoided making himself fully emotionally available. The idea that the Doctor would at some future point be compelled to grow, to stop running, to settle down and be mutually invested in another person was an exciting prospect.

River was also a welcome addition to a show with a tendency to write the women in the Doctor’s life as young, inexperienced, and pining away for him in asymmetrical relationships (Donna Noble was also a refreshing exception to this). River’s self-confidence and refusal to be cowed by the Doctor were striking. If anything, as Amy Pond notes, the Doctor seemed uncharacteristically intimidated by her: “The way [River] talks to you, I’ve never seen anyone do that. She’s kind of like, you know, ‘Heel, boy'” (“Time of Angels,” 5.4).

Seasons four and five River appeared to be a seasoned time traveler and scientist in her own right, dropping in unannounced, coming and going as she pleased, much like Doctor himself. The Doctor was repeatedly frustrated by her refusal to tell him who she was, by the fact that she lied and knew things he didn’t – again, traits she shared in common with him. Added to her ability to regenerate, this made River the closest thing New Who had to a Time Lady, and more specifically, a female version of the Doctor. In all these respects River seemed poised to reverse, or at least even out, a stereotypically gendered power imbalance between the Doctor and his companions and push the show into uncharted territory.

Rather than exploring this territory, Moffat spent season 6 systematically dismantling everything that made River an approximate equal of the Doctor’s. He engineered River’s first meeting with the Doctor (in her timeline) such that the power is placed firmly back in the Doctor’s hands: she’s a teenager, far less self-assured and savvy than the River we first met:

When I first met the Doctor, a long, long time ago, he knew all about me. Think about that. An impressionable young girl, and suddenly this man just drops out of the sky, and he’s clever, and mad, and wonderful, and knows every last thing about her. Imagine what that does to a girl. (“Day of the Moon, 6.2)

But the major downhill turn for River’s character came in “Let’s Kill Hitler” (6.8). In one go, Moffat turned River into a brainwashed weapon whose entire purpose in life was to kill the Doctor, and stripped her of her ability to regenerate almost immediately after revealing it. She inexplicably gave her regenerations up to save the life of the Doctor, whom she didn’t even know at that point. In the same episode we learn that River’s archaeology degree, all her learning, is only a means for her to track down and learn more about the Doctor.

The season 6 finale (“The Wedding of River Song”) completed River’s transformation into a character pathologically obsessed with a man who, far from returning her affections, seems to view her as a nuisance. The Doctor rushes her through a sham marriage ceremony – shortly after telling her that he doesn’t want to marry her – without even informing her of what he’s doing, much less obtaining her prior consent (he does manage to pause to demand her parents’ consent, however). The happy event features the Doctor “barking orders at her to ‘do as she’s told’ after yelling…that she embarrassed him.”

We also learn that The Doctor, River’s now-husband, has allowed her to be set up to serve an unknown number of years in prison for the crime of appearing to murder him. She is imprisoned, in short, so the Doctor can maintain his freedom to lark about the universe. Her consolation prize is to be able to slip out some nights to travel the universe – with the Doctor, of course. Far from an equal partner and confidante, River turns out to be the Doctor’s hapless shadow, willing to sacrifice everything (even the universe, and ultimately, her life) to be with an emotionally distant man who often doesn’t seem to like her much, much less love her.

The problem here isn’t just that the River of season 6 is completely out of step with the River we got to know in the previous two seasons. It’s also that Moffat clearly has no clue that what he’s writing is a tragedy, and not the grand love story with a more-or-less happy ending he seems to think it is.

This is part of a broader problem with gender and power in Moffat’s Whoverse. Under previous show runner Russell T. Davies (RTD), the imbalance between Doctor and his companions was tempered by the fact that the companions got to live stories that women are rarely allowed on television. They unapologetically indulged their curiosity and wanderlust, and were depicted as admirable and brave for wanting to see and know more of the world.

Moffat, by contrast, has defaulted to limited, domestic dramas for the female characters on the show – Amy and Rory’s love and family woes, and the mystery of whether River married or murdered the Doctor. Women are interesting and sympathetic only insofar as they enamored with the Doctor. It’s hard to imagine Moffat writing, for example, the epic conclusion to Martha Jones’s arc, particularly her decision to salvage her dignity and leave a Doctor who took her for granted and made her feel “second best” (“The Last of the Time Lords,” 3.13).

Part of the trouble is that Moffat is fascinated with the dark side of the Doctor, but seemingly unable to entertain any real consequences for his character, no matter how egomaniacal he becomes. In the RTD era, the Doctor’s adventuring ultimately came at a cost, not only to his companions and whomever else got swept up in his path, but to the Doctor himself. Every finale saw the Doctor suffer some major consequence for his interference in individual and intergalactic affairs, whether death and regeneration (“The Parting of the Ways,” “The End of Time”) or the loss of people dear to him (“Doomsday,” “The Last of the Time Lords,” “Journey’s End”).

There’s no such denouement for the Eleventh Doctor, Moffat’s Doctor. He remains an impulsive, dangerous “mad man” who “[makes] people a danger to themselves” (Rory, “Vampires in Venice”); nevertheless, the mystery and ultimate resolution of both season finales under Moffat have revolved around how the Doctor escapes scot-free, not only from the traps his numerous enemies lay for him, but also from the logical emotional consequences of the havoc he’s wreaked in the lives of his companions. The Doctor remains a “good man” – the “best man” – and a noble hero in the eyes of the Ponds-Williams clan, unquestionably adored by its women especially, despite all he’s cost their family.

The upshot seems to be that River Song cannot exist as she first appears in a universe created by someone as captivated by singular male genius as Moffat (cf Sherlock). Her curiosity, her passion, her intellect – all of these end up being applied exclusively to her obsession with the Doctor. Indeed, her entire family’s existence is inseparably bound to the Doctor’s fate and whims. Moffat depicts a god-like Doctor who behaves in increasingly self-absorbed and destructive fashion, without suffering any permanent loss or alienation from his companions, and thus turns the Doctor from the morally ambiguous figure he’s always been into a morally indefensible one.

15 thoughts on “The Ruining of River Song

  1. Here! Here! It really is a case of the Emperor’s New Clothes. I believe he makes it up as he goes along. He is a brilliant episode writer, but a show runner… I think he is over taxed.

  2. I like River. But in small doses. She is an intriguing character.

    The fact that he has seen her death, and knows that one day he will know she is heading to the Library and can’t warn her is sad.

    Now that they are “married” I can’t wait to see how the relationship changes.

    It’s always fun trying to keep track of who is where in the relationship.

    PS: Check out my DW fan-fic. Click on my name for link.

  3. I agree with every word of this. Up to the series 5 finale “The Big Bang” she was a thrilling character, but in retrospect maybe the cracks were already starting to show. I was looking forward to the following series because I couldn’t imagine how all the potential we’d seen was going to pay off. It seemed impossible, but surely Steven Moffat wouldn’t have done all that foreshadowing unless he knew exactly where he was headed? Then series 6 made me realize Moffat really didn’t have any plan and was just making it up as he went along…and unfortunately, when he improvises like that, he falls back on some very narrow ideas about gender. The result has been the complete dismantling of a character with amazing potential.

  4. While I understand your logic and follow you on every point you make (and they were excellent), I can’t help but feel like you’ve perhaps relied on surprised ire where careful admonition may be better suited. The whole post reads as if Moffat has no idea what he is doing (in fact, this is directly insinuated) but I think that Moffat has been around long enough to know the score, to know how to write and to jolly well realise exactly what he is writing.

    Give the relationship time. The Doctor will be held to account – that has been the case ever since the Silence first appeared (“Silence will fall when the question is asked…”), and in fact the Doctor has not entirely got away scot-free (especially after season 6, during which he became even more infamous – a problem that led to the astronaut on the beach and now, as we see, the perils of forced anonymity). Perhaps it is too early to call, but I believe that the Doctor will witness two season’s worth of trouble explode in his face when the Pond’s leave the show.

  5. I read this and thought on it. The writer is wholly wrong. He’d be right except for one thing, River’s timeline runs backwards to the Doctor’s.

    It simply makes sense for her to start weak and end strong, badassery is a cultivated skill.

  6. While I strongly agree with your points about how River Song was dismantled, I don’t see this as a change from Season 4 to Season 6. In her first appearance, she is a archaeologist, leading a team to investigate unknown worlds but when she dies, the Doctor locks her into a fake, suburban world, looking after someone else’s child and it never seems to occur to the show’s writers that this is a crushingly small box to force her into. (There’s nothing wrong with suburban motherhood but that’s clearly not the life River has chosen for herself.)

    I think Moffat genuinely has no idea what to do with River Song and so engineers traditional ‘happily ever afters’ for her – in the library or a wedding, that completely negate who she is as a person.

  7. Oh wow, I absolutely agree with this author, although it’s true that the point regarding the fact that we’re suffering an apparent fatal flaw of watching a character undevelop over time, its true that all the things that got us so excited about River S5 have fallen flat. It IS cool that she’s an example of what happens when the Doctor indulges himself and get involved with a human family. I accept and embrace the tragedy, I thought Moffat did also, but gave up on it. Go hard or go home. No pandering to tranditional values by sticking her in thd library. Let kher die like a baddass hero or set her free to live in the nature of her characer as written. I like that the Doctor locked her in stormcage, of course he would! Doctor Who is a mald chauvenist and he behaves like one. Do we really want that to change? When has he not been egotistical? But back on point, River doesn’t have to be reduced to a dislikeable crazy person or is that what it means to be a wild child? Moffat did ok with her childhood, but lost it on the big reveal. Not enough time? I don’t know, but it ruined everything I loved about her and I’m scared to see how they will flush out her being told the doctor’s name.

  8. Sorry for all the typos, cell. I wanted to also say these have been the most well thought out and intelligent comments I have read on this topic. Kudos to you all!

  9. I kind of agree/disagree with this synopsis. I agree on a few points, I love River Song’s character, but I don’t like both the episodes let’s kill hitler and the wedding of River Song, but for a particular reason, I think the reveal is simply too short. We find out that River is Amy and Rory’s daughter and that she is possibly timelord in the previous episode, and suddenly we know everything about her. And her wedding wasn’t anything romantic, it wasn’t proper.

    It is possible that moffat uses too many gender stereotypes in his stories, I will not argue that point. I do however get the feeling that when you watched “silence in the library” you developed a rather narrow box with which to put River Song in “River Song is the ‘anti companion’ the female equal to the doctor that will make all of the years of the wrong that DW has done put to right” again I’m not going to argue that there has been wrong done in type casting women, heck, I hate it when tv shows type cast guys into bum-dad roles, but giving moffat the benefit of the doubt perhaps he actually did have a plan and that plan was to show River BECOME, that woman, equal to the doctor.

    because there’s a few curious details about the episodes in question, those episodes “hitler” and “wedding” are the youngest we see River, her story is not in order, the young somewhat scatter brained-brainwashed-murderess child we see in “let’s kill hitler” is the same woman who grew up and told the doctor what was up in “a good man goes to war,” for her those two episodes happen in opposite order, and again the next time we see River in “Angels take manhattan” we see the older and wiser River, she will not go allong with the doctors fancy, she is in control of that story, if anyone is, it is she that remains calm. This is possibly the oldest we see her apart from the library episodes and we can see he’s hurt her. I think, looking at these episodes in context it makes sense, yes she does fall madly in love with the doctor, just as any timelord establishes a strong connection with one after they regenerate.

    That being said series 6 and river’s reveal was a big let down. I don’t think it nesserily betrays a lack of planning, but rather lack of execution, the big reveal comes in “A good man goes to war.” That shows the doctor to be in the wrong, what happens next is too quickly done, the fact that River goes to jail should have been handled differently

  10. There are excellent points here and by the commentators but I would argue that the events by which River ends in the StormCage are not quite settled. There’s a reason she agrees to be locked up, that the Doctor’s death must be accepted and after all, she can slip out whenever she likes until she is eventually freed. She refuses to travel with him all the time but rather like Eleanor Roosevelt offering to meet FDR at all the places they’d hoped to visit after WWII will drop in when and where he asks. I’m inclined to agree that it makes sense that young River would be dazzled by the Doctor and as she learns more about him would become fascinated. As to negating herself to let him be “the Doctor”, that’s a sound point but the Doctor’s coldness in “Wedding…” certainly isn’t the whole story…He does have a need to push her away, given the disaster her efforts to save him will trigger, which he ought to sense. Further, their story isn’t over yet and I would wonder if Moffat might not have some surprises about what the Doctor is willing to do for her. What would really be a unique move would be if he were willing to violate his own code to keep her out and about and if her contentment at being stored at the Library isn’t what it seems. We’ll see.

  11. Since we are talking about a fictional show, we should remember that we are not talking about gender differences between humans, we are talking about a Time Lord. Do they have two sexes? Three? One? Any power difference between the Doctor and anyone else is not based on some human gender difference, but the fact that he’s is the last Time Lord.

  12. I think you have this wrong. For one when shes introduced she sarifices her life for him showing her love for the doctor. 2. again when she is first introduced she is a fully mature women but when she decides to become an archiologist she is practically a teenage girl who has fallen in love with someone. it would be terrible writing if a teenage girl still bossed around a 1000 year old man especially since at this point she really dosen’t know him.

  13. This was just brought to my attention and I have to ask, did the author pay attention while they watched? A lot of information was left out, such as the fact they lived in reverse order, her time in prison was to protect him (something anyone in live would do) and it was made quite clear she sat in her cell by choice only, even the guards knew this to be true.

    You basically dissected half of River Song and wrote a long winded Moffat bash.

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