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.