Let me confess immediately that I don’t like River Song as a character (though Alex Kingston does an excellent job with her as an actress). So now you know, and River Song fans need not read on -unless they want to know my reasons why.
When the Eleventh Doctor regenerated, I was hopeful that that was the last we would see of River Song. One of the reasons I was nevertheless looking forward to the 2015 Christmas special ‘The Husbands of River Song’ was because it looked like a light-hearted romp in comparison to the exceptionally grim Series 9 that preceded it, not because the aforementioned character was about to return. I’m aware that Steven Moffat wrote the tale largely because he felt he was running out of opportunities to do so, and that’s fair enough; and in itself the episode was enjoyable enough. It’s just the character that I object to, for reasons that go to the heart of the show and what it is about. Exploring that objection leads to some interesting insights into Doctor Who as a whole.
When we first meet her in Series 4’s ‘Silence in the Library’/‘Forests of the Dead’, River Song strikes an unsettling note. Yes, it appears that she has had a fascinating relationship with the Doctor -they might even be married. Allegedly he comes to her whenever she needs him. Right away, the long-term fan in me began to think ‘This has to be some kind of trick -please let it be.’ Why?
Because placing any character in such a relation to the Doctor tampers with the central symbols, motifs and purposes of the programme as a whole.
Though Moffat doesn’t think so, the Doctor is an archetype: he is ‘Gandalf in space’ if you like, and is always at his best when he either approaches that archetype or returns to it. Moffat’s interpretation of him as a ‘madman with a box’ is both a very modern vision, and one which goes back to the 1960s. It’s a vision of the Doctor as a kind of cosmic clown rather than as the wise old man. It’s a dichotomy that has been with us ever since the Second Doctor appeared, though Patrick Troughton’s interpretation of the character was multi-layered and highly successful, drawing as it did on its predecessor.
Two strands thereafter ran through the Doctor: was he the ancient wizard of time and space, who could see the central issues in any scenario and act accordingly (as masterfully portrayed with vulnerability and pathos by William Hartnell and later to some degree by Jon Pertwee, Sylvester McCoy and John Hurt)? Or was he the galactic runaway, the comic (and cosmic) thief, the boy who never grew up (as exemplified in various ways by Troughton, Baker, Davison, Tennant and Smith)? Each actor who has taken on the role has played with these strands, as have the writers. It’s one of the strengths of the show that we as an audience are entertained by the apparently silly antics of the clown, while anticipating the masterful reappearance of the wizard.
Moffat’s introduction of a companion who implicitly knows more than the Doctor, teases that knowledge aggravatingly, and who then steps into the personal and private life of the lead character by more than suggesting a sexual life with him, is both a natural and understandable extension of the ‘madman with a box’ side of the dichotomy -why shouldn’t such a figure have a sex life? Isn’t it all part of the ‘jolly, irresponsible crazy time-traveller’ concept of the Doctor? Why shouldn’t others know more about what’s going on than him, as he’s only the Cosmic Fool? Can’t we the audience have some fun at his expense?
At the end of ‘Forests of the Dead’, Moffat -I think unconsciously- has the Doctor revert slightly back into the ancient wizard image by having him regain control over events to some degree and in the end open the Tardis doors with a snap of his fingers. And that might have been the end of that.
River Song might have been handled differently: when we first meet her through the Tenth Doctor we find out that she’s an archaeologist with a taste for adventure, almost a female version of Jack Harkness (also first introduced through a Steven Moffat story). She says that her Doctor is a future incarnation, and it seems possible that she has met other versions as well, as she doesn’t seem too startled at running into Ten. She’s a different kind of companion, one anchored in her own world, it seems -and that could have been interesting. If either Ten or Eleven had responded differently to her, the sense of mystery and power surrounding the Doctor could have been deepened and expanded upon: here’s someone with whom he could have been having adventures that we, the audience, have previously known nothing about. A few knowing moments from Ten or Eleven, deflecting questions from his other companions, sharing secrets with this newcomer, would have put a completely different, and much better, spin on Song. The central tension of the show between Doctor-as-wizard and Doctor-as-Fool would have been strengthened rather than undermined.
As it is, in River’s introduction, she has all the power: she is the one who knows more than the Doctor, telling him off, calling him, taking charge. She grabs the limelight and the control; we as an audience lose. Her death in the library could have been impressive on another level -we could have been privy to at least part of something profound and private in our lead character’s story. River Song herself would have been remembered as a powerful, independent companion whose life had been shared with the Doctor, and of whom we only caught a glimpse. Instead, our central character has been made that little bit less central, losing potency, made more vulnerable and more clownish than he needed to have been. But we could have survived the encounter more or less intact.
Then River returns.
At first glance, she is full of the same fiery energy and is also one step ahead of the Doctor. But something has happened to her. Her entire character, we discover step-by-step, has gone into orbit around the Doctor. She’s in prison for the murder of the Doctor; she has lost her freedom and spends her life inside a cell except for when she summons him for an adventure. Then it turns out that she’s the daughter of his companions Amy and Rory. Then she is kidnapped and brainwashed so that her whole life’s purpose is to kill the Doctor. In being built around the Doctor to this degree, she’s lost most of the underlying qualities that made her independently interesting. Apart from complaining about this, though, let’s understand why: placing River in the shadow of the Doctor is all part of the Doctor-centric motifs that must arise as substitutes for interpreting his character correctly in the first place.
What does that mean? If the Doctor was played as the archetype he was always meant to be -the ancient, knowing wizard intriguingly hidden behind the mask of the clown- there would be no need to have characters go into orbit around him. Instead, confident that the show had its centre, better-crafted stories would be told and whole new worlds would be explored. In the absence of that confident centre, the writing starts to throw everything into the mix. And when, as part of this, we get companions who know more than the Doctor and the Fool persona of the Doctor overplayed, one natural consequence is that it all goes into orbit around him anyway, but unknowingly. It’s as though at the heart of the Doctor a black hole is opened up, which has the gravitational power to draw everything into its sphere and eventually to its death.
River Song ends up giving up her strangely-acquired supernatural powers of regeneration to save the Doctor, and even becomes an archaelogist in order to research him further. Later she engenders the destruction of the entire universe for his sake. Her marriage to the Doctor is his attempt to save the whole of existence, rather than being born out of any genuine romantic feeling for her as an individual.
The independent and fascinating character who we initially met rapidly declines into a soulless, dependent shadow of what she might have been: an empty, walking vacuum, in effect. Hence the hologram of her which the Doctor says he can ‘always see’ on Trenzalore is perhaps the most accurate representation of her: nothing but a phantom projection, without separate existence, made of shadows and light, almost entirely subjective.
She’s gone from a potentially strength-giving, sovereign, parallel character in her own right to a lifeless, conditioned shade. All in the service of building the clownish, vulnerable Doctor into the heart of the universe. The irony is that, interpreted correctly, the ancient, venerable Doctor should already be the centre of everything but that fact, cloaked in mystery, is more potent left unstated.
The same thing happens with other inventions in the show: the Weeping Angels, at first in their proper context truly horrifying, become just another monster lurking around the corner (and ludicrously even come to include a walking Statue of Liberty); the Silence, so wonderfully built up and interwoven into the history of Earth, are thrown away as the instrument of a future religious cult and all their potential is wasted. Angels, Silence, Trenzalore, the Question, all of them are just tools used to create a fleeting emotional effect in a particular episode rather than being treated as elements in their own right with consistency and power. The catchphrase ‘Time can be rewritten’ is interpreted to mean ‘Everything that happens actually can be rewritten so it doesn’t actually matter.’ Plots lose coherence, characters lose solidity, potential development is sacrificed on the altar of the emotional needs of a particular story’s 'moment'.
After a while -a series or two, perhaps, before the cumulative effect of all of these things is realised- nothing means anything. Last week’s cliffhanger is toppled by this week’s entirely re-worked emotional speech; last month’s well-established set of factors is dismissed out of hand by this week’s story needs. Eventually, companions leave through huge plot holes like the one that leaves Amy and Rory in a mysteriously inaccessible 1930s New York; new companions are forcibly ‘injected’ into the show like Clara’s ‘Impossible Girl’. Why? Because true character-driven motivations are less important than plot-driven machinations. And why is that? Because the central character of the show, the Doctor himself, has been misunderstood.
Treat the Doctor as Gandalf in space. Restore him to his proper role. His two hearts -the heart of the wise old man and the heart of the Fool- beat concurrently and create the rhythm that pumps the blood of the show. With that Doctor in place, we would have had River Song as a powerful asset rather than an annoying distraction; we would have had Amy and Rory comforted at the end by mysterious words from the wise old Doctor, rather than painfully and inconsistently abandoned; we would have had Clara Oswald with a beating heart of her own.
Treat the Doctor as a ‘madman with a box’ and we will continue to get everything in confusing motion and a world that can only be put back together by giving the Tardis the cosmic power to reboot universes. It’s a doomed world -until the true Doctor returns.