We recently finished out a wonderful season of Doctor Who with a Christmas episode featuring the delightful, mysterious and intriguing River Song. Because of that appearance, and maybe because I didn’t quite want to walk away from the Doctor just yet, I embarked on some rewatching–specifically, of what I’m calling The River Song Saga.
For non-fans, River’s place in the Who universe requires some explanation. She’s a recurring character who is very important to the Doctor…but frequently we (and he) are not quite sure how or, most vitally, when. It’s time travel, and River and the Doctor are moving opposite directions through time. So the first time the Doctor (and we) met River, she knew everything about him. As he moves forward in time, he learns more but she knows less and less…and the same thing happens from her perspective, that he knows less about her each time they meet.
Following so far? 🙂 As the episodes aired, we moved through time from the Doctor’s perspective. So on this re-watch, I thought it would be fun to try to watch them from River’s perspective. This would no doubt be utterly confusing if I didn’t know the total arc, but I wanted to see what that arc looked like as River lived it. So this post obviously will contain, as River herself would say, spoilers. And it’s going to be a long one!
Even the most basic plot description is complicated…but it kind of breaks into two sections. River was born as Melody Pond, but immediately kidnapped by the sinister Silence. A good chunk of episodes revolve around this, and around the Silence’s plot to kill the Doctor. Just to make it even more complicated, River crosses her own timeline in most of these episodes, showing up as an adult while crucial things are also happening to her infant/child self.
After all that is dealt with (or before it happens…depending on your perspective), River shows up in the Doctor’s life for several relatively unconnected episodes, at a time when she knows a great deal and he knows very little. And somewhere in there the two of them are also romantically involved, but that very rarely showed up onscreen.
So, firstly, it was a blast (and less confusing than you’d think) watching River’s story in River’s order. I recommend it to the Dr. Who fan, and I kind of want to come up with some other idea for watching a handful of thematically-connected Who episodes. (If you want to try it, I recommend this helpful timeline, and this very entertaining flowchart.)
Two major things emerged from the experience: how really awesome River herself is, and how much more awesome her story could have been. Neither of these were surprises, but watching the shows like this reinforced it.
So, River—amazing. It says a great deal about how amazing she is that I so enjoyed rewatching her episodes…set almost entirely during the Matt Smith era, my least-favorite Doctor. She’s tough and she’s smart and she’s more edgy and morally gray than the Doctor, while still being in the good guys’ camp. The Doctor never, ever carries a gun (I like that too), while River does and knows how to use it. As the Doctor says, I shouldn’t like that but I kind of do. But it’s not really about the weaponry, it’s the way she’s completely an equal for the Doctor in terms of being able to handle the galaxy and whatever it throws at them. Which is kind of remarkable, since she usually comes onto the scene by asking him for help…but it’s more like, “come join me on a weird adventure” than it is “come save me.”
One thing that is done well with the overarching story is that she convincingly matures as the story progresses—so, the opposite direction from how the episodes originally aired. Possibly this is just an effect of pushing the character farther as the series went on, and letting her be wilder…but still, it works.
What doesn’t work so well…are the number of lost opportunities in the larger arc. I’m about to be critical here, so I feel like I should clarify that I love this show, I do the most critical analysis on things I love the best, and Doctor Who at its worst (well, at least at its middling) is better than most shows at their best. Okay. Now then…
I’m pretty convinced Steven Moffat (writer and producer) did not have River’s full story figured out ahead of time—because if he did, he passed up every chance at foreshadowing along the way. This is mostly an issue in the second half. Adult River never so much as blinks in response to “mysteries” centered around her childhood which she ought to know the answer to. And yes, yes, spoilers, can’t reveal foreknowledge, etc…but just having her look uncomfortable going back to the excruciatingly creepy orphanage where she grew up would have added so much more. A story structured like this should have me going, “Oh, now I understand why she looked like that!” when mysteries are revealed (going from the Doctor’s progression, that is…), instead of forcing me to go, “Wow, she must be the world’s best liar…and was really being kind of unhelpful there too.”
The first time Amy and Rory meet River (not the first time she meets them…), River gives no sign of having any particular interest, either in them or the fact that they haven’t met her. Which leads me to suspect that Moffat had no idea at that point they were her parents. That should have been a more weighted meeting! And River’s remark a season or two later about pretending not to know Amy…just feels like a late-in-the-game cover-up.
The biggest lost opportunity, though, is Mels. In between being kidnapped by the Silence and becoming the adult River we know, she spent a lot of years as Mels, Amy and Rory’s childhood best friend. But we the viewers never meet Mels until the episode she regenerates into River. How much more shocking would that reveal have been if we already knew her as a minor character?
The biggest plot hole is in the Silence’s plan—which revolves around kidnapping and raising baby River/Melody to brainwash her into killing the Doctor—by sticking her into an astronaut suit that will do the killing for her. To the point that I don’t know why they even needed her at all. Sigh.
However, as much more awesome as it all could have been, what’s here is still pretty awesome. And watching it backwards meant I got to come out of the Matt Smith era to watch River’s first/last appearance, when she meets David Tennant. And even if she wasn’t happy to see that particular Doctor, I was delighted.
And that leads me to my other conclusion from watching the shows this way. The story ends (or begins) with River “dying”…but the Doctor manages to upload her consciousness to a giant computer, where she can hang out in an idyllic, vaguely suburban world. Which is perfectly lovely when you’ve only met River for that episode…but after watching her whole life, there is absolutely no way she’s going to be okay with this ending. We got one tantalizing hint in a later episode suggesting she’s still alive in some other way…but nothing more.
So I’m still waiting—have been waiting for a few seasons now—for a proper River story after her “death.” Because she’s far too awesome to be left where she is—and if she is, that’s going to be the biggest lost opportunity of all. But even if it never happens onscreen, I firmly believe that River eventually escapes the computer core and blasts back into the Doctor’s life with a “Hello, sweetie” and a smile.