Doctor Who #800: Silence in the Library

"You've only just met him." "No, he's only just met me."
TECHNICAL SPECS: First aired May 31 2008.

IN THIS ONE... First appearance of River Song on the eve of her last, technically.

While I could agree that Silence in the Library feels a little like Steven Moffat's greatest hits - a monster with a catchphrase (a horrible one, the cliffhanger sounds like bad sampling), a young girl communicating with the future (seemingly), the timey-wimey out of order meetings of characters - it nevertheless hits a lot of strong notes, even at the halfway point. First among these is the introduction of River Song, a character that will become almost too central to the Matt Smith era. But that's not the character's fault here (even though, I guess that's all behind her). The idea of someone meeting the Doctor over and over out of order is a wonderful one, and it captured our imaginations for the longest time (there's a reason one of my most successful posts, hit-wise, was called Who Is River Song?). After this one episode, she's definitely a mystery, but implies she at least dated the Doctor, knows him very well, and is evidently heartbroken that he doesn't recognize her. Yet, you can tell she's a veteran, she carries on, calls him out on his flaws (the bit about pride made me laugh out loud), and knows all the tricks. Even has her own sonic screwdriver. She won't give us spoilers, but might accidentally foreshadow something. Her awkwardness when she discovers the Doctor's companion is Donna is telling...

The script doesn't keep to a single emotional note. Yes, there's excitment and intrigue at the possibilities River raises, and definitely some humor there (Donna conceding the Doctor's a bit pretty is hilarious), but the episode is also quite emotional. The idea behind "ghosting" is either a stupendously contrived way to put a catchphrase in the mouth of a force of nature, or interesting science-fiction extrapolation of the technology involved, not sure which (it's an echo of what happens to Astrid as well). But when used to give poor Miss Evangelista a posthumous death scene, it becomes a powerful tool. Much of the work is done by Catherine Tate, once again bringing it, but what Donna witnesses IS horrible. It's sad, and it's just a little bit creepy and unsettling. It's 2001's "My mind is going", but with an actual person (sorry HAL). As she starts to loop, she thinks of "ice cream" over and over, or possibly "I scream" if you ignore the subtitles. Brrr. So humor, tragedy, etc., but also terror. Moffat relishes giving kids (and the easier to influence adults in the audience) new phobias about common everyday things. You were already scared of statues, now you're scared of dust motes in sun beams, and of shadows. Because the Vashta Nerada, the strangely (but beautifully) named piranha of the air, are apparently on every inhabited world including our own!

If the episode doesn't quite reach the heights of Moffat's past efforts, it's that it's a bit all over the place. Part of this is that it uses a lot of misdirection. It starts with a young girl apparently imagining the Library and the Doctor and Donna intruding on her imagination. The Doctor as an imaginary being is not the last metatextual thing in this story as a whole, you'll see, and is a theme Moffat will return to several times during his run as producer. Of course, that's just a clever teaser; the truth is quite the reverse. And we spend a lot of time with the little girl as she tries to communicate with the people in her Library. The story's running several mysteries at once - River Song, what happened to the people "saved" by the Library, who the little girl is - and throws in weird ideas like the modern art statues with human faces and censored speech, an entire world that's a library (great set of locations for it), and the whole ghosting thing. Plus a swarm of dark mites who not only eat people, but can animate their bodies as well (Moffat loves a good zombie). That's perhaps too much for the themes to stay coherent.

THEORIES: I've said it before and I'll say it again, there HAVE to be untold adventures of the 10th Doctor and River Song for her dialog to make sense in this episode, but even that doesn't entirely save continuity. Consider that she mentions two events from her spoilerific TARDIS-shaped journal. One is the crash of the Byzantium (The Time of Angels, chronologically next for us), and the other is a picnic. If she asks about Byzantium, it's because she must not know if Tennant comes before or after Smith (to use the actors' names). But if the Byzantium doesn't ring any bells, the picnic would have to be an earlier non-Smith event, or else why mention it as an alternative? If his eyes are what gives his youth away, then stands to reason she must have met an older-eyed Tennant at some point, and not just one who gave her the screwdriver for predestination purposes, because again, what about the picnic she mentions? For everything to make sense, he has to have visited her a number of times between The Waters of Mars and The End of Time when he was on a Time Lord bender. Not that I can guarantee that fits in with what's said in The Time of Angels, so you can be sure we'll revisit the matter.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium-High -The funny bits are funny, the touching bits are touching, the intriguing bits are intriguing. I won't call it perfect, but it manages to do well what it tries to do. It just tries to do too many things.


Madeley said...

Not the strongest of his pre-showrunner scripts, but Moffat was still a fair head above many other writers during RTD's tenure. I think River Song is a great character with a great concept, and it's a shame Moffat didn't really stick the landing with the story arc during the 11 era.

As to not telling the difference between 10 and 11- maybe considering what we know of her physiology now, she perceives him fourth dimensionally as one of those complex space-time events first, and physically second? Just thinking of the way his "corpse" later appears in Name of the Doctor, as an "open wound." Maybe Time Lords and related beings see the physical changes from regeneration in the same way we might spot if someone we know has changed their hairstyle, in that the less observant of us might not even notice?

Siskoid said...

But HE doesn't see her that way, or he could tell there was something Time Lordly about her. She just registers as an unknown human.

So while I like your interpretation, like any other we might come up with, it's imperfect because the River arc itself is.

Anonymous said...

Agreeing with Madeley. I can even cite Drax recognizing Theta Sigma as an example of how Gallifreyans can see past the regenerations, and the two are not even all that close; as far as we know Drax has never as much as gotten to second base with the Doctor.

We also know that a future incarnation of the Doctor will sometimes wear the faces of old favorites -- another possibility of how David Tennant's face is the one that River Song expects.

Here's where this episode was weak: it wanted us to be all intrigued at the impossibility of "saved". If you've never seen a Moffat episode before, you might not know what to look for. But if you have, you have a sense of how he thinks, and the cleveritude fails to blindside you. It's like when they do "Twilight Zone" remakes and every ending is either cruel irony or the tyranny of a dystopian future; sorry guys, you need to do better.

Madeley said...

Yeah, the River arc was hugely imperfect, no doubt.

Maybe in Let's Kill Hitler she vented all the Time Lord Mojo that would let him perceive her as an anomaly?

Siskoid said...

Maybe. Then explain how she's a complex space-time event in Flesh and Stone. Cuz those concepts sounds related.

There's likely no real answer, because if there were, continuity puzzle builder Moffat would have explained it. Though he still might. Some of that Christmas special stuff went incredibly far back.

Madeley said...


LiamKav said...

For what it's worth, Moffat was asked in Doctor Who Monthly if this was the only meeting between the 10th Doctor and River, and he said that in his mind they had other meetings before he regenerated.

Siskoid said...


Bill Doughty said...

And given that in Smith's on-screen meeting with River he's annoyed with having to see her out of order again rather than being all "Hey! I'm seeing you alive again!", I definitely got the idea that they had met at least a couple of unseen times between the Library and the crash of the Byzantium. Just enough to still be annoyed that she knows more about him than he does about here.


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