"The forests of the Vashta Nerada, pulped and printed and bound. A million, million books, hatching shadows."
IN THIS ONE... Donna has a family, sort of. River Song dies, sort of.
REVIEW: When it originally aired, I think the big emotional punch was Donna losing her love from the VR world, but with time, and I wondered if this would happen, our getting to know River in reverse has made the DOCTOR losing his love the bigger deal, even if he doesn't know her yet. I found it rather amazing how easy it was to believe this was the River Song that had lived through all those later-for-her-earlier adventures that hadn't been written yet. The sexy banter, the absolute trust, the competence that occasionally makes the Doctor look bad, it's all there. But she's slightly less arch, wiser, less glib, more mature. In the end, she sacrifices herself to make sure her timeline happens as she remembers it and the Doctor for the first time says "Time can be rewritten", a Moffat mantra, to which she throws his very earliest incarnation's words back at him, "Not one line". It's a great moment, and seeing it with the benefit of hindsight (or foresight, I'm not sure what to call it), River gets a death scene worthy of a recurring character of her importance. The Doctor's sadness is profound, no doubt realizing he'll have to get to know this woman even as her death weighs on his conscience. Also perfect is that her salvation comes from a timey-wimey source, the future Doctor helping out his younger self - that's River all over - and that her survival in the CAL's VR world is an echo of Time Lord afterlife, i.e. their minds uploaded to the Matrix. Sometimes everybody lives, an other Moffat mantra, and I like to think that, from time to time, the Doctor visits the Library and pulls River up on a screen. Certainly, the idea that he can now snap his fingers and make the TARDIS doors open means he's on his way to becoming HER Doctor.
Though River steals Donna's emotional thunder upon rewatching, it doesn't mean the companion gets shorted. Donna's fast-forwarded seven years inside the VR world is a great bit of metatext. The editing, normal on a television program or film, is here made literal. Time cuts are perceived by the characters as instantaneous, which is how Donna can get married and have kids in mere minutes. CAL can watch the Donna show on her television, and change the channel to "Doctor Who", just as we might if the former actually existed. But beyond being a neat trick, its purpose is to first foreshadow Donna's fate as a happy wife who's forgotten all about her adventures with the Doctor, and secondly, to mirror the Doctor's own relationship with River, full of holes (its entire future, at this point) and temporally confusing. Donna's loss of this world is played with heartbreaking anguish, her kids admitting that they don't feel like they exist when she's not there, then disappearing. And in the final moments of the episode, she resigns herself to the idea that Lee wasn't real, even as the man tries to stammer our her name before he's teleported away. Donna and the Doctor both feel fine; it's Time Lord code for not fine at all. I kind of get weepy just thinking about it.
Otherwise, well, it's a fair runaround with the usual business of escaping skeletons in spacesuits, as you do. The data ghost tech is at least used intelligently, first to give the Vashta Nerada the ability to communicate and then to save River, so its role in giving the monsters bad catchphrases is the only clunker. The Doctor gets to rage at the monsters for eating a woman he liked, Anita, telling the Vashta Nerada to look him up in the universe's biggest library. He'll do a better version of this badass speech in The Eleventh Hour, just you wait.
THEORIES: Another reason to think River and the 10th Doctor will meet again/have met before is River's need to sacrifice herself for him. She seems very sure he wouldn't regenerate from using his brain as a back-up drive. It may be that she knows a lot about Time Lord biology, but I'd rather think it's because she's desperate to keep her timeline intact. If she'd met the 10th Doctor before, then she would know he couldn't regenerate here. Not because he can't regenerate from this particular type of damage, but because he can't regenerate before he's met her again in this guise. Maybe it's just the once, because she mentions his arriving at her door for that last date with a "new haircut" (and a suit, but they all wear suits from Tennant on, so that's neither here nor there), which has always been taken to mean a new regeneration. For her, Doc10 would be new, since 11 was when she met him. Or, and let's have some fun here, it could be Capaldi's Doctor - the meet out of order, not necessarily in reverse - who would be in a better position to give her the night of her life because he knew everything that had gone before; Tennant could only give her a "first date"). Not that I expect his sonic to look like River's, but the look and tech of it are obviously different and beyond Doc10's, so could better have come from a future Doctor. So maybe this story hasn't looped on itself just yet.
VERSIONS: The DVD contains one deleted scene from this episode, Lux giving his farewells.
SECOND OPINIONS: My original review, The Peculiar Case of Professor River Song, discusses both parts of this story, though without the benefit of knowing who River was yet.
REWATCHABILITY: High - Yes, it's easy to write it off as a collection of tropes, characters and lines from across Moffat's entire Doctor Who oeuvre, but it's only gotten more moving since it originally aired as River was given context.