The Peculiar Case of Professor River Song

(Spoilers for Silence in the Library, Forest of the Dead and the whole of Series 4 ahead.)Yeah, I know I'm late. I was hoping to have covered all of Series 4 before Planet of the Dead hit our screens, but life took over. Though there's lots to discuss in these rich episodes, what has most captured the imagination and polarized fans is River Song, and her place in the Doctor's life. Who is she? What's her true connection to the Doctor? And do we need to ever see her again?

Is she the Doctor's wife?
Hold on there, Bucky! We can't quite tell THAT. Forget for a second that producer Julie Gardner says she is on the commentary track (and that Tennant and writer Moffat shushes him). I don't care if she's in the higher echelons, that's INTERPRETATION. Only onscreen evidence counts, because that's what future episodes can build on, and not contradict. Moffat says "it's more complicated than that" (and his opinion has to have a lot more weight given that he is now head honcho). So what do we actually know?
She does have a very intimate relationship with the Doctor. She calls him "sweetie" and there's an awkward moment when Lux says they argue "like an old married couple". She signs her note with a kiss, and makes a remark about having dated androids, obliquely implying she's dated the Doctor. But that's it really. The Doctor seems to think that he would only tell someone his name unless... And he doesn't finish that sentence. He's jumping to conclusions, however. There might be any number of reasons why he would have told someone his name.

At the very least, she's a future long-running companion romantically linked to the Doctor. She's Rose, a couple decades on. She's "been to the end of the universe" with the Doctor, they "go way back", knows how to contact the Doctor via psychic paper and about Emergency Program One, and of course seems well versed about time travel. She also has a lot of gear that mark her as a companion. Her diary looks like the TARDIS.
She has a pimped-out sonic screwdriver that's more advanced than the current one.
And there's the matter of the squareness gun which might very well be Captain Jack's, forgotten aboard the TARDIS, although it's also possible that it was acquired normally, as she's from the 51st century (but the Doctor destroyed the factory, so...).

But there are also some odd things about her. She's used to meeting the Doctor at different points in his life and is used to having him "appear on her doorstep". So while she might have traveled with him continuously at some point (building that trust and relationship), but is now regularly meeting him out of sequence, always checking her diary to see where they are. He comes when called "as usual". She's not surprised that he's with another companion. The mind boggles, but does this sound like a proper marriage?

So when did she meet the Doctor?
This is where I get into the most arguments with people, because a lot of viewers think it has to be a future regeneration and not Tennant's. But it has to be! She immediately recognizes him and calls him by a pet name, then hopes he has a good reason for acting like he doesn't know her. Sure, when she looks into his eyes, she realizes he's still "young" at this point and not "her" Doctor, but on the surface, he seemed to be. She knows about regeneration, so it's not out of bounds that she would know a future regeneration as well, but she has clearly spent time (intimate time) with Doctor #10. She's even adopted some of his verbal tics ("Snap").

So when does she show up?
Tennant's only got 3 shows to go, and it doesn't look like Alex Kingston's in any of them, nor is there time to develop their story in so short a time. So it's all going to take place off-screen, though to be satisfying, Doc10 is going to have to spend a LOT of time with her in between specials. Yes, she can finish her relationship with Matt Smith's 11th Doctor, but something must still allow for Ten's eyes to grow old and for their relationship to get tight, or else she wouldn't make the comments she does. Losing Donna may be enough to "wizen" him, but a lot of time should pass at least between The Waters of Mars and the last Christmas bit (or even in the middle of an episode, why not). Moffat's not going to let this one go unexplained, is he? His cryptic DVD comments imply there's more to the story, and stories must be told.

Of course, the whole thing could end in paradox, with something interfering with history preventing the Doctor from ever actually meeting River Song, but that wouldn't be playing fair. And it's not what she would have wanted, accepting her death here and forbidding the Doctor from "rewriting time".

Things to watch out for
Donna's Destiny: Prefigured in three ways. First, River knows her fate - it's like she's seeing a ghost. Less on the nose is the cliffhanger turning Donna into a statue with her face, but devoid of her identity.
This is something like her final fate, in which she is made to forget her life with the Doctor. This is even more evident in the life she is given by Doctor Moon inside CAL's virtual reality. Here, she is given a "normal life" and stripped of her memories of the Doctor. Note River's voice over at the end: "Everybody knows that everybody dies... but not today." Donna is to be erased, not killed. Not sure if it's done on purpose, but the Doctor shouting "I need a bigger head!" also prefigures Donna's distress.
Wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey: Steven Moffat invented the term, so you better believe there's some of that in here. River sends a message to the Doctor, but he gets it before he's ever met her. Knowing how she will die, he eventually gives her a sonic screwdriver with a neural relay hidden inside it, so that his past self can save her. He knows to do this because he's already knows his future self has done this.
They call it foreshadowing: Since the Doctor's song ending is referenced again in Planet of the Dead, the Ood's prophecy shouldn't apply to River Song, but the name calls attention to itself. The Doctor may still talk about his death, however. In discussing biographies, he says: "Always a death at the end... without death they'd all be comedies... Dying gives us size."
Are you my mummy?: Donna (and later, River) has computer-generated children, yet another case of pathogenesis.
River's third child could be a whole other essay... Another gift from the Doctor? The child they never had made simulated flesh? Or the child they DID have, recreated by her imagination? [Ok, ok, it's CAL.]
The bees' knees: No bees, but lots of talk of swarms and that people should stand still as if there were a wasp in the room.
The reference section: River Song is a heck of a lot like Bernice Summerfield, a companion from the New Adventures novels. Similar attitude (though Benny never knocked boots with the McCoy Doctor, I don't think) and an archaeologist too. The little shop makes a comeback after New Earth and Smith and Jones. Viewers who smirked at the Doctor tainting his glasses in Planet of the Dead should have remembered that he tainted a visor in this. River's edict against changing history, "not one line", echoes the Doctor's in The Aztecs. The Doctor doesn't like to land on Sundays, probably not coincidentally the only day of the week a new episode has never been broadcast in the UK. And of course, there's a lot of metatextual stuff about television as a medium, with Donna living through editing and all that (again, could be a whole other essay).

Next time: Midnight at the well of souls


Matthew Turnage said...

Although I tend to lean toward The Doctor and River being married, an obvious non-married answer to why The Doctor would tell River his name is so his past self would trust her when the time came.

I took the third child to be CAL, now enjoying her life in the VR along with the other new residents.

Siskoid said...

I like your timey whimy answer!

And your CAL reasoning is probably what that is, but I like to complicate things ;-)

Jeremy Patrick said...

This two-parter is my favorite Who, and has turned me from a moderate fan into eagerly anticipating whatever Moffat has planned for Season Five. I think one of the things that was the most fun about this episode is that the Doctor is placed in the position where someone (River) knows more than he does about the future and what happens next; too often the Doctor is a bit of a condescending know-it-all explaining things to other people, and here that gets to be reversed. I also thought the Doctor & River had instant chemistry, and I hope their relationship is explored more in the next season.

Anonymous said...

I think the simplest explanation for the Doctor's eyes appearing younger to River is that in all of their previous/subsequent meetings, the Doctor was watching her with the eyes that had seen her die. There's also the issue of him not wanting to travel with a companion at all, but being forced by his knowledge of her future to let River accompany him. I think the existential angst caused by those circumstances would tend to show itself in anyone's eyes.

As for those previous/subsequent adventures, there's no reason for the impending end of Tennant's tenure as the Doctor to get in the way of telling those stories. They could do them as radio serials or audiobooks, or animated web serials a la Shada, or (less appealingly to me) a series of novels or comics. Whatever they do, one thing's for sure: the very idea of it will outrage the fans right up to the point where they watch/listen to/read it, at which point it will be gushed over and nominated for a Hugo Award.

Unknown said...

Benny never knocked boots with Doc 7, but The Dying Days heavily implies that she does get it on with Doc 8.

Siskoid said...

Who didn't!

Josh said...

Spot on!


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