What’s Wrong with River Song

A while back I wrote some meta about what happened to Donna, and in the ensuing conversation the SF stereotype of "Geeky guys and kick-ass Barbie Chicks" was mentioned, along with the general well-established characteristic of the show that nobody gets to be more powerful than the Doctor.

Right now there is a lot of love for River Song. She’s really quite a dame, and it was hard not to get drawn into whooping when she blew those aliens away last night. She’s gorgeous, she’s clever, she’s a crack shot and she’s always in control. Or at least it looks that way.

But there’s a problem with that. River has about as much agency and influence over events as the victim of a witch’s wicked spell in a fairytale. And, just like in a fairytale, we don’t find out what she did to deserve being put under the spell. it’s just an established fact.

Okay, so River is a time traveller and she gets to meet the Doctor backwards, which is really cool and a fascinating thing to explore. So fascinating, in fact, that nobody has ever stopped to ask why it works like that. Jack Harkness doesn’t have the same problem, neither does the Doctor. Or at least, if they do, we don’t get to see it. And therein lies my problem with River Song – she’s apparently in the same situation as the Doctor but he behaves as if he can change things, and RIver behaves as if there’s nothing she can do to change things at all. She just has to wait and suffer as the power balance between her and the man she loves tips against her.

So much for being kick-ass. River is about as kick-ass as the mistress of a man who’ll never leave his wife. She just has to hang around waiting for him to show up when he can, and although she’s handy with a gun and very bright, the only power she has where it really matters, in the relationship that defines her life, is that of witholding information. That’s powerful because being the woman of mystery and surrounded by an aura of trouble is a very alluring combination. And even that power is decreasing every time they meet. The more familiar she becomes to him, the less interested he’ll be.

RTD tended to write about women being confined, contained, married or worse still punished for becoming the Doctor’s equal. Feminists will argue quite rightly that he’d much to learn in that respect. However, his women were generally more proactive than Moffatt’s. Martha made a conscious choice to walk away, after suffering much and with great courage and dignity. Rose and Donna (first time around) let the Doctor slip away from them, and then made very deliberate choices to get back to him. Those choices were sometimes morally questionable, particularly Rose building the Dimension Cannon, and arguably pointless since the Doctor always wins, and if he says you’ve had your chance, back you go. But it’s interesting that they were both very ordinary women, not particularly well-educated, who developed a great deal through their time with the Doctor (enough, you could argue, to become a real threat to him).

Moffatt’s women, by contrast, look more feisty on the outside, but deep down they are all Women Who Waited. In The Doctor Dances, the problem can only be solved by Nancy, symbolically at least, renouncing her independent identity and publicly outing herself as a mother (a point that tends to be overlooked in the euphoria of ‘Everybody Lives’ and Jack sacrificing his life, a choice that, unlike Nancy, nobody has coerced him into making). Reinette, for all her beauty and intelligence, waits for the Doctor in vain and dies broken-hearted. Sally Sparrow solves the puzzles set by the Doctor, does her assigned job of getting the TARDIS back to him and then settles down (She also seems to recover remarkably quickly from the rather horrible fate of her best friend). Amy spends her childhood waiting for the Doctor, blinded to the love of someone far worthier of her hand.

And then there’s River. She might have a PhD and be a crack shot, and ooze glamour and be a better driver than the Doctor is, and drive him crazy with the thrill of the chase, but just like Anne Boleyn, she’s for the chop. And I still don’t see why she’s presented as the Doctor’s peer, but he’s allowed to behave as if he can change things, and she is not.

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13 thoughts on “What’s Wrong with River Song

  1. “She just has to wait and suffer as the power balance between her and the man she loves tips against her.”
    Ooohh, well-said! At least, Rose & Donna fought back. Even if it didn’t work, they TRIED. River seems to just accept her situation…

  2. Yes, that’s what I find so weird. It would help if we ever find out why she’s condemned to this rather awful fate. Maybe she once crossed a very powerful Time Lord and his saliva has that effect on her personal time stream?

  3. I still don’t see why she’s presented as the Doctor’s peer, but he’s allowed to behave as if he can change things, and she is not.
    Isn’t it her own choice not to change things? When he’s handcuffed at the end of Forest of the Dead and says, “Time can be rewritten,” when talking about saving her past life at the expense of his future life, she says, “Don’t you dare,” because to her they’re the same thing, which she values. Or have I misunderstood your issue? Is it perhaps your point that the story doesn’t allow her to want things to change?

  4. You’ve hit the nail on the head. Watching the new episode last night there were a lot of things that bothered me – I felt like it was a huge letdown from the promise of the first episode, but maybe that was just because I was confused into thinking there was promise – but River… River’s character so far this season is just breaking my heart. Here I’d been hoping that she’d actually be allowed to inhabit the cosmic sphere they’d been setting her up for, and instead we get a complete 180 and she loses not only all of her agency, but all of her spirit. She’s relegated from being the woman go went against all female character precedents in DW in acting independently of the Doctor, to being defined entirely by him.
    AND I WANT SO MUCH TO LOVE HER.
    Gah. I just want a female character to not be destroyed in a TV show, for once. So many of my shows are dying from this. (I may be overreacting, slightly, but is it too much to ask from fiction? Really?)

  5. I wonder if SM has read The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe, in which the hero / narrator Severian repeatedly meets aliens who travel backwards in time? They also speak in iambic pentameters 🙂

  6. It’s more about assumptions. i agree, you can argue that ultimately she chooses to die, although the Doctor doesn’t respect that choice. But she chooses from a standpoint that nothing matters more than what they had together, which is a very conventionally feminine way of looking at things. When Ten didn’t want to die, he thought about all he could still be, and do.
    A lot of people felt that the way he mimdwiped Donna was rape. it wasn’t but that was how it looked, and how things look can be more important than how they are. My little bitvof fun could be your offensive joke. it’s that little gap between peception and intent that I find so fascinating, and revealing, particularly when a writer keeps repeating himself.

  7. Also, Merlin lives backwards in TH White’s Once And Future King. But I think what really influenced SM was The Time Traveller’s Wife.q

  8. Well, I still wonder (and I’ve not read TTTW). But all those points we keep getting told about RS meeting the Doctor for his last and her first time came up in a suspiciously similar manner in Gene Wolfe’s book.
    I’d forgotten about Merlin, though.

  9. Okay, so River is a time traveller and she gets to meet the Doctor backwards, which is really cool and a fascinating thing to explore. So fascinating, in fact, that nobody has ever stopped to ask why it works like that.
    Did Moffat forget that at some point between TToA and SitL, in River’s timeline, River and the Doctor must meet at least once more, to go to the Singing Towers of Dirillium? And I imagine the Doctor would have to be much older by that point. The “his first kiss/my last kiss” line bugs me because of this.
    And therein lies my problem with River Song – she’s apparently in the same situation as the Doctor but he behaves as if he can change things, and RIver behaves as if there’s nothing she can do to change things at all. She just has to wait and suffer as the power balance between her and the man she loves tips against her.
    YES, this is the very issue I have with River. The result of completely opposing timelines is that her life must always be defined by the Doctor from the time they meet. The corollary of course is that his life must always be defined by her, but depending on when River first meets him (and it seems like it’s in childhood?), he will hold more power over her in the end.
    RTD tended to write about women being confined, contained, married or worse still punished for becoming the Doctor’s equal. Feminists will argue quite rightly that he’d much to learn in that respect.
    I’m divided on this. I think RTD was simply trying to say it’s wrong to become godlike. Martha, who left, had the most agency and freedom of all the main companions at the end. Martha always remained human, compared to the godlike Bad Wolf!Rose and DoctorDonna. Yet in “The Doctor’s Daughter” it’s clear Martha’s become the human equivalent of the Doctor. wrote a fascinating essay about Martha in this light.
    I think one can say the same of Sarah Jane, too. “School Reunion” suggested Sarah Jane had waited decades for the Doctor to return. After she decided to let him go, she became a kick-ass mentor to her own young companions. She became a human Doctor in her own right.
    OTOH, Rose and Donna, who both declared they’d stay with the Doctor “forever”, became godlike and ultimately paid for that choice. Then there’s the immortal Jack Harkness, whose humanity is often called into question in Torchwood. RTD’s message seems to be “forever” and “immortal” are godlike concepts, thus are wrong because godhood is wrong. That all said, I am not arguing RTD’s execution wasn’t problematic, because it was full of unfortunate implications.
    Moffatt’s women, by contrast, look more feisty on the outside, but deep down they are all Women Who Waited.
    Yes. What annoys me most about Moffat’s Who is that free choice seems to have disappeared for the female characters. As you say, Nancy was coerced into revealing her motherhood; Reinette, early S5!Amy and now, apparently, River, have known the Doctor all their lives. The Doctor, essentially, molds them; they haven’t really had a life without him. Yes, the Doctor “broke” Amy, but “fixing” her means she’s not allowed to choose Rory freely, as per “Amy’s Choice.” At the end of “The Big Bang” the Doctor tells her to love Rory–again defining her in terms of Rory right from the start of her new universe. And the fact that River and Eleven have opposite timelines means her life must always be fixed relative to his, for events to unfold the way they should. (So much for “time can be rewritten.”)
    (In contrast, while Rory was “The Boy Who Waited,” he chose to wait when he didn’t have to. Had Rory been human and not an Auton, I’m sure he’d have gone with the Doctor to 1996. Immortality here is a good thing and Eleven rewards it in the new universe.)
    There’s Abigail who had no choice in when she was defrosted at all. Sardick had no choice in his life being rewritten. And then there’s all of humanity, subliminally conditioned without their knowledge to kill the Silence.
    Yes, clearly I have Issues here. tl;dr I agree with your assessment about River.

  10. Did Moffat forget that at some point between TToA and SitL, in River’s timeline, River and the Doctor must meet at least once more, to go to the Singing Towers of Dirillium? And I imagine the Doctor would have to be much older by that point. The “his first kiss/my last kiss” line bugs me because of this.
    I can’t make myself believe that River’s line of dialogue about last times means what people are taking it to mean — that the Doctor’s first kiss with River is River’s last kiss with the Doctor and that River and the Doctor are living their lives in opposite directions. You mention the Singing Towers of Delirium. A friend’s pointed out to me that if they lived opposite directions the Doctor and River would never have shared experiences, and yet they both remember Jim the Fish at the beginning of “The Impossible Astronaut.” Also, River’s familiarity with Rory in “The Impossible Astronaut” as opposed to her lack of recognition of him in “The Big Bang” implies that for River, “Astronaut” comes after “Big Bang,” just as it does for everyone else.
    I think this is a more likely explanation for River’s emotion. She had adventures with the Doctor, including Jim the Fish. In the course of these adventures they kissed. Then she gets the mysterious summons to Utah 2011. She witnesses the Doctor’s murder. A younger Doctor shows up, and they have the Space 1969. At the end, they kiss, and it’s the Doctor’s first kiss (from his perspective) with River. River knows when and where the Doctor dies, so she also knows when and where the Doctor has his last kiss. Basically, I think she’s finally letting herself grieve for the Doctor; as long as she was traveling with the Doctor in 1969 she could forget the Doctor’s death, but now that he’s leaving, she knows the way his story ends.

  11. Yeah, I was thinking about this when it came out about them moving in opposite directions. NOW it’s… sort of okay? River holds the balance of power because she has all the knowledge in the relationship, but eventually there is going to come a time when the Doctor is the one with all the power, who will seek out a River who has never met him and set her on this path (giving her little to zero choice in the matter) and it is a path that HE KNOWS leads straight to her death.
    It is pretty screwed up tbh and if the show played it straight and as dark as that it is then that’s one thing, but I suspect we’re supposed to be dazzled by how powerful and independent River is when really there are some serious issues with consent and power in their relationship.

  12. Actually, I have a theory about that…related to my theory about who would die…that turned out to be true. I’m sticking with my theory and saying River DID kill him there on the beach. River is the little girl. And yes, that means that River is presented with the idea that she has no choice in anything from her childhood. Which is why Silence in the Library is such a flat out tragic episode of Doctor Who and practically nobody saw it at the time! River, pretty much has already met her end at the hands of the Doctor who didn’t know her and didn’t love her. He can never love her, not really, because he knows they will come to that place in the library in the end.
    All we are seeing is River gradually coming to understand that she is meaningless, as she falls inevitably in love. But no RTD heroine would accept that fate, which is what makes Rose’s being out flanked so galling. She would never accept it. Moff’s girls are muppets from the outset. He loves the idea of a man being a God-figure to a little girl and so I do think River is the little girl in the space suit. What condemned her is that she killed the Doctor. Probably he will come back from that…but River might never know.
    Rae

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