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.