River Song is arguably the most divisive character to come to Doctor Who in the past five years. She’s a swashbuckling archeologist who outwits almost everybody, and an unabashedly sexy older woman. She’s also so dependent on the Doctor as to be kind of a satellite.
So which is she: resourceful, self-reliant adventurer, or the Time Lord’s hanger-on? Today’s Christmas special, “The Husbands of River Song,” tries to get to the bottom of the issue, once and for all. Spoilers ahead!
River is emblematic of a whole crew of women who have come to Doctor Who since 2010. In addition to companions Amy and Clara, the show has added some formidable semi-recurring characters. Including Vastra and Jenny (a Silurian-human lesbian couple); Ashildr, an immortal rogue; a new version of the paramilitary organization UNIT where everyone is female; and of course Missy, who’s the regeneration of the Doctor’s arch-nemesis the Master. And despite some major flaws, Clara’s storyline forms a pretty solid emotional arc, with an ending that’s both satisfying and empowering.
So it’s hard to deny that Doctor Who has made major progress in this area during the past few years.
But even as the show seems to be making an effort to push female characters forward, it’s come under more fire for sexism. People have studied the show and found that it passes the Bechdel Test less often than it did when Russell T. Davies was showrunner. And there’s a general sense that the female characters are less independent.
What’s going on here? A few things. First off, Davies’ approach to Who storytelling revolved much more around giving his companions earth-bound families, and in particular Rose and Donna had complicated relationships with their mothers. Also, the main way we see that Rose is a smart, inquisitive person in the first season is that she talks to ordinary people and finds out things, including a lot of female servants and maintenance workers.
But also, as much as Davies frequently had everything in his stories revolve around the Doctor in the end, the Doctor is even more the center of the universe with Moffat. (Read our whole rant about this tendency here.) So for example, Vastra and Jenny are fun, exciting characters, who seem as though they have their own adventures, but they mostly worry about the Doctor whenever we see them. (Except for “The Crimson Horror,” which is deliberately structured as a story about them investigating something on their own, and stumbling on the Doctor.)
So on the one hand, River Song is a wild and individualistic explorer, who is busy cavorting around the galaxy when she’s not trading saucy banter with the Doctor. But on the other, her whole life story revolves around the Doctor, even more than most characters on this show, and she seems to have a pathologically one-sided devotion to him. (He’s responsible for her birth, her childhood brainwashing by creepy aliens, her career choice and her death. She’s created as a weapon against him, gives up regeneration for him, and finally gives her life to save him. It’s a storyline that never quite holds water, despite having many fantastic moments along the way.)
So which is it: Is River a female Han Solo/Indiana Jones, or is she purely defined by her relationship to the Doctor? Her latest (possibly final) episode explores both of those roles, before trying to suggest that it’s a bit more complicated than either.
“The Husbands of River Song” has a deliberately provocative title, because the Doctor is supposed to be her husband—although you can debate the legality of a shotgun wedding in a bubble universe after time was stopped, but whatever. (And the Doctor, as River is quick to point out, has had other wives.)
The first half of the episode toys with showing us a much more free-wheeling and irresponsible version of River than we’ve ever seen before. The conceit of the episode is that even though she meets the Doctor early on, she fails to recognize him because she believes that he’s only able to have the twelve faces she already knows (due to the Time Lord regeneration limit.)
Does River actually figure out it’s the Doctor early on and just decide to troll him? It’s hard to say. But I’m guessing... no. After watching the episode a couple times, she really seems startled and amazed when she realizes who this random buffoon she’s been running around with actually is. It’s a powerful emotional bit, and the linchpin of the episode, and its effectiveness depends on you believing that she didn’t know all along.
So taking the episode at face value, we learn a lot about River by seeing “what she’s like when I’m not around,” as the Doctor puts it. She’s a cunning schemer, who marries the evil King Hydroflax just to get at the priceless diamond that’s gotten embedded in his brain. She has no compunction about killing the King, and possibly others who get in her way. She doesn’t seem that worried about Ramon, who’s also her husband, even after she gets him decapitated and attached to a giant robot (and in fact, she’s erased Ramon’s memory of their marriage, because he was getting annoying.) She’s 200 years old, much older than the Doctor realizes, meaning she’s had a lot of adventures without him.
And her attitude to the Doctor, when she thinks he’s not around, seems a lot more cavalier. She steals his TARDIS when he’s not looking, using it for ages and then returning it exactly where he left it, a second later—and he’s never noticed before, apparently. She refers to him as “the Damsel,” because he needs rescuing so often. She says he’s nobody special, except that he’s terribly useful every now and then. She even says that men (like the Doctor) will believe any story that they’re the hero of—suggesting that her whole history with the Doctor has been nothing but a long con, with her manipulating his vanity.
This all seems so over-the-top that it reads like a parody of an independent woman, but it also feels a bit like River is overcompensating.
She keeps saying that she didn’t really King Hydroflax, she “married the diamond”—and this becomes a possible metaphor for her relationship with the Doctor, too. Did she really just latch on to the Doctor because of the access to his time machine and his “terribly useful” skills and knowledge? Is she really just using him, the way she used Hydroflax?
No, of course not. In a somewhat sudden pivot, the episode’s plot changes completely, and so does River’s attitude. River is being chased by the robot body of King Hydroflax, which wants his head back (and which is voiced by Nonso Anozie!). But then the robot body decides that its original biological head is done for, and an insectoid waiter convinces it that there’s a great replacement head: the Doctor’s. (Poor Dorium Maldovar doesn’t even get considered for the job.)
And because River is the Doctor’s “consort,” she probably knows where he is, or they can use her as bait to get him. This leads to her delivering a speech where she declares that she loves the Doctor, but he doesn’t love her back. You might as well expect the stars to love you back as the Doctor, and he’s off doing whatever he does while she has to live her life without him. The Doctor is much too self-centered to bother rescuing River, she insists—before realizing he’s actually right there with her.
This, too, feels like a somewhat exaggerated version of River’s relationship with the Doctor, even as the “terribly useful” cavalier version was. The Doctor mercilessly teases her about the whole “stars and sunrise” stuff, and clearly does care a great deal about her.
So we get over-the-top parodies of both versions of River, and then—maybe—we get something a bit more nuanced. Possibly closer to the truth?
At this point, the plot abruptly wraps up, because River’s always had a perfectly good escape route from this doomed spaceship. And the Doctor and River both try to get each other to safety while the other tries to save the crashing ship, before they both declare that they care about and value each other much more than a ship full of mass murderers and war criminals, whose deaths have been part of the historical record for centuries in River’s time.
Then, at last, it’s time to process the Doctor’s relationship with River—with a sudden melancholy tinge, because they’ve arrived at the Singing Towers of Darillium, where they are fated to spend their last night together. And the Doctor gives River the sonic screwdriver that we know will “save” her from death in “Forest of the Dead.” We also learn that the Doctor has been putting this last meeting with River off over and over, because he can’t bear to say goodbye to her.
River, like Clara not too long ago, expects the Doctor to find some clever way out of the fact that their time together (and her life) are ending. But the Doctor gives one of his speeches about how it’s always the last time for something, and nobody can change that, and “happy ever after” is just a lie we tell ourselves. To which River responds that “happy ever after” doesn’t actually mean forever—the Doctor, with his unnatural lifespan and outsider perspective on time, is incapable of understanding that “happy ever after” just means a little more time.
The Singing Towers themselves become a metaphor for the relationship between the Doctor and River—River says they’re incapable of loving you back, the same way she feels the Doctor is. But the Doctor responds that it’s the exact distance between them, not any properties of the towers themselves, that makes them sing.
And then it turns out that their “final night” together will actually be 24 years because of the long nights on Darillium, thus proving River’s point that “happy ever after” is just a matter of more time, not endless time.
This episode feels almost metafictional in its desire to place exaggerated versions of these two opposing visions of River opposite each other. And the main answer that it offers, in the end, to the critics of the show’s determination to make all other characters satellites of the hero, is the same one we’ve heard a lot lately. The Doctor is a somewhat tragic figure. His power is also his cage. He can’t change what’s going to happen to River, just as he shouldn’t have changed what happened to Clara. Time imposes costs on him, even more than everybody else.
In the end, River Song’s story has already been told, and the most this episode can do is cast it in a new light. But I like to think of River stealing the Doctor’s TARDIS and having loads of adventures while he was out and about, never the wiser. That, much like Clara and Ashildr in their diner TARDIS, makes for an image that’s immensely satisfying, and revisionist in a good way.
Edit: Tweaked the opening section to clarify, adding in a sentence I thought was in there already.