I was reading a fairly smart opinion piece earlier today on a particular horror of mine from the more recent vaults of Doctor Who. Her name is River Song. I might have mentioned her before - if we got drunk and got tattoos you might find I got her name etched on your buttock with an arrow pointing at a potentially offending crevice. The article in question had me so close to adding a pointless comment in the pointless, volatile, pointless comment section at the bottom of the piece. Often the comments are as - or more - entertaining that most internet opinion pieces, but rather than become a lost voice in a crowd, I decided to be a lonely voice on a pedestal in a near empty room. I think it carries more dignity - plus it means I can distance myself from the prospect of being two spidered comments away from some anonymous voice that has decided to insert “fag” into the debate, usually aimed at the comment poster two spidered comments above him.
The actual article didn’t really deal with River - particularly not in a negative way - but the comments did. There was one who felt River and the Doctor had “great chemistry”, another who postulated if you didn’t like River you must hate Alex Kingston. I always feel disappointed by the notion if you don’t like a character you must really dislike the actor. I need to point out rather squarely on your reader-esque chin I have no issues with Alex Kingston. She seems a very nice lady when interviewed, beyond that, I don’t care what she is in her personal time or in her other roles. That’s the domain of her own private life and her other work topic for different faced opinion writers. I do find my dislike for River Song fascinating though. Contrary to popular belief, I don’t dislike as much as people think. If you’ve been trapped in an empty room with any of my DVD reviews for company, you’ll see it takes a fair bit for me to not like something in any way whatsoever, yet strangely River Song I do not like in any way whatsoever. That’s rare. While I doubt I’ll ever stop watching Doctor Who, and have watched it since I was five years old, she is the singular thing that will turn me off an episode.
So why is this? What is it about this singular character that gets my goat? I’ve mused over this countless times, and I’m doing so again, as much for my own benefit than your enjoyment. I don’t like disliking characters, I want to like them, ergo I’ll enjoy them. So why - and more importantly, what do I think could be done to make her enjoyable? Yes, I want this blog not to be about just ranting on a character, but asking what would I have to do to like her? Well let’s see.
I remember reading an issue of Batman a long time ago, shortly after the whole back breaking Bane story Knightfall, in which Wayne took far longer than is movie counterpart to get back in the saddle and ultimate take his nemesis down. All this is inconsequential aside from the fact Batman came back from a bad injury and had to learn how to fly again, like a Bat. On a rope. A freaky bat on a rope.
I remember him awkwardly standing on top of a building looking down, considering the implications and complexities that single jump took in the light of swinging through the city with the greatest of ease. It made me consider something very singular - how much at his peak in dexterity, mindset and ability Bruce Wayne had to be to make that jump. That first leap, that first act of faith had become a talent no one else shared, so much so, returning back to the role after being incapacitated meant he had to relearn what he’d learned.
That’s a pretty good introspection into a talent the reader takes for granted. Such complexities of the character of course are washed away when you have Robin doing the same. And Red Robin. And Batgirl. And Batgirl II. And Batgirl III. The more who can do the same thing, the less personal that ability seems. Considering Batman swinging through Gotham becomes nearly plausible when you’re told how much work goes into that single leap. As soon as everyone does it, the character is diminished.
Here’s one issue I have with River Song: she is equal - if not better - at all things the Doctor can do. Now you could take that to account for the TARDIS - he apparently leaves the brakes on, creating that wheezing groaning noise and she doesn’t as she’s better. Better, of course, than all other TARDIS pilots seen in Doctor Who’s history who apparently do the same. Throwaway lines like that are a trifle annoying as it demeans a greater legacy, but its a joke, you go with it. Where the issue really comes to the fore is in The Big Bang, series 5’s finale in which she makes a Dalek plead for mercy. Why? Because she’s River Song.
Now in some respects, I sympathise with that Dalek. Faced with River Song I’d plead for mercy too, though I suspect for different reasons. The point here is the Daleks fear the Doctor - the Oncoming Storm, they call him. The Daleks are the most dangerous beings in the Galaxy - so this is a big honour. How do we accept that one man could be feared by the most dangerous beings in the Galaxy? Because we’ve had it justified by the Doctor defeating them before our eyes on countless occasions. In a sense, the narrative calls for them to be at least a little wary of the Doctor as not to be would perhaps suggest very short memories or very high expectations that good fortune might not be that keen to descend for the fiftieth time on his behalf.
So why should they fear River Song, and more importantly, why should we feel the need for the most dangerous beings in the Galaxy to fear her? The answer is because she’s River Song. That’s it. This is the issue with River Song, the reason she’s amazing is because the show tells us she is, or shows us she is, with little need to justify either count. We see she can pilot the TARDIS better than the eleventh Doctor. Now given the Doctor is still leaving the brakes on prior to his regeneration to the twelfth, are we to assume he teaches her to be better at flying her than him? Is she just a better learner? If so, has she got the mantle for being better than a several thousand year old Time Lord because, wait for it, it’s River Song.
Now one argument against this might be “well we don’t really ever see how the Doctor is good at things, he just is: he’s the Doctor, and she’s the same: she’s River Song. Well thank you, as you’ve just slipped into the Bat-Trap: as soon as you have a secondary character that mirrors the character blocks of the first, the first’s worth is diminished. As soon as Robin is jumping around Gotham alongside Batman, the whole aspect of such a mad ability being the unique result of one character’s long road of obsession is diminished. This is point one as to why River Song irritates - she does diminish the Doctor by being arbitrarily his equal - and this leads to point two.
Cause and Effect:
One ‘fun’ aspect of River Song, and one I think is quite deft and smart about the insertion of the character is that her continuity is at odds with the Doctor’s. They meet in the wrong order. If you are going to create a character that will be an interesting personal dynamic to a time traveller, this is a smart move. However, if you want the audience to invest in their personal dynamic, they do still need to see how it manifests. With River Song, we never see how this happens. The Name of The Doctor series 7 finale quite clearly asserts the Doctor loves her, more than any episode did prior. Before this episode one could suggest it’s a one sided love, one sided obligation to maintain a fixed time line. You could at a push even suggest that in Name of the Doctor; the Doctor is sensitive to her adoration and indulging it one last time as a compassionate person might - but it does feel a stretch to suggest so.
Well where does that leave us? If we go with the assertion that the Doctor does love River Song, and vise versa, is this one of the few romance stories where we never see at what point the Doctor’s awkward confusion over being told he will be in love with a woman he’s just encountered, to actually falling in love with her.
Why is this so important? Well I’d suggest it’s important for any television romance. If you look at the majority of failed pilots, you’ll see an awkward romance inserted as the showrunners try a little too desperately to tick all the boxes to get a green light: yes this show will have a romance subplot that will draw the audiences in! Problem is, if you force a romance on screen, viewers won’t buy it. The best romances work from a build up of chemistry. People don’t like to be told that x loves y and y loves x, they want to see it for themselves - they want to invest in the journey. With River Song, there is no journey, only statement. What’s worse, and I think this caused a lot of damage to the potential acceptance of the character for many viewers, we’re told that it’s an immutable fact before it happens - so it doesn’t matter if you’ve not feeling the chemistry between the two characters (and I didn’t in her debut Silence in the Library), you’ve going to have to swallow it anyway. That’s a very defiant and pushy bit of foreshadowing, and one that will ultimately set some viewers against your storytelling before you’ve written it.
One parallel attempt at such foreshadow was in Babylon 5, where in season three Captain Sheridan travels into the future and discovers he’s married to Delenn and they have a child, however this doesn’t really carry any pain because the audience have had nearly two seasons of the audience slowly accustoming to this notion of them finally getting together, in fact, the revelation is used as a reward, not an act of defiance.
But wait, I hear you say, why should the writer feel people will be defiant about this character being involved romantically with the lead character? Well this is point three:
The key attribute of the Doctor is his mystery. This is largely to do with his past, but the show has used it to flesh the character. Doctor Who as a show has no canon, there’s no direct authority beyond common sense. What’s set up in television, audio, book, comic, video game formats can all equally be rewritten later. It’s flexible, and that flexibility plays into the mystery of the character. Originally the Doctor and his Granddaughter Susan were on the run from their people. She came up with the name TARDIS to describe their ship - the one he suggests he built. Later we find TARDISes are part and parcel of the Time Lord Lexicon. We are given the suggestion Time Lords have babies in the Fourth Doctor’s reign, only to be told in the the canon spin-off books that Time Lords are sterile and are born from genetic looms than as kids, then the sterility is lifted, but the Doctor’s half human. Then he isn’t. Then Time Lords are shown as kids. Throughout, the Doctor’s life and legacy has had little consistency aside from being an eccentric wanderer, but throughout, by and large, he’s been a non-romantic character. Now as I’ve alluded to above, nothing is fixed, and audiences should be very much open to him being played as a romantic lead - who may or may not “dance” with others of his own species or beyond - but to marry him is a big deal. First and foremost there is the question of marriage itself - while we’ve had the suggestion of genetic hierarchy (he is a grandfather in name at the very least, if not very likely genetically too - it’s never been clarified, as with his ever-changing Doctorate!) - the notion that Time Lords marry is a little questionable. The notions of humans marrying is questionable unto itself as being little more than a financial binding that over the centuries has become part of our romantic culture, but to press that onto beings above and beyond our temporal reasoning? It’s a push really. Do Time Lords need to get married? Do they get married? At the beginning of the River Song arc we do not know (and I suspect the author had not yet decided) that River comes from some odd Time Lord genetic legacy, so we’re talking about cross species. Now that’s not canonically new (a Time Lord red-shirt security guy got hots for leather bound companion Leela in Invasion of Time), but one does wonder what really would be a good pairing for a thousand plus year old Time Lord. Now maybe River could be it, but when we have a history of a show that has by and large avoided giving the Doctor a romantic edge - even to go so far to suggesting its a no go (JNT was very keen the Doctor’s companionship with his travellers was platonic, and the aforementioned canon books suggested there was sterility among the race, so while they could love, they couldn’t conventionally breed), to suddenly give him a wife is quite a big shift.
Now again, I must point out that’s not to say it can’t be done. Far from it - Doctor Who should embrace all avenues as its flexibility is key to its survival, but if you’re going to put a big change on a character you need to ensure it is done in a way that is sensitive to any big change. RTD decided to kill off the Time Lords, and that’s a big change to Doctor Who, certainly to the main character’s world. That change was justified and played out through the character and the show. In fact, it created a buffer for the show that allowed it to breathe new air into the Doctor’s lungs. If you’re going to challenge the viewers, don’t challenge them like children that should just accept your new rules, nurture them into accepting the new ideas - or as I mentioned, don’t leave key attributes that would not only be a welcome thread in any change (like showing when a character falls in love with the prospective partner) as it will leave some unable to deal with your new rules.
As you can see, these above points marry - pardon the pun - together. Essentially, if you’re to create a serious romantic love interest to a previously ambiguously romantic character, you need to ensure you nurture that idea well. To place it as fact before it starts is dangerous story writing which would be suicidal for another show, to then ignore justifying the process where friendship turns to love will extinguish the statement even further, and then to make her the same if not better than the hero in all aspects from controlling his iconic ship to scaring off his long term enemies with just her name, creates a character that diminishes the power of the lead. In fact instead of creating a new, bold accompanying character, you create one that is abrasive and unbound; there appear zero constraints to River Song.
So am I done? Is that all you don’t like about River Song?
Well, sorry, no. Those are the factors in her implementation within the body of the show that jar with me personally (they may not for you), but it extends further.
Mary Sue stories—the adventures of the youngest and smartest ever person to graduate from the academy and ever get a commission at such a tender age. Usually characterized by unprecedented skill in everything from art to zoology, including karate and arm-wrestling. This character can also be found burrowing her way into the good graces/heart/mind of one of the Big Three [Kirk, Spock, and McCoy], if not all three at once. She saves the day by her wit and ability, and, if we are lucky, has the good grace to die at the end, being grieved by the entire ship.
If you’ve not heard of Mary Sue, really, click the link. I find this really does typify her within the story and does connect to my previous point on her overly powerful role within the show. In a show about Doctor Who, she is the win-all. We’ve already mentioned how the Daleks fear her and she can out-perform flying the TARDIS, but it’s worse than that. When in The Big Bang, time pretty much falls apart and is rebuilt without the Doctor, she singularly exists to give Amy the blue book of the Doctor. No reason is given to this power, it’s River Song, when the universe collapses and the Doctor is lost to time, she’s still hanging around to save the day. Her ‘spoilers’ motif is the ultimate challenge of power to the audience and the characters - she knows more than all the other characters as to their futures, even the Doctor. On top of that, her acts amaze the characters with their smarts and style, calling on the Doctor to save her like you’d call a puppy to the door, throwing herself into ultimate doom, smug in the knowledge she’s preplanned for the Doctor to be amazed at her ingenuity and rescue her. Jump off a building, out of an airlock, do so with impunity because you have the whole universe tied up into a bow. Oh don’t forget she is an ace shot too. Oh did I mention she’s the only person in the world who knows the Doctor’s name? Sort of like Doctor Who-James Bond-Romana-Wonder-Woman tied into a big bow. Of course everyone adores her, as she’s amazing and great and everything. This happened a little with Rose in earlier seasons - it seems a constant in Nu-Who: you don’t show people reasons to think a character is great, you have the characters tell the audience that so often they’ll believe it. It comes across as a very insulting approach of ‘making’ you think the character is wonderful.
Good lord, is there anything else.
Okay, yeah. She’s a bit creepy. Right now we’re onto personal reflections. The above I think are justifiable criticisms based on basic narrative constructs and viewer-writer interactions. You might not agree, but I think they’re sustainable. Here is where it is personal. I didn’t feel she carried the chemistry to justify the character. You may have found differently. Can’t speak for you, just me.
River Song’s interaction with Smith didn’t cut it for me. This isn’t Alex Kingston not being able to act, but I think the problem acting a romance in a vacuum - it’s never been set up as mutual, and when it is, we never see how this happens. It’s a romance akin to Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy, and feels remarkably true to that dynamic. Miss Piggy Song seems to presume, push and flirt with Doctor Frog who looks distinctly uncomfortable if confused for the most part. In fact, his attempts to play up to courting (checking his breath/hair before meeting, only to sort of flirt like a man who has been studying a book on 1001 one-liners to prove you might be straight) look naive to her seemingly… experienced demeanor. Now you can play this early on when he’s not technically sure how he falls in love with her, but he was playing this role as recently as the Pond’s departure in series 7. It doesn’t work for me, it jars. I don’t think this is Smith nor Kingston’s fault. I read someone once describe her as your over-the-hill aunty flirting with her nephew’s teen friends, and yeah I can see that.
Okay, so I don’t think it works on a personal front, nor do I think it works in its attempt to construct a romance. So rather than bitch, what would I change?
I’d be tempted to say ‘change the actress!’ but I don’t think this is Kingston’s fault. She’s a good actress. I think on the face of it, it is easy to blame her, when I think the key factor in this is not the actress. I don’t think it’s the annoying “sweetie” or even “spoilers”, I think it’s to do with the application. Change a few things in the application and I think it would work.
I’ve always maintained you can have a crap beginning or middle, but never an end. Time and the Doctor retcons explanations for a lot of the holes in the Smith Era, and by doing so makes those weaker moments stronger. If they had actually given us events which let us see how the Doctor would fall in love with River, if they had risked trying to give what they dared to suggest to a horrified fandom (the Doctor would get married), I think it could have worked. It was like showing off the cake but not really letting anyone taste it - they could look and admire, and accept it was a brilliant cake - but not, you can’t taste it.
The other factor would be to tone her down. Give her flaws, something I saw very few. Look at Captain Jack - another James Bondesque hero of ridiculous levels, just like Song, but he is flawed. His first story is about his failing, his invincibility is marred by the fact he wants to die. Song has no flaws, the only flaw or sympathy the audience can find is the fact that she’s meeting the Doctor in reverse, giving her a romantic partner who knows her less each time (if I recall correctly, it is a bit complicated). This is a fascinating notion that’s never really focused on bar one scene with Rory in Impossible Astronaut two-parter, and perhaps the one sympathetic scene you get with her. It’s a shame as this scene plays River as a person and it works, it works really well. It’s not Alex, it’s not the character - or the notion of a romantic partner for the Doctor - it’s the fact that she’s a tragic character but she’s never played to the tragedy that has befallen her - a bitter love story with no happy ending. If the story spent less time trying to prove how amazing she is, and let her be the person she’d probably be, I think that would have worked.
Mr Moffat does love his loud, sassy heroines, but ultimately they all bow to their heroes. It’s a common trait, and a sad one, as I’d like to see honest, flawed heroines who don’t bow to anyone.That to me is a strong woman. James Bond is not a strong male role model. He’s technically an alcoholic, a killer and unable to sustain relationships. That’s not a strong man, especially when those modes of conduct are not considered by the narrative as potentially flaws.
- Give River/Doctor their moments, let us explore and understand their dynamic. Romance isn’t the same for everyone, what makes it interesting in a story is how unique it is to each chemistry. Avoid that we lose that key prerequisite to the character’s role.
- Stop having to prove her worth. She doesn’t have to be best at everything to be the Doctor’s equal. The Doctor’s equal I’d suspect would be compassionate, not a show off, someone who is their own person, but special in their own personal way, not a superhuman. If he loves humanity for its struggle against adversity and compassion (in individual cases) would that not be reflected in his partner? If not, I take you back to the first point, let us explore why his interest would be in an abrasively challenging superhuman.
- Stop using her to tease or test the audience. Yes, we know you know that a lot of Doctor Who fans don’t like spoilers and hate the idea of the Doctor in love, so rise above the need to tease, especially if it doesn’t really help the character. A personal suggestion, but surely the fact she knows spoilers and the pain that brings shouldn’t be a coy taunt, but a personal weakness. Who wants to know what will happen? Especially with your lover? There is an argument she over-compensates for this dark tragedy, but then the rest of her antics are equally cocky and shallow. The whole prequel to the series 5 Weeping Angels story didn’t show her in any other light.
So there we go. Did they do anything right with her? Well not really, I felt her whole story was a mess. The whole mother and father Pond thing never really played well for me, but then the Pond’s never quite worked for me either - I didn’t really see the chemistry there in any real sense, but that didn’t stop me enjoying episodes with them in (The Girl Who Waited is Doctor Who at its peak) - it’s all to do with implementation. People suggest that disliking River Song is to do with actress hate/can’t cope with the Doctor in love are wrong.
That to me is the real issue here: River Song NEVER showed us the Doctor in love, she was an overplayed narrative tease that never paid off, but never went away. In a nutshell, that’s my issue with the character and not the actress. A missed opportunity to do something different.