The Character Development of River Song
A Good Man Goes to War
Much of the criticism on River Song seems to be founded in a lack of understanding of the repercussions her timeline brings with it. This includes not only the by now almost cliché assertions that her appearance is somehow “smug”, her apparent belief that she and the Doctor have a close relationship apparently preposterous in itself, but also somewhat more measured allegations that Steven Moffat’s handling of the character was flawed and that she lost some of her appeal throughout the course of the series. More often than not commentators seem to miss that, just like the Doctor, we do not get to know her in a linear manner. For all intents and purposes we are watching the devolution of River Song, the development of her character in an often backwards manner. Furthermore, over the course of several seasons we have seen glimpses of River Song which span her entire life – her birth, her regenerations, her wedding, her imprisonment, her death. It is a mistake to apply her portrayal at a certain point in this timeline to her character in general, at least not unconditionally.
For this reason I think it is helpful to look at the development of River Song from her point of view for once. I have previously examined Let’s Kill Hitler and The Wedding of River Song, but for all intents and purposes these posts are stand-alone, so feel free to read on and explore River Song’s character in A Good Man Goes to War with me. With the revelation of her identity being a central part of this episode it is easy to forget that it marks a quite different turning point in her relationship with the Doctor for River – it is here that she has to face the Doctor forgetting her for the first time, passing the middle of their relationship and slowly but surely moving towards its end.
River only appears for a very limited amount of time in a Good Time Goes to War, but what we see is a distinct step forward from The Wedding of River Song. This is a woman who has learned what it means to love the Doctor. She gave up her regenerations for him, stopped time in a desperate attempt to save his life and to show him that he is loved, and finally went to prison for his murder. There couldn’t be a greater contrast between these two quotes:
“You’ve touched so many lives, saved so many people. Did you think when your time came you’d really have to do more than just ask? You’ve decided that the universe is better off without you. But the universe doesn’t agree. […]I can’t let you die without knowing you are loved. By so many and so much. And by no one more than me.”
“This was exactly you. All this. All of it. You make them so afraid. When you began all those years ago, sailing off to see the Universe, did you ever think you’d become this? The man who can turn an army around at the mention of his name. “Doctor.” The word for healer and wise man throughout the Universe. We get that word from you, you know. But if you carry on the way you are, what might that word come to mean? To the people of the Gamma Forests, the word Doctor means ‘Mighty Warrior.’ How far you’ve come. And now they’ve taken a child. The child of your best friends. And they’re going to turn her into a weapon just to bring you down. And all this, my love, in fear of you.”
River is telling the Doctor that he is loved. And she is telling him that he is feared. Both of these statements are true. Both of these are of great significance for her life. She is who she is because the Doctor was feared by people, hate for him played a vital role in shaping her early life. And she became who she is now because she loves him.
But she still - again? - understands that other part of him, the one that makes people “so afraid” of him. And that what makes her love for him true and real. She can see him. All of him.
This is a River who has left behind the wide-eyed love of The Wedding of River Song, who integrated the Doctor of her childhood conditioning, the man she has come to love so much, and the figure of her academic study to give her a more realistic image of him. She realises his role in affecting her life, how people’s fear of him prevented her from having a normal childhood being raised by her own parents – how his grandstanding took Amy’s and Rory’s daughter away from them. And she isn’t hesitant to call him out on it.
As far as I can tell this is the only time that she challenges him in this way. Oh, she challenges him plenty, but she rarely attempts to be his moral compass. The Wedding of River Song was rebellion. A Good Man Goes to War is River holding the knowledge, the power.
It comes at a price, however. The tables are turning because the tides of their relationship is changing. Before AGMGtW, the Doctor was ahead in time, holding the spoilers, knowing their relationship better than her, in some ways knowing her better than she knew herself (“River Song could walk in and out of that prison like the walls aren’t there…” – “I’m River Song!). Now she’s standing at a cot, revealing her identity to him. Beginning their relationship. But for her, in many ways, it’s an end.
When we first see her in the episode, her reaction to meeting Rory in Stormcage is one of such shock that people have theorised that it might take place after The Angels Take Manhattan. This is obviously not the case – the River of TATM is older, already pardoned, a professor not a prisoner – but it serves to underline just how aghast her reaction is. It isn’t her response to meeting Rory, she’s met him before and she will meet him afterwards. It’s her response to meeting a Rory who doesn’t know her. One moment it’s her birthday and she goes ice skating with the Doctor and hears Stevie Wonder sing in 1814, the next one she’s meeting her father and he asks her whether she knows him. That’s enough to break anybody’s heart.
Her family, her husband, they’re all forgetting about her. She’s there to tell them who she is, but they next time they’ll meet they probably won’t even remember that. That’s the tragedy of River Song’s life. In many ways, this gave her a family (growing up with Rory and Amy), gave her a lover (going against her conditioning, saving the Doctor’s life, marrying him). But it’s also taking them away from her, one shared memory at a time.
If she wasn’t as strong as she is, this would break her. That’s the context in which later episodes (from her point of view, not ours) will have to be considered. When she tells Rory that she “lives for the days” she sees the Doctor, in Day of the Moon. When she laughs at the Doctor and taunts him with spoilers, at the end of Flesh and Stone. When she’s devastated at him not recognising her in Silence in the Library. But that is a different story, for another day.
Other parts in this series: