The Character Development of River Song
The Wedding of River Song
A lot of the criticism (or hate) of River Song prevalent in the Doctor Who fandom finds its roots in a misunderstanding of her timeline, and the implications it has for the character. All too often it is assumed that the new aspects of her personality, motivation or actions discovered as we progress through the episodes can be applied to River at all points of her timeline, whether she is a student, a prisoner, or a professor. Because River’s timeline is running more or less opposing to the Doctor’s (and therefore ours), what is in fact character evolution over the course of her life is quite often misjudged as Moffat messing up her character as he went along. To show that the latter could not be further from the truth and that we instead are watching the development of River in reverse it is useful to examine the events of the series in the order they happened to her. Here I will look at The Wedding of River Song, but – as usual with River – spoilers abound, primarily for Season 6.
Seeing that TWoRS already completes River’s journey from trying to murder the Doctor in Berlin to becoming his wife, I’d like to address the issue of agency here. “River has no agency in her relationship with the Doctor” is a misconception that people seem to repeat without giving much thought to it. If some explanation is given, it is usually pointed out how her life has been shaped by the Doctor, starting with her birth and continuing with her choosing her profession. This is, however, a complete misrepresentation of how their relationship evolves – in both of their timelines. In fact, River is the one who displays a much greater agency with regards to their relationship.
From the Doctor’s point of view he gets more or less pushed into a relationship with River. She saves him in the Library, largely ignoring his own wishes. It is her who seeks him out in The Time of Angels and The Pandorica Open. She initiates their first kiss (from his point of view) in Day of the Moon. She confronts him at the end of A Good Man Goes to War and reveals her identity. Up to Let’s Kill Hitler the Doctor moves from distrust and suspicion to fascination and ultimately love but except for a growing confidence with regards to their flirting, he does so largely as a passive participant not as a driving force. The first major step he takes in deepening their relationship is his offer to travel together in Day of the Moon - that is one and a half seasons after first meeting her in the Library, about six years for the Doctor.
River, on the other hand, shows initative from their very first meeting on. Yes, the Doctor plays a significant role in changing her mind in Let’s Kill Hitler, but it is River who decides to give him her remaining regeneration. She chooses to study archaeology, going against everything she was taught before. Ironically, while the Doctor is spending many episodes wondering and asking who she is, River actually takes active steps to find out who he is, whether he is a “good man”.
In the context of The Wedding of River Song it is sometimes argued that her behaviour does not display any true agency because she does what she does for the Doctor. Quite frankly, this is ludicrous in itself: Acting because one cares for a person does not negate the act itself. River is hardly standing to the side nodding meekly at every suggestion the Doctor makes. Instead, River Song is in the process of destroying time and the entire universe in complete defiance of the man she loves. “Passivity” is something entirely else, and rest be assured that River Song has never possessed it.
Moreover, River’s motives in TWoRS are not one-dimensional. Over the course of the episode, River gives three reasons for going against this fixed point in time:
- She does not want the Doctor to die
- She does not want to kill the Doctor
- If it is inevitable, she wants him to know that he is loved
I singled out the second motive as separate from the first, because experiencing the death of a loved one is not the same as having to kill him yourself. River – who just broke her conditioning in Let’s Kill Hitler, who is starting to come into her own – does not want to kill the Doctor. She is done with being used by the Silence and when she is forced into this situation, she rebels against it. This is impulsive and reckless, and done with a certain disregard for anyone but the Doctor and herself (as supported by her admission that she would suffer more than any living thing in the universe). Her agency was constrained by the Silence, and she claims it back, against all the odds – even against the very rules of time.
The Doctor is incredibly dismissive of her during the episode. He had first made his peace with his death, then found a way out by using the tesselecta and now River Song – Melody Pond – is hampering with his plans, not playing her intended role. Not only that, this is a very young River Song, impulsive and single-minded and he obviously decided that what she was doing was pointless and stupid before they even met in the pyramid and she could explain her motives.
His behaviour is cruel, and personally I find it almost painful to watch as he essentially tries to humiliate her into supposedly murdering him. That being said, River Song is destroying the universe while they are speaking, so the fact that her doing it out of a supposed love for him does not seem to impress him much is understandable to some point – at least until you remember that he already knows he won’t actually die but has decided not to share that particular piece of information with her. He is willing to let River live with the guilt of killing the man she loves twice, in addition of making her sacrifice in Berlin entirely pointless.
However, portraying these actions does not mean that Moffat is condoning them. I feel this is necessary to point out, as the difference between showing and classifying as correct is apparently difficult to understand. The Doctor’s strategy ends in failure. In the case of River, secrecy and distrust is not getting him anywhere. River does not want to be pushed into this by anyone, not even the Doctor. This River, who took control over her own life, who has learned how to make her own decision, will not be manipulated. As it is shown in Closing Time, River has studied the Doctor’s past extensively – and she is succeeding at “finding a good man”. She does not take kindly to the Doctor trying to berate her for it.
River has been put in an impossible situation - by the Silence, by fate, by the rules of time. By the Doctor himself, to some degree. She should not be judged for attempting to avert the inevitable; the Doctor himself has done so, successfully, through the tesselecta. In addition, she is too smart and she has seen too much in her life already to live in denial for long. The nonchalant I’m-just-rewriting-a-fixed-point-here attitude at Lake Silencio has long been replaced by the realisation that this is an impossibility by the time we meet up with her at Area 52.
But River won’t just give up quietly, break down, accept what is happening passively. She has stopped time, she has tried to find a solution, and once this seems futile, she decides to make it better or meaningful somehow. If the Doctor has to die, and has to die at her hand, she will prove to him that it was not for nothing. That he and his actions are valued, that people care for him, that people love him. And yes, that she loves him most of all. Is that preposterous? Maybe. But it’s also the last, beautiful feat by someone put in a desperate situation. And, quite possibly, an ultimate act of rebellion against those who forced her into it: “Who else was I going to fall in love with?”
(On a different note, it is striking to see both the differences and similarities to The Angels Take Manhattan in River’s behaviour. This River, in TWoRS, ultimately wears her heart on her sleeve, teary-eyed confessing her love for the Doctor and admitting how much all of this hurts her. Even if she takes her time to address the heart of the matter, she is still a lifetime away from “hiding the damage”. One more reason why people believing she has no character development are just plain wrong. Still, her desire to make him realise the good that he has done and the love she feels for him might just give us an idea where the River in Manhattan is coming from.)
Contrary to what sometimes amounts to popular opinion the Doctor didn’t just marry her so she would finally get her act together and kill him. It wasn’t necessary, and I don’t see how it would have been successful either. It did after all not change much with regards to her motives. If you look at the point at which the Doctor changes his mind, it takes place when he realises the full extent of River’s motivation, when he finally understands that River is aware of the fact that she won’t be able to avert his death. And that killing him will make her suffer. A completely unnecessary suffering, as he has to know.
So, he gives in. He decides to tell her that he is using the tesselecta in order to prevent his death (“Look into my eye!”). He acknowledges her love for him. He acknowledges his love for her. She’s sacrificing her freedom here, in more than one way. Even if she doesn’t have to, in the end, be the cause of his death, she has to give in to the Silence’s plan, allow herself to be used how they please. And, of course, she will spend a considerable amount of time in prison. It could be a sacrifice to necessity and a failure to avert the Silence’s plan. He allows it to be a sacrifice for her love for him, a love which he validates, shares. He might not say it in words, but there can be little doubt that the Doctor loves River Song.
Was it really a marriage? This does not actually pertain to River’s character, but people continually express doubts that the wedding really counted. I think it’s sure to say it does. River and Amy’s conversation about the death of Kovarian more than just implies, that what happened in the aborted timeline is just as real to them as their “normal” timeline. Both River and the Doctor refer to each other as husband and wife. It’s a marriage to all the significant people involved and there is no credible reason for the fandom to question this, unless you’re actively trying to live in denial (in which case, congratulations, you’ve succeeded). So yes, “The Wedding of River Song” truly was a wedding with all the implications involved.
In conclusion, it is important to note that what we have seen of River Song’s early timeline is very limited. We see her move from regenerating into River Song, to marrying the Doctor and becoming imprisoned, to facing a future in which the Doctor does not know her in a little over three episodes (Let’s Kill Hitler, The Wedding of River Song and the tiny bit of Closing Time which precedes it, A Good Man Goes to War). Maybe, hopefully, we have not seen the last of (young) River and future episodes will give us more insight into this development. There is, after all, a profound difference between the River in all three (and a tenth) of these episodes.
But more on that as I move forward, to A Good Man Goes to War.
Other parts in this series: