River Song - A Strong (Female) Character
Let’s settle one thing first: River Song is tough. She remains calm in the face of flesh-eating shadows and Aplan temples filled with armies of Weeping Angels. She jumps out of space ships and dives off rooftops on the fiftieth floor. She tricks a black marketeer into relinquishing a vortex manipulator, she shoots a room full of Silents, and she makes a Dalek beg for mercy. She has a whole prison panicking whenever she starts packing – and after returning she calls to order breakfast. Even those who are under the (mistaken) impression that the character of River Song is merely a gun-toting, hyper-sexualised caricature have to at least admit that she is meant to be badass.
While that is certainly part of her appeal, this is ultimately not what distinguishes her as such an exceptionally strong character. It has taken me a while to fully grasp that the depth of my love for River Song comes from her ability to grow, face challenges and make decisions on her own terms. And that, arguably, would be the true mark of a “strong” character, female or otherwise.
Obviously, my understanding of the character contrasts glaringly with some of the more popular “critiques” (more often than not hate) regarding River Song – that her life revolves around the Doctor and that she possesses neither character development nor any agency on her own, being more a plot device than a well-rounded character. Ironically, allegations of shallowness tend to apply more to the quality of analysis in these cases than to the character examined. Although people’s subjective enjoyment of River Song is of course very much their own business and I can respect any civil discussion of why some aren’t fond of the character, many of the arguments brought up in connection to River Song are just plain wrong.
So, let me tell you about River Song. Let me tell you about Melody Pond.
Melody Pond was kidnapped as a baby and raised to kill the Doctor. Even though she never knew anything but living at the behest of the Silence, she craved freedom. She called out for help. And when help came and proved largely incompetent, she freed herself. She forced her way out of the space suit with her own two hands and escaped. When she ended up in New York, alone and dying, she remained largely unafraid, even reassuring a man she came across that she would be fine. That is the first time we really meet Melody Pond from her perspective (other than ganger!baby), and she is already brave, determined, and yearning for independence. It would take a while longer before she would truly gain it, fully freeing herself from the hold the Silence had over her, but it’s not difficult to see where the person who decided to save the Doctor in Let’s Kill Hitler came from – as far back as at least two regenerations before that would take place.
In Let’s Kill Hitler Melody Pond, River Song, chooses to save the Doctor’s life at great cost to herself. There are a lot of people who find this somehow difficult to believe – and that is ultimately because it requires an immense amount of courage and open-mindedness from River. It goes against everything she’s ever been taught up to this point (not to mention that it is likely to put her into a dangerous position – the Silence doesn’t look like an organisation where you can just hand in your resignation). River Song, being granted just a flicker of hope changes everything about her life with just one action. Mewiet has written some brilliant meta on this and I don’t want to repeat everything here, but to summarise: It is not a decision that comes out of nowhere, there is rhyme and reason to it. Melody Pond experiences first hand that the Doctor does in fact care. And it puts in doubt everything she ever believed about him.
And then, having saved the Doctor, shaken in her very core beliefs, she goes on to make up her own mind. Up to this point, the Doctor has been the absolute enemy, guilty of the universe’s greatest crimes even if just through his lack of intervention. Now, River Song is looking for a good man. This is not a choice somehow lacking agency – that is River taking her own life and her own opinions into her own hands and actively seeking knowledge, actively seeking her future. Daring to question your own beliefs, in the end, requires more courage than facing off against Weeping Angels, Daleks, or Vashta Nerada.
River ultimately finds a “good man”, if her speech in The Wedding of River Song is anything to go by. But River Song also finds – well, River Song. And River Song is done with being used, manipulated, and forced into doing things, by anyone, period. And this is where we find her at the beginning of this episode, bowing down to no one, not the Silence, not the laws of time, and not even the Doctor. It is an impulsive act which causes her to refuse to kill him and which stops time. But it’s not stupidity, whatever the Doctor’s opinion might be: It is revolution.
What happens afterwards seems purposeful rather than thoughtless. She searches for a solution, she asks others for help, and when she realises that there is nothing she can change about his death or the fact that she has to be the one to kill him, she strives to make his death meaningful. This is not a silly charade. It means everything to her, the abused little girl, the (again) kidnapped adult, the “Woman Who Kills the Doctor”. Although she is forced to do this, she can certainly do it on her own terms.
And somewhere along the way, the Doctor realises that what he is doing is wrong. That he is making her suffer, completely unnecessarily. Keeping secrets, holding back vital information, manipulation (humiliation, even) – it’s getting him absolutely nowhere with River Song. And so he acknowledges her sacrifice. He acknowledges that he loves her in the grandest gesture possible. And he marries River, not because he has to – he doesn’t – but because he wants to. River Song is his equal, and this is him treating her like one.
It is tragic that the next time we truly get to meet River Song, the timelines are already turning against her. We see glimpses of an unadulterated happier time in the minisodes and at the beginning of A Good Man Goes to War, but overall this episode truly represents a turning of the tides for River, and a violent one. She has undergone a tremendous development since our last “visit” to her life: The woman telling the Doctor that he is feared, that his actions have severe consequences, is no longer blindly in love. It is like an anti-thesis to her words in The Wedding of River Song. Here, she has fully realised who the Doctor is - and the influence he has had on her life. In The Wedding of River Song, the Doctor acknowledges her as an equal. This is where she truly and utterly shows that she is exactly that.
It is the Doctor’s “darkest hour” (failing in his venture to rescue the child of his best friend, in spite of the level of support and trickery involved in his impressive attempt) but in the end, he is gaining something – knowledge, love even. River is losing a husband who knows her, a father, a mother. They will all meet again, after all, the timelines are not exactly back-to-front and River pays her parents a fair number of visits. But there lies so much pain in the realisation. And this, this, is the River who is invited to the Doctor’s death in The Impossible Astronaut.
To make something clear here – loving someone, even being dependent on someone is not a sign of weakness. Fictional characters should not be required to teach us that the only way towards strength is through being alone. People are rightfully devastated and struggle to move on when they lose someone who means a lot to them; that is not “weak”, that is human. River Song feels the Doctor slowly slipping away from her – maybe the closest real life comparison is having a loved one who suffers from Alzheimer’s – and that hurts her. And that is fine.
So, when River says the words “I live for the days when I see him, but I know that every time I do, he’ll be one step further away”, remember to put her actions and words into context. The context of a woman beginning to lose the person she loves most, and gaining one who mistrusts her explicitly. A woman who, after all, has just seen herself commit the murder for which she was imprisoned. Another circle ending.
But that is not how the story goes on. Not at all. The past already proved that River Song strives in the face of hardship – and the future will do it again. River works towards her pardon and once she is released from prison, she builds up her own life. She turns towards academia again, ultimately becoming a professor of archaeology. If there were any doubts that it was a subject that she loved for its own merits, this decision should settle them – for the Doctor it’s just a bunch of gossip and inaccuracies, for River it becomes her life’s work, not only pursuing the subject matter on her own but even choosing to teach it to others.
Although her own adventures had been hinted at when she was in prison – “I escape often enough”/”oh, just a few Sontarans, chased me half-way across the galaxy” – this is when we get to see real glimpses of what she’s up to on her own when the Doctor isn’t around. After all, both Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead and The Angels Take Manhattan originally started out as River Song’s adventures. Between leading an archaeological expedition to the largest Library in the universe a hundred years after its mysterious closure and founding a detective agency in New York in the 1930s in order to hunt down Weeping Angels – it’s safe to say River leads an eventful, exciting life whenever she’s not around the Doctor. Let’s not forget that she turned down travelling with him, not once but twice.
This is not to say that there isn’t damage. I have argued before that River hiding the damage is in fact showing it to us, and I will do so again. River’s most obvious fault ends up possessing too much strength, not too little of it, and her decision to hide her pain from the Doctor is an expression of this. Their relationship, with all its beauty and tragedy, is flawed not perfect. It does not make it wrong. Their relationship – between a timelord and a human plus woman – ends up as human as she is, at her core.
There is a lot of logic in her behaving in this manner. She’s a survivor – and what else would she choose to survive the Doctor forgetting her and hurting her inadvertently? River, after all, was raised to believe the was a psychopath, a notion she still holds to some degree even as far along in her timeline as The Angels Take Manhattan, so it is only natural that she would be familiar with suppressing her emotions and her expression of them. Amy, in all her wonderfulness, did not represent much of a role model either when it came to the communication of emotions. I don’t love River less for the fact that she “hides the damage”. I suffer with her. But it makes her so much more real to me. She faced challenges, she strived, she succeeded – but she also walked away injured.
Ultimately, River sacrifices herself for the life of more than 4,000 people in the Library. It shouldn’t be a surprise – she has proved time and time again that she was willing to put it all on the line if she deemed it necessary. She very much mirrors the Doctor that way – both he and she were willing to sacrifice themselves in both Flesh and Stone and Forest of the Dead (or, as River puts it, “and I’m not allowed to have a career, I suppose?”).
If the Doctor dies at the Library, it not only means that she will never meet. River Song, as she is now, will not even exist. Her mother will never travel with the Doctor, River Song will never be conceived and born, be raised the way she was, grow up to be the person she is. There might be a Melody Williams somewhere – geography teacher. Maybe not even that. One last act against the Doctor’s wishes (again), to save what and who she values and loves (again).
And then, she is saved, “left… like a book on a shelf”. River Song, as we find out in The Name of the Doctor, looks out for him after she entered the Library. Meeting with the Paternoster Gang and Clara, taking charge of the situation when the former are attacked, remaining connected to Clara in order to provide any help she can – River Song has agency even in death.” Over the course of her lifetime, River Song has been the Doctor’s assassin, his saviour, and his wife. She told him that he is loved and that he is feared. She tried to hide the damage from him – but ultimately, when she can speak to him again, miraculously, her Doctor, she does not hesitate to demand closure.
This River, she does not hide from him. Part of this might be due to circumstances – because when she explains her fate to Clara, she does not know that the Doctor is listening at well. But when it is revealed that he can see her, she tells him exactly what she needs: “It’s hard to leave when you haven’t said goodbye.” She finds a way to make it somehow bearable for both of them, give them an end but not an end. The only way she accepts it and the only way she knows he will be able to, as well.
Overall, I believe there should not be a single doubt about the fact that River Song has it all in spades – agency, character development, and certainly strength.
(I have also written in-depth about the episodes The Wedding of River Song and A Good Man Goes to War, with more to follow at some point.)
(This post was written for the Steven Moffat Appreciation Day. Thoughtful metas, in particular, can be found here.)