31 Aug 2013

Shipping: The Doctor and River Song

A huge warning to anyone not yet caught up with Doctor Who, or anyone who haven't watched the show, but are considering it, or have even the slightest inkling they might want to watch it at some point. There are going to be spoilers, and speaking as a Whovian, if there is one storyline you do not want to be spoiled for, it's River Song. Ask anyone else who's watched the show, and it'll be the one thing they do not want to reveal to you. As the woman herself put it; "It's a long story, cannot be told, has to be lived..."

Because part of the fun with River Song's storyline is trying to piece together in your mind who she is, why she expects the Doctor to know her, only to be heartbroken to learn he is merely meeting her for the first time. Every time we meet her in the show, she's at a very different point in her own timeline, and the more we learn about her story, the more questions we have, the more theories we have. So, if you read ahead of this paragraph and get spoiled, don't say I didn't warn you.

So, why do I love River Song, and more importantly; why do I ship her with the Doctor? Why not start with the beginning; that is his beginning, as the first time he ever meets River is the last time she meets him. The Doctor gets a mysterious note on his psychic paper to show up at the library, and in walks River Song, strutting confidently towards him, un-tinting the visor of her space suit and greeting him with a "Hello Sweetie". She's all smiles and banter, believing he's merely pretending he doesn't know her. It's not until he asks "Who are you?" that her smile falters.

The Doctor tries so many times to get her to tell him who she is, but each and every time she merely tells him 'Spoilers'. She cannot tell him, because he hasn't lived that part of their shared history yet (it's literally spoilers to him), and revealing anything to him could potentially rewrite it, and she isn't willing to even consider risking it. Only when the survival of her expedition team depends on it, does she finally reveal something to him. She whispers a word in his ear, and it isn't until nearly the end of the episode that we learn that the word she whispered was his name, a secret the Doctor guards more than anything. To him, that is the ultimate proof that she is who she says she is; someone that he trusts, completely. So, despite having just met her, he chooses to trust her.

Things go more or less to hell, as usual, and the Doctor decides to do what he does best; risk his own life to save a bunch of other people - only River will have none of that. Because if the Doctor dies in the library, time will be rewritten, and they will never have met - which is completely unacceptable to her. So to preserve her history with him, and ultimately his future with her, she knocks him out, and takes his place. The Doctor wakes up handcuffed just out of reach to do anything other than watch this woman he's just met ultimately sacrificing her life for him, the whole time assuring him that it's okay, that he will see her again, he's got all of that to come...

A couple of years and a regeneration later for him, and he does. He meets a younger version of her, someone who isn't yet a professor like she was in the library, but she knows him nearly just as well - while he still barely knows where to begin with her. He learns a couple of new things about her this time, like that she's capable of flying the TARDIS, and with somewhat more precision than he can. Not only that, but she's in prison, the highest security prison in all of the known universe - for killing a man. And all she will tell him is that it was a good man, the best man she's ever known.

With every encounter, the Doctor (and we in the audience) learn a couple of new pieces of the puzzle that is River Song. And the more he gets to know her, the more he starts to respond to her flirty nature - until the day he drops her back off at prison, and she kisses him, expecting it to be just as second nature to him as it is to her - only to learn that the kiss she just gave him was his first with her - and most probably her last with him. It's utterly heartbreaking, because it's clear that River knows her life with the Doctor is pretty much back to front, so she's known more or less the whole time she was headed to a point in time where he wouldn't know her in the same way, and ultimately she would one day reach a point where he didn't know her at all.

And it's from this point on that the mystery slowly starts to unravel. When the Doctor calls on all of his friends to join in his battle on Demon's Run to free Amy Pond and her newborn child from their captors, River declines, which infuriates the Doctor, especially when she does show up at the end, just as the battle has been lost and the child is gone. This is when River finally reveals who she truly is; Melody Pond, the just kidnapped daughter of Amy Pond, all grown up. Only it's so much more complicated than that.

Because Melody is revealed to have grown up, trained and conditioned for the sole purpose of killing the Doctor, and the first time she meets him (from her perspective) - in the form of Amy Pond's childhood best friend, that's exactly what she tries to do. She successfully poisons him, rendering him incapable of regenerating, only his determination not to give up on her despite of it impresses her to such a degree that it ultimately breaks her conditioning. She's shown a vision of herself as the Doctor sees her, and as a result she chooses to sacrifice her remaining regenerations to save his life. This is also when she decides to take on the name and ultimately become River Song.

The Doctor then leaves her to recuperate with the best care in all of the universe (at the same time leaving her the TARDIS blue diary, which he's previously known her to document their every encounter with one another), free to choose her own path in life - and she chooses to go to University, study archaeology and find out for herself just what effect the Doctor has had in the universe.

The next time they are thrown together is when all the remaining mysteries unravels - River has once again been kidnapped by the religious order known as the Silence, put in the space suit we've already witnessed killing a future version of the Doctor. Only she fights the suit, and ultimately rewrites time to prevent herself from killing him, the man she has now come to love. Time starts disintegrating, all of history starts happening at once, threatening to basically kill time itself.

Both the Doctor and River knows they have to fix it - his death has become a fixed point in time, and therefore must always happen. But River refuses to let him go before letting him know just how much of an impact he's had on the universe - and her. And the Doctor makes the choice to marry her right there on the top of a pyramid with all of time happening at once - taking a moment to whisper a secret in her ear; he is merely faking his own death...

Time is restored, the Doctor is presumed dead and steps back into the shadows of the universe, River is charted off to prison, and their intertwined fate has been sealed in both directions.


This relationship has been the target of a lot of speculation and criticism. What is heavily debated is the nature of the Doctor's feelings for River, which I can understand can come off as somewhat confusing for the casual fan. The character of River has also been the target of heavy criticism, as some claim her character development seem to be all over the place - but they don't really take into account that we are seeing her side of the story very out of order. It's not that her character growth is decelerating, it's just that we keep being introduced to younger and younger versions of her, versions that haven't yet lived the adventures we've seen on screen, seen and learned what the future River has, not yet made the choices and promises that ultimately leads River to becoming the woman we were first introduced to.

And the Doctor's feelings can come off as somewhat confusing, because he seems to be mostly running away from River, which actually is pretty natural, if you ask me. The Doctor likes being the one in control, and he hardly ever is when it comes to River. He heavily dislikes the idea of having his own predetermined future, which is what River represents to him. It's doubly hard for him, because he hates endings, and with River he knows exactly when it'll happen, how she'll die - he's already lived it (and will live it again, when he ultimately takes her to the Singing Towers on their final date).

However, I would point to three key moments which combined I believe there should be no doubt how he truly feels about her. The first is the day he loses the Ponds (and while I could point out so many of the subtle hints of how he conducts himself around River in that episode, I'm going to focus on the very moment Amy turns her back to the Weeping Angel and tells him 'goodbye') - he is completely devastated and breaks down, but the blow is softened by River's presence. He asks her to travel with her, and his face lights up when she tells him "wherever and whenever you want" (he has just lost his best friend, but his wife agreeing to travel with him is enough to put a smile back on his face), then falls just as quickly when she adds "but not all the time".

The second is the state he is in the next time we see him, where he seems to have withdrawn from the world, just spending his time alone on top of a cloud. Logically speaking River would never have left him in that state, so it only makes sense that somewhere between losing the Ponds and sitting on the cloud in the dark - he has to have taken River to the Singing Towers (at least that is my head canon). And since the first time ever he refers to River as his dead wife is in the following season  finale, I'm even more convinced. Because it's the first time ever he's referred to River as something of the past (not even talking about the moment with the headstone carrying her name, but the conversation between him and Clara about River). Before that, every reference to River was of her being something of the present, even the future, but never the past.

The third is undoubtedly the moment when he turns to River in the finale, confirming to both her and us that he can in fact both see and hear her (despite being merely a data ghost, a remnant of the consciousness his younger self uploaded into the data core of the library). His words to her are some of the most beautiful ever; "you are always here to me, and I always listen, and I can always see you", and if that isn't proof enough, he also chooses to for the first time ever to initiate a kiss - for no other reason than that he wants and needs to. And because we know the Doctor to more be the receiver rather than the giver of kisses, this is especially big.

There are of course other types of criticism out there, like the age differences of the actors, but then I feel the need to point out how (apart from the fact that the same critics tend to have little trouble with the same age difference when the man is older than the woman) the Doctor is centuries upon centuries old, pretty much any person would be considered young to him, not to mention we witnessed River regenerate from a twenty-something physical body to a forty-something physical body, so age in Doctor Who is most definitely not as it seems, whether River's life with the Doctor has spun years, decades or centuries on her part (with her being part Time Lord). Also, I kind of love the idea of a more mature woman being not only kick-ass, but also someone to be considered desirable.

Actually, I especially love that about her. River is a character who cannot be defined for her (apparent) age. Much like the Doctor she spins from mature and wise mode to adventurous trouble-seeker mode, depending on the situation. She may possess her own gun, and have little qualms about shooting to protect the people she holds near and dear (which I know some Who fans criticize her for, considering the Doctor abhors violence and weaponry), but she does clearly hold the Doctor's philosophy of avoiding violence when possible near to her heart, as she tends to opt for stealth and trickery (like her beloved hallucinogenic lipstick) to do the job whenever she can - she just have a more realistic and practical approach to a troubled situation than the Doctor has most of the time. But even the Doctor will do what's necessary to stop a bad situation, even if it means certain death to the perpitrator.

To sum it up, in addition to the undeniable chemistry between the two characters that makes my heart jump whenever they have a scene together, and the many reasons I have given above for why I think there should be no doubt whatsoever about whether these two characters truly love each other - they just make sense to me. And as much as I actually hate love stories that ultimately break my heart, I will let these two break my heart over and over as I re-watch both endings of this relationship. And what shipper/vidder would I be if I didn't include my own tribute video at the end... Enjoy!


  1. I want a TARDIS blue diary! Seriously, I do!

    Anyway, great article pal. I enjoyed it and I like your angle on the whole Doctor / River Song storyline. Their relationship certainly does give new meaning to the phrase,'It's complicated.' I love Fringe and thought Pete and Olivia had a complicated relationship, which they do, but Doctor / River Song take 'complicated,' to a whole new level.

    I'm currently re-watching Buffy as you know, but I think I might just put Dr Who on my list of shows I want to watch again (at least the eps deal with the Doctor / River Song storyline anyway).

    1. I want one too! Well, actually I want the one filled to the brink with notes about River and the Doctor's adventures together, all worn and well-loved. I want the complete story of them.

      I've only watched a little bit of Fringe, so I don't know just how (or in what way) Peter and Olivia's relationship is complicated, but I have a hard time seeing how much more complicated you can get than the timey-wimey one of these two.

      One of these days I'm going to rewatch River's episodes in the order of *her* timeline - the ultimate heartbreak!

  2. Spectacular summation, sweetie! Thanks for sharing!

    ESPECIALLY great point about the Doctor only referring to River in past tense in TNoTD... You're right, he'd never done that before! Now I'm SURE he'd done the Singing Towers before "The Snowmen"! (Before, it'd just been an idea...)

    It's all the wonderfulness that is River Song--she's utterly awesome and breaks our hearts.

    1. For me, that's the only thing that makes sense. Because he was alright at the end of TATM, sad and missing Amy, of course, but still someone able to go on.

      Yet, the next episode we see him he's done a complete 180. He's withdrawn from the world, worse than that he seems like he's just given up on it. That's not the reaction of someone who's suffered any loss (even if it was a dear friend).

      No, that's the reaction of someone who's lost something more significant, their other half. That's someone whose life is in shambles, yet the world keeps on turning and they cannot fathom why. I think only that kind of grief could have the Doctor withdraw from the world he loves so dearly.

      The past tense references to River in TNoTD just solidifies it for me. There's just no other time he could have taken her to Darillium than sometime between those episodes. Nothing else makes sense.