Doctor Who Review: The Husbands of River Song

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I adore River Song more than I can put into words.  It’s because of my love of this character that I was both elated and upset by this episode at the same time.  Despite the fact that we know how River’s story ends, there’s still a certain level of tension and surprise whenever she shows up on screen.  I believe that River is one of Stephen Moffat’s best creations going all the way back to “Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead” in season four.  It’s no secret that I often have issues with Moffat’s writing, but with River I feel that he generally did well as far as her characterization goes.  From his perspective this episode was probably a lovely little bow on his own creation, but to me it felt like an unnecessary finality.  Why he felt it was necessary to do this to the character is beyond me.  But here we are, and we have to work with what we’re given.

For a good portion of the episode I was elated beyond belief.  We got to see a side of River that we rarely see.  This is how she acts when she’s not around the Doctor because she simply didn’t recognize Capaldi’s face.  She seems morally ambiguous and a little bit frightening, but she’s definitely not an evil person.  If anything, I’d say she falls into the Chaotic Neutral category while the Doctor is Chaotic Good.  I don’t blame the Doctor for playing along for a bit just to see a side of her that he’s never seen before, and it really did amp up the tension as we weren’t quite sure if the River we’ve grown to love these past few seasons is the real River Song.

We also learned that she’s had multiple husbands and multiple wives while she’s been off adventuring around the galaxy without him.  I’m going to take that latter part to indicate that River is bisexual and add her to my list of canon bisexual characters, thank you very much.  Instead of shaming her for her multiple marriages, it’s brought to the Doctor’s attention that he’s had plenty of wives, too.  He married Marilyn Monroe, Queen Elizabeth I, and Cleopatra, among others.  While Moffat’s writing of sexuality involving his female characters has often bothered me, I felt that bringing up the Doctor’s similar history, and also not belittling River’s apparent bisexuality, was about as good as we could get given the circumstances.  He could have played off her interest in woman as a joke or as an ‘experiment’ like he did with Clara.  Or he could have shamed River while ignoring the Doctor’s similar transgressions.  If he’d at all mistreated River in this episode, my entire review would have taken an immediate negative turn.

I was also pleased with how fiercely independent River was throughout the episode.  While one of River’s downsides is that she was created specifically for the Doctor and then sacrificed her future regenerations for him, I do appreciate that she has never sacrificed her independence or strong willed attitude to please the Doctor.  Yeah, she loves him dearly and her life revolved around him for a long time.  Yeah, she sacrificed her regenerations for him and pretty much truncated her own existence for him.  But she’s still running around the universe with her own agenda and saving herself from trouble without relying on the Doctor for help.  While a lot of criticism gets levied at her character due to her origins (and I do agree with the majority of that criticism), her personality and strengths are still worth noting.  This is why I love River Song.  This is why I think she’s amazing and worthy of praise.

However, my enjoyment of the episode waned dramatically when she revealed that she was coming close to the end of her diary.  We all know how River’s story ends.  We know she dies in the library.  But the way they sent her off into that story arc cuts off any possibilities of her returning in future episodes.  Firstly, she only knows the first eleven faces of the Doctor and spent most of the episode unaware that she was talking directly to him.  Secondly, it’s clearly established that this is her last adventure before going into the library.  This is the end of River Song.  It’s impossible for her to return.

I suppose Moffat wanted to give his creation a happy ending.  He even put a “And they lived happily ever after” title card at the end to assure us their 24-year-long date was a positive experience.  And that’s all well and good and I’m happy for her, but this removes any possibility of her being on my TV screen ever again and that’s upsetting.  I suppose I should just be happy that one of my favorite characters is supposedly happy, but I just can’t get over the fact that she’s gone forever.  A part of me thinks he did this because he didn’t want other writers controlling her after he’d gone, but that may just be the bitter Moffat critic inside of me popping out.  If I cram that critic back down inside, I admit that he probably did have the best of intentions with this story.

I’m not quite sure how River’s story would play out sequentially if I decide to watch “Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead” immediately after, but her knowing that this is her last adventure with the Doctor seems like it’ll change a lot of the context of that episode arc.  I recall that she seemed surprised that the Doctor didn’t know her in that episode.  She seemed to think that her story could go on after him at that point, too, and wasn’t aware that her death was imminent until she made the decision to sacrifice herself for him.  But I don’t have access to those episodes at the moment and don’t know how the story holds up when watched in order.  And honestly after that episode I can’t really subject myself emotionally to seeing River Song die.  For someone with a stronger emotional stamina than myself, this could be an interesting experiment.

I’m not sure how I feel about future episodes of Doctor Who at this point and time.  I’ve been extremely frustrated with the show for a long time and took a personal break to put some emotional distance between us.  This episode made me feel like coming back until I realized the show was taking away something I love yet again.  I know that the very nature of the show is always changing.  I know the Doctor changes, the companions change, even the interior of the TARDIS changes.  That’s just something you have to get used to if you are a fan of this show.  But the positive emotions I used to have with this show have waned to the point that I can’t take the overwhelmingly negative aspects of it without feeling like watching the show is merely an obligation.  No show should be an obligation.  While I was genuinely excited for the Christmas special, I feel like the next season could very well be something I have to do out of duty instead of genuine interest, and that’s not right.

I think I may need to take another break from Doctor Who until the magic returns for me.  Right now I’m just not feeling it and any review I have for future episodes will be tainted by that fact.  If the tidbits we get about next season excite me again this may change, but as for now, I think this will be the last I write about the show for a while.  Stay strong, Whovians.  I hope next season is everything you hope for.  I may join you later.

Author: Angel Wilson

Angel is the admin of The Geekiary and a geek culture commentator. She earned a BA in Film & Digital Media from UC Santa Cruz. She’s contributed to various podcasts and webcasts including An Englishman in San Diego, Free to Be Radio, and Genre TV for All. She’s written for Friends of Comic Con and is a 2019 Hugo Award winner for contributing fanfic on AO3. She identifies as queer.


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About the author

Angel is the admin of The Geekiary and a geek culture commentator. She earned a BA in Film & Digital Media from UC Santa Cruz. She's contributed to various podcasts and webcasts including An Englishman in San Diego, Free to Be Radio, and Genre TV for All. She's written for Friends of Comic Con and is a 2019 Hugo Award winner for contributing fanfic on AO3. She identifies as queer.

Comments

  1. Agreed. I went from being giddy to have our River back, to devastated. I don’t understand why he ended such a lovely character. She added a richness, and history to the storyline. Bad Moffat!

  2. I don’t see any reason why she could not have more adventures during those 24 years or even meet future Doctors. I thought that was Moffat’s way of giving the character more closure than she had previously, while leaving the door open for future adventures. I’m surprised by your reaction because I felt like this episode left me things far more open to future adventures with her. Her last appearance, in Name of the Doctor, felt far more definitive. I had given up ever seeing her again, which bothered me to no end because her dialog with Tennant only makes sense if she had met at least two other Doctors. Now she has, so all the continuity makes sense, and she has a 24 year stretch for more stories to be told. Moffat himself said as much in a recent interview, so I think you can rest easy knowing you will likely see River again.

    1. Hi Steven,

      I responded to most of your stuff on your other comment, but I hope you’re right and we see more River again.

  3. I am very sad you haven’t enjoyed this season. I thought this was the strongest year of the show since the perfection of Season 5. I hope during the break you give this season another chance and discover the magic that I was feeling. I love reading your reviews, even though I often disagree. I adore Moffat’s writing and am genuinely baffled by the criticisms of his treatment of female characters. I just don’t think those criticisms hold up to objective analysis. Amy Pond and River Song are my all-time favorite Doctor Who supporting characters. Given how horribly female characters were treated during the entire classic run up until Ace was introduced in the final years of the 7th Doctor, the modern run has done an extraordinary job. I also have to point out that Rose Tyler was a character defined almost exclusively by her love for the Doctor, so much so that her story ended with her shacking up with a cheap knockoff of Tennant (I hated that plot point so much. Anyone who feels nostalgia for the Davies era seems to forget that bit.) Moffat’s female characters tend to be much more independent and seem to have real lives and ambitions outside of their TARDIS jaunts. You could argue that Clara was more of a plot device than a character when first introduced, but she quickly became much more than that, and her gender very rarely played a role in their adventures. In other words, I see women in Moffat’s writing as real characters who just happen to be female. Isn’t that the way it’s supposed to be?

    1. Thank you for enjoying my reviews. If you’ve noticed, I haven’t been reviewing this season but I was excited to do the Christmas special because of my love of River. Unfortunately even that didn’t help.

      I think it’s interesting that a lot of people who have issues with Moffat’s writing are assumed to be Russel T Davies fangirls. Rose isn’t my favorite companion. It’s Amy. But the issues with how Moffat writes women is a lot more nuanced than just having awesome female characters. Because yes, he DOES have awesome female characters like Amy and River, who are two of my favorites (River is why I gave this season another chance! And I cried when Amy left, really REALLY hard). But it’s not as straight forward as “awesome characters.” There’s a lot more complexity to it than that.

      I didn’t watch the show live during Davies’ era. I started the show right before 11 was introduced so I have no nostalgia for 10 and Rose and all the things you assume I’m feeling. Smith is my Doctor. Amy is my companion. And I still have issues with Moffat.

      I hope you continue to enjoy the show, but having me write reviews while I’m clearly upset isn’t a good idea. They’ll just be upsetting for all involved. Maybe things will change in the future, but right now my reviews would end up being just like this one and watching the show would feel like an obligation instead of something I do for fun. I want the show to be fun again and until I feel that magic, I need to take a break.

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

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