Doctor Who Review: The Husbands of River Song
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
Stephanie “Angel” Wilson 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.
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