Last night the long-running and absolutely adored British sci-fi TV series Doctor Who aired its latest Christmas Special, The Husbands of River Song. A brilliant and moving episode in its own right, the christmas special by all accounts seemed to close off a recurring plotline in the series which has enthralled viewers since 2009.
River Song, played by the marvelous and beautiful Alex Kingston, first appeared in the season four episode Silence in the Library, as a mysterious archeologist, who, though the Doctor has never met her before, knows him better than anyone alive, and who ultimately sacrifices herself so the ever-giving Doctor will not have to. This is explained as the two of them meeting out of order, their relationship a confused hodgepodge of discontinuity caused by both of them being habitual time travelers. Through this arrangement the audience has gotten a scattered arrangement of clips of her long and complicated life, learning about her as the Doctor does, never knowing what point in her time line will come next. Last night’s episode seems to have put a heartwarming end to that.
In The Husbands of River Song we see the introduction of the titular character to the 12th Doctor, a persona which, due to a temporal re-write afforded by the Time Lords in the Christmas Special before last, she does not believe exists, knowing only of the eleven previous Doctors and the War Doctor. What follows is a hilarious sequence of the Doctor not admitting who he is, getting to play the role normally filled by his various companions, spending a final night with her before what was, from his perspective, their first meeting, in which she died, at last covering all that occurred before we first met her. Did it tie every little thing about the story line up in a bow, with no loose ends? Or course not. But it was, I think, a fitting end to one of the most enthralling and imaginative time travel stories I have witnessed. So what now?
Well see, this whole time we’ve seen River’s story exclusively from the Doctor’s perspective. We see her life out of order just as he does. But I say, now that we’ve got all we can expect to get out of the out-of-order sequence, we might as well take a look at things the way she saw it. Thus, I’ve gone back in my head over every River Song episode, and ordered them in such a way as to see things the way she’ll remember it. Things are a bit sketchy on this here and there, they don’t always go into detail about where she’s supposed to be, but I’ve put things in order to the best of my ability, for your convenience. I haven’t actually tried this out yet, so I may get a few things wrong about just how things here hit you emotionally, but bear with me, I’m doing my best. So, I present to you, The Life of River Song:
[oh, and uh, Spoilers…]
1. A Good Man Goes to War (baby Melody)
Here we se the birth of River Song. Born Melody Pond to the Doctor’s companions Amy and Rory while the former was captured by militant theocrats dedicated to exterminating the doctor, she eventually took her more commonly used name from a mistranslation of her given name in an alien language. Conceived on the Tardis during transit, she’s thus just a little bit Time Lord, a fact said militants have every intention of exploiting. This is her not-so-humble beginning, as the Doctor calls in all his allies to rescue her and her mother. An older incarnation of River also appears here, but only briefly. We’ll get back to that later.
2. The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon (the child)
The story then skips ahead to her early childhood. This two-parter focuses mainly on an older River, but the appearances of her younger self cannot go overlooked. In the canonical order of these shows, we have no way of knowing that this is a young River at this point (though there is implication that she is Amy’s future daughter), she is simply a mysterious young girl in 1969 captured by the hypnotic Silence. Here we first see her take advantage of her pseudo Time Lord nature, regenerating for the first time.
3. Let’s Kill Hitler
A more lighthearted (sort of) episode in the sequence, this shows River’s (Mel’s in this case, we don’t know right away that it’s her) childhood and early adulthood, spent at a close friend of both her parents, (she was named after herself) specifically chronicling her first attempt on the Doctor’s life (and Hitler’s) and her regeneration into her familiar Alex Kingston form. It is here that she takes the name River Song (from her later self. Again.) falls in love with the Doctor, and goes off to become the roguish archeologist we all knew and loved by this point.
4. Closing Time (end)
This one’s just in the last couple minutes of the episode, showing River on the day she receives her doctorate, investigating historical reports of the Doctor, when she is once again captured by the Silence, and put, involuntarily, to the task of killing the Doctor. The rest of the episode’s pretty good too though. Fear Stormageddon, Dark Lord of All.
5. The Wedding of River Song
A direct continuation of the previous entry, and a return to the events of The Impossible Astronaut, here we see River forced by Kovarian to enact the purpose she was kidnapped for: killing the Doctor. She resists, and in doing so violates a fixed point in time, an even which must occur, and collapses the universe into a new world where everything is happening at once, intent on saving the Doctor even if it means the Universe itself must die. It’s a dramatic moment from anyone’s perspective, and from her’s the Doctor’s loophole is especially shocking. She’s still young here, still new to the Doctor’s tricks, and it’s notable that she becomes distinctly more savvy from here on. Oh, and she and the Doctor get married. Sort of. But that should have been obvious. Also, note that she forgets much of these events, due to some combination of dealing with the Silence and wibbly wobbly physics and coming into contact with her future self (which is a recurring continuity saving point in this show). This goes for her much younger self in Impossible Astronaut as well and becomes important later.
6. Night and the Doctor: First Night/Last Night (first River)
A series of bonus shorts released with the DVDs of the sixth season, these episodes of “Night and the Doctor” can be seen here and here, respectively (with french subtitles, hope that’s not a problem). In these, the Doctor encounters several versions of River from different times, starting with one who’s spending her first night in prison for “murdering” the doctor, which is the one who’s next on this list. Yes, she’s stuck in prison for, well, ever, but she can break out (and back in) any time she likes to spend evenings and adventures with her hubby, and that’s really what matters.
7. The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang
The order of the next few entries is a bit hard to correctly discern, but I’m fairly confident saying this goes here. River’s not quite as self assured and confident in the Doctor’s shenanigans as she is in entries later on this list, still very protective of him, but you can see she’s growing into the more self possessed character we love from her later/our earlier appearances. It’s of note that in this particular sequence she doesn’t know who her father is, on account of him having been erased from existence at the time.
8. Night and the Doctor: Last Night (second River)
I had a lot of trouble deciding if this should come before or after the next item on the list, but ultimately I decided to put it this way more for story purposes than continuity. It’s a nice lighthearted funny pause between two more serious adventures. River escapes from Stormcage (as is her way) gets into trouble (again, her way) and runs into the doctor (really, it’d be monotonous if it weren’t for all the gunfire), accidentally meeting him on the same night she’s already met him, seeing evidence of herself and accusing him of having another woman there (later made a rather hypocritical remark). Ultimately he zaps her off to prison without issue, and goes back to his date with her earlier self.
9. The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon (again)
This time we focus on the older version of river in the episodes, who, without clear memory of the actions she’s seeing herself perpetrate, witnesses the death of a future version of the Doctor. Memories or not, she holds it together much better than either of her parents (who still don’t know they’re her parents), and assures them that this isn’t the end of the world. She’s much more confident, more self sufficient, having gone on numerous adventures with him we didn’t see. Her prison breaks have become so commonplace the guards alert the Warden to the fact that she’s packing almost casually. And though she’s still forcefully protective of the Doctor, she’s also distinctly more comfortable holding her own and with the fact that he always has something up his sleeve. (or in his eye. Whichever.) More than that, she’s beginning to see the pattern: that their timelines are back to front, and that she’s coming to his beginnings, which she knows could very well mean her own end.
10. A Good man Goes to War (again)
This time we’re focussing on the older River who appears only briefly, first about ten minutes in, then in the last five minutes of the episode. She’s become almost smug and very, very weary of how much more of the Doctor’s future she knows than he does, and you can see the pain in her eyes when she sees her father and knows very clearly that he doesn’t have a clue who she is. She knows she’s about to have to tell him who she is, that he’s about to lose his daughter, and that there is literally nothing she can do about it without breaking the goddamn universe again. In my opinion, this is the character at her prime, when the strange order of her life is most potent and clear in her mind.
11. The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone
River Song is depicted with complete confidence at last. Her trust in the Doctor is absolute. She is completely self assured in her knowledge of his future, chuckling with delight at his Spoiler about her coming Professorship, barely batting an eye at the appearance of her utterly unknowing young mother. This is her second appearance in the overall show, the audience and the Doctor alike know nothing about her, and she plays that role to a T, exploiting every hint of ambiguity about herself and dropping relevant hints to forthcoming episodes like a time traveling pro. She has no delusions about the Doctor or the absurdity of her own life, exploiting the situation for all the fun and profit it’s worth, while still being entirely serious when the situation calls for it, such as when on a spaceship crashed into a mausoleum full of psychopathic murderous magic statues. Y’know, those sorts of situations.
12. The Wedding of River Song (ending)
Just the last scene of this episode, in which River appears to Amy in her back yard, who believes she’s just seen the Doctor die (and that she murdered the woman who kidnapped her daughter in cold blood but only sorta), to tell her that the Doctor is still alive, presumably having regained her full memories of the events of this episode that happened to the other her after the evens of Day of the Moon (this article is a grammar nightmare. Where’s my copy of Restaurant at the End of the Universe?…). Honestly it’s worth watching this scene just to see the bit where Amy finally realized she was the Doctor’s mother-in-law (she’d known that River was her daughter for months and that she was Doctor’s wife for years, how is she just now putting that together?).
13. Night and the Doctor: Last Night (third River)
This is the last time this one comes up, I swear. The third River in the short, who confuses the current Doctor for the later one she’s out with. We get the briefest view of her of the three, but she seems happy, content with her adventures with the doctor, going off to the Singing towers of Durilium (though it’s later explained that he cancelled that at the last moment)
14. The Angels Take Manhattan
It’s apparently been some time since the crash of the Byzantium, and at this point River knows the Doctor just a little too well. Their cross-temporal note leaving has been honed into an art, she’s even more assured of the absurd schemes they get into than he is, and she understands him in ways that his normal companions could not begin to comprehend. She knows he doesn’t like endings, that he can’t handle the ones he loves saying goodbye to him, but that sometimes he has to. She handles the loss of her parents with more composure than he handles the loss of his friends. She has become jaded in the reality of him, almost bitter of his way but no less in love with him. She knows that even she is just a mayfly to him, that she will eventually whither away while he goes on, and she tries to hide her mortality from him as best she can. A fitting tone, in an episode all about the inevitability of time, about the fact that there are some facts that can be fought, and some that simply cannot.
Also it has the line where Amy says “You think you’ll just come back to life?!” and Rory goes “When don’t I!” which is just the best.
15. The Husbands of River Song
Ah yes. Last Night’s episode. By all accounts it seems this is the Doctor’s last encounter with River Song before his first. And boy, is it a good one. River’s become absolutely jaded with the Doctor. She thinks she has an absolutely realistic view of him. She thinks she knows his exact limits: he has exactly 12 faces, he can never tell when she borrows the Tardis, he is “the sort of man who knows exactly how long a diary you’re going to need,” and he cannot love her any more than the stars or a mountain could. She knows that he is so beyond that, so beyond being her loyal little husband, that she cannot even hope that he’ll come and rescue her when the chips are down. Which is what makes it so utterly touching when she’s wrong. It’s an absolutely fantastic episode that caps off the story of River Song marvelously, neither invalidating what we felt when knowing the inevitable nor making it unnecessarily terrible. It proves a testament not to fighting the inevitable, but to enjoying what time we have leading up to it. To be with the ones we love, and to not dread losing them, for we know we’ve made the best of the time we had.
16. Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead
And this is what we’ve all been waiting for. The first encounter with River on the show, and all but the last here. Her only meeting with the 10th Doctor, and she knows him right away. He all looks the same to her. Her jaded view from the previous entry is gone. She knows the Doctor, truly knows him, and is content with who he is and with their relationship, and it makes it so heartbreaking now, to see her meet a version of him who is so young, so new, and doesn’t even know her. In a sense it’s good that his first meeting with her came so late in her life, looking back on who she was in some earlier entries on this list I don’t think she could have handled meeting him this way as well. But here she is wise. Here she knows how to deal with an unknowing Doctor. She’s probably been preparing herself for it for a very, very long time. And in the end, she sacrifices herself, for him, but also for herself. So that he could go on to become the man she falls in love with. In a sense, it’s not this Doctor she’s trying to save, it’s that one, the one who loves her, and, as she now knows, who loved her knowing all along how she would die. Knowing who she would become, and what she would do for him. Everything about this episode becomes so potent in retrospect. Even her reaction to Donna, to know that the Doctor must have spoken so fondly of her, the way she looks into his eyes and sees youth, him not knowing just how old he would come to be. And in the very end, when he saves her even then, her line about him and endings rings true in the very best way.
17. The Name of the Doctor
Our only look at River after the events in the Library, her computerized mind is projected into the fray by dream-enabled time travel. The confident, self assured River remains, if perhaps a bit disillusioned by her experience with the inexperienced 10. It’s been long enough since her time with the Doctor that she’s begun to doubt him again, begun to think herself wiser to his nature. And again she’s proven wrong. Is this the happy ending to her story we might hope for? Does this tie up every loose end in her tale? No. God no. It even leaves a few mysteries behind. But it’s one last moment for her with the man she loves, one last goodbye, not to the oblivious 10, but to the Doctor she loved, to the Doctor who knows her, which is why I considered it important enough to include here.
Thanks for reading, and a merry belated Christmas.