Tony’s having a fume.
I’ve been a fan of Alex Kingston’s work since her screen-blistering performance as Moll Flanders in 1996. When she first appeared in Doctor Who as River Song in Silence In The Library/Forest of the Dead, she gave dancing, mischievous, dramatic life to an interesting mystery – someone who knew the Doctor in the future, but who he hadn’t met yet. So far, so terrific, so basically a smashing together of other people’s ideas, a little Professor Bernice Summerfield as far as attitude and profession went, a little Time Traveller’s Wife in terms of the ‘experiencing each other back to front’ idea was concerned.
Silence In The Library/Forest of the Dead had some great central ideas, an understandable but regrettable personification of the central idea when the Vashta Nerada were turned into a big stompy skeleton in a spacesuit to provide an episode 1 cliff-hanger and an action-figure, and the first instance of what would become a Stephen Moffat staple – the Doctor scaring the baddies away with nothing but a speech and his reputation.
And River died.
Only not really. River was allowed to spend her virtual eternity in a world made of books and all the wonders they can conjure. So far then, so lovely. River was interesting, and in Alex Kingston, Doctor Who landed a great actress to embody her, but she didn’t in any way really need to have a life beyond her single story.
Then she turned up in Time of the Angels and Flesh And Stone. And she was great there too. Many people became more solid River fans as she helped the new young Doctor find his way and his personality through the catacombs of the Angels and the wreck of the Byzantium. She was flippant, fun, sassy as any companion and she turned a relationship that should never have worked with a Doctor as ostensibly young as the Eleventh was into something that had zip. What was not to love about River Song?
But then the rot began to set in.
Stephen Moffat has been criticised for his writing of women, but in River Song, he seemed to have cracked it. His perfect idea of a female hero – a female Doctor in all but name – he could comfortably write this woman and Alex Kingston would burn up the screen with her. Why not then use her more and more? Why not make her an occasional companion, a kind of 21st century Romana who could boss the bow-tie boy about and give him a little of his own medicine? Again, in concept, what’s not to love?
The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang was a fanboy mess on many levels, and while having River swan anachronistically about as Cleopatra was funny, and the kind of thing the character as she’d been established would do, beyond the ‘cool’ factor, she was just a cog of cleverness in an over-busy script and she didn’t need to be there, meaning she began to irritate in spite of Kingston’s continuing excellence. The Pandorica Opens was the beginning of a trend towards a laziness of thinking, a drive to get her into places she had no need to be, to underscore her importance against the natural flow of the storytelling, and to artificially inflate her legend and her status as a companion.
Series 6 would take that drive to ridiculous lengths, to the massive detriment of the character.
An essential part of River’s appeal till then had been her mystery. Like all mysteries though, the more you know, the less interesting they become. But Series 6 did more than blow her mystery. Part of the legend that had been specifically added to her characterisation was the potential duality of her nature. Was she the Doctor’s wife? Was she his killer? Was she something else again?
Series 6 overburdened the character by trying to have its cake, eat its cake, then have at least two more cakes besides. Trying to marry baffling stories with a coherent story arc where the answer to every question was ultimately ‘River Song,’ made her unsustainable as a believable character – she was the child calling Nixon, the child regenerating, she was Mels, Amy’s best friend who’d never been mentioned before. But most of all it was the convoluted Kovarian conundrum, where Amy was pregnant and not-pregnant simultaneously, the Ganger element and the Silence training Melody to be a psychopath just to kill the Doctor, that snapped the consistency of the character we’d known up till then as the mysterious River Song. Seeing her have to dance to the tune of all these different story-threads simply left the River we thought we knew in tatters, a thing of shreds and minisodes and too much conflicting information, as though River Song herself, who’d been a consistent, intriguing mystery, was sacrificed to the production of a series running low on ideas.
She emerged at the end of Series 6 having gone through the journey from baby to Ganger to child-astronaut to Mels to psychopath to Time Lord to avatar of self-sacrifice to the Doctor’s wife, and her personality looks is a tattered remnant of what it was at the end of Flesh and Stone. She’d borne the burden of being both the things she could have been – wife and killer – along with the extra complexity of being both the Ponds’ daughter and a Time Lord manufactured to wage a war on the Doctor, and it’s pulled the character in too many directions to leave us with a coherent River Song on screen.
Series 7 was relatively River-free, but where she did appear, in The Angels Take Manhattan and The Name of the Doctor, it felt as though she was there for no real reason but the ‘cool’ in Alex Kingston’s strut and the interest left over in a character we’d invested in. Increasingly it was as though the Production Team realised they could take up minutes of screen time, by simply adding [Sassy River Banter Here], allowing episodes to gain an extra dimension from Kingston’s quality as an actress, in lieu of other active plot elements.
Increasingly then, River Song looked like a dead horse being flogged to goose the ratings.
Having survived her own death, and her parents’ death, and the ‘death’ of the ‘final’ Doctor though, surely The Name of The Doctor would be an end to the mishandled character experiment that was River Song?
Nope – having delivered possibly the strongest series of 21st century Who so far in Series 9, Stephen Moffat decided he’d found ‘the right story’ to bring River back one more time. He hadn’t; he’d found a commitment to doing a Christmas episode and no good ideas for a post-Clara Twelfth Doctor. So River was wheeled out to fill one final gap in her own timeline for us, with lots of decapitation, a stupid robot and an even more asinine sidekick – of whom, more in Series 10. Deep joy.
In the meantime, River escaped to Big Finish, where she can have her own adventures. It’s a medium that makes much more sense than continually bringing her back in the TV series. If you’re going to convince us that she’s some Romana-style equal of the Doctor’s, then by all means let her live and breathe and have adventures, but for the love of any storytelling dignity, stop bringing her back to play second fiddle and have her character manipulated on screen. Yes, we all change over time, but there’s a difference between character development and cynically re-using the same character and making them into something that your particular story needs, irrespective of that development.
Similarly on audio, let River be River. Kingston’s good enough, just as Lisa Bowerman’s good enough as Bennie Summerfield, to be the star of her own stories. The point being that the universe is only very occasionally big enough for a story including both the Doctor and River Song – and never really big enough for the convoluted exceptions that have to be made if she’s going to meet Doctors she ‘can’t meet.’ Let River be River, and meet the Tenth Doctor occasionally, and the Eleventh in due course.
We don’t really hate River Song. When you have an actress like Kingston in the role, that would be pure foolishness. But the overloading of her character in Series 6 to be all things rather than choosing a single strong direction, the cynical use of her to ‘cool’ up the action of Series 7, and her wheeling-out in The Husbands of River Song to provide an answer to a scripting problem leaves us with a River Song misused and ill-served. River could live an eventful and entertaining life on audio – but let her be her own person, free of her origins, and free, very much of the time, from the Doctor too. Then River might still be as cool a character as she was originally written to be.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk