The Doctor and River Song are perhaps the ultimate modern example of the doomed romance that storytellers seem to love telling. But I guess that’s always going to happen when said story starts with the hero’s beloved meeting him before for the first time when she’s meeting him for the last.
I’m getting ahead of myself there. The best way to understand exactly how River and the Doctor came to become a couple lies in following their relationship through from her perspective. For her it begins with her birth, having been conceived in the TARDIS she possesses a genetic mutation granting her the ability to regenerate like a Time Lord. Kidnapped by The Silence she is conditioned to kill the Doctor, but all this time growing up hearing about this magical man who can travel through time and do impossible things has an unforeseen circumstance: She ends up obsessed with him. In her own words, who else would she have fallen in love with?
In 1930s Berlin, following some unpleasantness with the Fuhrer and a robot of tiny cross people, she does get a chance to follow-through on this and kill him, but then breaks her conditioning and saves his life. With his last breath he tells the woman calling herself “Melody Pond” that he loves River, after learning this is who she is the least she can do is prove she reciprocates. She even gets herself a career in archeology in the hope of tracking him down and seeing him again.
Unfortunately it’s shortly after this that The Silence once again track River down and force her to kill the Doctor, but the true extent of her love for him finally comes to the fore here when she refuses. She is prepared to destroy even the fabric of time itself to save him! The Doctor at this point knows all about her, she knows all about him, so when the Doctor reveals that he’s found a way out and she can shoot him and save the universe without actually killing him it’s then that they get married.
Finally, after years of being kidnapped, escaping, kidnapped again, killing her beloved, resurrecting him, killing him again, and so on, after all of that everything starts to go right for her. Finally she can be with the man she loves.
Not so. She still gets arrested for it. But that doesn’t stop them from going on through life together, as a married couple ought to, with lots of dates and (it’s implied) lots of sex.
But it’s not quite as simple as that. River's next few encounters with the Doctor are a difficult time for her as she keeps meeting him at, from his perspective, younger and younger times in his life. She meets him as he gets imprisoned and the TARDIS explodes, but he doesn’t know her yet. When he departs after that adventure and asks her if she is married she is happy to say just “yes”. Is she confirming that she is married, as he will later learn, to him or is she accepting a proposal? Either way it must hurt when your husband has to ask if you’re married yet!
Luckily for River it gets better after that. Her next encounter sees the Doctor arrive in New York with his companions and her parents Amy and Rory only for the two of them to die there. While she’s finally meeting the Doctor in the right order – he’s even had her criminal sentence overturned – it’s a relief to her. She can talk freely, they can flirt and banter and be a married couple without either of them, for once, having any secrets to keep from the other. After losing Amy and Rory it falls to River to comfort the Doctor and the mutual love for each other is a big part of his being able to move on. He does go into mourning and he needs time to grieve but getting over the initial anger was entirely down to River being there for him.
Her next meeting with her husband was even later in his life and it came with a twinge of sadness for the Doctor. Having regenerated in spite of the rules, he is not someone she recognises and River’s own life of eccentric-anything-goes-madness is finally witnessed by him. The Doctor gets to see what his wife is like when he’s not around (in a word, violent) and he gets to hear her passionately declaring that she loves him and would rather die than betray him, all the while unaware that he’s right there by her side. Finally the two of them are together in the right order, finally everything can go right, finally… but then Darillium.
The Doctor already knows that Darillium was the last place he and River were together before she died and now here they are. He’s forced to accept that she’s going to die after he goes his way so all he can do is make it a date to remember. Both of them are crying, but for once, for that moment, everything has worked out.
Such is the tragedy of River’s visit to The Library. Her meeting with the Tenth Doctor. Her untimely death.
Her invitation to the Doctor to meet her to investigate the strange goings on there arrives early and the Tenth Doctor shows up instead. As things go on and the pieces fit together about the Vashta Nerada and the shadows she begins to realise that he’s meeting her for the first time. Why hasn’t he mentioned it to her?
“Please tell me you know who I am!” she begs him. “Who are you?” he responds. That’s heartbreaking; nobody should ever have to hear the person they love ask them that.
Worst of all is when she realises why he’s never mentioned to her that this was their first meeting, because he never could do it. This is where she dies. This is where the man she loves watches her die, him without having any knowledge of who she really is and her in tears about that fact. It’s sad to watch on first viewing, it’s even sadder now that we know what she must be thinking at the time.
But, as the First Doctor famously said, it’s far from being all over! The 12th Doctor managed to put a device into a sonic screwdriver that he gave River on Darillium that would allow the 10th Doctor to save her data ghost in the Library’s databanks. River Song is saved! Her data ghost appears to witness the Doctor at his darkest moment when he is forced by the Great Intelligence to visit his tomb. The Doctor is being attacked all through his life and River Song is forced helplessly to watch, but then Clara Oswald, impossible as ever, saves him! Believing that the Doctor is going to go in and save Clara, River tries to stop him, knowing it’s helpless because he can’t see her. But he can!
He tells her “you’re always here to me,” and they share one final moment, one last kiss, as she begins to fade away forever. And now she gets to meet the Doctor in the right order again and finally they both know the entire story, Library and all. After everything that happened it ends on a happy note as River and the Doctor share one final moment together before she finally goes away for good.
Her parting words to him: “’Til the next time, Doctor!”
The next time? Darillium, as the 12th. His final meeting with River Song takes on a sad note for him as he can’t tell her what he knows, he can’t warn her to stay away from The Library. What he really needed after that meeting was someone, a mutual friend perhaps, to stick around and keep him in check and make sure he can have his grief without it stopping him from saving the universe. Someone like Nardole.
“Her name was River Song. They were together for a while and they were very happy. And then she died, a long time ago, in a library. He's the Doctor. He's very brave and he's very silly and I think, for a time, he's going to be very sad. But I promise, in the end, he'll be all right. I'll make sure of it.”The relationship between the Doctor and River Song was a complicated one (I haven’t even mentioned the times she met the 6th, 7th and 8th Doctors!) but it’s one that deserves to be remembered. Their story is a reminder that if you put in the effort the right people can still get together even if everything including, it would seem, the universe itself would seek to make it impossible. Theirs is a beautiful story and one that even as we prepare for series ten looks set to cast a large shadow over the Doctor’s life for the near future.
When he's not obsessing about Doctor Who whilst having I Am The Doctor play in his head, Dr. Moo can usually be found reading up on the latest in Quantum Physics. As you do when you're a physicist.