His Favourite Song, Doctor Who: The Husbands of River Song, Reviews, 26/12/2015

Even when the execution stumbled a bit, I always loved the River Song story. This post isn't a recap or a catchup. Instead, I want to talk about what a wonderful idea it was, probably Steven Moffat's most original and innovative story that he brought to Doctor Who.

Steven Moffat talks about The Husbands of River Song
as if it were his last Doctor Who story. He probably
won't retire from the show until the end of next
season, but his major storylines are wrapped and he's
preparing new writers in the Capaldi era to take over.
That said, now that the story is truly over,* I’m really not sure where to put my Spoilers tag. Rather appropriate, given River’s nature and catchphrases.

* Not complete, of course, because there's still so much room for River Song adventures aside from what she did on screen. But the narrative of her relationship with the Doctor, its nature and their love, has finally played to its completion.

We live in an odd culture when it comes to our media consumption. Streaming media and catchup services makes airdates meaningless in consuming television. As people get busier having to work harder, or at least with stranger hours, they often can't see exciting new media for a long time after release. 

So you never know when you're discussing any kind of media whether you’re spoiling it for someone. When Doctor Who started, most British households ran on a schedule where everyone in the family was at home on a Saturday night watching television together. That's extremely not true anymore.

Also, I’ve encountered recurring questions over the last few years as people ask me how to get into Doctor Who. As you can imagine, quite a few of my friends know I’m a big fan.

The main recurring question is, “Where do I start?” Related to that is, “How much do I need to have seen to understand what’s going on?”

I always tell them that it's best simply to start with the start of the current Doctor’s era. But it's very unintuitive, given that we now live in a culture of streaming an entire show to catch up. 

The way this story intrudes on a typical River Song con
job, it's structured like an intrusion on her show.
This is what intimidates potential new fans from getting into Doctor Who. Much of our conversations, I spend more time than anything else just convincing them that you don't need to watch everything since 1963 to know what's happening. The nature of Doctor Who is that adhering to strict continuity constrains storytelling. It's an additive show.

And the thing is, I never mention River Song in any of these conversations. I mean, I don’t really have to. River is very much a creature of the Matt Smith era. But even when the Smith era was current, I rapidly skirted over River Song. 

Trying to explain the River Song story to a potential new fan is ridiculously counter-productive to convincing them that continuity isn't all that important. She's just too difficult to follow.

Now, that can be wonderful about River Song as a character and an unfolding story. In developing the concept behind River, and then spinning her story throughout the Smith era, Steven Moffat has done something that was always potentially possible within Doctor Who, but had never been done before.

So I guess I should say 


River was first conceived as a companion from the Doctor's future, in a story where he met her for the first time, but she met him for the last time, as she died at the end of the Silence in the Library two-parter, in the last full season of the David Tennant era.

River is in many ways a subversive character on Doctor
Who, as in the scene where she turns the Doctor into a
companion on his own show.
Originally, Moffat didn't know whether the show would ever return to River Song. And there’s still a touching purity to Silence in the Library, because her character carries so much possibility, potential, and mystery.

But when Alex Kingston was available for a recurring role through the Smith era, Moffat decided to develop the story arcs of Smith’s first and second years to unfold her full narrative. Yet even here, it wasn’t a normal unfolding.

River Song is the first character whose development takes seriously the full possibility of two characters being independent time travellers. Think back to the Doctor and the Master's relationship throughout the classic series, particularly Antony Ainley’s Master, the major recurring villain of John Nathan-Turner’s period as producer.

Even though the Doctor and the Master were both travelling around the universe independently, they always met in the proper order. Castrovalva, Time-Flight, The King’s Demons, The Five Doctors, Planet of Fire, Mark of the Rani, Trial of a Time Lord, Survival. That was the Doctor’s order of events, and the Master's too. 

Nathan-Turner's production was never a tight enough ship to plan mixed-order encounters, despite the obsessively anal continuity fetishism of advisor Ian Levine.**

** Levine was more about continuity of facts and trivia instead of narrative continuity. Or any narrative concerns at all, really.

So River’s story plays out of order. You have to piece her own narrative together after the fact. Phil Sandifer played with this idea very productively, with his out-of-order posts on River’s stories in TARDIS Eruditorum. Here’s my own list of what I think is the proper order for her perspective. There's wiggle room for interpretation.

The irony of River's plot in this story is that she's a
creature that requires a huge amount of continuity to
understand properly, but she herself doesn't know
enough Doctor Who continuity anymore to recognize
Peter Capaldi as the Doctor.
A Good Man Goes to War (as a baby)
The Impossible Astronaut (as a child)
Let’s Kill Hitler
The Wedding of River Song
A Good Man Goes to War (as an adult)
The Impossible Astronaut (main character)
The Pandorica Opens
The Time of Angels
Angels in Manhattan
The Husbands of River Song
Silence in the Library
Night of the Doctor

But more than playing out of order, River's story also had many important moments play out in the margins of what actually wound up on television. This isn't just about running jokes like Jim the Fish, but actual parts of her story.

Most of the DVD extras on the Season Six set and a couple in Season Seven show day-in-the-life moments of River and the Doctor travelling around the universe having adventures together. 

River Song as a story doesn't play explicitly before you. She’s meant to be pieced together out of fragmented bits of evidence, inferred from different slices of time, disconnected moments that you thread together as best you can with patchy evidence.

River Song isn’t a story, per se. She’s an invitation to do archaeology in Doctor Who itself. 

As far as being a story element that uses the full potential of time travel in Doctor Who itself, she's a rousing success. The greatest such success Doctor Who has ever had. 

But I don’t know if Doctor Who will ever be able to surpass this achievement. Or even if it should. I mean, not every River Song story was all that successful as a story. Let's Kill Hitler is the obvious example of a River Song story whose tone and coherence chokes on the immensity of the narrative goals it has to accomplish. 

King Hydroflax is also an intriguing parallel to the
Doctor himself, not only as one of River's husbands.
The head of Hydroflax is the public face of the King,
but he's replaceable. The android is the real agent,
substituting heads as needs require. He has his
continuity as an individual, but a constantly
changing face.
The Wedding of River Song was similarly overstuffed, but managed to hold itself together. Only just, though, since it only had to wrap the storylines and reveal the shaggy dog story of the Doctor’s arc that season. 

The Husbands of River Song jokes with that continuity while wrapping it all up. Its central conceit is that River herself doesn’t know enough continuity to realize that the Doctor is Peter Capaldi. In her timeline, Time of the Doctor hasn't happened yet. Hell, from Doctor Who’s perspective, she doesn't even live that long.

But here’s Doctor Who showing up in a late season of the River Song show. It’s a beautiful story that brings River's own narrative full circle, reaffirms the Doctor’s love and devotion to her, and offers the Doctor and the audience a happy ending to this narrative.

Even so, figuring out River's narrative is a complex task of detective work and archaeology. The Doctor jokes in Husbands of River Song that he needs a flowchart himself to figure out how their storylines fit together in any given adventure. 

Yet in every other aspect of Doctor Who, continuity is thrown to the winds because conforming to its consistency constrains what stories can be told. River as a character is an agent of even greater chaos than the Doctor: destructive, punkish, amoral. But her continuity constrains what stories Doctor Who can tell about her with every appearance.

River Song was a wonderful experiment in what a time travel show could do. Her story wasn't perfect, but it achieved so much that Doctor Who never had before. But it’s a kind of story that I’m not sure should return to Doctor who again.

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