By Rachel Stewart
“You’ve got all of that to come. You and me. Time and space. You watch us run.” – “Forest of the Dead”
The first time the Tenth Doctor met River Song in “Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead,” she knew everything about him, and he knew nothing of her. And then she dies. The next time she appears onscreen, she was flying out of a crashing spaceship and straight into the arms the Eleventh Doctor in “Time of Angels.” Hell in high heels, indeed.
River Song is one of those characters that divides the Doctor Who fandom. My feet have been firmly planted on the Love Her side of things since she walked down a spaceship corridor in red Louboutins. That doesn’t mean I haven’t had my share of problems with her plot points. “Let’s Kill Hitler” felt like too much plot resolution too fast after the beautiful space opera cliffhanger of “A Good Man Goes to War.” Even when her ghost came back to help Clara and haunt the Doctor in “The Name of the Doctor,” it didn’t feel final to me. And when Eleven promised to take her to Darillium to see the singing towers in the “Last Night” short, as soon as they walked out the door, I just knew Eleven wouldn’t take her. Why?
“He doesn’t like endings,” River tells Amy in “The Angels Take Manhattan.” If Eleven knows this is where the trail runs dry, would he have the strength to take her? For all his swagger and flirting, no. His soul is constantly weighed down by knowing too much about her death in the Library, even though his Tenth incarnation saved her the only way he could. As much as Eleven loves her, he marries her on the condition that all of time and space are collapsing and them touching will set things right. He only tells her he loves her when she’s a ghost.
The Twelfth Doctor is different. By the time he and River collide in “The Husbands of River Song,” he’s become more comfortable with endings, having to move ahead after losing Clara, and most memories associated with her. Now inhabiting an older form, he’s not the “ageless god” that River laments about in their time in Manhattan, and isn’t a face she has in her spotter’s guide. And thus, he’s able to watch her flirt and fight for the greater good of the universe. Much of the agency her character had in earlier episodes–before she became another riddle for the Doctor to solve–is restored in this episode.
In past and future adventures, River has let her guard down in front of People Who Weren’t The Doctor: Rory, Amy, even Donna Noble. Her boisterous, bossy nature has always been a cover for a tender heart that has weathered all sorts of storms, including kidnapping, being raised to kill the Doctor, losing her parents multiple times, as well as hiding her true identity from both her parents and the Doctor.
When River finally says what we as viewers have always known–”You don’t expect a sunset to admire you back!”–the Twelfth Doctor’s silent reaction is stunning. He’s touched, honored and absolutely in love–as much as a Time Lord can be. The electricity between River Song and the Doctor as she finally realizes he’s been there the whole time is magnificent and emotional.
And with that, we’re finally on the last chapter, with Darillium and its singing towers whirling into focus from the cracking window of a plummeting spaceship. So Twelve prepares to say goodbye in all the ways that Eleven couldn’t. He ensures a restaurant is built with the perfect view of the towers. He makes a reservation for the best table four years in advance. He gives her a screwdriver, and amid slightly awkward banter, he quickly scans her, the blue setting on. He just saved her without her ever knowing it. “Future me had years to think about it,” Ten quips in “Forest of the Dead,” trying to undo her sacrifice even though he has no idea who she was or will be in his many lifetimes.
River herself is 200, and she is quick to tell the Doctor that she knows happily ever after isn’t forever. No one will ever have that. She just wants time.
And that’s exactly what Twelve gives her. He gives her 24 years. In linear order. No more spotter’s guide. No more comparing notes. No more keeping secrets or telling lies. Just husband and wife. For a little while.
If this is Steven Moffat’s last time writing River Song or even writing Doctor Who proper, he did right by River and the fans that adore her. “That’s a fairytale,” Eleven once said to River regarding the Pandorica. “Aren’t we all?” was her reply.
In Moffat’s case, the Doctor and River truly are.