How I learned to love the Doctor's dashing lady-friend, River Song

The central enigma of Doctor Who's very first episode wasn't the Doctor himself — it was a 15-year-old girl. So Steven Moffat was returning the show to its roots when he introduced the mysterious River Song. Here's why she's awesome.

Oh, and (in a River Song voice), "Spoilers..."

It's really hard to recap the first half of a two-part story when you've already seen the second half. So this recap of tonight's episode, "The Pandorica Opens," is mostly devoted to discussing the glamorous and inscrutable Ms. Song. After all, this seems like an opportune time to talk about the most emblematic character of the Moffat era, given the huge part she plays in the episode. Not to worry, though, there will be some general thoughts about the ep towards the bottom.

So I have to admit I've had mixed feelings about River Song from the beginning — I think it's the smugness. I have a hard time with smug people, and "enigmatic" and "smug" mix especially badly in my book. Plus I have waited in vain for River to exhibit a mysterious secret that didn't revolve around the Doctor. But I always liked her sparkling sense of humor and the fact that she was a sexy older femme fatale, a type of person whom you don't see on television that often.

How I learned to love the Doctor's dashing lady-friend, River Song

In any case, the more I've seen of River Song, the more I've liked her, and the more I've gotten over my reservations. (I think the fact that we avoided the "Amy is jealous of River's connection with the Doctor" trope was a major factor. Because avoiding tropes = plezhur.)

Here are some reasons I've grown to like River:

She really is sort of a female Captain Jack. She's from the future, like Jack. She's flirty and impure and takes time travel in her stride, and is a bit of a con artist/rogue. She's sort of post-modern and while she's not as openly queer as Jack is (because nothing is as queer in Moffat-land as in RTD-ville) you still get the sense that River is up for planting a hallucinogenic kiss on all sorts of people. (Well, I get that sense, anyway.) She reminds me of how much fun Jack was before he became immortal and a boss.

She's the best thing to come out of Steven Moffat's obsession with time-travel shenanigans. Unlike the Doctor-Amy relationship or the Doctor-Mme. de Pompadour relationship, the time-travel aspect of the Doctor-River relationship is complicated for both of them. The Doctor isn't at an immediate advantage with River, the way he is in those other instances. And it's a more intriguing puzzle, from the audience's point of view, and we're left sorting through the clues — like, for example, in "The Pandorica Opens," we see River in the Storm-Cage, meaning she's already killed whoever it is that she killed. But this is before she (maybe) earns a pardon in "Flesh And Stone."

It's fun to watch her being resourceful and outsmarting people. This is sort of related to the "She's sort of a female Captain Jack" thing, I guess. But there are two other things to be said about this. First of all, yay for female tricksters. Especially on television, where they are rare. Second of all, when we first meet River, in "Silence In The Library," she's downright respectable compared to the version we've seen this year. In "Silence," she's leading an expedition and she's a professor. In this year's stories, which take place earlier, she's dashing and ridiculous, jumping out of spaceships without a spacesuit and tricking people by putting micro-explosives in their wine.

I don't need to know all her secrets to know she cares about the Doctor. Even if it turns out the Doctor is the man she killed — which seems to be where they're going with this — her relationship with the Doctor doesn't seem to be ambiguous. She cares about him and is willing to die with him. In fact, the last words she says as the TARDIS starts to explode — her dying words, as far as she knows — are "sorry, love." (She does, in fact, die for him in "Forest of the Dead" — although she gets the somewhat unsatisfactory cyber-resurrection with the creepy kids.) The fact that she cares about the Doctor, and her feelings are not part of what's supposed to be ambiguous or enigmatic, is a major plus. Although I am pretty excited to find out the truth about River, which we apparently will next year, especially after the hints Father Octavian drops.

Actually, I've already figured out who River Song really is — she's Doris! Remember Doris? The Brigadier's sweetheart, mentioned in "Planet Of The Spiders," and later his wife in "Battlefield"? What was Doris getting up to during the decades her boyfriend was running around with the Doctor and fighting Zygons and things? Now we know. (Okay, maybe not.)

So yeah, this was a good episode for River, and you have to love her impersonation of Cleopatra. And the way she convinces the fake Roman centurion that the creatures who are coming to Stonehenge will view the Romans the same way the Romans look upon the Picts. We're all barbarians to them, etc. Good stuff.

How I learned to love the Doctor's dashing lady-friend, River Song

As for non-River portions of the episode, it was all good stuff, although it didn't set me on fire. Just like in the penultimate episode of any Russell T. Davies season, the plot hammers come out, and it's best not to think about it. The explanation of Rory's resurrection as an Auton — with all his memories intact, up until his death and erasure in "Cold Blood" — makes about as much sense as the Daleks deciding to create exact copies of The Weakest Link and What Not To Wear in the distant future, so it's all good, really. The crowd scene where all of the Doctor's foes (but only two or three of each) show up and each wait for their turn to speak to him felt dangerously pantomimey. (Plus, why trap him? Why not just kill him?) But like I said, it's the penultimate episode of the season, and such things are to be expected.

How I learned to love the Doctor's dashing lady-friend, River Song

Actually, if there's one thing this episode convinced me of, it's that Moffat is more comfortable with small, demonstrable threats than huge ones. The tensest parts of the episode come when the Doctor and Amy are dealing with several pieces of a single wrecked Cyberman, whose head, arm and body are all equally deadly in their own ways. The tension gets ratcheted up as they dodge the Cyberman's arm-blasts and avoid the head's tentacles, and it feels weirdly more effective than an assault by a whole squad of intact Cybermen would have been.

But of course, the main focus of the episode, other than the Pandorica itself, is the return of Rory. Who miraculously gets to be still the befuddled everyman, even after he's become a plastic Roman. His Arthur Dent-scale confusion about the whole affair, and his consternation that after all he's been through, Amy doesn't even remember him, is pretty great stuff. And the scene where the Doctor carries on talking to him, without noticing he's back from the dead, is classic stuff worthy of Tom Baker in his prime.

How I learned to love the Doctor's dashing lady-friend, River Song

And yeah, this is one of the show's better cliffhangers. Amy dead, Rory faced with the horror of what he's become, the Doctor trapped in the ultimate prison, River locked in an exploding TARDIS — and the whole universe not just threatened with extinction but actually extinguished. And that, ladies and gents, is what they call a cliffhanger.

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