Is River Song the strong female character Who fans have been waiting for?
(Note: This article contains spoilers for Doctor Who season 6.)
The Doctor Who character River Song has been a fan favourite since her introduction in the 2008 two-parter “Silence in the Library”/”Forest of the Dead”, with viewers and the media touting her as a strong female character. Despite the high hopes of her supporters, however, River has never quite lived up to those early accolades.
When we first encounter River, she is from the Doctor’s future: since they’re both time-travelers, they meet in the wrong order. She knows him very well, but he is meeting her for the first time. Right from the beginning, we are told that River is an important character and that her relationship with the Doctor is special. She signs a message to him with a kiss, she keeps a diary of every time she’s met him, and she says it “kills her” that he doesn’t know who she is. Significantly, she knows the Doctor’s real name. As he explains, “there’s only one reason I would ever tell anyone my name. There’s only one time I could.” We get the hint that River must hold a very privileged position in his life.
River also sacrifices herself to save the Doctor. The act in itself is not unusual, but generally those who die around the Doctor do so while trying to save the world. River’s motivation is that if she lets the Doctor die, she’ll never meet him. Her memories with him are so important that she would rather sacrifice her own life than rewrite the past and lose those experiences.
I was very impressed by River in these early episodes; she was intelligent, brave, and delightfully sassy. Little more than an hour after she first walked on screen, I was crying my eyes out over her death. She quickly established herself as an important piece of the Doctor’s future, but revealed little enough about her identity or their relationship that she remained mysterious, leaving the audience desperate to learn more of her story.
Since then, River has been characterized as a total badass. She’ll shoot anything, a trait even the (generally pacifist) Doctor admits he likes about her. She once made a Dalek beg for mercy, and then shot it anyway. She’s jumped out of a spaceship, dived off a skyscraper, and stolen the clothes off the backs of an entire restaurant full of people. She provoked a group of Nazi soldiers and then deflected their bullets with her hair. She’s both killed and saved the Doctor multiple times. She’s witty and flirtatious and–as a doctor and later a professor–she’s intelligent to boot.
All of this has won her a place in many fans’ hearts, with some clamouring for a River Song spin-off series. She’s also been well-received by critics and the media. One article in The Guardian said of her (and Torchwood‘s Gwen Cooper) that “it’d be difficult to find two superwomen in less need of a man to save them.”
It’s easy to see why River Song is so well-loved. But even though we’re told time and again how important and special River is (she knows the Doctor’s name, she’s part Time Lady, she marries the Doctor), her character just doesn’t live up to the praise. More often than not, River is not the strong female character that she is proclaimed to be.
River’s backstory feels rushed and poorly conceived. There are several major revelations about her identity, and every one of them is a disappointment. It turns out that she was kidnapped at birth, stolen from her family by a one-off character as part of a war against the Doctor that had never been mentioned before. We find out that River’s real name is Melody Pond, and that she is the long-lost child of the Doctor’s current companions–Amy Pond and Rory Williams. This piece of information cheapens both her story and theirs by making them crutches for one another. We then learn that River is also Amy and Rory’s childhood best friend, “Mels,” a character they did not speak of even once before River showed up in the show (some friend!).
These twists come out of nowhere and tell us nothing about River as a person. It’s as though exciting circumstances are being invented to help the plot live up to River’s mysterious identity, rather than her being an integral part of an exciting story that is happening anyway.
By far the most disturbing thing about River is her complete lack of free will.
River’s unique relationship with the Doctor was what first made her character intriguing. But even after three years on the show, that relationship has still not been fleshed out. There has been no explanation of why River knows the Doctor’s name–possibly the crux of their relationship. River is in love with the Doctor, but his feelings for her are not as clear. He returns her flirtations (and her kisses), but never actually expresses any romantic feelings for her. Although they get married, the Doctor does so only to convince River to kill him and end the paradox that is destroying the universe. Their marriage, therefore, happens in an alternate timeline that never actually existed. The Doctor says only a few minutes beforehand that he doesn’t want to marry her, but, if that’s the case, what does he want? The longer this mystery is dragged out, the less interest I have in finding out the answers.
For a “strong female character,” River has few redeeming characteristics. Although it’s implied that she is intelligent, it rarely shows. Whenever a problem can’t be solved with guns, River has the perfect gadget for the job; she never needs to use her mind for anything but coming up with witty banter. Need to move a heavy rock? Levitation device. Need to get past a guard? Hallucinogenic lipstick. Need to kill the Doctor? Lipstick containing deadly poison that also disables regeneration and has no cure (such a convenient method of killing Time Lords that it’s downright shocking no one ever tried it before River came along).
Any hero’s going to have a few gadgets to help them along–heck, the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver has gotten him out of more than a few jams–but River has so many that are so specifically suited to her purposes that she is rarely given a chance to show her true intelligence and improvise. And what’s with all the lipstick? It’s not even sonic lipstick! Surely the writers could have devised a less-stereotypical weapon for a cunning adventuress.
She’s also overly dependent on the Doctor. All companions rely on him to some extent, but River’s level of dependence goes above and beyond the norm. She always needs him to come rescue her when she pulls her ridiculous stunts. She chooses a career in archaeology because it will allow her to track the Doctor’s whereabouts. The Doctor not knowing who she is frightens her more than her own death. Most ridiculously, she claims that being forced to kill him would cause her to suffer more than everything in the universe would by dying. This level of physical and emotional dependence is unhealthy and reinforces stereotypes that women are–and should be–dependent on men.
By far the most disturbing thing about River is her complete lack of free will. She is kidnapped as a baby and conditioned to be a self-proclaimed psychopath who is programmed with one purpose: to kill the Doctor. Even after she breaks free, the group responsible for her conditioning takes her hostage again and forces her to kill the Doctor anyway. When she finally does regain her free will, she is serving a life sentence in prison, and she doesn’t have many opportunities to exercise it. She can break out easily, yet she only seems to do so when the Doctor is involved.
River’s lack of control over her own life is incredibly troubling. She might act the part, but the creators’ decision to portray her as having no free will, no capacity to make decisions, and no responsibility for her actions does not make for a convincing a depiction of a strong female character–in fact, it makes her quite the opposite.