Doctor Who Christmas Special 2015: River’s End

"I'm an archaeologist from the future. I dug you up."

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For Whovians, December 25th is about more than just Christmas; it’s about the Doctor Who Christmas special. This year, rather than the special being a one-off story involving characters the Doctor has happened upon outside the events of the show, “The Husbands of River Song” allows the Doctor to spend the holiday with one of the most special people in his life.

There are plenty of mixed feelings swirling around Doctor Who fandom about River Song. Many loved her introduction during David Tennant’s run, but came to love her less and less the more she returned. Some fans were done with her once it was revealed that she is the daughter of Amy Pond and Rory Williams. For others, the breaking point was the episode “Let’s Kill Hitler,” in which we learn that Melody Pond actually grew up with her parents as their childhood friend, Mels, after the events of “The Day of the Moon.” Some people see the way River Song was written as indicative of Steven Moffat’s “women problem,” while others are quick to dismiss her as a Moffat Mary Sue. She’s either “too competent” or “not competent enough.” She’s either “too much of an ass-kicking ‘badass’ woman to be real,” or “her life revolves around the Doctor” making her a doormat of a female character.

I happen to love her in all her incarnations and storylines, and I think that a lot of the negative opinions of River Song emerge from a really cynical read of what the character actually does. Granted, I too tired of Moffat’s love of “puzzle boxes,” and have been loving Capaldi’s tenure as the Doctor (except for “Sleep No More,” which was a complete garbage episode) precisely because the plots have been much more simple, but effective. However, dismissing so many of this character’s actions and choices as happening “because of a man” is a mistake precisely because of something that was highlighted in this year’s Christmas special. The Doctor isn’t A Man in that sense. He’s male, but he’s not just some dude that this silly woman is throwing her life over for. He’s the Doctor, and River’s love for him is nothing nearly as mundane as “romantic.”

river-and-her-diary

Wanting to find the Doctor might have been the catalyst for her specifically choosing to be an archaeologist, but like many people who cross the Doctor’s path, she’s had an innate love of adventure and exploration her entire life, which makes sense considering her mother. Criticism about River not having any goals or desires of her own never made sense to me, because her goals and desires are what make her so interested in the Doctor in the first place. Her life doesn’t “revolve around” him, but he is the biggest puzzle piece that helps her create the life she wants for herself. She inherited her mother’s sense of wonder and adventure — was born because of it — and she’s used her mother’s tales of the Doctor as they were growing up (back when Amy was Amelia and was waiting for her Raggedy Man) to create a life that involved time travel and adventuring and exploring. She used the Doctor to have an adventurous life, and when he wasn’t around, she collected other husbands.

And so, in “The Husbands of River Song,” when she says things like she doesn’t love him, but “he’s come in handy every now and again,” or when she compares him to a sunset or the stars, this all points to her love being bigger than “I need a man to complete me.” There has never been a man she’s been “in love with” in that way. She loves the Doctor because he is her gateway to the Universe. She also loves the Doctor because he has saved countless inhabitants of the Universe many times over. She loves him, because he’s not small and ordinary.

What she doesn’t do is love him at the expense of herself.

For the first time, in this special, we got to see what River is like when she thinks the Doctor isn’t looking. She steals the TARDIS, among other things. She remains a thief (“an archaeologist is a thief with patience”) who’s not above murder. She’s a thief and a murderer with a heart of gold, and she’d be that and do those things whether the Doctor was involved or not.  And just as he goes around the Universe doing “whatever the hell he does” without River, she does the same. It just so happens that the Doctor got to be a fly on the wall of River’s life this time.

doctor who christmas river

“The Husbands of River Song” also reaffirms River’s bisexuality and sexual playfulness and agency. While it sucks that we’ve never actually seen her with a woman, in this episode she says that the Doctor reminds her of her second wife. In a later conversation, we learn that one of those wives may have been Cleopatra. She has two husbands in the episode (not counting the Doctor), and in both cases she is using them for her own ends. Her marriage to King Hydroflax was purely mercenary. She “married the diamond,” as it were. Her marriage to Ramon, on the other hand, seemed purely sexual – when he wasn’t assisting her with getting away with various crimes. And when Ramon ended up having Hydroflax’s Hulkbuster body, she stroked it, as if wondering over the sexual possibilities. So, she’s not anti-robot body either.

Ultimately, what this Christmas special really showed us was River Song at her most human. For the first time, she didn’t have any answers. She was vulnerable. She wasn’t the one privy to the “spoilers.” We had to see her at her most heightened in previous episodes to get the payoff of River at her most nuanced. River knows she’s headed toward the end of her life, and she’s afraid. As much as she’s loved the Doctor, she’s also been terrified of him, because even though he’s her gateway to adventure, he’s also the only one who knows how it will all end for her.  He knows when the adventure will be over.

Thankfully, in a really sweet scene between them, we learn that a night on Darillium — their last night together — lasts 24 years, which the Doctor will be spending with her. How appropriate that, at the tail-end of her augmented life span, she’s spending time with the Doctor at his most stately and reserved. He’s still the same Doctor, but he’s older now. He’s exactly the Doctor you’d want to wind down with. He’s the Doctor that makes it possible for her to be so patient with the Tenth Doctor, facing death gallantly knowing what’s to come for him.

This year’s Christmas special gave River Song’s entire journey context, and I was thrilled about that. It’s unlikely that we’ll see River Song again (unless the Twelfth Doctor visits The Library), so “The Husbands of River Song” was a wonderful send-off for one of the best, most nuanced female characters in the Whoniverse.

What did you think of this year’s Doctor Who Christmas special? Let’s chat in the comments below!

(Images via BBC America)

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Teresa Jusino
Teresa Jusino (she/her) is a native New Yorker and a proud Puerto Rican, Jewish, bisexual woman with ADHD. She's been writing professionally since 2010 and was a former TMS assistant editor from 2015-18. Now, she's back as a contributing writer. When not writing about pop culture, she's writing screenplays and is the creator of your future favorite genre show. Teresa lives in L.A. with her brilliant wife. Her other great loves include: Star Trek, The Last of Us, anything by Brian K. Vaughan, and her Level 5 android Paladin named Lal.