In 2008, British sci-fi series Doctor Who was well on its way to re-establishing itself as the cornerstone of BBC television programming. Doctor Who originally launched back in 1963 under a woman producer, Verity Lambert, and was groundbreaking from its inception. The series followed the adventures of a humanoid time traveling alien named The Doctor as he traveled across space and time in his TARDIS – a vessel he stole from his home planet Gallifrey. The Doctor traveled with human companions who served as audience surrogates and kept a roster of foes from destroying the universe. He was a one-man army without a gun, an intellectual who made ordinary beings extraordinary, and a hero with the ability to rewrite history as a Time Lord.
Doctor Who started as an educational children’s programme, but soon capture the hearts of the viewers young and old. The mysterious Doctor, the TARDIS, and popular enemies like the pepper pot shaped Daleks became staples in British TV culture and led to the BBC’s first merchandising frenzy. The titular character’s ability to “regenerate” – a process in which The Doctor would circumvent death by altering his body into a new physical form – allowed the show to continue as actors transitioned in and out of the role for various reasons. As a new Doctor came on board, he was referred to by fans according to his incarnation number to distinguish him from his other forms, so the relaunch of the show started with the Ninth Doctor. This concept of change also applied to The Doctor’s companions as plot twists brought in dozens of new faces. Doctor Who enjoyed an excellent run during 60s and 70s, but began to lose steam with a ratings slump in the 80s. The show was taken off the air in 1989 and hung in limbo until its successful relaunch in 2005.
By 2008, the show had become a global phenomenon, ushering in a new generation of fans (commonly known as Whovians) and retaining many of its old-school, diehard viewers. Doctor Who was in its fourth season and had taken Whovians through major changes, including a regeneration and the exit of two major companions (Rose Tyler & Martha Jones). By the middle of the season, fans were now traveling with the ever-popular Tenth Doctor and his new companion Donna Noble when they were introduced to a woman who would change The Doctor’s life: Professor River Song. A character created by Steven Moffat and portrayed by Alex Kingston, River Song appeared first in the two-part story “Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead.” The archeologist was instantly intriguing with her secret diary of adventures alongside The Doctor, advanced sonic screwdriver, and unprecedented knowledge of time travel. Despite her grand entrance, most fans didn’t take her appearance seriously due to Doctor Who’s penchant for introducing incredible characters and giving them one time to shine.
Backstory and Fandom Response
River resurfaced several episodes later, donning a black dress and sky high heels, as she disabled her captors with a kiss, escaped prison and floated off into space just in time for the Eleventh Doctor to bring her in TARDIS. After expertly flying the TARDIS, Amy, the Doctor’s travelling companion, is fascinated by River and began to ask The Doctor questions about his relationship with River. Eleven admitted it was a confusing situation because they kept meeting in the wrong order, which suggested that they saw each other in prior off-screen adventures.
River soon became one of the most divisive characters among Whovians. As a recurring companion alongside the Eleventh Doctor, she was often compared to the modern era women who came before her – particularly Rose and Martha. Like Rose, she had a “situationship” with The Doctor, however, many fandom shippers thought River did a better job of maintaining an identity outside of The Doctor.
As the first companion of modern Doctor Who, Rose drew in new viewers as a young working-class woman who realized her potential through traveling with The Doctor. However, she became infatuated with him and couldn’t see a life outside of the TARDIS. She chose him over her loving mother and intended to travel with him forever, despite having proof that all companions have finite time with The Doctor. Conversely, River was a woman who had a life outside of her adventures with The Doctor. She summoned him when she need his services or wanted to spend time with him and then went her separate way afterward. River was enamoured with The Doctor, but she didn’t feel the need to be a permanent TARDIS traveler.
River’s ability to maintain a life outside of The Doctor was much like Martha Jones, who became the next companion after Rose was separated from The Doctor in “Doomsday.” From the beginning, Martha was positioned as a more mature, accomplished woman with a clear personal goal – to become a doctor. Martha’s love for The Doctor was unrequited, but it didn’t stop her from risking her life and walking the Earth as his evangelist to save the day. In the end, she chose her family and profession over continuing to travel with The Doctor. River’s story paralleled Martha’s particularly in her brief encounter with the Tenth Doctor. River was heartbroken when his incarnation didn’t recognize nor trust her because she was from his future. However, she believed in him and loved him so much that she sacrificed herself in the library to save him (and their future together). The unbalanced love issue was directly addressed during her last TV appearance in “Husbands of River Song” where River said she loved The Doctor but didn’t believe he truly loved her back.
While Rose and Martha were attractive women who pined for The Doctor and looked to him for information/approval/acceptance, River was just as sexy as her younger counterparts and challenged The Doctor on every level. Her otherworldly intelligence and time travel savvy intimidated a man who was used to being the smartest person in the room. River was perpetually one step ahead of him due to their strange timeline and she relished every opportunity to dangle her advanced knowledge over his head. She wasn’t afraid to take charge and handle situations in her own way, which tended to be a more violent, ruthless approach than The Doctor. And, she was in charge of her time and circumstances, experiencing the The Doctor’s freedom as a wanderer with presumably less responsibility. All of these character traits led many fans to believe she was the most feminist character presented in modern Doctor Who and perhaps in the entire TV history of the series.
As much as River Song was loved by some fans, she also had her fair share of detractors and fans with mixed emotions about the character and her relationship with The Doctor. They could appreciate her resourcefulness, but River’s overt sexual attraction toward the Gallifreyan hero and status as his “wife” made many fans uncomfortable. They didn’t want their favorite sci-fi savior mixed up in a love affair with an overbearing, smug archeologist who shifted the power dynamic during her (too frequent) appearances. As her storyline began to take a bizarre turn – even by Doctor Who standards – during season 6 of the TV series, more fans began to have mixed feelings about River Song.
In “Let’s Kill Hitler,” she was revealed to be Amy and Rory’s daughter with Time Lady qualities who was kidnapped by an organization and brainwashed to murder The Doctor. It was a clever twist, but many Whovians became disappointed with the characterization of River because they thought she lost her mystique and much of her agency. And, for fans who were indifferent about the character, season 6 was the tipping point to push them toward disliking River. River became a woman whose entire existence (from birth to death) was all directly related to her relationship with The Doctor. As soon as her ability to regenerate was revealed in “Let’s Kill Hitler,” she immediately gave up her regenerations because she was told she would “fall in love” with The Doctor (a man she didn’t know at this point) later in life. The season seven finale, “The Wedding of River Song,” was the final nail in the coffin as she engaged in a scam wedding with The Doctor without knowing his motives. She became a more compliant companion who stopped challenging The Doctor and would say “I hate you” before doing what he wanted her to do. At one point, she even tells Amy that they will do what all of the Doctor’s good companions do – what he says. Despite her shortcomings, there were still diehard fans who engaged in social media battles to defend her as well as Moffat’s approach to her backstory. The season was often referred to as “River Who” by fans who were relieved to find less River Song appearances in series seven and none in season eight.
In Season 9, River made an interesting return in “The Husbands of River Song” with the Twelfth Doctor. For the first time, The Doctor (and fans) got to see a glimpse of who River was when she was on her own. She doesn’t recognize The Doctor and catches him up in her scheme to obtain a diamond. River is revealed to be bisexual with several spouses and is back to being a ruthless decision maker as she dashes around with Twelve, who gifts her with her sonic screwdriver. She discovers that he is the version of The Doctor with whom she has one final date at the Singing Towers before going to the library where she meets the Tenth Doctor. This brings River’s arc full circle in the TV series (unless she comes back again) and although it wrapped up her story well, there were still many people who felt like her character never got a chance to achieve her maximum potential in the Whoniverse.
In December 2015, Big Finish Productions chose River Song as the first major character from the modern Doctor Who era to star in her own audio drama series. Big Finish began producing Doctor Who audio dramas in July 1999 during the show’s television hiatus. The stories featured the Fifth through Seventh Doctors (with the original actors’ voices) and introduced fans to new villains and companions while their favorite show was in limbo. Big Finish eventually began to add stories by the Fourth Doctor as well as offshoot series about infamous characters like the villain Davros and his Dalek empire. Many of these stories have now been accepted as canonical by listeners and have continued to be popular long after the show’s return.
Selecting River Song for her own series was an obvious choice – fans often speculated about her life outside of The Doctor and she was the only supporting character to be featured in the Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat era of the series. Aptly titled The Diary of River Song, the volume depicted River as a pragmatic and reflective woman dealing with her inner demons. Her femme fatale actions from the TV series like her frequent prison breaks due to hallucinogenic lipstick and knack for enveloping The Doctor into one of her schemes were less prevalent in the audio series. Yet, River didn’t deviate from her trademark brutal honesty, natural charisma, dramatic flair, and adventurous spirit seen in her earlier TV appearances. She still had the propensity to be a deadly woman but she was an equally pensive protagonist who was a cross between Indiana Jones and Hayley Atwell’s Agent Peggy Carter. The Diary of River Song brought River back to the season five character which many fans fell in love with and expanded on her character in “The Husbands of River Song” by giving readers a front row seat to her solo travels.
The first audio adventure, “Boundless Sea” puts River into the hands of Jenny T. Colgan, a writer who has previous experience with Doctor Who books. It’s the first time that the character was written by someone other than Steven Moffat, yet Colgan does an incredible job of maintaining River’s best traits and expanding on her current feelings about traveling as well as her frustrations as a woman. River started the story laying low as an archeologist in early 20th century academia. She was done with traveling (and trouble) so she spent her time in an office doing research and drafting academic papers. However, she changed her mind when a young woman went missing in a tomb and decided to help with the rescue mission. River unexpectedly gained a companion – a wealthy buffoon named Bertie Potts who will be a more integral part of the series than anticipated. “Boundless Sea” showed River dealing with the rampant misogyny of the time period, specifically in her encounters with Colonel Lifford, who was responsible for the young woman becoming trapped in the tomb. For example, when River arrived on the scene, Colonel Lifford and his associate were struggling to dig another opening to get inside the tomb. River took out her trowel and began to dig a hole big enough for her to fit in. Colonel Lifford questioned why they didn’t dig a hole big enough for a man to go in and investigate. River reminded him that gender was an unimportant construct in an emergency – especially when a woman has her own sonic trowel.
The story’s antagonist was an unorthodox villain – a woman named Prim who was forcibly buried alive in the tomb with her husband so she could accompany him in the afterlife. Prim was swarmed with an alien life force who feasted on tears and spent years seething about her fate. By the time she crossed paths with River, she was angry with the world and on a destructive path. While TV River would have eradicated her without a second thought, this time River found herself having an emotional exchange with Prim and making surprising comparisons between their lives. River said a dying Bertie Potts gave her a letter and revealed that a malevolent force caused Prim’s people to bury women alive in an effort to bring River to the tomb. She told Prim that she had also been used as a pawn throughout her life – a reference to her being kidnapped as a infant and brainwashed to kill The Doctor. River lamented about leaving many people behind (like The Doctor) and said she had wept all her tears away.
Her open admission of suffering and sacrifice is an element not explored in the TV series because her feelings often take a backseat to The Doctor. This was most prominently seen during the season 7 episode “The Angels Take Manhattan,” when her parents Amy and Rory became victims of a Weeping Angel. As River watched this unfold, she kept her eyes on the Angel to prevent The Doctor from meeting the same fate as he broke down in tears. She didn’t get to mourn her parents and kept her eyes dry for Eleven’s sake. Prior to this TV episode, River spent time in prison and viewers got glimpses of her clever escapes, but the show never explored the emotional effects of her time in prison. Yes, she went on occasional dates with The Doctor, but did she ever feel resentful about her circumstances? Does she have any regrets? Doctor Who never explores this but the repercussions of her self-sacrifice gets addressed further in The Diary of River Song story arc.
The following adventure, “I Went To A Marvellous Party,” picks up immediately after “Boundless Sea” and takes River from the desert to a spaceship party. The letter Bertie Potts gave River was an invitation by an unknown host to a years-long party. For once, River didn’t know where she was going nor what to expect but she soon found herself in the middle of a murder mystery. The story tackled the issues of sexism, classism, and free-will via a supporting character named Spritz. She was brought on board by Mr. Jenkins, who took women like her from primitive planets and laughed at their lack of knowledge about technology. He would keep them as his slaves and send them home with wiped memories when he became bored.
After scolding her over a spilled drink, she overheard his murder in a nearby room. Spritz disguised herself as a service robot and fled the scene to avoid blame. Meanwhile, River made her way aboard the ship and found a surprisingly alive Bertie Potts anticipating her arrival. He introduced her to his circle of rich, powerful associates who claimed to “rule the universe.” River soon learned the Rulers were using manipulation suites on the ship to determine the economy, natural disasters, and technological advances on less-developed planets. Enraged, she confronted Bertie and said it was wrong to strip people of the freedom to make their own choices. He said she was overreacting, but River made sure made her feelings knows to the entire group. After her exchange with Bertie, River ran into Spritz, who said she was in trouble and thought River could help because she “wasn’t like the others.” Spritz led her to Jenkins’ body and said she knew the Rulers would blame her for the murder. She also told River about her home planet, Karachnid, and how it was affected by the manipulation suites. Spritz wanted River to help save her people as well as other planets from the Rulers. River agreed to help and arranged a meeting with Spritz later on. She brought the murder to the attention of the Rulers, of which Jenkins’ was an unwanted member, and was enlisted to help quietly solve the murder by capturing Spritz. One member of the Rulers, Isabella Clark, alerted River about her husband (The Doctor, perhaps?) being on the ship. While listeners expected River to team up with The Doctor for help, she acknowledged his tendency to show up when there is trouble, yet didn’t go and look for him. Instead, she worked together with Spritz to concoct a plan and treated Spritz as her equal, complimenting her on her quick thinking and her desire to save Karachnid.
River used the Rulers bias against Spritz to convince them to destroy their manipulation suites to keep a disastrous bomb from killing everyone on board. And, the unsung heroine wished Spritz well and told her to be beautiful/amazing as she gave her an escape plan with a vehicle and Jenkins’ currency. “I Went To A Marvellous Party” showed River regaining the feminist spirit that many felt she lost during her Season 6 TV arc. She could have easily ran after The Doctor and brought him into the fold to help Spritz escape, but River took the task into her own hands and let Spritz play a part in assembling a fake detonation device. River was in full control of the situation, balancing her brawn and brains to both free Spritz as well as billions of other people who were essentially enslaved by the Rulers. And, when the Rulers invited River into their exclusive circle, she refused and stood for the oppressed people, calling the Rulers the “uncivilized” group. She helped Spritz, a marginalized woman, restore her agency and confidence after enduring an abusive relationship. She taught Spritz that knowledge, confidence, and understanding how to use people’s ignorance against them for the greater good would help her take charge of her circumstances. It was only after she took care of Spritz and helped her regain freedom that River returned to the party and encountered a new version of her husband after he approached her with a “Hello Sweetie.”
“Signs” was the hardest audio to grasp due to a layered, complex plot but it was yet another chance for River Song to shine. The story began with River dying onboard a vast spaceship called the Sarah Jane (the TV canon references are plentiful) with the mysterious time-traveler who approached her at the end of the previous audio. All signs pointed to him being The Doctor, however he was called Mr. Song. “Signs” offered a strange and intriguing twist on the River/Doctor relationship – Mr. Song was the one with an adventure filled diary, which he wouldn’t let River see, and poked fun at her about his knowledge of their future. River took on the more Doctorish role as she worked to disable a bomb. She was blasted with a substance and began a slow descent toward death as Mr. Song became her caretaker. In a reflective moment, River lamented about giving up her immortality so The Doctor could have a “few more faces” and questioned who she could have been if she had never met him. This moment refers back to the season 6 episode “Let’s Kill Hitler” when River gave up her regenerations to save the Eleventh Doctor. It was the second time Diary of a River Song addresses the aftermath of her decisions.
The lines between the reality and fantasy were blurred a la “Heaven Sent” as River fought to separate her dreams from reality. “Signs”allowed River be the protagonist and narrator during her dying days, even though there was a “Doctor” in the story. When River discovered she had been betrayed by Mr. Song (and the Rulers), she patiently concocted a plan to complete her own rescue mission, but not before she gave Mr. Song a piece of her mind. River raged like an F5 tornado as she snarled at Mr. Song for stealing her diary and cloning her during a scathing confrontation. The listener (and River) know the truth about Mr. Song at this point, but it feels like this moment is her chance to lash out and be angry about being manipulated and used throughout her life.
At the end, River said the people playing with the universe “will discover that a pawn can queen.” This line was a major turning point for several reasons. In the arc of the series, it represented River putting the pieces together to finish what she started on the Rulers’ spaceship and seek revenge. From her character’s perspective, it was River’s turning point from being a woman who exists to have a relationship with The Doctor to a fully-fleshed character who is the captain of her future. In the grand scheme of River’s wild timeline, The Diary of River Song could fit in perfectly after her Christmas adventure with Twelve (in a timey-wimey way) as she is restored to the character which many Whovians loved.
The audio series came full circle in “The Rulers of the Universe.” The arc waited until the end to give listeners the first appearance of a proper Doctor after the Eighth Doctor received an invitation to the party ship. He soon met Bertie and quickly deduced what the Rulers were doing with their new manipulation suites. Bertie admitted to tricking both him and River because he read River’s diary. He and Isabella blackmailed Eight into a risky and immoral mission to retrieve a deadly Spore ship for them to sell in a black market. But, the remaining rulers paid for their decisions when they ran into a furious River Song. She destroyed the party ship and jettisoned the manipulation suites (again) by carefully planting a series of bombs on each floor. Instead of killing Isabella, she told her she’s no longer an “assassin” and forced her to crash land an escape pod on a random planet. She then barricaded herself into a section with Bertie and said the Rulers biggest mistakes were 1) “annoying a psychopath with time on her hands” and 2) involving her husband in their schemes. Hiding behind a radio, River disguised herself as Ms. Spritz (an ode to the primitive woman) and began to help the Eighth Doctor out of his conundrum so he wouldn’t be killed by a bomb on the ship. She guided him through disabling the same type of bomb she encountered with Mr. Song and kept her identity secret, even though The Doctor was suspicious of her knowledge. Eight was intrigued by Ms. Spritz, but River knew they could not meet each other yet, so she cut off communication as she crash landed with Bertie to prevent him from saving them with the TARDIS. It was a justifiable act of sacrifice and love which River chose to do, so she was allowed to her to keep her agency. In the end, she climbed aboard another escape vessel and left Bertie behind as she warned him to never peek at a girl’s diary again. She wasn’t an assassin anymore, but she still knew how to make a villain pay for their mistakes.
River’s first audio dramas are an opportunity for Whovians to gain a better understanding of River as a woman and rogue explorer as they see the universe through her eyes. The audios allow a deep look into her psyche, motivators, and the consequences of her TV series actions in a way that cannot be explored with her infrequent appearances on Doctor Who. The Diary of River Song has a maturer Doctor Who aura which establishes her as a (mostly) solo feminist space traveler who is as enigmatic and authoritative as The Doctor, but rarely tries to emulate his actions and reactions. River Song has become a queen after being a pawn and her first Big Finish foray set the bar high for future River appearances.