In part 1 of a 3-series audio review, Dawn Xiana Moon and Michi Trota review the first 4 episodes of Netflix’s latest series, Marvel’s Iron Fist. They’d fully intended to watch 6 episodes but apparently they didn’t have enough cake and cocktails to make it any further. Part 2 will cover episodes 5-9, and Part 3 will cover episodes 10-13, with a special audio track of Dawn and Michi reviewing the finale as they watch it after briefly recapping episodes 10-12.
by Genevra Littlejohn
An apocryphal story about the famous swordsman Miyamoto Musashi tells that while he was staying at an inn, he chanced to overhear the man next door exploding in rage after receiving a letter and a peony from the city’s most skilled swordmaster. The message was a polite rejection of the man’s invitation to duel, accompanied by a flower to soften the blow, but incensed, he threw letter and flower into the garbage. Musashi claimed the flower, and realized instantly that the peony–a flower with a delicate stalk, easily bruised or mangled–had been cut with a single crisp sword stroke, so smoothly that the stem had kept its shape.
The man in the next room over did not have the knowledge to recognize what he had been given; unequivocal proof of the samurai’s mastery. All he saw was the story his own ego was telling him. He could not see the cut.
Upon seeing the teaser photos for Netflix’s new live action Iron Fist adaptation, my immediate thought was of the Japanese martial art of kendo. “Kendo without respect is just grown men playing with sticks.” Bow to shomen, bow to Sensei, bow to opponents, fight with sincerity, swing with 100-percent effort. Our kun, the dojo motto that we repeated after every practice, began with a phrase which translated to “Please cut me.” Please challenge me to grow, please cut away the parts of me that prevent me from being a better human being. Even if it stings.
Those first release photos show actor Finn Jones, the titular Iron Fist, to be using a shinai–the bamboo practice sword used for swinging and sparring, meant to represent a katana–which does not fit him. It is the size which would be handed to a ten-year-old child. Even though a practice sword is made of bamboo and leather it is held and swung like the real thing. There’s a dedicated “cutting” edge. Jones is holding his child-sized shinai upside-down, with the edge pointed at his own face.
These are the first-release photos for this show, meant to court potential audiences and raise a buzz. They are supposed to show Jones’ character in his mastery, the intimidating martial arts superhero, but what I see is a grown man playing with a stick.
A new shinai is bound tight with red cotton string. The very first thing done upon receipt of it is that the string is cut to allow the separate bamboo staves to have room to flex on impact. A tied shinai is too dangerous to use against another human being. The four staves are locked together into one solid piece, which in sparring could cause a concussion or shatter a wrist. Every shinai visible in any of the photos is still tied with its little red strings.
It’s jarring to witness, this thing which is obvious to a kendoka, invisible to someone with no cultural or personal martial arts experience. It’s like a secret story being whispered inside the presented narrative. Because untying a shinai is such a simple thing, the work of thirty seconds, and in a show purportedly about martial arts the studio didn’t care enough to get it right–and now every shinai in that supposed dojo is a tool it would be disrespectful to use in an actual practice, if not straight-up murderous. We want to play with your toys, but we don’t want to have to work to understand them, the whisper goes. Don’t worry, we’ll tell you what it all means.
Iron Fist was an opportunity to challenge American audiences to believe that Asian people are individuals, capable of the full complement of human emotions and motivations. It was a chance to show that the Asian-American experience is as valid and real as the white American one, even if that made viewers a little uncomfortable. Whether through ignorance, or laziness, or greed, the showrunners transformed what could have been subtle strikes into the blows of blunt instruments good only for causing injury. I can’t help but wonder what other elements of the show will display the same lack of care, the same double story of congratulation when seen through white eyes and disrespect through Asian ones.
My second thought, upon seeing those photos, was “Wait. Is he doing kung fu?”
I consulted an instructor with twenty years of practice behind him, and he agreed that what we were looking at was an attempt at wushu or kung fu. In particular, Finn is performing a straight sword form. The Chinese straight sword is a double-edged weapon, unlike the single-edged Japanese katana; it is used for horizontal motions, figure-eight cuts, slashes and wicked flicks with the thinner and more flexible blade. A comparably stiffer katana would recoil or, worse, twist in its wielder’s hands and lodge in muscle or bone if used in this form. In an emergency, against great need, it could be done, as my instructor friend demonstrated for me with my own shinai. But even with his decades of practice, it was easy to see that the form was not well-matched to the weapon. His usual fluidity took on a subtle cramping, the motion of his wrist lost its suppleness due to the length of the hilt.
Iron Fist is only the most recent example of a mismatch that can be seen across many movies and television shows down the years. Forbidden Kingdom, The Last Samurai, David Carradine made more famous by a role designed for Bruce Lee. Filmmakers who would never confuse German culture with French casually demand Korean actors to show up to auditions in kimono, or only invite popular Chinese actresses to audition for the roles of Japanese historical figures.
Our Asian and Asian-American religious traditions, our architecture, our cuisine, are all indistinguishable from one another in the stories being told about us. You’d think that we’d get used to it. But when I heard that Netflix was doing an Iron Fist adaptation, I thought about everything that they got right, first with Jessica Jones, and then with Luke Cage almost immediately afterward. A show about a woman where she behaved like an actual woman might do, right or wrong, conflicted and angry and real; a show about a black man where the character was allowed nuance and depth and an authentically black upbringing that white viewers might find a little out of their experience. I thought that at last we might get to see an Asian-American character portrayed like a human being instead of an incense-scented, silk-clad set piece there to dispense black tea and opaque wisdoms only understood in retrospect. There was such potential!
Instead, we are commanded to cheer for the same weary tale we’ve always been handed, about a white man who goes off to learn from Asian masters and then outpaces them. A man who takes just a little time off from his real life and becomes adept at someone else’s life’s art. We see the main character standing in his street shoes on a Japanese dojo floor, making a very poor attempt at a Chinese fighting stance with a weapon that cannot possibly belong to him.
The show’s creators expect us to see only the flower, not the cut.
Kendo is a little different from many other martial arts in that it is always practiced with a partner. A kendoka can swing on their own, practice footwork on their own, but all kata is paired. All active striking is against another person. Even though they go into every sparring match striving to do the very best that they can, to win, to strike and not be hit, the philosophy of the art demands unselfishness. As development in the art matures a practitioner will begin to see a difference in how others practice. They might begin to overhear the Sensei referring to one practitioner’s kendo as “selfish,” or another’s as “generous.” The phrase isn’t discussing making it easy on one’s opponent, it’s about sincerity, about respecting one’s opponent as a human being inside the armor. About not sparring lazily, about giving good effort no matter whether fighting a stranger or a friend. Part of respectful practice is to think about what is being provided to the other person; a young student hears over and over that if they are on the attack, they must show the respect of striking cleanly, and if they are acting as the receiver of strikes, they must still challenge their opponent, remembering that it is only because there is another person present that improvement can be made. When they drift off and daydream about striking during the time to be struck, when they selfishly begin to think of people just as targets, their kendo becomes weak.
Everything I am seeing about this production demonstrates selfishness. They are simply not even thinking about huge portions of their potential audience, and because they have that little respect for the cultures they are drawing from–and presumably that little respect for their own martial artist stuntfolk, so many years of experience dismissed, knowledge of their own heritage dismissed, treated as useful bodies with no mouths.
It’s not merely the purposeful racism of “we should probably hire an Asian actor to play this role, but we’ll hire a white guy anyway,” it’s an ignorance with no desire to become educated. Since it all looks the same anyway, why bother spending the time and effort on legitimacy? Throw a dojo in there and fill it with people who can’t tie their belts, nobody important is going to know the difference. Make sure the soundtrack has an erhu in it, that’ll make it other enough to be exciting. A sword is a sword, and the portrait of one bearded old Asian man on the dojo wall is the same as any other. And the result is this: the white man walks to the middle of the dojo floor in his street shoes, not caring that his barefooted practicemates will now have to navigate the debris he strews behind him. He picks up a sword meant for a child, and without preparing it for use he clumsily demonstrates a form from the wrong culture with it. And though the show is not yet released, I’d be willing to bet money that we, and everyone standing in that school, are supposed to be impressed.
What kind of story do these showrunners want to tell? Without respect, a story they are telling about a culture not their own becomes nothing but grown adults acting out old racist games, and demanding we applaud.
Genevra Littlejohn is a queer, Filipino-American martial artist who lives in the woods with her partner and a cuddlesome cat. If she’s not at practice or reading, she’s probably in the garden, crooning at her tomatoes.
A television show opens on the sound of rhythmic breathing accompanying a pursuit in the dark. Many viewers recognized the soundtrack right away: Kanye West’s “Black Skinhead,” a rather scathing punk-rap tackling “post-racial” America in both its lyrics and accompanying video imagery. Simultaneously, the runaway slave narrative is deconstructed and becomes familiar, West’s song giving a contemporary context to the often told plight of enslaved Black people risking it all for a chance at a free life.
This opening scene made a statement: Underground changes the story for what a slave narrative is because present audiences have seen Black cultural context become mainstream.
Given its graveness, slave narratives are often treated with a sombreness not always given to other subgenres. And given many contemporary criticisms that there are too many narratives focused on the United States’ history of slavery, Underground had to differentiate itself from past slave narratives that not only emphasized Black pain and suffering rather than humanity but also centered white savior narratives without acknowledging the truth of the full brutality about the history.
In this regard, AfroRetroFuturism provides a lens to understand the appeal of a show that puts people escaping enslavement in an action/adventure context, creating high stakes and using a contemporary mode of storytelling. A look at Nisi Shawl’s Everfair shows AfroRetroFuturism as a lens to consider and place African Americans in historical narratives in more complex ways just as Underground’s first season has shown.
What Is AfroRetroFuturism?
Nisi Shawl coined the term AfroRetroFuturism to describe her work Everfair, the steampunk fantasy novel set in an alternative Belgian Congo, since she did not consider her work as “Neo-Victorian.” She explains, “Afrofuturism is a movement focused on African contributions to, perspectives on, and presence in the future. Retrofuturism is what most steampunks call what they’re interested in: a re-visioning of the past including elements of its future and sometimes elements of our own future as well. AfroRetroFuturism is a combination of these attitudes and concerns.” She eschewed the Neo-Victorian term because she felt it focused only on alternate versions of the Victorian empire. In fact, she explains her inspiration behind the story: “I was inspired to write Everfair by my dislike of a genre I should have been completely crushed out on.”
However, Everfair focuses on a subject often overlooked in the genre: colonialism. Perhaps this is what Shawl felt was missing from steampunk, an honest remembrance of the atrocities that came along with this period of much celebrated innovation and technological advances. She explains, “The term ‘neo-Victorian,’ to me, is a much more limited one in that it’s apparently just about alternate versions of the Victorian empire.” While she deconstructs the neo-Victorian narrative, she acknowledges that steampunk “often works as a form of alternate history, showing us how small changes to what actually happened might have resulted in momentous differences: clockwork Victorian-era computers, commercial transcontinental dirigible lines, and a host of other wonders.” And Everfair does include these types of wonders: aircanoes, steam bicycles and mechanical prosthetic limbs abound throughout the novel.
But the novel also functions as wish fulfilling fantasy. As Shawl says in the novel’s brief introduction, “I like to think that with a nudge or two events might have played out much more happily for the inhabitants of Equatorial Africa. They might have enjoyed a prosperous future filled with all the technology that delights current steampunk fans in stories of western Europe and North America…. Of course steampunk is a form of fiction, and the events within these pages never happened. But they could have.”
While Shawl indulges the fantasy, she does not gloss over the atrocities committed in the Belgian Congo under the exploitation of Leopold II. She explains that an estimated half of the population disappeared between 1895 to 1908 during Leopold’s reign over the Congo Free State before his death in 1909, the year after he was forced to relinquish control of the colony. While an exact number is not given, estimates show that between two and 15 million people died. However, Shawl’s imagined resistance results in the “utopia” of Everfair, as part of the plan by Britons and African-American missionaries who buy the land, which has its own struggles and remnants of its freshly remembered colonial past. Of course, much of the story is based in reality; in fact, Shawl modeled many of the characters after real-life historical figures including Josephine Baker and Zora Neale Hurston.
Shawl’s work addresses the forced labor and plundering of the resources of the land but focuses on those who fought Leopold’s Force Publique. She includes political intrigue, sexual intrigue and the combination of the two in ways that not only humanize the characters but also bring to light how resistance efforts against Leopold may have occurred at the time — with a steampunk twist. However, historians tout the Victorian Era (from 1837 to 1901) as a period of peace and prosperity, but it was anything but for those under the rule of colonialism and other oppressions including slavery. Works such as Underground disrupt that perception and remind us that peace and prosperity not only did not extend to all but also came at the expense of Black and brown people all over the world.
Underground as AfroRetroFuturism
This context of AfroRetroFuturism allows viewers to see a neglected aspect of the slave narrative: the resistance. Resistance comes in forms other than escape although the narrative of the Macon 7 provides the focal point of the first season. From the first episode, the viewer sees that Noah, the man on the run in the opening “Black Skinhead” sequence, has been planning an escape for some time. However, he knows he cannot do it alone; he needs a team to carry out a plan that helps ensure not only their escape but also their subsequent survival. This means he must find others whom he can trust and be willing to risk life and limb.
From here, the origins of the Macon 7 and those who present obstacles to them unfold. As with many stories of suspense and intrigue, alliances are formed, tested and broken. Underground has the feel of a fast-paced drama with constant tension in which even the most banal situations can mean the difference between life and death. While the show always keeps the historical context of the show in mind, it explicitly uses a contemporary “language” of filmmaking that makes the story feel more accessible to current political climates and acts of resistance.
This language extends to more than music and mise en scène. For instance, Noah’s use of elevated language paints him as a hero. In fact, other characters throughout the show use the same manner of speech, which makes them fit more into a contemporary context rather than what an audience might expect from a show set in the 1850s. While the entire setting sits squarely in the Victorian Era, one could just as easily imagine Noah and the rest of the Macon 7 among contemporary resistance movements whether taking place on college campuses or grassroots organizations, particularly those of few means and resources. They do not simply decide to run on a whim: they make calculated decisions and respond according to their circumstances, much like the 20th century Civil Rights Movements and more recent Black Lives Matter protests. Men such as Noah, Moses and Cato come across as charismatic leader types, and women such as Rosalee, Ernestine and Pearly Mae do much of the invisible work of resistance.
Love and Romance
The construction of love and romance also places Underground within an AfroRetroFuturism context. Many slave narratives never imagine this aspect of life for enslaved Black people. In many cases, sexual politics are addressed, much like with Harriet Jacobs’ narrative in which she finds sexual autonomy when she has children with a man she chooses after she realizes her slave master intends to have her as his own. Her autobiography Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl chronicles her experience under slavery in which she “consents” to a relationship with a white neighbor, ultimately having two children with him, in hopes he would protect her from a cruel slave master and eventually gain freedom for herself and her children. In a way, the character Ernestine echoes Jacobs’ resistance through sexuality, but there is no romantic subtext in her relationship with Tom Macon.
Instead, we see Rosalee and Noah’s courtship from the beginning. Their mutual attraction is shown through long gazes emphasized by points of view shots from both characters. In a time when Black people had no legal right to personhood, following the conventions of romance plays into their resistance. In fact, the timing of Rosalee and Noah’s escape comes after Rosalee made the decision not to join the others in their escape plan, but is compelled to run when she thinks she has killed her would-be rapist.
Love and romantic relationships among oppressed people may also be seen as a form of resistance, particularly within a system that seeks to deny them the basic facets of humanity. So seeing Rosalee and Noah discuss his scars during a dance underscored by The Weeknd’s “Wicked Games,” a contemporary alternative R&B ballad, makes the romantic narrative familiar and helps the viewer imagine how loving (cishet) relationships could be among those considered property rather than human. This exchange prompts Noah to ask Rosalee to run away with him. Unfortunately, the love and romantic narrative between Pearly Mae and Moses is not as fully explored as their union is already solid at the beginning of the series and they both perish, leaving behind their traumatized daughter. Yet their plight shows the vulnerability of this type of relationship under systematic oppression.
Resistance Within the System
While Underground focuses on the escape of the Macon 7, other characters and subplots shows that resistance meant more than running. Ernestine, the head of the Macon house, has her own form of personal resistance, but it is limited because it only benefits her and her immediate family. Her influence comes from her role as Tom Macon’s sexual dominant in a BDSM relationship. (It also later comes to light that he sired two of her three children.) Ernestine manages to use the currency of that relationship to curry favor in other aspects of her life, most notably for her children.
When Tom’s wife insists that Ernestine’s youngest child James is almost ready to be put in the field, Ernestine uses her influence as a domme to make Tom promise to keep him out of the fields. From the context, it also appears that she struck a previous bargain to keep her eldest son Sam from the field as well. Instead, he works in the stables where Tom promises to send James.
Ernestine’s encounter with Tom not only helps the audience imagine the atrocities Black women faced as they were deemed unrapeable but also how some Black women may have negotiated their sexuality within an unjust system. As someone denied personhood by law, Ernestine’s sexual autonomy can only gain her so much. In this case, she wants to spare her children from the demanding physical labor of the field. Yet she understands that working closely under the slaveowners in the house presents its own dangers, particularly when she tells her daughter Rosalee that she is afraid she would be “too pretty.”
However, in the end, Ernestine’s efforts do not spare her children. Upon Rosalee’s escape, Tom breaks his promise and sends James to the field. He also later lynches Sam, the only one of Ernestine’s children he did not sire. Ernestine’s resistance then becomes more explicit when she takes revenge upon Tom by hanging him as he hung her son. Unfortunately, this seems to be Ernestine’s undoing as Tom’s widow places Ernestine on the auction block, another promise to her broken as she ironically no longer has Tom’s “protection.”
Much like Jacobs’ narrative, Ernestine’s subplot places the focus on Black women’s worries and traumas under slavery. While many personal slave narratives focused on men such as Frederick Douglass, Olaudah Equiano and Soloman Northup, women such as Jacobs and the fictional Ernestine are left by the wayside. AfroRetroFuturism can see Ernestine as one of the women who found herself seeking to use the system from within even if she saw no prospects of getting out of it herself. Furthermore, it allows the audience to understand how escape was not an option for everyone. Ernestine speaks to the millions of Black women who resisted by continuing to live through the atrocious circumstances of her enslavement, much more like Harriet Jacobs than Harriet Tubman.
Re-imagining the Real
While we can look at Ernestine as a stand in for the likes of Harriet Jacobs, much like Shawl’s Rima Bailey is a composite of Josephine Baker and Zora Neale Hurston, viewers will also soon see a real-life historical figure incorporated into the story: Harriet Tubman. Tubman was introduced in the last episode of the first season as a teaser for the shift in story arc. Interestingly, Tubman’s image has gained pop culture currency for some time and recently culminated into a graphic novel that depicts her as a demon slayer (much like Abraham Lincoln has been imagined as a vampire hunter). However, Underground promises a more realistic depiction of Tubman. This is not to say that there will be no liberties taken with Tubman’s real life, but there may be some speculation of her person that makes her human in the eyes of a contemporary audience and not simply a mythical historical figure.
Furthermore, the addition of Tubman may help Underground achieve something that many do not consider in a historical context: Black women working together as freedom fighters. Tubman’s character comes to the aid of Rosalee who has resolved to return to the South to free more of her people. History portrays Tubman as a lone figure taking all the risks to free more than 300 people. This does not leave much room to consider who might have helped and other Black women who created opportunities to free enslaved people.
Also, as Shawl explains with Everfair, AfroRetroFuturism allows the imagination of possibilities of how historical figures may or may not have responded to the conditions around them. For instance, she never once refers to Leopold with the title “King” in Everfair. This one gesture takes away or at least minimizes the aggrandizement of the ruler and allows the contemporary audience to imagine him as the tyrant many people of the Congo saw during that time. This decenters Leopold but also emphasizes the atrocities committed against the millions who died as well as the survivors.
The AfroRetroFuturism of Everfair and Underground shows that the way we tell stories matters as much as the stories we tell. While Everfair depicts the resistance of a colonial power that still affects the people of the Congo to this day, it also works as an act of resistance in itself as Shawl retrieves the history of a genocide of which many Americans remain oblivious. Even though we are much more aware of American slavery, we still do not tell the full story of those who endured it and perished. The AfroRetroFuturism lens provides the means for stories like Everfair and Underground to refocus the narrative, giving a fuller humanity to Black communities and showing how the past could have been.
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.