The Doctor Who Christmas Special Takes Us To The River
And the Doctor celebrates with a Song in his heart.
Before I got caught up with modern Who, I was under the mistaken impression that River Song had been one of the Doctor's many regular companions. Obviously, I learned later that she had never had that honor -- not least because it wouldn't have been much of an honor for her.
It's been remarked upon by numerous commentators, including myself, that a companion's job is generally to be someone the Doctor has to worry about, rescue, and explain things to. Sometimes a companion gets a character arc, but that's a relatively recent development. River Song, on the other hand, is much bigger than that.
For one thing, River Song is a fellow time traveler. That's not new or unique, of course; the Doctor has been sparring on and off with the Master since the 1970s. But it always seemed faintly ridiculous to me that the two Time Lords' shared history was not only long, fraught, and complicated; it was in the same subjective order. The Doctor would defeat the Master on prehistoric Earth, then twelfth-century England, then 1980s Greece, but their timelines were always somehow in sequential lockstep when they should have been crisscrossing all over history. You can ask me to believe there are two quasi-immortal aliens constantly fighting for good and evil across all of time and space, but let's not get too far-fetched here.
Enter River Song. I recently rewatched 2008's "Silence In The Library"/"Forest Of The Dead," the two-part David Tennant episode that both introduced and killed off River. She was a force of nature from the jump: knowledgeable and in command, but with an agenda of her own that she didn't necessarily feel like sharing. And she knew a lot more than the Doctor did, which nobody is used to, least of all the Doctor. Most of all, she knew the Doctor's actual name. Clearly, she had tons of history with someone who was just meeting her for the first time. This is the kind of timey-wimey stuff I thought should have been happening with the Master for decades.
But it's not just that River and the Doctor's relationship evolved into one where most of their encounters included a "let's do diaries" phase in which they compared their individual timelines to catch each other up, like two friends separately binge-watching thirty-eight seasons of some TV show. It's not just that she's the surprise, vortex-conceived offspring of two of the Doctor's companions. It's not just that she married the Doctor and broke time itself. It's also that she's a better counterpart for the Doctor than any of his official counterparts ever were. She can be just as infuriatingly smug and withholding, and I'm not sure I'd want to spend much time in real life with someone whose catchphrase is "Spoilers!" But she shares the Doctor's confidence, brilliance, competence, and unpredictability, though not in the same proportions. If the Doctor is Chaotic/Good, River is Super-Chaotic/Not-Quite-As-Good. Yet she may be the only one left in the universe who (a) can keep up with the Doctor and (b) doesn't have to be stopped all the damn time.
River's temporally meandering arc pretty much complete, River is now largely a relic of the Matt Smith era (having lent a lot of those stories some gravitas that, in my opinion, a twentysomething Time Lord could never quite manage). But it's lovely to see her in this year's Christmas special, engaging in witty repartee with the current Doctor without realizing it, then declaring her true feelings about him without knowing he's right there, and then finally getting to enjoy their last, long-promised date. And we can add to River's list of special abilities this particularly rare one: she can make Capaldi's Doctor grin like a moron.
Plus we actually got to learn some new stuff about her, like what she does when the Doctor isn't around...or when she thinks he isn't around. Honestly, why are we getting a spinoff about Coal Hill School when there could be one about River Song's previously unknown habit of stealing the TARDIS and then bringing it back before the Doctor ever knew it was gone? Has anyone even asked Alex Kingston? It's not like she needs to go back to being miserable on ER any time soon.
Maybe it's because River isn't quite the same without the Doctor -- or when she thinks she's without the Doctor. The two of them do seem to bring out the best in each other. And in both cases, that's pretty damn good.
This being a Steven Moffat story, there will be plenty to pick apart later, and I'm sure the internet will accomplish that as masterfully as always. But even if a toy is in pieces by New Year's Day, there's still the excitement of the first time you see it under the tree. And as of this writing, it isn't New Year's yet. Besides, Moffat has given us plenty of gifts that have held up just fine. One is the Weeping Angels, and another is River Song.