Jan 15, 2014

Rebooting River Song

[Hello, sweetie.  Spoilers.]

Steven Moffat, the current showrunner for Doctor Who, has unintentionally done something remarkable: he turned his viewers into literary critics.  The struggle to express his many, many failings, to contrast his creative decisions with previous writers, and to dig down to root problems with the show, has made better readers and storytellers of everyone involved – except, of course, for Steven Moffat.  I have opinions of a whole range of things, and I don’t want to clutter this blog up with them, but there is one character I want to talk about at length and I’ll hope you forgive me for veering off into fandom just this once.

When they restarted the show after ten years off the air, Russell T Davies and Julie Gardner brought it back with a new set of themes.  Off screen, the Doctor – our hero – killed off the two most important races in the show, including the Time Lords – his own people.  Not just a few – all of them.  Their demise and his guilt echoed throughout the writing and made coping with loss and the peril of rebirth two of the central themes of the show.

It resonated so well, not just because grief is a compelling subject on its own, but because during that ten year gap, most of us fans had grown up.  It made sense to put everything that was in our past in the Doctor’s past too, to have him go through the same loss of innocence we did while he was away.  It was a wonderful resonance between content and the context.

That wouldn’t be the last time the Davies era played to the structure of the show for dramatic effect. In David Tennant’s premiere episode after the exit of Christopher Eccleston, the Doctor collapses and is incapacitated.  “Is that a different face, or is he a different person?” asks Jackie, as she and the other characters become increasingly alarmed.  When he finally comes to life, his first act is to give a speech about how he isn’t sure who he is yet.  He goes on to give a brief, but dashing, jolly, and genuinely funny performance in the last few minutes of the show, proving (the actor/character’s) worth.

But the end of the Davies era was the most resonant, with half of the season (and four post-season finale episodes) devoted to marking its passing in some form or another.  Fans were, and still are, extremely attached to David Tennant’s performance and to Davies’s writing, and the final season, more than any other, was precious.

 

River, River, River…

This was the context in which we met River Song for the first time – a character who went from being one of the show’s best characters to one of its worst.  In the original script by Steven Moffat, River appears as someone who has traveled with the Doctor in his future, and even had an intimate relationship with (and as it’s implied, married) him.  River is adventurous, focused, competent and energetic.  She’s exactly what we’d expect from someone who’s been traveling with him for a good long time.  She kicks some major ass.

At the same time we meet her, we’re aware of something else.  It appears that Rose Tyler will be returning to the show to play a part in the season’s end.  Rose was someone the Doctor fell in love with, although he couldn’t be arsed to admit it – even in the moments before she was trapped in a parallel universe, and they were separated forever.  To hear that the Doctor will one day have a similar relationship to the one he had with Rose is a little unsettling, but also hopeful.

Just like Rose, River ends up saves the Doctor’s life, dies in the process, and is saved at the last moment but banished to live in an alternate world inside a computer with her crew, a loss that the Doctor has trouble coping with.  The story worked so well, not just because it gave a glimpse into the Doctor’s far flung future, but because it echoed Rose’s story. River Song is Rose Tyler.  She’s the person Rose could have been if she hadn’t been stranded in her own parallel world, if she had traveled longer with the Doctor.

We got a glimpse of the transformation Rose was undergoing right before she left the show.  Her mother counts it as a loss, but Rose is dedicated to her new life as a time traveling heroine.  In fact, when Rose returns, she has grown quite a lot and become very similar to River – dashing, confident, knowledgeable, and courageous. The fact that River exists gives us a little hope that sometime, someone experienced all the things that the current spate of companions keep losing out on.

This is a good story.  In fact, it’s a great story.  It’s one of the best of the era, I’m not afraid to say.  Moffat’s two scripts for this season – Silence in the Library and Blink – have become go to episodes if I want to introduce someone new to the show.  So I keep wondering how he could have written such a great script for that season when his writing as showrunner has been…

Bad.  Really, really bad.  Characters appearing with no introduction and little justification, ideas thrown squashed together into an unappetizing mush, terrible pacing, weak character motivations, shallow disposable concepts, poor, witless, and outright obnoxious dialogue.

But most of all, I can’t imagine why he’d so cavalierly bring back River Song, after giving her such a perfect story that ended in a heroic and redeemed death.  That sort of decision is treading on dangerous ground, and requires the kind of empathy, skill and craftsmanship Moffat has never really mastered. She reappears, as a recurring character, with the same personality and many of the same experiences she had before.

River was so good as the snapshot of a character at the end of a journey, but Moffat continued to write her the same way in her own past.  Her personality, with all its competence and bravado, seem to be timeless, and her relationship with the Doctor doesn’t seem to have really had a strong genesis.  They interact the same way they did right before she died.  She didn’t grow from her travels, and he didn’t grow from his time with her.  The trust between them is never really in doubt.

To give more meat to her character, Moffat resorts to burdening her with more and more hacked together backstory, retroactively making her into – and I think this is in order: a convicted murderer, the daughter of the Doctor’s companion Amy Pond, part Time Lord, a psychopathic assassin sent to kill the Doctor, Amy’s previously and since unmentioned black best friend, and the Doctor’s wife, sort of, technically, maybe. The more we see of River, the less compelling a character she becomes.

Her new role in the show doesn’t resonate – not with the themes or structure of the show, not with the other stories developing around her.  It clashes with the compelling story we thought Moffat was originally telling.  It invalidates all the reasons we liked her.

 

Start from the Beginning; Tell me Everything You Know.

So maybe bringing back River Song was just a bad idea.  But still, I think her story could be good – really good – if only it were written from an understanding of what made her original appearance so compelling.  We needed to see her genesis, how she got to be the amazing woman we knew she could be, because that journey is what she represented originally.  She doesn’t need to start as a 19 year old shop girl like Rose did, but she needs to start somewhere.  I like the idea of the companion being a proper analogue to the Doctor, so let’s shoot for that and imagine her as one of the captains we met during the Davies era – an Adelaide Brook or Zachary Cross-Flane.  She would be someone who has leadership skills and knows a lot about the science and technology of her own time period, but still isn’t quite prepared to travel through time.

In her original appearance, she promises the Doctor that one day he will trust her completely.  What if she doesn’t mean just relative to his past, but in the time since they first met?  I’d give her some deep flaws like the ones Jack Harkness had at first.  She could be a thief, a smuggler, a hijacker, an arms dealer, a con artist.  (Not, as Moffat would have it, in jail for a crime she didn’t actually commit because reasons.) She could be part ally, part villain – not in the kludgey way Moffat turned her into a villain, with all the nonsense about her being the victim of some sort of Manchurian Candidate plot in space that absolves her of her actions.  Her villainy could come from self-interest, self-doubt, and her inability to kick old habits.  She could be Han Solo taking his reward and leaving the rebels to die.  She could be Jayne Cobb betraying his crew because the money was too good.

Throughout the show, we’d see both of them struggle with the trust that the Doctor, knowing her future, feels compelled to place in her.  She’d ask why he trusts her, and he’d tell her he just knows her, and he can see promise in her. This would echo the feelings of the viewers – can this new showrunner, the person who created this character, do justice to the show we love? Can we trust him? Other companions who meet her would be wary, just like River’s crew was wary of the Doctor when they first met him.  The whole system with the diary and the time jumping could be, say, the result of a temporal anomaly River created out of motives that seemed villainous, but actually turned out to be heroic.  The diary would represent deeply felt dedication to a relationship that was already complicated before the time shenanigans came into play. The entire arc would be about the rewards of making leaps of faith and trusting people, just like River’s original story was.

After they begin their new time hopping relationship, the Doctor might wonder whether River’s death might be one of those events that can be in flux, and whether she might live if he were to just stop answering her calls for help, walk out of her life and never see her again. (Then again, he knows he WILL meet her one day, in his past, so he can’t escape it.  In one episode, she might call him and not be there when he arrives, making him realize that he can’t bear the thought of not seeing her in the time she has left.)   He’d be doing the same thing we are – wondering when River’s time will be up.

The future River could appear in the show too.  She was sent to live in a computer program where she could experience “any era to live in; any book to read.”  She’s an archaeologist with the whole of human history at her fingertips.  The future River could still carry on her work, adventuring through cyberspace, finding hidden connections in the datastream, uncovering the secrets of the past.  And at some point, she could share what she’s learned with the Doctor – and we’d get a nice hit of dramatic irony as he’s hiding the source of the information from her past self.

In the end, saying farewell to River would be one of the last acts of Matt Smith’s Doctor, marking his passing with a loss, but knowing that River will be reborn, just like the Doctor is destined to when he regenerates.  It would be a story that actually resonated, echoing back through her own death and the stories of characters we’ve met before, in harmony with the realities of the show.