DOCTOR: What were you expecting, a body? Bodies are boring. I've had loads of them.
There is something intrinsically disturbing about River’s corporeality. Yes, she is a Time Lord, she changes body and she demonstrates an uncanny control over her appearance and the way people perceive her. But she is also very much the dissolving prisoner, Schrödinger’s wife, the shape-shifting ghost. Impossible corpse and yoghurt baby. Clara may be the impossible girl, River is the disappearing act.
Her first episode even seems to set the pattern for her whole story arc: it was all about bodies being eaten, the shadows taking over the remains, the soul ghosting away. The double parter in itself is nothing but a repetition of that grotesque and terrifying pattern for each member of the team –death, “monsterisation”, ghosting. But River did nothing of the sort. River disappeared. Simply. Whether or not her body being burnt without a trace left is considered canon, her corpse is not mentioned at all and she appears to be leaving behind a book of stories only. And hers begins with a good death. Or does it? River may have been following the same pattern as her archaeology team, except expanding through a whole narrative arc: death in series 4, “monsterisation” in series 5 and 6, and series 7 displaying the ghosting.
The “monsterisation” in question is not so much a process of turning someone into a monster –River is after all revealed to be a murderer-, but rather of showing and foreshadowing the remarkable, the extraordinary that is River -as the Vashta Nerada controlling the suit was a wonder. The whole arc is interspersed with River repeating her last words “Spoilers” (“That is the very last thought of the man who wore that suit before you climbed inside and stripped his flesh. That's a man's soul trapped inside a neural relay, going round and round forever.”) And River is not so much a monster as she is an “impossible astronaut”, someone who shouldn’t be there, a being trapped inside a spacesuit as a malevolent creature has control. SitL/FotD established the spacesuit in itself is empty. Could it be that from the beginning she had not been there at all?
In a way. The whole point of this rambling is to establish series 5 and 6 constantly played with dissolving and fleshing River, before ghosting and extinguishing in series 7. River’s whole tenure is about that impossibility, a swarm in a suit, the shape of a body held together by shadows. Constantly disappearing and spirited away –as the truth about her identity seemed always dangled up in front of our eyes before being hidden-, yet present:
- Her first entrance is telling, she appears in a halo of light, first instance of the reiterated River Backlighting, but her face appears in the darkness of the helmet, strangely disembodied and, for a brief moment before she removes the helmet, holding as much reality as the Flesh Node.
- In Flesh and Stone, River disappears in a dust cloud as she is beamed up. Yet the physicality of River has been strikingly featured as she crashed with the Doctor on the TARDIS’ floor at the beginning of the double parter.
- The Pandorica Opens and The Big Bang provide us with the recurrent theme of ‘River walking in and out of that prison like the walls aren’t there” and the use of the Vortex Manipulator to disappear in a cloud of smoke and statics. River has no body. BUT River is also present at Amy’s wedding when she should not have existed without the Doctor…
- TIA/DoTM is conspicuous by its literal River overdose; though the audience does not know it at first, three Rivers from three different points in time are present (Melody in the orphanage, River in the spacesuit, River travelling with the Ponds). Also repeated is the negative shot of River back lighted; River is not an absence, but a negative presence –lack of light. For the first time the audience also gets to see River as a weapon; she shoots and dives with scaring accuracy. And we know the “incredibly strong” little girl is River, little girl who can “fix” herself... All this objectifying of River could pass as mere common exploration of the killer trope, had it not been for River’s line about the miracle of a Time Lord’s body. Since she is part-Time Lord, her body would still qualify as miracle. Yet young Melody and later Mels deny it, underlining the weapon quality of her being. Also fascinating to realise it allows us to see River being afraid of being “eaten” by a suit.
- AGMGTW reiterates the case of the multiple Rivers, yet surprisingly manages to draw most of its tension from River and Melody not being where they are supposed to be. And another example of River Walker-through-Walls as she breaks in. And dissolving, here as ganger Melody, into goo.
- LKH is a perfect example of River being a thing: ‘trained and conditioned’, ‘all yours’. Classifying herself as “psychopath”. Not a miracle, but something made and constructed –visually, the Teselecta built up a River in pixels. Later on, there is nothing sacred or miraculous about her regeneration; it really is, as Romana demonstrated it, a change of body. She checks and rates her new face and assets. With River, regeneration sounds incredibly fun.
- Closing Time contains the most thrilling scene of all, with lines like:
RIVER: Oh! What are they? What are those things?
KOVARIAN: Your owners.
KOVARIAN: I made you what you are
KOVARIAN: We’ve been far too thorough with your dear little head
At first, the scene appears heart-breaking because little Melody Pond, who changed her name and her life trying to escape her training, is found again and forced to kill the Doctor and she realised she is this Impossible Astronaut the stories were talking about. What I find truly disturbing is the complete acknowledgment of her status as a weapon, owned and aimed here at the Doctor, against her will. It’s the swarm in a suit all over again. “How clever you are” then only rings at our ears as a self-congratulatory remark on how well Kovarian did her Job. River is an object and she has a value as such. Her body is owned. “An Impossible Astronaut will rise from the deep” even goes further and establishes her as an impossible, something that should not be. Why is the astronaut impossible? Because his presence there, in time and space, is absurd. And River is the Astronaut.
- TWoRS is another example of too many Rivers, being where they should not be:
DOCTOR: Yes, she was there. River Song came twice.
RIVER: That's me. How can I be there?
And everybody has fun in an alternative timeline that should not exist… Timeline that is fixed by the Doctor touching River… Talk about impossible.
So far, River’s run is woven with flickers and bodies too many, lacking substance and not existing. She is the swarm in a suit, shape-shifting and walking through walls, made monster. At this point, only the ghosting remains to be accomplished. Series 7 provided us.
The ghosting of River Song: she died, now she is ghosting; River faded like an echo, during a whole series.
Series 7a played rather subtly on River’s absence:
- in AoTD, when Amy and Rory seemed to ignore the fact they had a daughter, alive and breathing;
- in DoAS, when it was asked whether the Doctor had a Queen –River was associated twice with an Egyptian queen (TPO & TWoRS) and once with the chess piece (TWoRS);
- in ATCM, when Amy was asked about her motherhood and quite frankly the whole theme of the episode was screaming for River;
- in TPoT, where River wasn’t mentioned at all although the Doctor spent a whole year with the Ponds,and it was established by the end of the previous series River was used to visiting her parents frequently –and sharing a glass of wine. (My headcanon tells me it was a matter of accepting River as part of their life, when it was difficult to come to terms with the fact they could not have other children. Thematically, it could be read as a step further down the disembodying of River Song path, stripping her progressively of her ties to her family, then to the Doctor.)
Of course River is present in TATM, but this episode provides a peculiar scene in which River is upset by the Doctor using regeneration energy on her. I think there is much more in there than being embarrassed by this blatant demonstration of affection. The scene is encompassed by rather remakable lines: “When one's in love with an ageless god who insists on the face of a twelve year old, one does one's best to hide the damage” and “Never let him see the damage. And never, ever let him see you age. He doesn't like endings.” Quite a change from “I might take the age down a little, just gradually, to freak people out.” I have always supposed River would know, from the way the Doctor treats her, from the way he looks at her, from their back-to-front existence, that he was aware of the exact time of her death. And I think what we witnessed here is River showing she knows it. She considers his sacrifice a waste. A Time Lord’s body is a miracle. Not hers. Her body is unreliable, unimportant.
By referring to the Doctor as an ageless god with the face of a twelve year old, River also constitutes herself as a human. Contrary to the Doctor running from his death for 200 years, River accepted very soon her return to the human status, and the inherent mortality. River’s story is one of falls; from her parents’ little super hero to psychopath -and thing-, from immortal to mortal, from Doctor to murderer. And she recognises each step of this descent. But I digress, the point was to discuss River’s slow emptying of her substance, which directly lead to her negative presence in series 7b.
Indeed, in series 7b, the allusions to River were numerous while she never once was mentioned:
- in TBoSJ the woman –and the expression “the woman” is very much associated with River (“that woman” in ToTA, “a woman” who happened to time in TWoRS), women being demons, the web holding souls as a dark mirror of the Library;
- in TRoA, Cold War and JtTCoTT, the song guiding/saving everyone;
- in TRoA, the constant hammering of the song ending; in Hide, the music room at the heart of the house;
- in JtTCoTT, the river at the heart of the ship, establishing River as the chasm in the Doctor’s heart as the cliff was in the TARDIS’s;
- in TCH, the gramophones to cover the silence of the empty factories and the organ unlocking and hiding a secret control panel;
- in NiS, the King without a queen and the moon base, the voice unlocking (again) the bomb...
So when the Doctor said he could always hear her, he was not lying; the Universe –or rather the writer- was making sure of it. River and songs were everywhere, although she was by that time, dead and not seeing the Doctor anymore.
By the end of series 7, River was properly ghosting, reduced to a metaphor of herself –song, stories, guide, gap.
Remains the finale, which was surprisingly not about a ghost. I don't know if it is my way of seeing the finale, but I am quite sure the Doctor was not literally seeing River, before the finale that is -it is bothering me because I have read many posts or fics where it is implied she is a ghost, Canterville style. River was not out of the Library before TNoTD, even less haunting him, persuaded he could not see her. The Doctor was indeed haunted by her memory, Heathcliff style, -he "can always see” her- and did not try to get rid of those hallucinatons/memories -"I always listen".
What was so surprising for both of them in the finale was their intellectual presence. River was consciously, this time, out of the Library, thanks to Vastra and Clara. The Doctor is used to having the memory of River always around, whether he chose to summon her or she spontaneously showed herself as a side effect of his mourning. Furthermore, he probably made an habit of interacting with her the way he would when she was alive -the man with an invisible wife in the Christmas prequels-, ignoring her as long as he could when there were other people around -here, Clara. But he knew this River was a figment of his imagination. That’s why, he didn’t budge at first when he saw River in the Graveyard; he thought it was his personal ghost. The fact the TARDIS heard River as she said the Doctor's name proved him this time it was River's real consciousness he had been seeing, not a creation straight out of his mourning mind. It took him some time but he realised he could not ignore her any longer and decided to interact with her, stopping her hand -probably by severing again some psychic connection they had- even when he knew it meant being confronted on the subject of her back-up in the Library and properly saying goodbye. River's surprise came from the fact that he could see and stop her –River was connected to Clara who was connected to the Doctor via her exploding in the middle of his timeline, I guess (Clara is a freaking Picasso, but I won’t delve into that here). That's why she says "I'm not really here" meaning "This is not a younger version of me here. I'm still dead. You should not be that calm seeing me again". Naturally, he would answer “You are always here to me” meaning "It's okay. I see you now and your memory is constantly beside me, even if I know it is only a reconstruction, a picture of you, made up by my brain. I’m not insane. I know you are dead, not there, but I am never alone." Because he knows whatever she wishes for herself in terms of closure she would never want him to be alone.
JENNY: You were a mind without a body last time we met.
VASTRA: And you were supposed to stay that way.
SIMEON: Alas, I did.
The lines apply to the GI of course but they are reminiscent of River’s fate in the Library. Funnily, it is the second time this series River’s fate in the Library is associated with a villain, since the cyber cloud in TBoST was a reversed Library ”And some people get stuck. Their minds, their souls, in the wifi. Like echoes, like ghosts” “Human souls trapped like flies in the world-wide web. Stuck forever, crying out for help”. I think this shows our beloved headwriter regretted afterwards shelving River in the Library.
DOCTOR: Yes, those with bodies to go home to would be free.
KIZLET: A tiny number. Most would simply die.
DOCTOR: They'd be released from a living hell. It's the best you can do for them, so give the order.
RIVER: But they won't be you. The real you will die. They'll just be copies.
The Doctor would allow River to be erased and even asks her to fade… theorically. He clung to Amy for as long as he could and even past reason –asking her to leave Rory behind-, he made a back-up of his wife, he refused to pay with his sonic screwdriver on Akhaten. The Doctor really doesn’t like endings. His whole speech about River being an echo and having to sleep is directed at himself rather than River; it’s him trying to convince himself and herself to move on, because she belongs with the dead and he with the living. No more summoning of her memories, no more waiting for him to say goodbye. Closure at last for both of them.
But he did not erase her. To do so, he would need to enter the Library and work on the computer, because she is a program in a computer and he cannot will her out of existence. He can cleanse his mind from the idea River after the Library had still a place in his life, as more than a memory, an ex, an invisible wife. Post Library River is also a dead River. Here goes River’s last bond to the world, the Doctor.
Did she finish ghosting? River is a scholar, River is a writer. She leaves traces and scriptures for him to read. Her body left her long ago but she has at her disposal a primordial sheet of paper: Clara –yes, Clara is a leaf, she has been fed to the Sun God and broke into a million pieces.
I’ll explain myself: Clara is a tabula rasa and River just wrote on her. Indeed, River guides Clara through the whole episode and Clara follows, quite blindly -yes, let’s listen to the ghost, it’s always a good idea. On River’s advice, Clara chose to jump to her death –or so she thinks- by entering the Doctor’s Timeline and… magically becomes really clever.
Could it be that River being connected to Clara, an imprint of her personality -like temp files- really was put in her mind? After all, River is a computer by that time (She can borrow my memory space, FotD). PERHAPS, that's the explanation for Clara's echoes being so River-like, so self-confident. At the time Clara entered the time-stream, a bit of River's character was still caught in her processor/brain and was taken on the spot as Clara broke into a million pieces. The imprint faded from our Clara, but since Clara's echoes were copies of her at that moment in Trenzalore, they may have been stuck with River's features -boldness, flirtiness, speed and all that jazz... That was crack-ish, but Moffat has a previous history of changing people when copying (i.e. Miss Evangelista). As such, River passed it on Clara, carrying on after death her task as a teacher –that’s why children were left in her care in FotD.
End of her arc? I genuinely don’t know. I think the combination: River disclosing to Clara her current ‘book on a shelf’ situation + Clara in the Library + River fading when Clara still is in the Doctor’s time-stream could mean two things: a) Clara got her out of the Library (because she is really clever and, being the girl who can, can hack into anything), or b) she erased River, granting her a real death.
And it is as a veritably dead River, when her persona is at its faintest that we get to see the Doctor showing how much he cares about her. As if he could only love what has been emptied and cleansed –purified. Her essence, extracted, remains a sublime he, ageless God, could love; that’s why she gave up her body so easily in FotD or refused his healing. Because, as her whole arc has been showing, River’s body doesn’t matter, it flickers, it disappears, it is unreliable and impossible. She is not a miracle. River is River is River. Whatever the form, her essence prevails. And in the end -or beginning-, she shed her body -this mortal ruin- having immortal longings in her.