This article contains minor spoilers for the episode “The Wedding of River Song”.
Given that she’s the driving force behind the season finale, I’ve been thinking a lot about the character of River Song. Since we first met her in “Silence in the Library,” she’s been an intriguing figure not only because she has so many secrets, but because she holds up as the Doctor’s equal. Companions aren’t typically allowed to be on equal footing with the Doctor, but perhaps River will succeed where Romana failed.
The White Guardian of Time commanded the Doctor to track down the six pieces of the Key to Time and insisted that Romana, (full name Romanadvoratrelundar, though she prefers “Fred” for short), tag along to help out. The Doctor wasn’t particularly thrilled to have her help, at least not in her first incarnation. Once the Key to Time mission was complete, Romana decided to regenerate pretty much for the heck of it, trying on new bodies the way you’d try on different t-shirts. In real life, actress Mary Tamm was replaced by Lalla Ward, who played Princess Astra in part six of the Key to Time series, and would (briefly) become Mrs. Tom Baker, which is how I come by the title for this article.
The Doctor usually chooses human companions because, as he explains it, traveling through time and space is way more fun when you do it with someone who hasn’t seen it all before. In his more honest moments, he also admits that he likes having an audience on hand to appreciate his cleverness. The companions also perform an important, practical purpose: They’re stand-ins for us, the audience. Having someone around who’s not as smart as a Time Lord gives the Doctor a plausible reason to constantly explain what’s going on, providing the exposition viewers need to follow along. The first Romana met this need halfway by being a rather sheltered Time Lady; she had book smarts, but not much real-life experience, so the Doctor still had to lead her by the hand rather a lot.
Once she regenerated, however, Romana quickly stepped up to be the Doctor’s equal, going so far as to construct her own sonic screwdriver (which the Doctor tried to keep for himself), and donning her own overcoat and scarf. In was interesting to see the Doctor being put in his place, and having a companion that could operate independently allowed for a bit more freedom when it came to constructing stories. After just a few episodes, however, the banter began to feel more like bickering, and Romana chose to remain behind in E-space, rather than be called home to Gallifrey.
Off-screen issues more than likely had at least a little to do with Romana’s departure, but the character was problematic from the start. Being the figure that everyone looks to in times of trouble is a core defining feature of the Doctor’s character; if you’re just as well off asking whoever’s standing next to him, it diminishes his narrative power. Let’s be honest – as much as we love the guy, the Doctor can be a right royal pain in the ass, and it would begin to strain credulity for characters not to jump on a less irritating option, should one present itself.
Romana was just too much of a Doctor copy to work in the long-term, at least without overhauling the entire series formula. As a character, River Song has a lot in common with Romana, being just as capable, daring, and resourceful as the Doctor, but she has two advantages that Romana didn’t. The first is that, until recently, she wasn’t around all the time. She’d cross paths with the Doctor, stir things up a bit, then head back out into the cosmos. She never really threatened his position as de facto leader, despite the fact that she could do just about everything he could (backwards, in heels, no less), because everyone knew she’d be gone once the ruckus settled down. But River had something far more important working in her favor: This Doctor can get laid.
Despite making a habit of running around the universe with a bevy of scantily-clad hotties, the Doctor of Classic Who was as chaste as a monk, and the TARDIS remained a definitively hanky-panky free zone. The show is still considered family fare, but sex is very much a part of New Who. Rose, Martha, and Amy have all given serious thought to getting him naked, but the way River looks at him implies that she’s actually done it (in the future, of course). The Doctor enjoys River’s confident sexuality even if he isn’t entirely sure what to do about it; the sexual tension allows for a character who can be the Doctor’s peer without robbing him of his status as leader. Sure, the Doctor’s in charge during a crisis, but when it’s just the two of them, it’s pretty clear who’s following who.
It’s this give-and-take of power that makes an extended relationship between them possible, and interesting enough to keep us watching. Will the events of “The Wedding of River Song” change that dynamic, or will their “battlefield marriage” be brushed aside like so many other inconvenient story arcs? So long as River doesn’t wind up stuck in E-space, I’m calling it a win.
Susan Arendt knows that the Doctor’s heart will always really belong to the TARDIS.