Call and Response: River Song
Can a relationship move backwards?
It happens on Doctor Who and it makes me wonder if a science fiction narrative has more to say about the possibility of human relationships than we realize. (spoilers ahead)
River and the Doctor are both time travelers who meet out of order. While their meeting in the Library is the first time the Doctor sees River, it's the last time River will see him. Her past is his future.
This is, first and foremost, a neat storytelling device. It explores our understanding of memory and recognition. It makes re-watching "Silence in the Library" more difficult, because River says that seeing herself as a stranger in the Doctor's eyes kills her. We know that it does, in a way, after watching what happens in "Forest of the Dead."
River tells the doctor before sacrificing herself:
"Funny thing is, this means you've always known how I was going to die. All the time we've been together you knew I was coming here.
The last time I saw you—the real you, the future you, I mean—you turned up on my doorstep with a new haircut and a suit. You took me to Darillium. To see the Singing Towers.
Oh, what a night that was. The towers sang, and you cried. You wouldn't tell me why but I suppose you knew it was time. My time. Time to come to the Library."
Love isn't Linear
Watching that scene makes me realize that love doesn't always move in linear ways. We dress it up in convention, but knowing someone, loving them, often follows unpredictable patterns. Of course, some of the best relationships are those that grow and stabilize over time, but perhaps the true secret of love is changeability and adaptability. A call and response.
As C.S. Lewis (he's my go-to guy when it comes to love) pointed out, eros cannot be sustained over the long term, but time is required for affection to grow. Friendship can last longer than both, but might take root at any time. Even charity can ebb and flow. Sometimes we're able to serve others, and sometimes we're only able to serve ourselves. We're flawed like that.
There is no right way to love someone. No one time is better than others. This is why I find those dating rules so ludicrous. There's no mathematical equation that can calculate when you should kiss someone or when you should tell them how you feel. Relationships and friendships can start with startling familiarity or with unknowable distance, fights sometimes make us strangers to one another or bring us closer, and intimacy can grow, fade, or be revived. We can't plan it out, even if we have a time machine to get a jump on spoilers.
River gives up her future because it means having a past with the Doctor. Their relationship, unbound by the conventions of linear time, shows us how we truly love. When our paths cross, we make choices. Even when the Doctor doesn't recognize her, even though her time with him is over, River sacrifices herself to save him. When we love, we're unbound.
River tells the Doctor's companion, Donna, "He came when I called just like he always does." That's how he becomes her Doctor. Love, then, is an answer anywhere in time and space.
Looking Back (or Ahead?)
This post originally appeared three years ago, but watching "The Husbands of River Song" brought the Doctor and River Song's relationship full circle for me.
Women in the Moffat years of Doctor Who are more puzzles themselves than puzzle solvers (insert an argument for more female writers on the show here). River Song is perhaps the epitome of this as the biggest puzzle of all and she's been slowly unraveled as the show moved forward. Now we know her story as the Doctor does.
River and the Doctor have time in this recent episode to bring some closure to their relationship. The Doctor (and the audience) know that River is getting ready to go to the Library. It's her time, even though he's been delaying this dinner at the singing towers of Darillium for as long as he could.
The Doctor tells her that the towers themselves are ordinary, but the distance between them makes them sing. It's a metaphor, okay? He tells her there is no happily ever after because there is no forever and River corrects him quite rightly. Happily ever after doesn't mean forever, she says, it just means a little more time. It's a meta take on their relationship, their ultimate call and response.
Even if this is the last time Kingston plays opposite the Doctor (my heart was in your hands, Moff), we can imagine River stealing the Doctor's box and having adventures all over the universe (and returning it a second later so he won't find out). And when they need each other, they'll find a way to one another again.
It's only fitting that I end as I began with River's words. In an impassioned speech, she argues that the Doctor isn't there because he's off doing whatever he wants, which isn't being with her.
Then she realizes that he's standing right next to her and has been all along.