Warning: fittingly, this contains spoilers if you’re not up-to-date with Doctor Who.
With all the excitement of The Day of the Doctor, and the heart-breaking regeneration in the Time of the Doctor, River’s final “spoilers” at the climax of The Name of the Doctor has been pushed from the centre of whovians’ minds.
If we cast our minds back to that series seven finale though, there’s plenty to speculate about .The episode saw River, in post-library data ghost form, guiding Clara through the giant graveyard on Trenzalore to the Doctor’s tomb.
After Clara’s impossibility was explained as she leapt into the Doctor’s time-stream, River’s data ghost stayed in the room, providing one last mystery for the enigmatic Alex Kingston to leave us chewing on. She quizzes the Doctor, asking “I was mentally linked with Clara. If she’s really dead, then how can I still be here?”
At the time, viewers may have thought this was merely a clue from River suggesting that Clara wasn’t really dead. However, in the months that followed, many theories have cropped up about this morsel of information. Let’s look at some of the options.
Option 1: More Alex Kingston adventures ahead
Since River’s introduction in series four, her appearances have generally followed the pattern of her personal timeline running in the opposite direction to the Doctor’s life. While a ‘young’ tenth Doctor saw her die in the library, the eleventh was present hundreds of years later from his perspective for her birth at Demon’s Run and later witnessed her regeneration into the Alex Kingston incarnation.
There is however no technical reason why this pattern has to exist, as far as we know. The fact that one of them is normally ahead of the other with untellable foresight is unavoidable, but they both generally travel around randomly with no particular rhyme, reason or pattern-following. The Doctor has witnessed the birth and death of planet earth, that doesn’t mean he can’t pop down there at any point in its history. Except 1930s New York, he definitely can’t go there.
So why can’t the same be true for his relationship with River? Although Moffat has tied up many time-stream lose ends through the Night and the Doctor mini-series, there’s no real reason River couldn’t pop up in series eight full of her usual swagger, probably mocking Twelve for looking so old, and then reveal in dialogue that she’s just had a bottle of wine with Amy after climbing out of the Byzantium, for example.
In this case then, River’s mystery at the end of series seven would be just reassurance that Clara wasn’t dead, or that somehow, because the Doctor hasn’t seen the last of her yet in his time-stream, he can still see her ghost, for some reason. Wibbly wobbly etc.
Option 2: Further Data Ghost Adventures
River’s big spoiler hinged around the fact that Clara’s absence didn’t hinder the existence of her data-ghost – could this mean that River has found a way to project her data-ghost from the library into the real world indefinitely?
This could mean River could literally pop up anywhere she wanted offering advice and sass This plot device would handily allow Moffat to keep using River without having to actually undo the dramatic events of Forest of the Dead.
The dynamic of the show would change have to change slightly though, seeing as River wouldn’t really be there. Unless we’re in for some more no-one-else-can-see-you snogging. It’s certainly a handy way for the Moff to bring back a popular character without repeating himself with more rebooting and changing of history. River would have no physical form, but could continue to help the show’s protagonist and offer romantic bickering despite being dead, like a saucy Arnold Rimmer.
Would Moffat really go for this option though? With two big emotional farewells surrounding River already, writing in a handy way for her to return as an indestructible assistant would surely seem like a cop-out. Until the day someone destroyed CAL and finished her off for good, anyway.
Option 3: The War River
In the very same episode as River’s big tease, mere moments later in fact, we learnt that it’s not impossible for a Time Lord to pretty much convince everyone that one of his regenerations didn’t exist.
If the Doctor can have Captain Grumpy sulking around in his time-stream – why can’t River do the same? Well, the only problem would be the when. Due to the fact we all know (or do we?) the various stages of River’s life, surely there’s nowhere to fit a secret regeneration. Unless we’ve all missed something…
Looking back at River’s timeline on the show there seems to be two opportunities where River could have turned into someone else. There’s a gap in the narrative where we don’t see River between being an infant at Demon’s Run and a young girl in a space suit. Could there have been a secret regeneration in between? Well if there was, she would have then regenerated into a young girl again, which isn’t impossible. If there were Doctor adventures for this secret incarnation though, some memory loss would have to be written in to account for the rather mute and useless girl in the suit.
Alternatively, when that young girl begins regenerating in the streets of New York, we don’t actually see her become Mels. However, Moffat’s writing in Let’s Kill Hitler retrofits some water tight information, when Mels tells the gang “Last time I did this, I ended up a toddler in the middle of New York”. This pretty much nullifies the idea that there was a regeneration in between unless she went back and regenerated in New York again, which would seem a bit odd. Or she could just be lying.
Of course we all know the hot rumour for who would play this new/old incarnation of River – Orla Brady as Tasha Lem. She can pilot the TARDIS, she loves a row, doesn’t age like a normal person, has been fighting a psychopath in her own head for years – there are plenty of clues. Also, she ends up with a Dalek eye-stalk in her head – could this be why River has such a strong link to Clara, because she’s linked through the path-web to Clara’s Dalek Asylum incarnation?
The Doctor’s arch enemies accidentally uniting his companions? It’s practically poetic. And it’s certainly no more ridiculous than other aspects of the show. The only thing that would seem wrong with this option would be bringing back a popular character without the fan favourite performer who played them. But to be fair, that recasting process is exactly why we’ve managed to have Doctor Who for fifty years.
Option 4: Resurrection by the Doctor
We all remember when River gave all her remaining regeneration energy to save the Doctor in Let’s Kill Hitler. We also know the Doctor is pretty trigger-happy with his own energy because he used it to heal River’s wrist in The Angels Take Manhattan.
Well, now the Doctor has a whole set of regenerations, and a whole planet of Time Lords waiting to burst back into the universe. With this power, would the Doctor return to the Library, or wherever River is buried, to repay the life-saving favour and grant her a new cycle?
If the Master can return from certain death a multitude of times, and regeneration energy is now easy to come by, it’s not out of the question that the Doctor could bring River back. The Tasha Lem theory could work in this scenario too as River would have twelve new forms to get through.
The only thing stopping this theory is the fact that River wasn’t 100% Time Lord – she was a human who inherited those characteristics thanks to some post-marital TARDIS bunk-bed action. However, if the writing team can find a way out of the Doctor being shot during his regeneration cycle, or side-step issues like being trapped in his own time-stream, negating this plot-point would be easy if they really wanted to.
Most importantly: If the plot requires it…
So, we’ve gathered that there’s plenty of ways for Steven Moffat, or future show-runners, to bring back River Song if they wanted.
The main thing we should worry about though is why they would want to. River’s very introduction turned out to be a tragic farewell, and she’s had another one since. From a writing stand-point, the emotional impact of these losses is lessened every time she miraculously reappears. If she came back again, any attempt at writing her out in the future would surely be met with scepticism.
So far, Moffat’s team have been fairly good at avoiding the common Russell T. Davies-era criticism of loving your companions too much to kill any of them. The Ponds’ swansong was a hugely emotional episode and so far Amy has only popped up for an hallucination since. For a period of the show featuring terrifying new monsters and regular monologues on death, The Angels Take Manhattan felt like a natural way to end a companion’s time on the show, rather than bringing them back repeatedly.
The writers need to decide whether they’re happy to follow the path of bringing people back, or if it’s time to move on. Does Tasha Lem need to be River in order to return as a companion, or is that character cool enough on her own? Certainly, the character garnered a great reaction from fans, even though nothing could stop the River speculation.
What plots could lead to this resurrection/return though? The Doctor is faced with some huge problem only River would know how to solve (the return of Kovarian?) – we could handle that. Or even, the Doctor truly loves River and needs her as a companion (after Clara’s death?), could work if it was written well. River pops up with a few unimportant guest appearances because fans like her? Not so much. One thing’s for sure, if they are bringing River back, they need to have a good reason or it could add a sour point to a much-loved character’s career.
Do you want to see more River? What’s your theory? Let us know in the comments.
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