As part of Doctor Who month, Rachel Stewart and Cat Smith sat down with two fellow Doctor Who fans and cosplayers Hannah Marney and Pam Pazdra to discuss the sassy and brilliant character that brought them all together in the first place—Professor River Song.
We all have reasons why we love River Song. What initially drew you to her character?
Hannah Marney: Smart and immediately I knew she had a deep connection to the Doctor. It was an instant mystery in “Silence in the Library.” Once we saw her again it just widened it. Alex Kingston came in and absolutely stole scenes and brought so much confidence and nuance right away. It was mesmerizing. Over time, I related to the character deeply and still do this day.
Pam Pazdra: What initially drew me to the character is because at the time (cough, nine years ago, cough) my daughter’s friend kept telling her “Your mom looks like River Song, you should watch Doctor Who.” We were and still are a sci-fi fandom kind of family. After the school year ended that year, I sat down to watch “Silence in the Library.”
Yeah, I had no idea where to start, and I was looking at the character River Song and I said, “Oh my God I do look like her. Who is she?” Well, I fell down that rabbit hole fast. I took a picture of River to my hairdresser and asked her to make me blonde. I’ve never looked back. So that is how I initially was drawn to River Song, pure vanity, but it quickly morphed into so much more.
Rachel: See, as much as I love “Silence in the Library” I got the feeling she might be one of those enduring mysteries. When Series 5 rolled around and she was teased in the series trailer, I was like, “Oh, well then.”
And then “The Time of Angels” came out and there was River in her cat-eye sunnies, vintage evening gown, and dark blood red Louboutins, flying through space and into the Eleventh Doctor’s arms. That’s when it clicked for me. I knew their relationship was just going to be even more complex than initially imagined. That whole outfit became my touch-point for my foray into cosplay. I remade it twice over by the time I finally got to meet Alex Kingston in person and we had a laugh over those ridiculous heels.
Cat Smith: Oh gosh. River was my Taye Diggs. You know the movie How Stella Got Her Groove Back? I was recently divorced, coming up on 40, new to the Doctor Who party, and suddenly there was this woman on my TV who wasn’t 25, and had curves and hair like mine. I had been away from cosplay for years, and between the divorce and the 40-ness and everything else, wasn’t feeling all that great about myself. River was terrifying at first because I honestly didn’t know if I was worthy of her (which I realize now is stupid, anyone is worthy to cosplay anyone).
The sadness of River rounded out the picture—I joined the party with the Eleventh Doctor, so I saw the Library episodes later. But with 11 (who will always be my Doctor), we had this gorgeous snarky woman who was clearly important to him, even when he didn’t entirely get her (in fact I think that was part of his fascination at first, the mystery). And she was important to him, even in the face of the leggy twenty-something he usually traveled around with. She was an equal, someone he couldn’t talk down to no matter how hard he tried. It also helped that Matt Smith and Alex Kingston simply set the screen on fire…she had chemistry with David Tennant and Peter Capaldi, sure, but her with Matt Smith was something special.
While River is adored by many, there are those that don’t care for her. What do you think are some common misconceptions of the character that you don’t agree with?
Hannah: Bold women sometimes rub people the wrong way. She’s a lot like her mom, Amy, in that way. There are obvious biases too people have with Steven Moffat. They made their personality to hate anything he wrote and she’s fully his character. There were also the problems with Rose stans. A lot of misconceptions fall in line with the idea that any woman in love is weakened. That she has no agency. But it’s simply not true.
Pam: I make it a practice to not get involved with issues, discourse, or people who devalue what I hold dear to my heart. I won’t participate.I will not criticize others for what they like so I expect the same. There are enough problems in the world than to have arguments about fictional characters.
That being said, I remember reading or hearing something Steven Moffat said regarding Alex Kingston playing River Song. It was something to the effect that Alex is so talented she can play more than a “mother” type role. Which leads to something I’ve noticed, especially after I turned fifty. Where are the really cool kick-ass older women who are not mothers or witches? Ageism is very real.
I’m having a hard time relating to women my age. I do not fit the stereotypical middle-aged woman. River doesn’t either. I feel River is my soul sister. I love that she is still curious and conscious of the larger universe. She continues to make her own adventures. She is smart, funny, and passionate. That’s how I want to live my life. I really don’t care what anyone else thinks of her. She is my role model.
Rachel: I definitely agree with both of these reads on the situation. We need more representation of strong women as we age. From a writing perspective, those who lived through the Wilderness Years will take aim and say that Bernice Summerfield (from The New Adventure novels and Big Finish audios) is the true, original River Song, but I think there’s space for both in fandom. Plus I like to subscribe to the head-canon that River probably studied under Bernice at university and swapped Doctor stories along the way. (C’mon on, Big Finish, now there’s a crossover we deserve.) Modern-day showrunners have been borrowing ideas from the Wilderness era for years now. The Eighth Doctor’s companion Charley Pollard can also be seen as an unofficial blueprint for Rose Tyler and a bit of Clara Oswald, too. It’s what they do with the ideas that make it different, and I’ll always feel River is very much her own character, despite her inspiration origins.
Cat: Those people need to get over it. She’s his wife, it’s canon, deal with it. All that noise about River flunking the Bechdel Test has always been silly to me. It’s not her show. If it was her show and she focused on him, the Bechdel Test would be applicable. But the show is Doctor Who, and we’re telling his story.
I remember there was a lot of ageist noise about River and Eleven because of the age gap between the actors, which is extra silly in terms of the show. He’s a time lord, a billion years old, and she’s…well, we didn’t know her whole deal at the time. But you’re going to whinge about Alex Kingston being 18 years older than Matt Smith, while having no problem with the idea of 900-year-old Doctor and 22-year-old (or whatever she was) Rose? Please. Like Pam said, ageism is a real problem. And those of us who don’t feel “middle-aged” (and what does that even mean anymore? I hate that expression!) need a new definition, and River was definitely a step in the right direction there.
What have been some of your favorite River moments, be it on the actual show, in books, or even Big Finish?
Hannah: When she’s naughty, “I’m quite the screamer” really pushes the boundaries of family shows. When she’s in control as everyone else is buckling including the Doctor. A spine of steel always. She took her trauma and made an incredible life out of it all. That’s inspiring especially now.
Pam: One of my favorite memories is when I first watched “The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon.” I watched it late at night with my husband. I was so scared of the Silence, I had to sleep with the lights on. That’s not exactly a River moment. So for a River moment, I enjoyed meeting other River fans (like you all) and being part of the Doctor Who community.
As for River’s character, I really love the Big Finish stories. I’ve listened to all of them, although I’m behind on the new release. I love audio dramas. I feel more transported into another world when I listen to audio drama than watching television. Verbally telling stories is the original storytelling. There is something unique to using your imagination to visualize what you hear. I love it. Big Finish has done a wonderful job with The Diary of River Song series. The stories of River and the Tenth Doctor was also such a fun experience. I listen to it four times in a row. My favorite line is from “Precious Annihilation” when the Tenth Doctor said “Oh, I came with the witch in the box,” referring to River. I don’t know why, just the way he delivered that line made me laugh. There are so many one-liners or even a single word delivered so deliciously in the audio dramas. The stories are exciting and so well written and performed.
Rachel: The Tenth Doctor and River Song box set really brought back those Steven Moffat era feelings for sure. “Expiry Dating” literally feels like it could have been one of the more slapstick episodes where they keep missing each other and having the entire story told through notes is just genius, and very much how things go for them. And some of the early Big Finish box sets also properly dive into the trauma that Hannah touched on.
But as far as favorite moments, there are so many. Alex Kingston is just tremendous and she conveys such depth and longing right underneath that plucky, flirtatious exterior. Top moments though? That whole speech she gives in “The Husbands of River Song” where she’s talking about “you don’t expect a sunset to admire you back” in terms of the Doctor noticing or even loving her, and the whole time you’ve got Twelve sort of sputtering, trying to clue her in that it’s been him all along. And then when she turns around and Peter Capaldi gives her that look and softly throws out that “Hello sweetie,” I was a complete goner. The same goes for the moment in “The Name of the Doctor” where her data ghost tries to slap some sense into Eleven and he delivers that “you’re always here to me…and I can always see you” line. Part of that line is literally tattooed on my arm in Gallifreyan.
Cat: Oh lord, so many…I think I’ve got to give the top spot to the end of “The Angels Take Manhattan,” when Eleven is his having his last moments with Amy, and River is keeping her eyes on the Weeping Angel so that the Doctor and Amy can have their thing with the Angel kept at bay (ignoring her own feelings on the fact that her parents are pretty much dying right now). Alex Kingston told me during a panel I moderated for her that this was a kind of meta experience for her. She said it was Karen Gillan’s last day of filming, and that both Karen and Matt were torn up about it, and so that she, Alex, was pretty much doing the same thing that River was doing—being strong and pushing aside her own feelings about it so that the other two could have their last time together. I’ve never been able to watch the episode the same way since.
What do you think is the lasting appeal of River Song as a character and what would you like to see from her next?
Hannah: Well, Alex just said it would be a shame if she didn’t get to meet Thirteen and I have to agree. Let Thirteen kiss her wife! There was a whole hashtag on Twitter about letting Thirteen kiss someone that ran a course this weekend. I think as long as Alex Kingston wants to play the character she should be allowed. [The] sky really is the limit on Big Finish. But could we convince Chibnall to let Moffat write an episode and have River in it? Well, that’s the dream.
Pam: The character of River Song is timeless. Her life and timeline is non-linear which is exciting and you never know when or where she will show up next. Whenever and wherever she shows up she brings her same wit, cleverness, and passion. She embraces who she is in the moment. God, I would love to be like that. As for what I would like to see next, I’m looking forward to reading The Ruby’s Curse [an upcoming River Song novel written by Alex Kingston]. As the actress who originated the role of River, I’m wondering what Alex will reveal as to her insight into the character development of River Song.
Rachel: I’m really excited about her novel, too! We’ve gotten other River Song books and collections of stories, but to have her write it—as River Song and alter ego Melody Malone—is very intriguing to me. I’ll always be dreaming of a 24 Years Big Finish series with River and Twelve, though.
Cat: I’ll echo what Hannah said, and keep screaming it to the skies—it will be a CRUSHING mistake if they don’t let her get in there with Thirteen or at least make mention of her. Aside from my simply wanting to see River again, they have this perfect opportunity to make a lovely statement about how love and marriage transcend gender, and it will be a crying shame if they pass that up. And, sadly, given how Chibnall has been rolling, passing it up is probably exactly what they will do.
Rachel: As River would say, “Hush now, spoilers…”