It's the new black.
This is a Gaudy long-form essay, the second in our continuing series. Consider yourself spoiler-alerted.
From its inception in 1963 to its rebirth – or regeneration—in 2005, the BBC’s Doctor Who has been a cultural staple to the television community at large. It transcends the “sci-fi” niche in an almost unparalleled manner.
And since that inception, Who’s transcendence has included shades of similarity to Biblical narrative. The Doctor is an ancient man who looks young; he knows everythingabout the universe (or just about everything; he had yesterday off); he is outside of time and space; he refuses to use weapons or violence; he carries no money; his wooden structure symbolizes his power and his gift; he travels to great distances to save the helpless; and while he does so, he brings human companions whose ordinary lives are transformed into ones of cosmic significance.
With the revival series (2005 – present), the comparisons become more specific. The development of the Doctor’s character mirrors the progression of Biblical narrative in a probably unintentional fashion.
The holy anger of Christopher Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor is more Old Testament than New; he faces the world with an unkempt grief after the Time War. He treats Rose Tyler with humorous harshness, dismissing those he cannot save; he guards a heart raw with breaking. Tenth appears with a smile and the sexiness that is David Tennant, an inter-testamental deity in transition. “No second chances,” he says at the end of his first episode “The Christmas Day Invasion,” “That’s the kind of man I am.” Rose’s love fails to tame him; instead, his apostle Martha Jones does. Martha saves him and the world by travelling across the world, preaching his message to a cowering humanity. Broken by her sacrifice and chagrined by the failed romance between them, the Doctor forms a new kind of companionship with Donna Noble. He becomes friends with her. And he will eventually lose his life for his friend’s grandfather, Wilfred Mott.
And then we meet Eleventh.
In the series 5 and 6 reincarnation spearheaded by Steven Moffat and portrayed by Matt Smith, the show’s Messianic undertones become a full-frontal motif. Briefly: Eleventh befriends children and the widowed; the catchphrase of his companion, Amy Pond, is “Save me;” he performs miracles at weddings; twice he dies for the sake of the world. These events and others shape the story arc of series 5 and 6, and in no way is this more apparent than with the Doctor and River.
The Doctor and River: The Romance
The Doctor and River Song dazzle us. From the moment Alex Kingston crashes into Eleventh on the Tardis in “The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone,” both Amy Pond and the audience know something — something — is happening. To be fair, the audience has suspected since series 4 (“Silence in the Library/The Forest of the Dead”) that River is to play a romantic role in the Doctor’s life. But we never quite expected the full-bodied quality of that role. One can’t quite expect River Song.
River Song is, for lack of a better term, a strong woman. She shoots faster than John Wayne and parries verbally with the Doctor as fast as Cumberbatch in Sherlock. She never lets the madman in the box get away with anything and she never stops loving him with every particle of her charged being. She is sexy. She knows things. And she’s a bit of a bad girl, as she tells the Doctor and the Doctor tells her.
In a phenomenal performance, Matt Smith portrays both Eleventh’s fascination and his unease with River. There’s a bit of Adam and Eve-like wonder in Eleventh’s eye when he stares at River, as if the thought “I didn’t know they made women like this” runs through his head. He appreciates her intelligent physicality; when he speaks to her, his words hint of tango (“like a moth to a flame”, he says suggestively in “The Impossible Astronaut”). But the Doctor is also uneasy. For the greater part of series 5 and 6 he distrusts the “bad girl,” who serves fifty-plus life sentences for murder. He flails when kissing her in “Day of the Moon.” He almost resists the destiny of their relationship, the fact that neither have much choice in the matter of their romance (*“Someone just sends me a message, I’m not going to go,” he says defiantly in “The Impossible Astronaut” or “I’m not going to come every time you call” in “The Time of Angels”; “Oh, how wrong you are,” says River) and yet that inevitability draws him in. He runs from her and towards her at the same time.
This tension makes for great television. It is an inescapable tension, because to ignore the scope of that tension is to ignore the great truth of series 5 and especially 6: that River is not only the Doctor’s wife but also his Judas.