When you run with the Doctor, it feels like it’ll never end, but however hard you try, you can’t run forever. –River Song
My boyfriend doesn’t watch Doctor Who. He’s aware that it exists, and he’s been in the same room when I’ve watched it, but he couldn’t pick a Dalek out of a lineup or tell you the name of the actor who played the 4th Doctor (or any Doctor). After watching the long-awaited finale of Series 7, “The Name of the Doctor,” I wistfully informed my boyfriend that he and I had a lot in common with the Doctor and River Song.
“Which one am I?” He asked. “You’re the Doctor,” I said. “I’m River, because I have the curly hair.”
I improvised the response, but it isn’t the real reason I’ve drawn parallels between the ancient Time Lord and his erstwhile wife and my complicated, long-distance relationship with my boyfriend. You see, like River, I am an echo.
There is a time to live and a time to sleep. You are an echo, River, like Clara, like all of us in the end. My fault, I know. But you should have faded by now. –The Doctor
This cruel but accurate description has been a long time coming. The concept of the electronic echo (or ghosting) was introduced in River’s first episode, “Silence in the Library,” way back in Series 4 with David Tennant’s Doctor, who describes the echo effect as “a footprint on the beach, and the tide’s coming in.” Throughout her tenure on the show, River has always been something of a ghost, caught out of time and place, the impossible astronaut, the child of the TARDIS. Then, in “The Name of the Doctor,” she suffers perhaps the greatest of relationship indignities: the new companion knows nothing about her; the Doctor has mentioned her only in passing, nothing more. Right then, we’re alerted that something has changed in her relationship dynamic with the Doctor, so far removed from that first (and final) meeting in the Library.
River, of course, didn’t ask to be an echo, living on eternally in the memory banks of a super computer on an abandoned planet populated by books and carnivorous dust. If I’m an echo, though, it’s because all the choices I made in the past few years have led directly to that designation. I made myself an echo, though I certainly didn’t know it at the time. That was my decision. And that’s when our timelines diverged.
I live for the days when I see him, but I know that every time I do he’ll be one step further away. The day’s coming when I’ll look into that man’s eyes, my Doctor, and he won’t have the faintest idea who I am. And I think it’s going to kill me. – River Song
When Amy explains to Rory in “The Impossible Astronaut” that the Doctor and River “never meet in the right order,” it’s easy to project my own feelings and experiences onto their complicated relationship. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about where I am in my life and my place in the lives of others. I think we all want to feel we’re needed, valued, loved. But I also think we all know what it feels like when we or people we love…just…slip away, either due to time or circumstance or electronic ghosting via occasional texts and wall posts. We all know what it feels like when you’re the most important person in the whole universe to someone, and then—as Robert Frost puts it—“little, less, nothing.” An echo.
I don’t often criticize Doctor Who, not openly, at least. I usually keep my reservations about the “timey-wimey” leaps in logic and the reliance on re-set button resolutions to myself. Despite these misgivings, however, I’ve always found the series to be emotionally authentic, and the frequent and shameless pulling of heartstrings and jerking of tears are hard for me to criticize, because it’s all worked extremely well on me as a viewer. I have found Series 7 to be somewhat unsatisfying, though. The hiatus between the first and second parts didn’t help, of course, but more than that, the illogical exit of the Ponds, the clumsy re-introductions of Clara and the abrupt and dismissive handling of River’s legacy with the Doctor all felt rushed and unfulfilling to me.
I assumed, perhaps indulging in my own wishful thinking, that River and the Doctor would find some way to be together. When we were introduced to the concept of “gangers” in Series 6, I spent a lot of time speculating on how the gangers could be used to resurrect River in the physical world. It seemed perfectly logical that she could be downloaded to the goo. Why even introduce the goo if not to use it to bring River back? And if not the goo, then I just assumed the Doctor would find some way to rewrite time, defy the odds, make their long-distance, out-of-order relationship into something closer, something that works. He couldn’t just destroy an entire family, shrug, then pick up yet another young companion and forget all about the Ponds and River could he?
River: How are you even doing that? I’m not really here.
Doctor: You’re always here to me. I always listen. And I can always see you.
When does an echo go from being comforting and welcome to being a nuisance, a memory that grows too painful to acknowledge? A ghost who finally wears out his welcome and has to be exorcised? Ultimately, the Doctor forces River to exorcise herself. She tells him “It’s hard to leave when you haven’t said goodbye.” Then he makes her script what she wants him to say and direct her own ending. Or maybe he was giving her the best possible parting gift: control. When you’re an echo that “should have faded by now,” you don’t really you have a lot of control over the people you’re haunting. What can a footprint on the beach really do anymore, except wait for the tide to come?
River: It’s hard to leave when you haven’t said goodbye.
The Doctor: Then tell me, because I don’t know – how do I say it?
River: There’s only one way I’d accept. If you ever loved me, say it like you’re going to come back.
The Doctor: Well then. See you around, Professor River Song.
River: Till the next time, Doctor.
The Doctor: Don’t wait up.