That lilting, “Hello, sweetie,” that coy, “Spoilers…”—seven years those two phrases were the calling cards of one of Doctor Who’s most fantastic characters, River Song (Alex Kingston). There’s never really quite been a reoccurring character like River Song, nor is there likely to ever be again; Whovians were first introduced to her during the David Tennant years when future showrunner Steven Moffat created the character for the two-parter “Silence in the Library”/”Forest of the Damned”. She was smart, sassy, self-reliant, and, best of all, she befuddled The Doctor like no one else ever had before.
An instant fan-favorite, the tragedy of her introduction into the Whoniverse was knowing that was the end. In many respects, far more than any other Doctor Who character, River Song embodied the enigmatic allure of a show centered around time travel: Her tenure on the show was purely non-linear. We as a devoted audience experienced this right alongside The Doctor, always knowing as little as he did except for one haunting fact—that all the delight would come to an end the day he gave her his sonic screwdriver… or would it?
Despite her final appearance (from our perspective, not hers) in the 2015 Christmas special “The Husbands of River Song”, now exiting showrunner Steven Moffat recently left the door open for a possible River Song return to Doctor Who. In last month’s issue of Doctor Who Magazine (#509), when asked by a fan whether he “[felt] that River Song’s story was done,” Moffat replied:
“Well, yes, that does seem like the end to me. Except, of course, it isn’t, and can’t be. There’s always the chance that River will show up again, at some other point in her timeline, with a stolen camel, seven more husbands, and a nuclear submarine[…]
[…]but for me, I think, I’m done. Back when I thought I might be leaving at the end of 2015, I specifically planned the Darillium scene as my goodbye – bringing everything full circle, to the moment (in Forest of the Dead) just before I took over.”
Note how he repeatedly specified that he personally had no intention of bringing the character back for the final season of his tenure, Series 10, which is slated to premiere on April 15th; unfortunately, Peter Capaldi will be departing with him. However, this presents the absolute perfect opportunity for River Song to grace Doctor Who one last time. Now, for those of you already wanting to tell me to sod off, hear me out on this before you lay judgment.
Fans will recall how amusing it was watching Peter Capaldi’s frustration in “The Husbands of River Song” at River Song having no idea who he was. After all, he’s The Doctor—he’s used to the recognition and admiration for his genius—but Professor Song wasn’t giving any of that. Unlike every other incarnation of The Doctor she’d never encountered this version, and therefore was her dismissive, charmingly haughty self that made her such a perfect partner for the wayward Time Lord. The fact that she didn’t recognize him introduced a very interesting new variable to Doctor Who: A River Song who doesn’t know everything about The Doctor.
For years we’ve been used to River surprising The Doctor whenever she’d show up, always one step ahead of him with her little diary, functioning out-of-sync chronologically. That we now know River hasn’t met every version of The Doctor means there’s no reason why she can’t appear on the show again and come face-to-face with whomever replaces Peter Capaldi. It shouldn’t be just any Doctor, though, because that would not only diminish the beauty of “The Husbands of River Song” and what a perfect “ending” it was to the River Song/Doctor relationship, it’d frankly be boring by comparison.
What I’m proposing is far more radical and exciting: River Song should return in Series 11 and meet a female Doctor.
Moffat himself laid the groundwork for such a possibility inadvertently when he wrote the 2015 Christmas special. Before Capaldi revealed himself to be the Doctor, River noted that he reminder her of her “second wife,” and that’s precisely who the Thirteenth Doctor should end up becoming. Imagine the Thirteenth Doctor and Bill (Pearl Mackie) (whom, after seeing her at New York Comic Con this past year, I hope will still be on Doctor Who) encounter River Song and the Doctor is apprehensive, distant, traits Bill’s never seen in her before.
The more she prods, the more agitated the Doctor’s responses, until at last she’s vulnerable enough to talk about River. Revealing her true identity to River would be far too painful, but she can’t bear to be apart from her. Whatever creative situation the writers would concoct to have the Doctor and River Song get hitched before the episode ended would be up to their collective whimsy. Denouement aside, it would be nice to see her one last time.
We know from the 2016 Christmas special, “The Return of Doctor Mysterio”, that Capaldi’s Doctor is still deeply wounded over the loss of River. Nardole (Matt Lucas) says as much at the end of the episode when he told Grant (Justin Chatwin), “Her name was River Song. They were together for a while and they were very happy. And then she died, a long time ago, in a library.” Clearly, losing her is going to be as much a part of Series 10 as it was for David Tenant’s Doctor in Series 3 after losing Rose Tyler (Billie Piper), and I highly doubt Nardole’s going to be able to make sure he’ll “be all right.”
Revisiting the Doctor’s pain after Capaldi’s departure would be far more thematically interesting, especially after some time has passed. Of course, the entire hypothetical scenario hinges on Chris Chibnall, the new showrunner, choosing a female Doctor for Series 12. Personally, for reasons outside my imaginary River Song return, I hope he does.