Sunday, 7 July 2013

The Only Mary Sue in the Forest is the River


I have mentioned before that I don't like River Sue, a character in Doctor Who that I don't think belongs in Doctor Who.

I'm only a cat and so it is very hard for me to express all the reasons why I think that River Sue doesn't belong in Doctor Who, but a manny called Richard Cooper, who also writes a blog, has expressed the reasons very well in a post here. I hope he doesn't mind if I quote the relevant paragraphs here because the full post is long (which I approve of, being long myself) and talks about other things besides River Sue.

Anyway, here are the relevant paragraphs, written by Richard Cooper and not written by me:

Virginia Woolf foolishly called Conan Doyle's Watson "a sack filled with straw" (and she didn't have the excuse of having seen Martin Freeman). It's merciful she was never introduced to River Song, the most misjudged and cynically constructed fictional character in history (well, at least until Clara came along). The only aspects of her not defined by a male scriptwriter's standbys of femininity are the signs round her neck that read "Spoilers!" and "watch the finale because something more exciting will happen there", usually replaced in the finale with "next series, all will be revealed." She's got poisonous lipstick, her all-time fantasy is a threesome with two Doctors, her last words before regenerating are "I'm concentrating on a dress size" , she promises that she's "a screamer - now there is a spoiler for you!" and her reaction to meeting the Doctor for the first time (from her point of view) is "you never said he was hot!" The "bickering" between the Doctor and River is excruciating because it's little more than the stage directions "they bicker" and "they flirt". One yearns for some genuine tension: what if River had a an unpleasant manner about her, or a manner that riled the Doctor in a way that unnerved the viewer, changing the status quo from "Doctor and his friends" and adding tension by making the dynamic less cozy? Sexual tension is rendered impossible by the Doctor's celibacy. Instead, their conversations are indistinguishable from Moffat, Smith and Kingston delivering their oral press releases for it on Doctor Who Confidential. River delivers cute domestic soundbites - "Hello sweetie", "I'm going shopping", "it's called marriage, honey." "You wouldn't answer your phone" - while the Doctor performs anaemic comedy "grrr! That woman will be the death of me" responses (Curiously, The Name of the Doctor spared us the gruesome River line promised in Doctor Who Magazine's preview - "Oh, I do like to watch a man think: it’s like watching a whale knit" - a line recycled from Coupling). Her revelation that the TARDIS only makes that noise because "YOU leave the brakes on"' is really just an upscale equivalent of the moment in Batman and Robin when Batman produces a credit card with a Batman logo on it, or Batman Forever's line "it's the car, right? Chicks love the car", all three showing the same contempt for the narrative, and provoking a jaded laugh that doesn't survive a second viewing. It's sadly not the only resemblance between Steven Moffat's Doctor Who and Joel Schumacher's Batman movies, the only question being whether the former is headed for the same notoriety. "Well, she is a woman," says the Doctor when Amy and Rory puzzle over her murderous behaviour. River's other two ways of speaking are to spout trailerspeak - "this will be the Doctor's darkest hour -  he'll raise higher than ever before and fall so much further" "you're going to find out very soon, now, Doctor, and I'm sorry, but that's when everything changes" - and hymns to the Doctor's near-Godliness: "You've decided that the universe is better off without you, but the universe doesn't agree", "To the people of the Gamma Forests, the word Doctor means mighty warrior. How far you've come. [...] And all this, my love, in fear of you".

 This isn't a character, but a soulless collection of gender and TV reference points, and the increasing lack of conviction in Kingston's performance - every smiling expression over-played to the point of simpering, every line over-enunciated in such a fey tone it becomes hard to hear her, and the strangely weak pitch in her delivery whenever she has to be frightened, tough or upset, as if she can't make the shift to proper acting (Eve Myles syndrome, as it's known), makes River as unsuccessful an attempt by a male writer to evoke someone from the opposite sex as anything by Benny Hill
 
The Day of the Moon saw River Song betray the show's very ethos. Gareth Roberts, back in the days before he wrote for this version of the series, quite rightly said that the problem with the New Adventures version of Ace is that he instinctively felt the Doctor wouldn't invite anyone with a gun on board the TARDIS. How much more apposite this is when applied to River Song. Another Who writer who offered interesting opinions on this show in the 1990s, Paul Cornell, rightly observed that mid-80s Doctor Who, with Eric Saward as script editor, relied far too much on characters with guns, but even the truly wretched Saward never suggested that Lytton was cool and rather fun, or that Orcini would be fit to travel in the TARDIS. Compare the scenes of Lytton's bogus policemen shooting fleeing prisoners dead in Resurrection of the Daleks with River shooting the Silents in Day of the Moon. One portrays a shooting as cruel, frightening and psychotic, while the latter presents it as cool and sexy, right down to the moment when River does a Western/Robocop style twirl with her gun as she holsters it. The days of risking your life to stop the Brigadier from blowing up the Silurians and agonising other whether one has the right to blow up the Dalek incubation room have never seemed so far away.
 
Consider the soul crushing dialogue from that scene, a curious mixture of witlessness and malodorousness:

Doctor: This is my friend River. Nice hair, clever, has own gun, and unlike me she really doesn't mind shooting people. I shouldn't like that, kinda do a bit.
River: Thank you sweetie
Doctor: I know you're team players and everything but she'll definitely kill the first three of you
River: (pressing her back against the doctor's while pointing her gun) oh, the first seven, easily.
Doctor: Seven, really?
River: Oh, eight for you, honey.
Doctor: (grinning) Stop it...
River: (grinning, attempting a "breathily sexy" tone) Make me...
Doctor: (giggling, sounding aroused) maybe I will...
Amy: Is this important flirting? [...]
Doctor Sorry. As I was saying, my naughty friend is going to kill the first three of you to attack...
[...]
(the Doctor and River are back to back, as River opens fire
River: what are you doing?
The Doctor: Helping!
River: You've got a screwdriver, go and build a cabinet!
The Doctor: That's really rude!
River: Shut up and drive!
(Doctor dashes into the TARDIS. River kills all the Silents, twirling and shooting in slow motion to heroic music)

It ends with a return to domestic sitcom talk, after River performs the gun-twirl: "my old fella didn't see that, did he? He gets ever so cross." Unlike with Ace, we're not being encouraged to think there's something wrong with this person: it's the show itself that comes across as jaded and withdrawn from empathy and decency to a psychopathic extent (and what a charming ethical copout to have the Doctor leave before he can witness the rest of the killing). Again, we have the depressingly widespread idea that a woman acting violently is empowering and a corrective to sexism and misogyny. When questioned about his ability with female characters during a Guardian interview Moffat replied:

River Song? Amy Pond? Hardly weak women. It's the exact opposite. You could accuse me of having a fetish for powerful, sexy women who like cheating people. That would be fair.

It would indeed. Unfortunately, a fetish for powerful, sexy women who like cheating people is no substitute for an interest in human beings.

Hello it's me, Big Gay Longcat here again. I did write this bit now. I just want to finish this post by saying that although I don't like River Sue, I do like Alex Kingston, the actress who plays her on TV.

Here is a picture of Alex Kingston in the trailer for the 32nd season of Doctor Who, in a scene that must have been much too rude to appear in the series itself because it never did. Therefore it is not canon!

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