kaffy_r (kaffy_r) wrote,

Doctor Who Meta: River Song is Not a Psychopath

Boxes and Paradoxes: River Song is Not a Psychopath

   Boxes, boxes, paradoxes. River Song, an exercise in impossible possibilities. River Song and boxes; it's ... complicated.
   Fair warning; my abiding weakness, one against which I have yet to develop a weapon, is a complete inability to separate story and observation, plot and construction. In that sense, you must view me as the unholy get of some Doylist-Watsonian night of sordid passion. I will dance merrily in and out of each category — or perhaps more accurately, I shall knock over chairs and career into walls, break through windows and such, like some drunken Prussian proving conclusively that he should never have attempted the schottische.0

    River Song is not a psychopath. The whole "psychopath" bit made my teeth itch, then grind, and it's as bankrupt a conceit as I can think of. Moffat got that so wrong I'm forced to assume he a) doesn't understand the word or b) fell prey to his own abiding weakness; a thoughtless love affair with clever lines. Or both.1

    If I wanted to be terse — and I almost never am — I'd simply remind people that River can love, and does. Psychopaths don't love. They don't see the need for it. They can mime it very well to get something from other humans, but psychopaths just ... don't understand love. It's too difficult for them; the abyss between their isolated, solipsistic selves and the reality of other people is much broader, and with far fewer, narrower, bridges than the ordinary human abyss.

   River loves. The first time we meet her, she has her team with her. We find out after she's uploaded into CAL that they were more than a team — she runs to them, embraces them, cries with them, all in those few seconds we see them together. No need to do that in the afterlife unless you mean it.

    She loves those children, too, the ones in the library.2 My heart tells me that, but so does my intellect. With all the universe of the library in which to go adventuring, how could staying with those children be anything but a choice? Certainly it is. And psychopaths don't choose to take care of people when there's nothing in it for them. River in that nursery? It's logical; it's love.

    River loves her parents. The way she looks at Amy when she first meets her outside the Byzantium3 and the way she comforts her; the way she looks at Rory in the halls of the Stormcage — even before that, when she tells him her greatest fear as they hunt together in the Florida tunnels. She loves them as only a child can who is taken from her parents and then, in an unbelievable turn of fortune, is given them back.

    And River loves the Doctor. Of course she does. It's probably valid to say she loves him because she was raised with him as her only purpose and the center of her existence. Either love or hate was bound to come of that. But I ask those who point at her programming as if it is some reason to dismiss or denigrate her feelings; that her love proceeded from programming invalidates it precisely how?

     Love transcends its sources. Not all the time, certainly — this world is cruel, and people are not always powerful enough to win out against its cruelty. But it happens often enough, I think, to be the rule and not the exception. Love can grow beyond what feeds it. Flowers bloom in refuse dumps as well as in gardens; what feeds them in no way lessens their beauty.

    How much does River love the Doctor? Enough to give him up, to let him die so that the universe can live. Look at that scene atop the pyramid again in The Wedding of River Song. In one moment she shows us she was never going to be selfish by telling him she can't let him die, "not until you know how much you are loved." 
Her love prompted her into that initial impulsive mistake the first time around at Lake Silencio. Once it happened, though, she worked with a vengeance to correct what she had done. We all make mistakes for love. Then, if we're lucky, we love enough to rectify those mistakes. That's what River did.

    And the universe she saved? She loves that, too. Look at her life. Look at everything she relishes, everything she cherishes; the Doctor, her parents, friends and children and books, and learning, and red high heels and the successful con, and worlds to learn about and traipse across, and men and women to bed and feel and touch, and Jim the Fish, and wine to savor and a good steak, and music to dance to, and singing towers, and a sky full of stars to help remember and rescue. Oh, brave and frightening universe that encompasses so many wonderful things, that has such love in it ... River loves, alright.
    So, to repeat; River Song is not a clusterfuck of bad programming, emotional coercion or psychological and physical torture.


    She is not just those things.

    If we love her, we love all of her; River has made it more or less clear that she would have it no other way. And we have to acknowledge that she is that clusterfuck, too. God help her, it's impossible for her not to be.

    River was raised in boxes. In fact, you might consider her the ultimate Skinner Box baby.4

    She was ripped from her mother's arms in the first hours of her life and sentenced to a life smaller than it should have been.

    She was probably raised in many places — the Gamma Forest, laboratories, a ruined orphanage with one bedroom decorated in family pictures and insane graffiti, inside the prison of a re-purposed Apollo 11 astronaut's suit.5 Of all those places, perhaps the only one with a horizon farther than the opposite side of a prison yard was the Forest — and we're not even sure about that.

    What horizons can a lab rat have? She is a captive of four walls, of imposed rules that say do this and you can drink; do this and you can eat; do this and you can live. Each lesson she is taught is for a specific purpose. Her captors have no interest in teaching her to dream of life outside the box.

    What vista does a weapon need? The sword knows nothing but its scabbard until it's drawn. All its design and tempering, all the beauty and strength of the blade wrought by its maker, hide in the dark until it is freed — and then only for one purpose, and that one purpose the mean directive to wound, to kill.

    The Silence viewed the child of Amy and Rory as a thing heaven-sent for their purposes, but not one that came custom-built. They needed to do some tinkering.

    What kind of tinkering? It's horrifically easy to deduce. Hers was a life of such circumstance that clawing and tearing her way free of that first claustrophobic EVA suit, wandering alone and slowly dying through the American landscape of 1969, was apparently better than staying in the hands of her captors.

    Imagine what type of life would make such a fate preferable.
    Young River died somewhere in an American back alley. Her last memories of her first life would have included the shadowy image of the man she was machined to kill, the sight of her mother aiming a gun at her to protect that man, and perhaps quick glimpses of the man who did not know he was her father.

    She died, only to be reborn as another child determined to reach something like home, and not yet aware that the eight or so years she'd spent with her jailors had put chains around her free will despite her escape.

    Did she know she was still captive when she found her way, somehow, to Leadworth? (And how long did that take, how many lives did she use up on the journey? What could she have learned then, except new ways to survive and new ways to die?) Brilliant and not quite human, able to survive and plan and dissemble until she could become Mels and live a pretend life with a pretend family of friends — did she imagine herself a free agent?

    Did the programming slowly emerge as Amy told her about the Raggedy Doctor, until she began to hate the magic man who wasn't there to save everyone? Did she hate him even more when she remembered how he didn't save her from the spacesuit, how she had to do it on her own? Did it darken her world without her conscious realization? Or was it a sudden assault, all those old lessons learned in pain and fear returning at some predetermined point to control her, to change the way she thought about the world, about the Doctor?6

    Which would have been worse, do you suppose?
    No matter, really. It's enough to know that she ran from her first prison, only to be boxed again and shoved back into the scabbard.

    Poor Melody Pond. Poor Mels.


    But we know the story doesn't end there. Mels transformed herself even more radically; she fought and freed herself in the process of becoming River.

    How did she do it? How did a weapon become a woman, how did a lab rat win her soul, especially after having been reeled back in at least once? How did River finally win free of all those boxes designed to make and keep her small and mean?

    The answer is obvious to me. Luckily, sometimes the obvious answer is also the right one. It's the TARDIS.7
    River's true manumission began with her legacy; a gift of grace from her other Mother — so much bigger on the inside in every possible way.
    She was conceived in that dimensionally transcendent Blue Box, impossible and replete with possibilities. I suspect that changed not only her DNA, but her heart, by forging a deep and unbreakable connection between Mother and daughter. And therein lay River Song's salvation.

    Think about it. No matter how deep in prison you might be or how implacably sadistic your jailers, if somewhere inside you Someone is murmuring lullabies about infinity and singing stories from countless time lines, your prison ceases to be your entire world. It becomes a terribly small part of the world that's waiting out there, somewhere. And with that realization, conscious or not, you have the key to your freedom, even if you don't know you have it.

    What's more, if you even suspect you can be free, your sights no longer stop at the walls of the prison and your thoughts no longer run around in the circle of How can I get out, how can I break free, how do I stay alive, what's going to happen next to me, to me, to me, me, me, me. And that is the beginning of being able to think about others. And once you start thinking about others, you can start caring about them.
    By the time Melody found her way to Leadworth and became Mels, a toxic mess of experience and programming had rendered her hard, cynical, addicted to trouble and to controlling or destroying people herself. And yet she somehow learned how to be a friend, driven by the need to be with people who cared for her, not for her uses. She didn't do it well. She didn't have much of a sense of self-worth and too well developed an instinct for violence.

    But being better than that was there somewhere inside her. It was nurtured by Rory and Amy, of course, but above and beyond all their friendship, love and caring, she was nurtured by the song of the TARDIS, which whispered to her about freedom and keys.

    Knowing all of that, is it so surprising that a newly reborn Mels — no longer Melody, not yet River, but already so much more than she had been only 10 minutes earlier and filled with the gorgeous and nearly infinite incandescence of regeneration — could be so affected by the love she saw in the Doctor? Is it such an impossibility that she heard him beg her to help her parents, not caring about himself, and heard the breaking of her last chains?

    Of course, keys don't always work the first time you put them in the lock. Sometimes they're rusty from disuse, or perhaps they've never been tried in the first place. And simply unlocking the door to a prison doesn't guarantee escape. Doors can be heavy, walls can be high, programming can be strong. River found that out when Kovarian and the Silence tracked her down at the university and put her into another EVA suit. Nothing is ever easy.

    But if you have the key somewhere inside you, the key to the universe, you become much bigger than your prison.
    And then the only box that can hold you, and all the love you've discovered inside you, is the one that's bigger on the inside.


    Things like this are supposed to end with some elegant summing up, and I wish I could be elegant too. But I only have these last scattered thoughts, which I first puzzled out during a conversation at elisi's journal.

    There's an engineering term, "testing to destruction." It's a process by which engineers test the true strength of materials by forcing them through enough stress that they break, noting that point and recreating the materials to withstand that amount of stress. River Song has been tested to destruction in ways we can't even conceive. She is like a sword, tempered by fire into final strength and razor edges. But she has gone beyond being a weapon.

    Glass is also formed by fire into things both beautiful and strange, opaque and transparent, clear and many colored. That, too, is a tempering, although what is tempered is as fragile as a human heart and soul. And that, too, is River.



0   But I think I'll keep the extra-vehicular commentary down here, now that I think of it. Perhaps the Prussian is better on his pins than we thought.
1  Personally, I think it's at least partly because he labors under the sometimes tragic curse of parenthood, the inability to understand progeny. (What?  You don't think he's as much one of her many parents as Amy, Rory and the TARDIS?) 
2   Here is where I have to choose; do I dismiss that whole scene some wrong-headed, gender-prisoned piece of Moffatry, or do I accept it as I did the first time I saw it?
     I've been through a journey when it comes to watching, experiencing, analyzing, and accepting Moffat's writing, warts and all. I started off liking a great many of the images and stories he told; I spent some time listening to the valid criticisms that others, especially other women, had of him, and I became uncomfortable watching him — and then uncomfortable realizing that I loved watching what he gave me, despite all the valid criticism. 
    I've tried to explain some of how I came to make my peace with him in "Love Stories." All of which is to say, I choose to view that scene as I first saw it. It is fairy-tale, and happy ending, and love and the rescue of children, and salvation and redemption. If everything said of Moffat is true, then I choose to subvert what he wrote and make it my own. But I suspect that everything said of Moffat is only partly true. Again I refer you to "Love Stories" and I'll speak no more of it here.
3   I think Moffat may — may — have known even that far back who River and Amy were to each other, and I think that Alex had the information, although Karen didn't. It was pure showrunner genius, I'm thinking.
4    While technically I'm not using the term correctly, I trust my readers understand what I mean.
5    One criticism I've read about River's story (or much of Moffat's work in general) is that it's "done for show." In the case of this season, the critique usually focuses on  how illogical and inefficient the Silence's plot against the Doctor is. The space suit, the elaborately-frightening orphanage, abandoned-except-presumably-for-young Melody/River-and-her-keepers ... it's the stupidest way to stop the Doctor, it makes no sense, and therefore the writer of such things is obviously just "doing it for show."
     Leaving aside the suggestion that every story is, in fact, "done for show", the reality is that Dr. Who has always been chock-a-block with villains and antagonists who indulge in elaborately foolish plots against the Doctor. I give you the Daleks and the Master to name only two.
    Sometimes it does come down to sloppy, thrill-focused writing. But sometimes it's rooted in real human psychology, the psychology of hate. History's replete with individuals, groups, or nations, who hated or feared someone or something so much they wasted time torturing and frightening the objects of their hate before killing or otherwise getting rid of them. Religions have a history of turning death sentences into liturgical passion play; hence auto da fe, instead of quick deaths; the German military effort in WWII was hampered in large part by the Nazi leadership's refusal to stop using trains to send Jews to death camps.    Humans rarely let efficiency get in the way of hate or fear. The "villain has stupid plan, and gets undone by it" has roots, however tenuous, in our own behavior. And the more I saw of Kovarian and the Silence, the more I felt their hate impelled them, not logic. If you hate something enough, you'll hate everything around it; why not kill the Doctor by corrupting and ruining something precious to him? Why not make that thing a tool against him? Why not create and hone that tool in as painful and frightening a way as possible? Of course it wasn't logical. It was fanaticism, and that's why it works as a plot point, and I think Moffat had a handle on that, consciously or not.
6   I believe that Moffat is often guilty of sloppy story-telling. But that's arguably also the strength of his stories; the holes are less holes than they are gaps through which other stories can be glimpsed by the imaginative viewer.
7    I don't flatter myself that Moffat might have thought of this sort of thing as he wrote River's story. Still, I'd love to talk to him an ask if he thought the concept held any traction. Since I'm certain he'd either refuse to answer, lie to me, or tell me the question was ridiculous, it's a good thing I'll never have the opportunity; it would be too big a blow to my ego.
Tags: dr. who, fandom, meta

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