I’ve always firmly believed that, deep down, people like to be corrected when they are so wrong about something that it borders on embarrassment. Mind you, I say “people,” and not “friends,” for reasons that should be immediately self-evident. However, as one of the newest contributors to The Idler, I feel I have a responsibility to inform my colleagues that they are all unquestionably, irredeemably and thoroughly incorrect in the running debate about just who is the best Doctor.
To be fair, Matt Smith is a very fine Doctor, better than I had expected in fact. Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant, fantastic both. But the one that stands head and shoulders (and quite a mop of hair) above the other Doctors is none of these, or for that matter, any Who had come before. The best Doctor, running across our television screens on a mission through time and space, is, in fact, Dr. Mrs. The Doctor: the often mysterious, ever sharp-witted, frequently dangerous, and classically stunning River Song, played by actress Alex Kingston.
Point of clarification: I’m a relatively new recruit to Doctor Who fandom. My husband’s giggling like a child over every Dalek appearance has generally fallen on deaf ears (I wish!) for years. I have been in the room for more episodes than I can claim to have watched, ever finding a comic book to read, web to surf or cookbook to page through while some madman slides across the TV screen with a vibrating piece of hardware that I barely know how to use in non-vibrating form. But all that disinterest evaporated the moment River Song walked into the library and bid hello to her sweetie for the first (and last) time.
I can’t say precisely what it was that made me toss Bridge for Dummies aside and take notice those first moments, but I have a pretty good idea. Here was a confident, beautiful woman who clearly knew more about the Doctor than the Doctor knew about her. That alone placed her far above in my mind any traditional companion, each of whom is clearly present firstly for the purpose of exposition and viewer projection. And then it was revealed: River Song is no run-of-the-mill companion. She knew the Doctor’s name. THE DOCTOR’S NAME. You don’t come across that information by chance. No, this lady was important. She’d been through many adventures with the Doctor (most of which we’ve presumably already seen now — drat) and beamed happily that they were all ahead of him at this point in his timeline. And then she died. Good Lord. I was hooked.
Two people living their lives in reverse, never traveling through time in the same order, is so beautifully romantic it should be a movie (or at least an acclaimed novel). So, yes, we’ve seen this trope before in both iterations of The Time Traveler’s Wife, but never with so much agency for that titled character. Dr. Song (as in life, I must acknowledge the title, for it is not easily acquired) doesn’t just sit around waiting for the next time her bow-tied beau will show up to whisk her away. Sure, she may need a quick rescue from time-to-time, but carving coordinates into the side of an ancient mountain with her trademark salutation “Hello, Sweetie!” isn’t exactly fainting at a villain’s moustache twirl. She’s ballsy enough to shoot herself out an airlock with no oxygen and trusts that the Doctor will have gotten her directions. The greater trust, I’d argue, isn’t in the Doctor, though. It’s in her own ingenuity and ability to know exactly what levers to pull in the Doctor’s personality and history to get the maximum desired results.
And that’s nothing compared to the gun-slinging. This scene from the Sixth Series’ “Day of the Moon” encapsulates everything about why Dr. Song is close to my heart. She flirts from a position of intellectual strength (and gets the often timid Doctor to flirt along with equal glee) and she polishes off a room of enemies like a 50-year veteran of Laser Tag University.
So, yeah, River Song is brilliant, but why is she a better Doctor than the Doctor?
- She’s redeemed. My understanding of the Doctor is that he’s always been a do-gooder. Traveling through time, righting wrongs, helping civilizations evolve — that’s the Doctor’s schtick. Dr. Song’s past is not that cut-and-dried. I’d rather not get into the minutia of River’s origins in case you, dear reader, are one of the lucky few to not yet have enjoyed them firsthand, but let’s just say they’re murky. She’s in prison for murdering “The best man I’ve ever known” (now who could that be?) but she clearly cares about saving lives and defending the innocent. She’s compassionate and good with all kinds of reasons to not have become either one.
- She’s smarter. Dr. Song almost immediately exhibits more ingenuity in how to do the things the Doctor does, from uses for the sonic screwdriver to how to appropriately pilot the TARDIS. Yes, one could say she has the advantage of hindsight from her point in the Doctor’s history, but let’s be honest about that. The Doctor has lived, at any given point of the current narrative, around one thousand years. You’d think he’d know to take the brakes off when landing by now. That noise doesn’t sound good to me, and I can barely pump my own gasoline.
- She’s got more to lose. Dr. Song can’t regenerate (you’ll see) and doesn’t live forever. She’s human, but still has to emotionally deal with the loss and pain that comes along with being a time-traveler. She’ll have to say goodbye to the people she loves just like the Doctor, and frankly, it seems to me she loves them just a little bit more. Despite all that, she jumps into adventure like every day is her last. No matter what the Doctor claims, he’s pretty sure he’ll be around tomorrow. Ultimately, River knows, someday she won’t. Life doesn’t end well for River, but she puts it all on the line anyway.
Dr. Song knows what her worst day is, and it isn’t the day she dies. Neither me, as that was the day I first came across clever, ruthless, amazing River and fell in love with Doctor Who. No, her heartbreaking moment will be “when I’ll look into that man’s eyes — my Doctor — and he won’t have the faintest idea who I am.” Mine is when my Doctor, Dr. Song, disappears forever, the last tale of a finite life told, and I have to go back to my reading material when the TARDIS buzzes in the background.
Who is the best Doctor from the modern Doctor Who?
The Ninth Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) by Sarah Werner
The Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) by Gavin Craig
The Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith) by Sarah Pavis
River Song (Alex Kingston) by Matt Santori-Griffith
Matt Santori-Griffith owns one business suit, three pairs of shoes, and over 15,000 comic books. He works a day job as an art director for several non-profit organizations, but spends his dark nights and weekends fighting the good fight on Twitter.com in the guise of @FotoCub. He has not yet saved the world, but isn’t giving up quite yet.