Technically, this essay is another special request. Quite some time ago, someone (and I can't remember who she was - if you're reading this, please come forward and make yourself known!) requested that I work out a chronological history of River Song's appearances on the show.
It's a pretty big task. So I stalled for as long as possible! But, recently, Doctor Who Magazine made an attempt of their own to arrange River's timeline in a proper order. I only agreed with some of it and felt it wasn't comprehensive enough.
This, of course, spurred me on to finally meet with the request of this sadly-forgotten fan. I just had to do it right. Rather than let that article in DWM stand as the definitive attempt to sort out River Song's life!
THE COMPLEX HISTORY OF RIVER SONG
No one has a more twisted and confusing timeline than our favorite futuristic archaeologist. This has, of course, made her all the more interesting of a character. Steven Moffat, however, does appear to have her timeline worked out in his own head. If we're watching closely enough, we can see that. Having viewed all of her stories in the order that I believe they should flow, I can see this actual timeline working quite nicely. I'm not entirely sure, of course, if my timeline is the same one that Moff envisioned. But, nonetheless, here goes:
WHERE DOES IT ALL BEGIN?
Okay, if we want to be as precise as possible, then we have to actually take some sort of stance in a long, ongoing debate between the Right to Life and Pro Choice camps. Truth be told, I'd rather not reveal what my real position is on this argument. But, just for the sake of pedantry, let's go all the way back to River's point of conception.
It's difficult to pinpoint exactly when Rory and Amy performed the deed. It could have happened between The Big Bang and A Christmas Carol. Or it could have occurred between A Christmas Carol and The Impossible Astronaut. As the Doctor, himself, has said: "It's not like they send up a balloon or something!". But, sometime during that period, River Song was conceived.
Which means that, if we want to take a certain stance on a delicate issue, life began for River Song sometime between Series 5 and Series 6. If we want to continue taking that stance, then she exists in her first form throughout The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon, The Curse of the Black Spot, The Doctor's Wife and The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People. In all of those stories, she is gestating in Amy's womb. We don't know this, of course, until it's truly revealed at the end of The Almost People. Where we learn that Amy has been a flesh avatar the whole time and, in truth, has been in some kind of special incubation chamber. Lots of hints are given that this is going on - but most of us didn't truly clue in to this until those last few shocking minutes of Almost People.
So, throughout all of those stories, we are actually witnessing River's first timeline (if we want to be super-specific and slightly political). Naturally enough, we'll be returning to Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon several more times.
YOUNG RIVER (AKA: MELS)
Okay, let's now step up to what many of a different viewpoint would consider to be River's true first story. Just a short while before A Good Man Goes To War, River is born. She is only about a month old when we see her in this story. Of course, some more trickery is done with a flesh avatar and "infant River" is whisked off at the end of the story to begin her mental conditioning to become the Doctor's assassin. A Good Man Goes To War is another story where multiple versions of River exist. So, we'll be returning here again, too.
But first, we go back to Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon where we see a second version (or, possibly, a first - depending on your own personal beliefs on what constitutes life) of River Song. At this stage of the game - she appears to be just a little girl. Probably no older than Twelve. Most likely, younger. The Silence have begun trying to integrate her into her special astronaut suit that she will be wearing when she kills the Doctor. In Day of the Moon, she appears to break free of the suit. This does not seem to concern the Silence much. They allow her to escape - even though re-capturing her shouldn't be that hard.
It's my guess that the Kovarian Schism of the Silence just needed to prime the suit in some way. That River had to spend a little bit of time in the suit so it could key in to her specific DNA (or something of that nature), When they do come back to retrieve her in her third incarnation and send her to Lake Silencio - the suit will be ready to take control of her actions. So, even though she does escape in Day of the Moon, they're fine with that. They have what they need.
At the end of our beloved two-part Series 6 Opener, we see River's first incarnation initiate a regeneration. She turns into a young woman who will come to be known as Mels. Somehow, Mels seems capable of suspending her aging process. She induces the regeneration in New York in the late 60s and makes her way to Leadworth where she grows up with Rory and Amy in the 90s.
We see through a series of flashbacks in Let's Kill Hitler what Mels was like growing up. She is very violent and reckless. This is, most likely, a side effect of whatever mental conditioning was done to her during her first incarnation. It's also likely that the conditioning drove her to find Rory and Amy as children. She knew they would, eventually, lead her to the Doctor.
Another regeneration is induced fairly early on in Let's Kill Hitler and we see the version of River we know best. A very solid attempt is made on the Doctor's life that ends up failing. River is informed of her true destiny and uses up her remaining regenerations to save the Doctor (however many those may be - we don't know for sure since she is only half Time Lord - so, maybe, she had only half the number of regenerations a Time Lord is allotted).
It is, at this point, that the Doctor gifts River with a diary. She will be able to use it from hereon in to work out where she is in relation to the Doctor's personal timeline. It will become an invaluable tool for her.
THE SECOND ASSASSINATION ATTEMPT:
We now get to the big moment: a path River is forced to take that will have a huge bearing on her personal freedom for a considerable period of time.
There is a nice coda to Let's Kill Hitler that shows River starting her studies at a university to become an archaeologist. We see her, again, at that university during a second coda in Closing Time. Madam Kovarian shows up while River is actually studying the Doctor's life and forces her back into the astronaut suit and places her at the bottom of Lake Silencio.
Temporally speaking, things get pretty complicated at this point. We see the full assassination during the opening of The Impossible Astronaut. A third (or, possibly, only second) version of River in this story emerges from the bottom of Lake Silencio and kills the Doctor. To all intents and purposes, this second assassination attempt is successful. The Silence is smart enough to make the whole event a fixed point in time (or a still point in time - not sure if there's a difference). So there is no way for the Doctor to avoid it.
There is, of course, a huge digression that happens during that moment in The Impossible Astronaut that we see play out in The Wedding of River Song. River attempts to resist killing the Doctor and creates a whole alternative timeline for a brief period. The Doctor, of course, eventually reveals that she doesn't actually murder him. But, rather, a teselecta version of him stands in his place for that fateful moment. Once she learns the truth of things, she allows the events of the Doctor's deadly assassination to resume.
To the Universe, in general, the Doctor is dead. River is incarcerated for his murder at the Stormcage Containment Facility.
RIVER'S PRISON SENTENCE - BEFORE SHE MUST BECOME A MYSTERY
This is, in some ways, the trickiest part of sorting out River's timeline. We have to listen carefully for various clues that tell us which order the stories involving her period of incarceration happen in.
Knowing the Doctor didn't really die, River accepts her sentence for murder and is sent off to a maximum security prison. The Doctor, of course, starts breaking in regularly and taking her out on all sorts of magnificent dates.We hear reference to a unique birthday gift involving Stevie Wonder and the Frost Fairs of the River Thames. We will also, in a subsequent story, hear about them going to Easter Island and getting to know Jim the Fish. During all this dating, River is getting better at figuring out the security system of her prison and starts breaking out all on her own from time-to-time.
She is, of course, dating a version of the Doctor from after the events of Wedding of River Song so he knows she must not get involved in the Battle at Demon's Run. Madame Kovarian must be allowed to steal the infant version of herself so that events can flow the way they do. Plus, the Doctor just knows that River is not involved in the fight until after it's done. So he tells her that Rory will, eventually, show up at Stormcage and ask her to participate in the battle. She must refuse the go with him. He also informs her that she must visit Demon's Run at some point after the fighting has concluded to explain to him that she is Rory and Amy's daughter.
At this point in time, A Good Man Goes To War occurs for the second version of River Song that's in this story (the first was her as a baby - if you'll recall). This is a tough story to place. It could happen at almost any point in her prison sentence timeline. I place it here based purely on the idea that,when we see her in Stormcage, River appears to be having a very romantic relationship with the Doctor. Whereas the next story in this timeline makes it clear to River that, from this point onward, she and the Doctor are no longer kissing.
Some like to point out that A Good Man Goes To War should happen after The Big Bang since River does confirm to Rory at the beginning of the episode that she's met him, before. But, if you look at the way her timeline is laid out: she met Rory a long time ago. Back when she was still Mels, in fact. From Rory's standpoint, they met for the first time in Big Bang. But River has, actually, known him for ages. He's just finally caught up with her.
I have a pet theory that the first scene with River in A Good Man Goes To War is one version of her. But that we're in an entirely different point in her timeline when we see her at the end of the story. We'll get to that in a bit...
The next story in this sequence is The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon. This is where we see the fourth version of River Song (or, possibly, just the third). This is the version that shoots off the Doctor's cowboy hat and then goes to Lake Silencio with him to watch his death. Somehow, between Good Man and Astronaut/Moon something might have been done to River's memory. She doesn't seem to realize that's her in the astronaut suit. This could be a long-term effect of the mental conditioning that was done to her. She knows why she's in prison - she killed the Doctor. But she can no longer remember how exactly it happened. The Silence may have seen just how unstable she was and induced a memory loss of some sort so she couldn't try to travel back in time and interfere with her second assassination attempt. The Doctor seems to believe something was done to make her forget the attack at Lake Silencio as he is speaking to her in Wedding of River Song. However, it could be entirely possible that River does actually remember all this but is pretending not to. She does quite a bit of this.
The Doctor's first kiss with her at the end of Day of the Moon becomes a brutal milestone for River. She realizes, at this point, that she's dealing with a Doctor who no longer knows the full extent of their relationship. From hereon in, she must be very careful of anything she reveals about herself. Even worse, she knows she can no longer kiss the man she loves.
RIVER'S PRISON SENTENCE - AFTER SHE MUST BECOME A MYSTERY
The chronology becomes easier to work out again from this point, onward. This is due mainly to the fact that the next few stories make direct references to each other.
The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang is the next adventure that takes place. We know, of course, that it happens before Time of the Angels/Flesh and Stone because River says at the end of their battle against the Weeping Angels that he will see her again, soon - when the Pandorica Opens. During Pandorica Opens, Amy talks to River about the Fall of the Byzantium. River tells her that hasn't happened to her, yet. This helps solidify the whole timeline even better. Thanks Moff for making this part easy!
So, just to be clear: The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang happens next. After that, we get Time of the Angels/Flesh and Stone.
Of course, we must also mention that we see a second version of River in The Wedding of River Song who appears near the end of the story. This one openly claims to have just finished climbing out of the Byzantium only moments earlier. She lets Amy and Rory know that the Doctor isn't truly dead. That they will see him again. She appears to have used her Time Agent Bracelet to make this trip. Somehow, she's keeping it hidden from the security systems of the Stormcage Containment Facility.
I also believe that, at this point, she makes another trip with her time bracelet back to Demon's Run. She arrives just after the big battle on the asteroid has concluded. Upon the Doctor's instructions during her early days of incarceration, she makes this trip to reveal to a past version of the Time Lord that she is Rory and Amy's daughter. So it is actually a third version of River that we see in her second scene of A Good Man Goes To War. One that comes from this time. I place that moment here because she is using a time bracelet to get to Demon's Run. She only acquires the device at the beginning of Pandorica Opens. So that fateful second scene of Good Man Goes To War must take place after the events of Pandorica Opens/Big Bang.
How's that for a ridiculously over-contrived attention to painstaking details?!
Shortly thereafter, the Doctor embarks on a mission to erase all records of himself from the Universe. This, of course, causes River's prison sentence to be revoked. How can she go to jail for the murder of a man who never existed?
FREE AGAIN - BUT SOON TO DIE...
And so, River is allowed to roam the Universe, once more. She begins to get involved in all sorts of capers as she explores her career as an archaeologist. She's also managing a bit of time travel, here and there. Partly from the Time Agent's travel bracelet that she acquired and partly from secret hi-jacks of the TARDIS that the Doctor doesn't even know about.
She will, eventually, investigate the high level of time distortion going on in Manhattan during the 1930s. There, she runs into the Doctor for the first time since she's regained her freedom. The Angels Take Manhattan happens at this point. Amy gives firm instructions to her daughter to take care of the Doctor since she will never see him again. River nods affirmatively and we get the impression that the two of them do travel together for a bit in the TARDIS. But, eventually, River goes off on her own adventures, again.
At some point before she becomes entangled with King Hydroflax, River must write the Melody Malone novel that the Doctor will use in Manhattan to defeat the Weeping Angels. She will, somehow, get it to Amy in the 1930s. Amy will add an afterword and then publish it. River will, probably, get a copy of it and go back into the Doctor's timeline and slip it in the pocket of his blazer.
How River gets the manuscript to Amy isn't entirely certain. We're led to believe that the complex paradoxes surrounding the Williams' also makes it impossible for Professor Song to see her parents again. But we could be wrong. Or, perhaps, River just sent them the final draft of her book in the post.
As she accomplishes these last few tasks, River is getting nervous. She can see that the diary the Doctor gave her way back in Let's Kill Hitler is nearly full. She knows her end must be near. She has even heard rumors that her date with the Doctor at Singing Towers of Darillium will be her last one. She will die shortly, thereafter.
The Husbands of River Song happens next. Much to her surprise, she learns of a new incarnation of her husband that she didn't know existed. She also learns that nights on Darillium last twenty-four years. She and the Doctor have a protracted final date before she must leave him and face her doom.
On that date, of course, he gifts her a sonic screwdriver.
DEATH AND RE-BIRTH:
And now, at last, in that beautifully contrived way, River's first adventure becomes her last.
After a long rich, history with multiple incarnations, she encounters the Doctor in his Tenth Incarnation on the planet of the Library. The events of Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead transpire. To all intents and purposes, River appears to be dead. Only in a last-minute epiphany, does the Doctor realize what his future self must have done with that sonic screwdriver he gave her on Darillium. He is able to save her to the Library' hard drive where she lives on as a sort of digital ghost.
That digital ghost makes one last appearance through a shared dream with Clara and the Paternoster Gang that eventually leads her to the Doctor back in his Eleventh Incarnation. The Name of the Doctor takes place at this point. They have a very touching reunion where the Doctor reveals just how deep his love goes for her. That he hasn't gone back to the Library to see her because it's just too painful for him. He even claims to see her all the time.
We can't say for sure that her timeline is truly done, yet. River points out that the Doctor still has a live feed with her. Which may have been just something to indicate that Clara is still alive even though she's plunged into the "scar" his death has left in the Time/Space Continuum. Or, it could point to something more.
That, maybe, River will appear to him again sometime in his future.
We'll have to wait and see...
I think that sorts out everything. This has, easily, proven to be the most difficult CHRONOLOGIES AND TIMELINES essay that I have ever written. Hope it didn't give you a headache!!