Can we just take a moment to examine a couple of the most underrated moments in The Doctor’s development in regard to his relationship with River?
The detractors love to point out how much The Doctor wanted nothing to do with her once she started “smugly showing off” how to fly the TARDIS in front of Amy, but everyone conveniently forgets the scene that happens before that.
Let’s recap: the last time The Doctor thinks of River (that we, the audience, knows of) is at the end of season four, in “Journey’s End.” He flashes back to River’s death smack bang after he flashes back to the death of his daughter, Jenny. His daughter and his wife, back-to-back. That whole conversation with Davros leaves Ten pretty devastated and you can see it on his face (but I happen to have a ten picture limit here, which is kind of ironic now that I’ve typed it, but go watch that scene again if you’d like to see for yourself).
Now a lot of people presume that this is the first time The Doctor sees River since The Library. I completely, COMPLETELY disagree with that! I know Moffat has acknowledged that A) he wrote Eleven’s “we keep meeting in the wrong order” to imply this and B) that the picnic at Asgard took place with Ten, but I also don’t believe that authorial intent is the be all, end all of interpretation. I think a writer’s intent can be used to back up an argument, but an author does not have ultimate say over intent. So in this situation, I think that “Journey’s End,” “The Time of Angels,” and “Flesh and Stone” are the episodes that have evidence for Ten/River off-screen adventures/relationship building.
Just look at Eleven’s face in the first cap. He’s completely focused on River on the screen to the point where Amy looks at him and at first he doesn’t even notice, then he does, shoots a look at her, and quickly turns back to the screen.
Once River stops talking (at this point you can also hear the beginnings of “I Am The Doctor” playing - remember: “I am The Doctor!” / “Yeah, someday”), he immediately bolts to the controls and starts fulfilling her request. Click on that second cap, will you: see his grin?! Then he actually lets out a, “WOO!” before moving away from the controls, jetting around Amy, and leaping over the stairs (third and fourth caps) to the point that Amy turns to look at him because he’s become so unusually (even for him) animated.
Then, then, he thrusts his arm out the door with determination permeating his every movement. He wasn’t just going to save River by opening the door and letting her float (or fall) in herself, damnit, he was going to invite her in by the hand.
This is not a man who is unhappy or disgusted to see River, this is a man who is fucking THRILLED to see River! Think about that for a moment: he is not angry, he is not resentful of having to save her, none of that meshes with his snipes later on, when she starts flying the TARDIS. (Because that was, primarily, his big fat bruised ego at getting upstaged in front of his fairly new companion, his little Amelia [who “The God Complex” still shows he sees as a child at this point], who he still wants to constantly impress: “Have I impressed you yet, Amy Pond?”) Nor does this mesh with the last time he physically sees River, when he watches her die in “Forest of the Dead,” or remembers her death in “Journey’s End.” Now, part of this could be that Eleven doesn’t always express emotion the same way Ten did, but you’d still reasonably expect a more emotional response from him if this was the very first time he’d seen River since she died before his eyes. (We’ll get back to that shortly.)
Now let’s look at some of his conversation that follows the pre-title sequence, shall we? First thing we see them chasing the Byznatium: the TARDIS is rocking all over the place, River is urging The Doctor to stay with them, it’s stressful, and he’s trying the best he can. Then she tells him to use the stabilizers. Well, the TARDIS doesn’t have them, but she insists they are those blue buttons he’s seen but that “don’t do anything, they’re just blue!” Annoyed at his stubbornness, River pushes them herself, and viola! The Doctor is wrong. River is pleased with herself, so cue a huffy puffy tantrum on The Doctor’s part for being embarrassed in front of Amy. (She did this at The Library, too, by whipping out her bigger and better sonic.) Worse still, Amy’s impressed, mission accomplished. Except, not, because she’s impressed by River, not him: “Doctor, how come she can fly the TARDIS?” The Doctor waxes on his pout, River continues to do her thing, Amy’s eyes grow wider and wider. Bruise, bruise, bruise. Bewilderment at the TARDIS not making her noise, another quip from River, so at this point The Doctor upstages her with the environment check. Oh, and lest we not forget that for a brief moment his like of River beams through his angry façade in the form of a pleased expression when River admits she “had lessons from the very best,” until she adds that he’s not the one she was referring to. So he gets her back one more time by upstaging her about the homebox information before locking the door behind her. Then we have these:
- "It’s a long story and I don’t know most of it."
- "I’m telling you now: that woman is not dragging me into anything!"
The first one is the most important: “most of it.” As of “Silence in the Library” / “Forest of the Dead,” The Doctor didn’t know any of their story. You might argue that he knew something because of their first meeting, namely that she’s his future and she dies on the day he first met her, but I’d argue this actual line of dialogue (as opposed to his “WOO!” onomatopoeia) that suggests he met her sometime between “Journey’s End” and the beginning of “The End of Time: Part 1.” He now knows some of their story and he was happy/excited to see her. (He did, after all, travel alone after Donna as he avoided the Ood summons, and while River recognized Donna by name, she didn’t recognize her by sight.) I think his second line also suggests that she’s probably dragged him into more than just The Library and probably through the use of other fancy “Hello, Sweetie” messages. (She does recognize him right off the bat. Yes, she does have pictures of all his faces, but she also expects him to know who she is and thinks he has a good reason for pretending to not know in front of everyone else. This suggests that she has met Ten before The Library from her perspective.)
After he walks out to stand with River on Alfava Metraxi, he speaks technically with her about what’s going on. It shows an ease in their communication. For River, she’s done this a thousand times, but for The Doctor, he’s still new at it. But it doesn’t seem first-conversation-post-Library new. As he shows later on, when they’re investigating the Aplan Temple, he trusts her; he knows she’s intelligent and can keep up with him. He didn’t think that way back in The Library, he still believed her to be a haughty human (and an archaeologist to point and laugh at to boot) who refused to leave The Library and didn’t stand a chance. His level of familiarity and comfort with her (as new as it still was) did not change for the few years that he had to reflect on that single meeting. Moreover, he’s also familiar with her as a Professor, so he introduces her to Amy as such, and visibly winces when River points out his mistake. Again, I think that suggests him still getting his bearings with the “Spoilers!” but not being totally unfamiliar with how that scene goes. Then, finally, we get to: “We keep meeting in the wrong order.” A lot of fans locked onto that key word, “keep,” right away. It suggests more than once from The Doctor’s perspective. He could be referring to The Library and their present meeting, but I think combined with the previous indicators, it means he’s met her on more than just two occasions.
The clincher for me is the beginning of their final scene together in “Flesh and Stone.” After he speaks with Amy, he approaches River and he’s visibly upset. Look at the eighth and ninth caps. Look at the contemplation and worry in his face. River looks at him and notes this too, so she tries to cheer him up by saying, “You. Me. Handcuffs. Must it always end this way?” The tone in her voice is light and poking fun. She is thinking of fond memories with respect to this to this running gag between them. Now we, the viewing audience, flash back to, “Handcuffs? How do you even have handcuffs?!” and Ten’s desperation as he grapples for the sonic, but he can’t, and the handcuffs force him to watch her die just feet from him. This haunts Ten to “Journey’s End” and, if this was their first meeting post-Library from his POV, you would think it would haunt Eleven too; punch him in the gut, just as it does us.
But you’d be wrong. Look at the last cap, taken immediately after River says this to him: he goes from worried to happy. What? The little bugger is smiling! No compute; no compute! What’s going on here? How can he be laughing and smiling about this joke when he’s only ever seen her die in handcuffs? The simple explanation is that he, too, is thinking of something other than The Library. There had to have been adventures between him and River that involved handcuffs that were not tragic for him, that were funny or maybe even a bit naughty. Possibly even frustrating, as he raved earlier about not allowing her to drag him into anything. He’s hopeful and curious and excited at this point. Like he was at the start of “The Time of Angels,” he’s desperately looking forward to their next meeting.
And you know what? He’d probably been equally looking forward to this one since before he regenerated.