In all my time as a Whovian, I’ve yet to encounter a feud so strong as that which exists between the fans of Rose Tyler and the fans of River Song. While there are certainly many Whovians who like them both, I’ve often found that a great number also sides with one or the other. The great questions are: Why must they be compared and why must one be superior to the other? I’d like to entertain the notion that both Rose Tyler and River Song possess immense importance in the Who universe, as they each greatly impacted the viewers, the canonical events of the series, and the Doctor himself.
Let us observe first the lady who led Doctor Who for the first two years of its reboot: Rose Tyler, the Moment, Bad Wolf, and Defender of the Earth. Those who aren’t particularly fond of Rose Tyler argue that she was selfish and clingy. While she was by no means perfect, I feel it is unfair to label her so plainly. Rose did exhibit selfish behaviors at times — this is true. Her initial meeting with Sarah Jane Smith in School Reunion was laced with jealousy, and her response to the Doctor telling her that he can’t come through to her universe because “Two universes would collapse” was “So?” While these are all examples of her selfishness, it is important to note the root from which this attitude stems: Her love for the Doctor. The intense emotion she harbored for him was strong enough that it caused her to react selfishly in certain instances. However, if observed more closely, these occurrences can lead you to an astonishing realisation: While the Doctor was indeed the initial cause of Rose’s selfishness, he was also, in the end, the very same person who taught her to conquer it. Rose was able to befriend Sarah Jane in the end because she recognized the Doctor’s ex-companion and best friend deserved respect, and while she wanted wholeheartedly for the Doctor to come through to her from the other universe, she didn’t expect him to do so, and could never honestly request that of him.
Let us now move on to the woman who was born to kill the Doctor and ended up marrying him: River Song, the Impossible Astronaut and daughter of Amy Pond and Rory Williams. The arguments against River Song include that she was a psychopath who tried to kill the Doctor, and that her story was too forced and convoluted. River Song, a psychopath who tried to kill the Doctor? Yes, in fact! She was taken by the Kovarian Silence and transformed into a killer whose sole goal was to assassinate the Doctor. In all honesty, that could have turned out very badly — she could have succeeded. But instead, River Song succeeded in doing the amazing: At her first meeting with the Doctor, she fought against all her life-long conditioning and training, and forced herself to save him instead. That in it of itself is an amazing feat that not many people could have accomplished, so why is she criticized for having been brought up by the Silence to be who she was? It’s not who you are that’s important; it’s who you choose to be, and River Song chose to be one who does the right thing. Is that not commendable?
As for her story being too complex, isn’t that entirely what Doctor Who is about? In a show of time and space travel, one is bound to run into a few paradoxes and complicated plot points, and in my honest opinion, River Song’s storyline was the most brilliant. I applaud Steven Moffat for his genius. The fact that she is Amy and Rory’s daughter is by itself an epic twist, but you must also add to that the fact that she became the Doctor’s lover and wife. While some people like to argue that her love story was forced, I found it fitting and completely believable. The Doctor doesn’t just fall in love. Someone truly special needs to catch his eye — and that she did. As Amy says herself, “Melody Pond is a superhero.” She helped the Doctor save the universe on multiple occasions, became a professor of archaeology to be able to track him down, went on the run from the Silence, and basically defied all female stereotypes by proving herself to be a character who didn’t need saving, but could instead do some of the saving herself. In The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang, she made a Dalek, whom she believed killed the Doctor, beg for mercy. When Amy asked, “What happened to the Dalek?” she simply replied, “It died.” In truth, who else is a worthy match for the Doctor?
What connects Rose Tyler and River Song, and why are they both equally important? Much of it boils down to the separate loves they shared with the Doctor. Rose was able to heal the Doctor after his involvement in the Time War, renewing his faith in the virtues of compassion, love, kindness, mercy, and justice. It can be argued that by the time he was traveling with her as the Tenth Doctor, he’d already begun to form a deep, organic bond with her that could be interpreted as love. He loved her, certainly, even if there is dispute as to what type of love this was. As the Eleventh Doctor, he too fell in love with River Song, the woman who waltzed into his life knowing everything about him but diverging no spoilers. She was enigmatic, bold, brave, and cunning, and to top it all off, she was Melody Pond. She defied the Silence’s orders to kill him even though she’d been conditioned to assassinate him from the day of her birth, she gave up her life in the Library to save him back when he barely knew her, and she spoke his name at Trenzalore to open the door to his tomb and save the universe.
Yes, the Doctor’s love for River Song was as real as his love for Rose Tyler, regardless of the differences and circumstances, and this, in essence, is what makes both Rose Tyler and River Song massively important to Doctor Who. The Doctor is the Oncoming Storm, the Destroyer of Worlds, the Lonely God, and the Man Who Walks in Eternity, living and changing and moving forward. He knows that the only constant is change, and that even if he’s found refuge and family in a current companion, the time will come when he needs to say goodbye. The fact that he fell in love with Rose Tyler and River Song, out of the millions of people he’s met in his life, indicates just how significant they are to him. To insult one of them is to insult the Doctor, because he truly loved them both, and he doesn’t give his hearts to just anyone.
Instead of arguing why Rose is superior to River, or why River is a much better character than Rose, it’s much more important to realise just how profound both of their roles are in the grand scheme of Doctor Who. The Doctor doesn’t have to choose between them: Rose keeps the key to one of his hearts, and River keeps the key to the other. They are both equally important, and without one of them, the Doctor would be a completely different man today — and perhaps not for the better. In Doctor Who, in the nature of the show, River Song and Rose Tyler share the same amount of importance and deserve the same amount of respect. Because in nature, the River must water the Rose, and in turn, the Rose must provide the River’s bank with beauty.