Doctor Who: What is River Song’s timeline?

Doctor Who’s sixth series is underway, and the promised reveal about exactly who and what River Song is was not delivered. It may well happen in Saturday’s Day Of The Moon.

One thing’s for sure, River’s statement about killing the best man she ever knew has taken on new meaning. The Doctor is shot by someone wearing a spacesuit, someone who clearly knew how to kill a Timelord in mid-regeneration, and someone he appeared to know. I mention that last part because he seemed to briefly talk to the space-person before he was shot.

Which leads me to this: I’m completely baffled about River Song’s timeline right now. As I understand it, River and The Doctor are passing each other in the opposite direction. The Doctor’s first meeting with River is her last meeting with him. To our knowledge, River hasn’t met The Doctor yet, but on the day that she does, it’ll be the last time he meets her.

Based on that, how does River’s timeline work? Here’s what (I think) we know…working backwards…

  1. First meeting: Not currently known. River says to Rory in The Impossible Astronaut that when he dropped into her life The Doctor knew everything about her.
  2. Impossible Astronaut: On her last meeting with The Doctor, River warned him that the next time they meet, he’ll find out exactly who she is, but that this is when everything changes. She witnesses The Doctor being shot and killed by someone in a spacesuit. Goes to 1969 with Rory, Amy and the current timeline version of The Doctor.
  3. Pandorica/Reboot of the Universe: Poses as Cleopatra in Roman Britain and is present when Gets trapped inside the TARDIS as it’s about to explode. 
  4. Crash Of The Byzantium: Summons The Doctor to meet her on the wreckage of the Byzantium, where they face down the Weeping Angels again.
  5. Second last meeting: The Doctor supposedly takes River to the Singing Towers of Darillium and gives her a specially modified sonic screwdriver. This all occurs offscreen, but it implies that he cared enough about her to want to save her – this is in contrast to Father Octavian warning The Doctor that he wouldn’t trust River if he knew all about her.
  6. Silence In The Library: River meets the tenth Doctor, but sacrifices herself in order to save the inhabitants of the Library planet. In return, he saves her ‘memory’ to the huge hard drive on the planet’s computer.

Does this cover everything we know about River Song’s timeline? Help me fill in the blanks and we’ll update this post with what we know and what this means for the character. I’m especially interested about why Octavian would warn The Doctor that he didn’t know everything about River and that he wouldn’t help her if he did. By the same token, The Doctor must’ve gone on to set it up so that River would be saved in the library. So why the compassion at this stage? And wouldn’t River have known that she had no more meetings left in her diary?

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  1. jefft

    >>My last question is, why is her timeline backwards? Its moved beyond coincidence, River states it plainly that each time they meet one is older and the other younger and that eventually she will meet a doctor who’s never met her (Silence). Why? Its not mere coincidence of time travel now, there must be a reason its unfolding this way.<<

    If it were strictly backwards for River, forwards for the Doctor (depending upon who’s timeline you are watching in chronological order), then either Doctor 10 or 11 would ALREADY have given her the sonic at their first meeting (in Doctor’s chronology) after the SIlence In The Library.

    Didnt happen.

    If they meet in strict ‘reverse/forward’ order, then River would NEVER need to ask what parts of her memory they had in common. They would have none of it. Everything she had experienced would not have been experienced by the Doctor, and vice versa.

    1. Emperor Gregor

      You are taking River’s word for it that it’s a “diary”. I’ve always wondered. I still do. Because if you work out the logic – the logic doesn’t work. 

      a)  River is meeting him in sequence backwards and knows it – in which case why does she ask “have we done xyz yet?” She’d know.

      b) River is meeting him all over the place in random order. In that case, when she meets him at any moment, that event hasn’t yet happened. So – what is the event doing in the diary? You keep a diary to record things AFTER they happened, not before.

      Try this for size

      Right at the beginning when she was a young girl… What was it River says: they met when she was a young girl and he knew all about her.

      What if the doctor aged 1000 plus was the one who gave her the diary, with all their meetings in it. Now THAT is knowing all about her. With a message. Go back and live all these meetings with me. Just don’t tell me anything about them in advance. That would explain why she knows so much. It isn’t a diary. It’s a reference book.

      It also explains why everything except the Library is in it. I think he just might jib at putting that one in. I wonder if his own is recorded there? 

      1. Gerard McGarry

        Good comment, your Emperorness. Another aspect of this is that River can never really think The Doctor is in peril, because her ‘diary’ already records her next meeting with him, confirming that he survives the Weeping Angels, the Pandorica, etc. No surprises for Song….

        1. Emperor Gregor

          There wouldn’t be any spoilers for River if River’s “diary” is a reference book given to her by the Doctor – which I am beginning to seriously consider again. 

          That would be why she can say when she first met him, as a very young person, he knew all about her. She’s read that book from cover to cover – it’s positively tatty. 

        2. Emperor Gregor

          There wouldn’t be any spoilers for River if River’s “diary” is a reference book given to her by the Doctor – which I am beginning to seriously consider again. 

          That would be why she can say when she first met him, as a very young person, he knew all about her. She’s read that book from cover to cover – it’s positively tatty. 

  2. sgreco1970

    well but so far it is all backwards. In library, she knows it all, doc knows none. In Angels she doesnt know she’s fated to be a professor, which she was in Library, and so on. Each time she appears on the show, she’s a step younger, and the doc is a step older. From our perspective, she knows less and he knows more. Why she has to ask and compare diaries, Im unsure. Other than to clue the audience in to things. But we do see there are gaps. Despite the order, they meet, spend some time together, and then are seperate for some time, until they meet again.

    1. Emperor Gregor

      See my comment above. It isn’t a diary. The more I think about it – the less I believe in a diary. Especially now, when we know that the doctor knew all about her when he first met her as a young person (of whatever age).  If you meet someone in a straight time line you know what you did before – you remember, and don’t need to ask. If you meet in random order, then that event hasn’t happened and wouldn’t be in the diary. If I’m wrong and it is a diary then she has to be meeting in random order.

      But I think doctor 1000 plus gave her the “diary” as a reference book of all their meetings, with instructions to live the life in it but not to tell him anything. It’s a “diary” to misdirect us.

  3. Gerard McGarry

    What I’ve posted above is a timeline from River’s perspective – going from the first time she meets The Doctor to the last time, which we all know was Silence In The Library.

    Something which always bothers me is that River is a fully developed character, morally ambiguous and highly intelligent. She kills a dalek without any qualms, steals a time device and escapes from prison with alarming regularity. She’s got a phenomenal amount of Timelord knowledge – can fly a TARDIS, write ancient Gallifreyan, etc.

    My point is, River has spent a lot of time in the company of a Time Lord. And in The Impossible Astronaut, she intimated that The Doctor dropped in on her as a girl already knowing everything about her. If the Timelord she learned from is actually The Doctor, then they have a rich and detailed relationship that can’t possibly be resolved in one series. I wonder if the 200 year gap between The Doctor will be used to explain away some of the offscreen encounters between the two.

    @sgreco1970 – I liked your comment above:

    What confuses me is how River reacts to people like Rory and Amy. In Angels, the Doctor introduces Amy to River and River comments on her like, “Oh I like her, she’s clever,” etc throughout the episode but we now know she knew her already from Astronaut and Pandorica. In astronaut she seems to know both of them, so we can only guess that the next time we encounter her she’s either first meets them or still already knows them.

    I figure there are a lot of those inconsistencies if we cared to look for them. That’s kind of why I put this post together in the first place. My feeling is that while the concept of River Song is fantastic, even Moffat has got a little confused about her timeline and it sometimes shows through in the writing.

    1. sgreco1970

      I agree, no writer could possibly hold all that together when writing episodically, and he just hasn’t the luxury of planning every detail in advance. Still, I think he’s being very careful now and we will definitely have some clues to mine if we look for them.

      I think you’re right, I think the 200 year gap is there to provide lots of together time for him and river, the question remains, though, how could River last 200 years? I have the oddest feeling she is part time lord herself. I do believe she is pregnant, and we know Amy is. At first i thought Amy’s momentary sickness was an after effect of seeing the alien but then I realized it was a cue to us that she’s pregnant, and then she said so. But we also saw River feeling sick, and it could still be its the alien forgetfulness effect but I think she too is pregnant, with the doctor’s baby. Thus he will no longer be last of the time lords. Given how screwed up River’s timeline is, could she be Amy’s daughter?

  4. jefft

    First, their timelines cross or they would never have anything in the diaries that match. Both diaries would be spoilers to the other. But they both went to Easter Island…


    For the last series, we were all guessing River is in jail for killing the Doctor.

    And we all thought ‘ how, why’? etc.

    Well, it just happened, folks.

    Here goes:

    Old Doctor says ‘Ive been running my whole life’, but doesn’t appear to have a TARDIS, and doesn’t say how long that life has been. After all, he hasn’t mentioned running so far, has he?

    The invites suggest that Canton Everett Delaware brings gasoline. (Notice how Rory doesnt call it petrol? Its not written on the can.) So he knows he’s going to die.

    He knows who is in the spacesuit.

    River shoots at the ‘Astronaut’ and fails to kill him/her/it. Then she says ‘Of Course Not’

    This is because:

    River has been in jail for killing the Doctor and has always known she would do it one day. But because it happened in her history as seen by the Universe, she has been jailed before she manages the job in her own timeline. (Vastly unfair, but it is possible that her jailers hoped that jailing her may stop it? Given the chance to jail Hitler before the second world war, what would YOU do?)

    So this is the day she knew had happened. She can’t kill herself because she knows that ‘she’ escapes to do something else next. Maybe they were blanks anyway?

    Now that she knows she did that, and was complicit, she next says ‘we do what we always do: what we’re told’. She was under instructions to kill ‘that’ Doctor.

    ‘He planned all this to the last detail’

    ‘But he still needs us’

    ‘The Doctor knew he was going to his death’

    ‘The Doctors death doesnt frighten me’


    ..and I love ‘Now and then there are Saturdays , big temporal tipping points when anything can happen’

    I’m making a t-shirt..;)




    1. Emperor Gregor

      He actually says something like – I’ve been running harder than I’ve ever run before, and I’ve been running all my life. It’s time to stop. Has he mentioned running before?

      Well, he ran away from Gallifrey, didn’t he. With the Tardis. It’s a John Pertwee incarnation, I think, that story line.

      Is she under instructions to kill that doctor – possibly, and possibly by the doctor himself. Moffat said that if someone like the Doctor kept saving the world he’d get noticed. He says they are going to deal with that. Maybe the doctor has decided to stop interfering. Because all he does is attract trouble. He’s the gunslinger who is never welcome in town because everyone wanting to be the fastest gun in the west turns up wanting a fight, to beat him and take the title. 

      The Doctor does warn Nixon, doesn’t he. They get rid of the Silence but there are, the doctor says, thousands of nasty invaders out there waiting their chance. Maybe it’s time to stop. And take the series in a new direction. 

      I just want to know if

      a) the diary is really a reference book – consistent with River saying when she was a girl she met the Doctor, and he knew all about her. If he gave her the “diary” with both their futures in it, she’d know that for sure, wouldn’t she?

      b) is the Master back – has he been in that space suit and has he now regenerated? If not – who is the little girl and why can she regnerate?

  5. sgreco1970

    By far my favorite line in the entire episode was when the Doctor referred to River as “Mrs Robinson.” I couldn’t stop laughing.

    I don’t think River was shooting blanks. I think she was simply unable to kill her younger self, or whomever she was thinking murdered the doctor if indeed its not her. But she realized that she could never ever kill them and said, “No, of course not.” I think that line was an enormous clue.

    Just because we don’t see his TARDIS doesn’t mean it not there. I don’t know if its really significant. Where is it when his younger self arrives at the diner? We never even see them all go to it, they’re just in it in the next scene. I really don’t feel there’s a clue there.

    Good point about the petrol, I hadn’t even noticed. Maybe they figured American’s wouldn’t know what petrol is, and brits would know both petrol and gasoline? I’m not sure its so much a clue as it is a way of making sure all audiences are up to speed, tho I’m fairly certain any Doctor Who fan in America would know what petrol is.

    Easter Island lol. “They worshipped you there.” She is implying those big, long-faced statues they made were of him and that’s reaalllly funny lol.

    1. Emperor Gregor

      Have had a thought. Dr W gave them all a code name in the Oval Office. His meant something – it’s the title he chose back on Gallifrey. Amy is the Legs – and she is. Rory is the Nose. And he does have one.  All three true descriptions of themselves.

      River is “Mrs Robinson.” And what do we know about Mrs Robinson? She had an affair with the man to be her son-in-law. Ergo, the Doctor is having an affair (or will be) with his mother-in-law.

      This rather turns my favourite fun theory on its head – that Amy is his mother-in-law and River is her daughter. There is something special about Amy. What if River turns out to the the missing mother from the Eleventh Hour – yes i KNOW her mother turned up later etc etc. But there could be all sorts of reasons Moffat could come up with. It is just the sort of joke Moffat would pull, and I can’t think he’d call River “Mrs Robinson” without some sort of subtext.

      It’s a CLUE.

    2. ajd

      When the younger Doctor arrives in the diner, the Tardis is just through the door at the back. You can see it as he walks in from getting his “special straw”.

        1. grift

          no, you were right. that is the tardis. even though we don’t get a good look at it, there are hints: the white windows with 3 horizontal columns on a dark blue background and the white sign underneath the left window.

          also, it wouldn’t make sense for 1008 y/o doctor to have traveled there in a tardis since he was waiting on the hood of a station wagon in the middle of nowhere. he must have driven that car there.

          now… are either of those hints? i don’t know, but if you think they are, don’t ditch your theory quite yet.


    3. Emperor Gregor

      Mmm. If River is living her life backwards she could end up as the little girl, and die as an “old” little girl. Her past is the Doctor’s future – and the little girl turns up in the life of the future doctor.

      But then to regenerate!????

      And against this, means that the doctor’s future is with someone who is younger than River is now. And yet she remembered their entire relationship on the last day of her life.

      somehow, i dont think River is the little girl. Too straightforward for Moffat, and there are too many holes in the theory. If his future is REALLY her past then as he gets older she gets younger and younger, till she’s a kid. yich.

      Of course, we have to remember that when she met Tennant, the message went astray. She didn’t send it to him but to a much older doctor but it went astray. So we can’t really count him on her time line. He’s an aberation. I think that she means that about Tennant’s doctor – in her past she was involved in his future.

      My head still hurts.


  6. Emperor Gregor

    It’s been suggested River is living backwards – possibly heading towards being the little girl. Against that is the fact that she is clearly shocked when the doctor is executed … the only word for it as he adopts a submissive almost consenting pose waiting for the bullet.

    If River is the little girl, she’s clearly a Time Lord since we saw the little girl regenerate in episode 2. I flatly refuse to even consider she is Rory and Amy’s baby. The doctor is the guy in the white hat with a moral core and I just don;t think he’d do that to Rory.

    Is the Master Back? And is he good or bad?

  7. Emperor Gregor

    Matt Smith turns up as 2 doctors – 909 and 1103, with a 200 year gap between the two.

    Whatever he uses to keep looking so good at 200 – can I have some please

  8. Emperor Gregor

    My Third Favourite Theory or How did the Doctor get River’s persona into the screwdriver in the first place?

    In The End of Time we saw 2 women who refused to agree with Rassilon and were condemned for it and hauled up for public exhibition in front of the Doctor. One of them (Claire Bloom) we’ve all held to be his mother. We never did see the face of the second woman. The most straightforward answer is that she is the Doctor’s wife – the one in Gallifrey. And also River.

    The Doctor always says he knows when a Time Lord is about.  If River has a watch with a Cameleon circuit in it she can disguise herself and not be noticed. Its function might not be to store the personality so much as copy it. Like the Doctor did with his ring. In fact, it needn’t be a watch. Just something to copy her Time Lord essence into the hide it. Let’s call it a doo dah.

    This answers one question that occurred to me today. The Doctor needed to plug his screwdriver into the CAL computer to transfer River’s persona to the hard drive. Beaming from a Cameleon doo dah wouldn’t do. Had to be the screwdriver.

    Question -how did he get River’s persona into the screwdriver? Presumably without her knowing about it. She isn’t expecting to die. I really don;t think Moffat would lay himself open to all the jokes he’d get if it it involved even a hint of plugging a screwdriver into River. (though I bet they shared a few on set).

    Answer (possibly) beam it from the Cameleon doo dah into the screwdriver when she isn’t looking. I mean, it’s designed as a carrier for the persona. Then give River the screwdriver with some casual comment like “about time you had one of your own”.

    This plot has more twists and turns in it than a cork screw. We may need, to quote, something to hang on to. ie A relatively straight narrative line for everything (and us) to hang on to and twine around. River as “just’ his wife is as simple as it gets.


  9. sgreco1970

    well, they have technically termed the impossible astronaut as Series Opener part 1, so the reveal of who and what river is might yet still come in part 2.

    The thought occurs that they HAVE revealed who and what she is, we just havent connected the dots. i.e., I think she’s the little girl in the spacesuit thus we HAVE seen who she is. Maybe…

    As for the Octavian scene, I’ve rewatched Angels and noticed that she says, “I promised you the equivalent of an army. This is the Doctor.” They exchange meaningful glances. Very serious ones. I think she is the spaceman who kills the doctor, as a child, and goes to stormcage. They know he’s the doctor with all the ramifications. Thus her crime is considered enormous and she ends up in there for life. But she will have killed him at his request, he wants that to happen, he asks them not to interfere. he hangs his head and waits for the shooting. Thus he feels enormous guilt and constantly visits her as she grows up, eventually falls in love with and marries her. He takes her out of prison constantly with his tardis and returns her instantly so no one notices. But Octavian only knows she is fated to kill the doctor, and thus knows telling the younger doctor she is his one-day murderer is the secret she’d never want him to know.

    I think the first meeting happened at the end of Astronaut, as she is the little girl in the space suit. A little girl who is yet unnamed but will eventually be revealed as River.

    The second to last meeting, however, we just don’t know. I’d like to think it was Tennant’s last gift to her, but I suspect it will be something we actually see onscreen and thus be done by Smith probably at end of season.

    What confuses me is how River reacts to people like Rory and Amy. In Angels, the Doctor introduces Amy to River and River comments on her like, “Oh I like her, she’s clever,” etc throughout the episode but we now know she knew her already from Astronaut and Pandorica. In astronaut she seems to know both of them, so we can only guess that the next time we encounter her she’s either first meets them or still already knows them. I imagine that’s a very trying aspect of writing someone with a backwards timeline.

    My last question is, why is her timeline backwards? Its moved beyond coincidence, River states it plainly that each time they meet one is older and the other younger and that eventually she will meet a doctor who’s never met her (Silence). Why? Its not mere coincidence of time travel now, there must be a reason its unfolding this way.

    1. starfury

      Another thing that’s unclear–The Doctor (and us) first meets River in Silence in the Library, in his 10th incarnation. River’s reaction suggests this isn’t the first time she’s interacted with #10, so could some off-camera adventures have happened with River between his first meeting her, and when #10 regenerates into #11?

      There’s a bit of leeway for this–At the start of “End of Time” #10 has a few throwaway lines to the Ood about adventures he’d been on since we last saw him in “Waters of Mars”. IIRC he was mildy apologetic for the delay (100 years?) before getting back to the Ood. Certainly that’s more than enough time to have run into River at least once or twice.

      Still, #10 obviously didn’t know River well enough by his second meeting to be all broken up and give her the modified sonic screwdriver, so it seems they’re not travelling exactly in opposite directions time-wise.


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