Does this explain how River Song is returning in Doctor Who?

Alex Kingston's time-traveller is back for the Christmas special - but is she a younger River, an imposter, a ghost or something else entirely?

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The news that Alex Kingston’s River Song is returning to the word of Doctor Who for this year’s Christmas special has us excited, curious and – we’ll admit it – a little confused.

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Sure, The Doctor and River’s timelines were always a bit jumbled up, and she knew him in a few of his incarnations so it’s not crazy that she’d meet Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth version too – but didn’t she die last time we saw her, dissipating into data? How could she come back from that?

Don’t worry – we have a few ideas.


It’s an earlier version of River

This one’s pretty likely. The time-travelling River has been going through life at a different pace to the Doctor. From his perspective, their very first meeting was the day she died, but in the future he went on to meet younger versions of her with whom he had many adventures.

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The last time we saw River (in 2013’s The Name of the Doctor) was also the last point in her chronological life, where she was basically just an echo (having been turned into a data ghost in 2008 episode Forest of the Dead). The Doctor helped her finally let go and dissipate – but who’s to say she didn’t meet the Twelfth Doctor before that (in her time line) and just never mentioned it explicitly?

In fact, she does mention in 2010’s The Time of Angels that she keeps a record of all the Doctor’s faces, implying she’s met more than the two we’ve seen her interact with on screen. Case in point, when she’s chatting to Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor: 

RIVER: “It’s so strange when you go all baby face. How early is this for you?”

DOCTOR: “Very early.”

RIVER: “So you don’t know who I am yet?”

DOCTOR: “How do you know who I am? I don’t always look the same.”

RIVER: “I’ve got pictures of all your faces. You never show up in the right order, though. I need the spotter’s guide.”

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River’s also soon to star in a Big Finish audio drama with Eighth Doctor Paul McGann – more proof that she likes hanging out with other Doctors. And if she thinks Matt Smith looks baby faced, maybe she spent more time than we might have realised with the more mature Doctor number 12…

So yeah, this theory works perfectly. Steven Moffat has even described them meeting again as a “matter of time”. If anything, the only reason we’re not 100% about it is because it seems a bit too obvious, and not quite timey-wimey enough for Doctor Who… 


She’s still a data ghost

Well, why not? After she was saved digitally in Forest of the Dead, River managed to hold onto her essence to help the Doctor later on – maybe she held on even longer than we thought. All we know is that the character River Song returns this Christmas – who knows if she’s corporeal, or just an echo again?

In fact, perhaps River was hinting at her possible return in The Name of the Doctor, when she refused to let the Doctor say a final goodbye to her. 

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RIVER: “It’s hard to leave when you haven’t said goodbye.”

DOCTOR: “Then tell me, because I don’t know. How do I say it?”

RIVER: “There’s only one way I’d accept. If you ever loved me, say it like you’re going to come back.”

DOCTOR: “Well, then. See you around, Professor River Song.” 

RIVER: “Till the next time, Doctor.” 

DOCTOR: “Don’t wait up.”

A romantic moment from River or a tease that we hadn’t seen the last of her ghosty self? Only time (and space) will tell.


She’s been resurrected like the Master

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River’s kind of complicated species-wise, with the ability to regenerate like a Time Lord (despite the fact that she is genetically human) coming from her conception in the Tardis. Still, in 2011’s Let’s Kill Hitler she used up her regenerations, which is why she was later able to die normally(ish). End of story, right? Well, maybe not.

We’ve seen a Time Lord die normally and come back without using regenerations – John Simm’s incarnation of the Master, who chose not to regenerate in Last of the Time Lords, was brought back to life by his followers in The End of Time after storing his essence in a ring.

Who’s to say that River didn’t “save” part of herself like the Master did for a possible resurrection? Either way, perhaps her “saved” consciousness as a data ghost would be enough for the procedure to work.

Of course for the Master it went wrong and turned him into a weird laser skeleton (above), but even if that happened to River we reckon she could rock the look.


It’s somehow related to the Nethersphere and Missy

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River Song’s fate as a digitally-saved dead person has a ring of familiarity given the plot of series eight finale Dark Water/Death in Heaven, which saw Michelle Gomez’s Missy use a Gallifreyan hard drive (aka a Matrix data slice) to store the consciousness of the recently dead to be downloaded into her Cyberman army. Maybe River Song’s digitial essence got sucked into all this somehow?

It’s a bit of a leap, we know, but given the return of Missy for series nine and the similarities between River’s fate and the Time Lady’s plan it’s one hell (or heaven) of a coincidence.


River’s a Zygon

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OK, hear us out on this one – series nine is already bringing back a fan-favourite character, possibly in Zygon form, in the shape of Ingrid Oliver’s Osgood. There’s a whole double episode devoted to the shapeshifting Zygons settling in human society. Is it so crazy to think that River Song could be one of them, perhaps further in the future when the Christmas special is supposed to be set?

Remember, this is a show that once faked the Doctor’s death by having him miniaturised and hidden inside a life-size robot of himself…


It’s a Christmas miracle

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Maybe Santa just brought her back as a lovely present for the Doctor, and we should stop questioning all these things. ‘Tis the season, right?

Ha, just kidding. Can you imagine? Let us know your own theories for River’s return in the comments below…

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Doctor Who series nine begins on 19th September