Leave it to Moff to take an fun and dynamic Doctor Who character like River Song and make her backstory gobsmackingly confusing. After re-watching the series many times, I still twist my arms around each other pointing to an invisible air timeline when trying to sort out where River’s been and when. To help sort out the jumble of Melody Pond’s life, below is a reconstructed chronology.
(Do I really need to say “Spoilers”!?)
Melody Pond was born to Amy Pond and Rory Williams on an asteroid called Demon’s Run, where Amy was being held captive. The baby was named for Amy’s childhood pal, Mels. Shortly after her birth, Melody was spirited away by Madame Kovarian, leaving a baby ganger in her place, unbeknownst to Amy (well, at least until the ganger liquified). Before the baby ganger went to goo, baby Melody was able to meet the Eleventh Doctor for the first time through her link with the ganger.
Orphanage of the Damned
Melody was kidnapped by Madame Kovarian and The Silence in order to train her to assassinate The Doctor. Because she had been conceived in the Time Vortex (though how Madame Kovarian knew that for sure is a little creepy, amiright?), The Silence believe she has special Time Lordy abilities, including regeneration, cleverness, etc.
So what do they do with her? The Silence dump her in the Graystark Hall Orphanage in 1960s Florida ( Oh THANKS, The Silence!), presumably while keeping very close tabs on her and continuing her training / wiping her memory repeatedly.
1969 Spacesuit Freakout
By 1969, grade school-aged Melody has been mysteriously forced to don a sentient Apollo-era spacesuit that imprisons her, feeds off of her, and helps her phone President Nixon in the Oval Office, all of which terrifies Melody. Her White House phone calls catch the attention of Eleven and the Ponds who come to check out the mysterious frightened astronaut. Upon finding her, Amy gets spooked and fires a gun (really, Amy, a gun?) at the astronaut. The visor is hit, but the suit protects Melody from any harm. Note that at this encounter, we are seeing Ganger Amy, through whom actually-pregnant Amy is getting to meet her future daughter, unbeknownst to her.
Meanwhile, Back at Graystark
Three months go by, and Melody, still imprisoned in the suit, is back at the very creepy Graystark Hall, and still terrified. She enters her bedroom, which contains toys and a picture of her baby self with her mother (when, exactly, did Madame Kovarian and The Silence decide to take happy family photos??) and there finds her very freaked-out mother. Melody cries out for help, but Amy bumbles over an apology for the shooting and fails to act before The Silence appear. Talk about childhood trauma, first you mom abandons you, shoots you in the face, and then she won’t help save you from aliens! Amidst all the chaos of The Silence arriving, Melody is able to fight her way out of the suit and escape, leaving her mother behind. Take THAT, Mommy Dearest!
New York, 1970
The escaped Melody doesn’t do so well outside of the plush walls of Graystark. She makes her way to New York City by early 1970, where she ends up staggering through an alley, quite aware that she is terminally ill–but also that it will be okay. There she regenerates for the first time…
Mels in the 1980s and 1990s
…into Mels! Her regeneration turns her into a toddler on the mean streets of New York City. Presumably through the workings of The Silence and Madame Kovarian, Melody Pond (still going by her given name, though presumably using a different surname?) [time] travels to Leadworth, England circa early 1990s. Through her school, she becomes close friends with her (someday) parents, Amy and Rory, who are allegedly the same age.
This friendship is likely by design to get the assassin close to her target–whether Melody realizes it or not. Melody now goes by the nickname “Mels”, and is frequently running afoul of authority. Amy becomes an ironic mother figure to her as she grows to become a reckless young woman. No surprise she has some issues. Brainwashing and whatnot. And then, because Moff is adorable now and then, Mels helps friends Amy and Rory to see that they belong together and is instrumental in her parents falling in love. Marty McFly would be proud.
During their adolescence/teen years, Mels develops a love-hate fixation with Amy’s “Raggedy Doctor”, which includes talk of marrying him someday, while conversely openly blaming him for all the bad that has happened throughout history. The latter part of her fixation is likely the result of conditioning by The Silence, and demonstrates that on some level, Mels has some idea of the reality of The Doctor.
Car Theft and Corn Fields
By Fall, 2011, Mels–who apparently has been still undergoing additional Silence therapy in her downtime–jacks a car and follows her now-married friends, Amy and Rory, as they mysteriously head out in search of The TARDIS, in what will become her first serious assassination attempt on The Doctor (that we know of). After plowing through a cornfield in her stolen ride, Mels hops out, brandishing a gun. After introductions are made, she demands that The Doctor take them all to kill Hitler.
Well, in a very important lesson about gunplay and karma, Mels doesn’t do so well in Germany. Shortly after the gang crash-lands, Hitler begins shooting, and one of the bullets hits Mels. She is gravely wounded and regenerates on the spot into River (though it will take all bleedin’ episode for her to recognize the new identity). In the course of chaos, she reveals to The Doctor, Amy, and Rory that she is actually Ramy’s daughter (at this point Amy knows she has a baby daughter who is lost to her).
Taking advantage of the commotion of her change, River grabs a gun and attempts to shoot Eleven, but is thwarted. She tried again to shoot him, but is only able to point a banana at him. She makes a third attempt, kissing Eleven with poison lipstick, and this time is successful at putting him in grave peril. Pleased with a job well-done, she runs off.
She is shortly thereafter pursued by The Teselecta ship, which seeks to bring her to justice, knowing her to be a notorious murderer. While being tortured by the inhabitants of The Teselecta, she admits that she does not remember why she wants to kill The Doctor, and that most of her life has been a blur. River escapes her torture–thanks to mommy-come-lately–and hops aboard the TARDIS to rescue her mom and dad from grave peril–marking the first time she flies the TARDIS!
River and parents then return to the dying Eleven, and River has a last-minute change of heart. Deciding that The Doctor is “worth it”, River saves him with a kiss that grants him all of her remaining regenerations.
Hospital Aftermath: 52nd Century
After all of the Berlin shenanigans, River wakes up in a hospital, presumably not on Earth. There, she is given her blue TARDIS diary by The Doctor. She is left alone in the hospital.
Luna University: 5123
Without a TARDIS or any other form of time travel, River is grounded in the 52nd century. By 5123, she decides to enter Luna University to study archaeology in hopes of finding The Doctor and, presumably, learning more about him. When asked about her course of study, River states that she is “looking for a good man”.
Upon completion of her doctoral degree, River is seized by Madame Kovarian and The Silence–whom she doesn’t remember–drugged, and jammed into that horrible 1960s spacesuit again.
Lake Silencio: Utah, April 22, 2011
Madame Kovarian transports an unconscious River back to 2011 to Lake Silencio, Utah–spacesuit and all–in order to kill The Doctor. River awakens from her unconscious state underwater in Lake Silencio, knowing that her mission is to kill the Doctor. Reformed and badass River, though, fights back against her training and won’t kill Eleven, draining her weapon instead.
But, wait, that’s a fixed point! And uh-oh, all of a sudden reality becomes a jumbled distortion of all historical events happening concurrently. River and Eleven have a come-to-jeebus moment about the principle that River needs to fix the time stream by shooting him. The Doctor figures the only way to get Riv on board is to marry her, as she has always dreamed. At this time, he tells her his real name and reveals his secret: His body is really The Teselecta, and he’s hidden safely inside the body-ship. Back at the lake, she plays along and shoots The Doctor three times, ensuring he will not be able to regenerate. The universe believes that she has killed The Doctor. And the timeline returns to normal life.
Prison: 52nd Century
Back in the 52nd century where River had previously lived for years, she is imprisoned for twelve thousand consecutive life sentences at Stormcage Containment Facility for the murder of The Doctor. With her objective allegedly complete, The Silence are warded off from bothering her, leaving her free to regularly break out of prison to spend time with her husband.
River Thames, 1814 and Demon’s Run Revisited
On one particularly colorful date, The Doctor takes River to the Winter Frost Fair in 1814, where Stevie Wonder performs (without knowing when he was). As River returns to Stormcage, she finds Rory waiting for her. He begs her to come aid the battle at Demon’s Run. Knowing that to be a critical point of her infant timeline, she regretfully declines telling Rory that she can’t be there until the very end. As the Battle winds down and the ganger baby liquifies in Amy’s arms, River appears to explain that Melody Pond = River Song and everything will be okay…eventually.
Visiting the Past: Back to Silencio, April 22, 2011 and Florida, 1969
River gets a blue invitation from The Doctor to join him, Rory, and Amy at Lake Silencio in 2011, and River shows up to go on a “greatest hits” tour of shit that’s already happened to her. First she has a picnic and watches herself shoot The Doctor, with full knowledge of the perpetrator and The Doctor’s safe harbor inside The Teselecta, but saying nothing to the grieving and horrified group. Then she travels back to 1969 Florida with the gang to investigate the mysterious little astronaut girl, keeping mum about the truth–all in keeping with The Doctor’s principle of “no spoilers”. In theory, River remembers her earlier adventures mostly or in full, but is able to play along anyway.
Three Months Later: Investigating The Silence: New York City, 1969
In order to–probably legitimately–investigate The Silence, River travels to New York City, which is a curious choice considering that’s where her childhood self ended up. Theoretically, River could have been doing some side-sleuthing about her itty bitty self, or could have even been aiding her past self. While exploring an unfinished skyscraper, FBI Agent Canton catches up with her. River escapes the Agent by jumping from a skyscraper window into the hidden side-planted TARDIS below, landing safely in the swimming pool. She then aids the gang in defeating The Silence.
Back to Prison (….again): 52nd Century
River returns to prison as a good inmate should, and kisses Eleven. She realizes that it is their first kiss from his perspective, and that going forward, he will know her less and less.
Cleopatra and The Pandorica: 102 AD
Imprisoned River receives a phone call that has been rerouted by the TARDIS to her jail cell. It’s Winston Churchill, and he has a Van Gogh painting of an exploding TARDIS that The Doctor should know about. So, River breaks out of prison, retrieves the Van Gogh painting from Liz X (as it would naturally be in her custody by the 52nd century), steals a time vortex manipulator from Dorium Maldovar, and then travels to the dawn of time to leave a message on a cliffside for The Doctor to find. It reads: “Hello Sweetie”, and provides coordinates of where she can be found. She then travels to England, 102 AD. (Now…why this time and place? How did she know where and when to go? This remains unclear.) She uses her her hypnotic lipstick to trick a Roman legion into believing that she’s Cleopatra, and holds court there until Eleven’s arrival with Amy. She then reveals to them the Van Gogh painting and leads them to the Pandorica, hidden nearby underneath Stonehenge.
Return to Mama’s House: June 26, 2010 /
Trapped in a TARDIS
In the chaos of the Pandora adventure, River hops in the TARDIS (why?) and finds she is not in full control of it. The blue box drops her outside of Amy’s childhood home. After discovering little Pond’s items point to the Pandorica being a trap, she goes back to the TARDIS. She warns The Doctor of the trap via phone, and hears back from him that she needs to land the TARDIS and leave it straight away, so as to allow it to shut down. River is able to land the box, but then finds she cannot leave it–the doors are locked, and once she gets them opened, a brick wall blocks her escape. Sorrowfully, River turns toward the TARDIS, which has begun to explode–just as in the painting–and apologizes to her love aloud, knowing that this is likely the end. The TARDIS then begins emergency protocols to lock the console room in a time loop, trapping River perpetually in the earliest moments of the explosion to save her life.
Day at the Museum: London, 1996
River is pulled from the time loop of TARDIS explosion by Eleven and his vortex manipulator and brought to the National Museum in London, 1996, where Amy, Rory, and Eleven are battling to save the world. First order of business, River shoots the fez that was plucked from Eleven’s head. The group heads into the museum where River executes a Dalek that has just shot The Doctor.
Bringing Back The Doctor: June 26, 2010
After The Doctor sacrifices his own existence, wiping it from history to save the universe, River retains memory of him–though it is unclear exactly how. (Perhaps her connection to him as another Timelord-ish being? Or their, um, intimate past?) In order to bring him back, River bided her time in London between 1996 and 2010, presumably, and secretly dropped in on the June 26 wedding of Amy Pond and Rory Williams. She gifted her own (now blank, Doctor-less) blue journal to Amy, thus triggering Amy’s memory and returning The Doctor to existence. She does not reveal herself to either of the Ponds. She does greet Eleven outside, where he returns her vortex manipulator and diary, which has begun to fill with writing again.
Back to Prison (….again, again): 52nd Century
Again, like a good inmate, River uses her vortex manipulator to return to her prison cell.
The Byzantium: 52nd Century
Shortly thereafter, she is presented with an opportunity to earn a pardon. Father Octavian wants her help to covertly infiltrate the starship Byzantium and confirm whether or not there is a Weeping Angel on board. After confirming the suspicions, River became aware the ship was about to crash. In order to summon The Doctor to save her, she finds the ship’s home box and engraves it in Old High Gallifreyan with the words, “Hello, Sweetie”. Just before the airlock blows apart, she says her coordinates aloud. After the airlock gives, River floats calmly into space until moments later when the TARDIS is able to scoop her up (The Doctor having found her home box message in a museum). They land at the crash site on Alfava Metraxis where River, Eleven, and Amy (who has never met River at this point) battle Weeping Angels alongside Father Octavian. She then teases them that she will meet them at the opening of the Pandorica.
Wine With Her Mum: 2011
Before returning to prison, perhaps after feeling a little nostalgic at “meeting her mum for the first time” at the Byzantium crash, River decides to go visit her parents living at home in 2011 (to them, after Eleven was shot in Utah). River and her mother share a glass of wine and do a little bonding, during which River reveals the secret that The Doctor is still alive, having survived the shooting at Lake Silencio. The two share the new with River’s dad, and the three enjoy a tender family moment, where Amy realizes that she is now The Doctor’s mother-in-law.
Receiving a Pardon From Prison: 52nd Century
After a little mother-daughter bonding, River returns to prison. Due to the allegedly “dead” Doctor’s efforts to erase himself from history, it is determined that River deserves a pardon due lack of evidence that her victim ever existed. After her release, she returned to archaeology, and even becomes a professor.
Chasing Angels: New York City, 1938
For unknown particular reasons, in the course of River’s continuing archaeological work, she decides to use her vortex manipulator to travel back to 1938 New York City to investigate Weeping Angels. This is likely based on her recent experiences at the crash site of The Byzantium. Once there, she sets herself up under the pseudonym Melody Malone and opens The Angel Detective Agency. She also begins writing mystery novels about her adventures during this period using Melody Malone as her nom de plume. On April 3, 1938, River comes across Rory who has been transported back to 1938 New York after encountering a Weeping Angel in the future. River writes about their meeting in her novel, thus beckoning The Doctor and simultaneously warning him that TARDIS travel to 1938 would be exceptionally difficult.
River and Rory are taken by force to the Grayle Mansion in New York, where Grayle imprisons River in the grip of an Angel. The TARDIS materializes and knocks out Grayle. River breaks her wrist to free herself, and Eleven decides to use his regenerative power to heal her. At this point, River, her parents, and The Doctor are all together and all have full knowledge of their relationships to each other (being that this is the end of Amy and Rory’s timeline). The four then have an adventure escaping the Angels.
Saying Goodbye to Mother: New York, 2012
After escaping the angels, the four travelers fly the TARDIS to New York, 2012, where they land in a graveyard. River’s father is accidentally sent back in time by a single Angel, and Amy becomes determined to follow him, knowing that they will not be able to return or see The Doctor again (something about New York, 1938 is too fragile to endure further time rifts). River supports her mother in her choice to leave and live in the 1930s, and holds her hand as the two give each other a final goodbye. Amy then leaves. (Is it really goodbye though, isn’t she going to visit her mother to give her the book to publish??) Anyway, The distraught Doctor asks River to travel with him, an offer which she declines on a full-time basis. Instead River departs to go write her novel and give it to Amy for publishing.
A Few More Marriages: Mendorax Dellora, 5343
Not long after River’s time in New York, she learns that King Hydroflax, living on Mendorax Dellora in 5343 has a giant diamond lodged in his head. Purportedly for the greed and adventure of it, River decides to use her vortex manipulator to go after the diamond and sets herself up in 5343. In order to get close to King Hydroflax, she first “marries” her assistant, Ramone.
She is later successful in getting close enough to King Hydroflax to marry him–though it is certainly not a romantic connection. River sends for a surgeon to pry the diamond out of the King’s head–thereby killing him–and is greeted by Twelve, whom she does not recognize. After some misadventures and confusion, Twelve reveals his identity to her and the two embark on an adventure to fence the diamond (after the untimely deaths of both Ramone and King Hydroflax, sort of).
In the course of their adventure together, River and Twelve talk openly about their feelings for each other. Their hijinx eventually lead them to a ship that crash-lands on Darillium.
One Last Night Together: The Singing Towers of Darillium, Christmas Day, ~5348
After the crash landing on Darillium, River is left unconscious in the TARDIS while The Doctor plans a date for them both and transports them to about 5 years in the future to Christmas Day. When River awakens and emerges from the TARDIS, she finds herself at a bustling restaurant, where the Doctor has booked a table for them both to enjoy a final evening together. The Doctor gifts her a sonic screwdriver of her own and the two share a tender evening together admiring the Singing Towers. Both share sadness and apprehension, as River is aware that her diary is nearly full and that this is the last night together. Happily, she learns that a night on Darillium lasts 24 years. The two spend that “night” together in happiness.
The Library, 51st Century
Still not ready to hang up her adventure hat just yet, Professor Song accepts an offer for some freelance archaeology work to investigate The Library in the 51st century, where a mystery has developed. Traveling with a team of archaeologists under her command, River arrives at The Library to find the situation alarming enough to contact the Doctor for help via psychic paper. The Tenth Doctor arrives with Donna Noble, neither of whom recognize or know River Song. As the danger of the situation at The Library escalates, River finds that the only way to win the Doctor’s trust instantly is to whisper his name to him. This has the intended effect, and the Doctor understands she is someone very important. During the course of the adventure River also reveals that the Doctor she has seen can make armies turn and run, and can open the doors to the TARDIS with a snap of his fingers–much to Ten’s surprise.
The End of River Song
During The Library adventure, it becomes clear that there are more than 4,000 souls trapped in a central computer, all of whom can be saved and returned to life. In order to do so, The Doctor offers to sacrifice his life (and all regenerations) to donate his memory power to the computer, thereby restoring the thousands of people safely. River knows she must take his place though, and does so by knocking him unconscious and handcuffing him out of reach. She says a tearful goodbye to the Doctor, urging him not to change one bit of the future that they will have together, and reminding him that there is much to come. She also describes for him their last date together at the Singing Towers of Darillium. Her last words before dying are said to the Doctor: “Hush now, spoilers.”
Shortly after the evacuation of all of the people begins from The Library, The Doctor realizes that River’s sonic screwdriver–the one given to her at the Singing Towers of Darillium–contains a hidden neural relay that allows her consciousness to live on with her archaeological team and some children. Though River is dead, her data ghost lives on.
River’s consciousness still manages to aid the Doctor on occasion. She is sometimes summoned via seance to assist The Paternoster Gang. When the Great Intelligence threatens Clara and the Doctor, River stands by to offer her advice and warnings–fully under the belief that during all of her appearances around the TARDIS and the Doctor, that he hasn’t been able to see or hear her. Clara hears her, though, and River is able to guide Clara to discover that the gravestone on Trenzalore that is marked “River Song” is only a dummy and is likely a secret entrance to the tomb they are looking for. The Doctor agrees, remarking “They’d never bury my wife out here.”
Inside the tomb, River attempts to slap the Doctor, and he catches her arm, much to her astonishment. Declaring “I’m not really here”, the Doctor confesses that she’s always there to him, he always listens, and he can always see her. He goes on to insist he hasn’t acknowledged her previously because he didn’t think he could cope with the pain of saying goodbye to her. He then kisses ghost River (in the presence of people who cannot see her), and reminds her that she is an echo that should have faded by now. River posits that she hasn’t faded because he never said goodbye. The two share their final goodbye. River fades with a final “Goodbye, Sweetie”.