In this year's Christmas special The Husbands of River Song, why did River

take so long to realise that the man accompanying her was in fact the Doctor?

For most of the episode, I assumed

she'd forgotten all about him or had her memories removed or something, as she was so dull-headedly missing all the glaring hints he was dropping.

But this doesn't appear to be the case, as

she eventually does realise, without any immediate prompting.

So how come this didn't happen earlier? The last thing River seems to be is stupid!

And the other side of the coin: how come it did happen when it did? Did all the pieces of the puzzle finally slide together in her head, or was there some specific prompt at that moment which I missed?

  • 12
    is bad writing considered a valid answer?
    – King-Ink
    Commented Dec 27, 2015 at 15:40
  • 2
    The Doctor died at Trenzalore; River knew this. The Time Lords rewrote that history by giving him extra regenerations, but she wasn't around when it happened. Commented Dec 30, 2015 at 16:06

3 Answers 3


Why didn't River recognize him?

Because he's not supposed to exist. This is highlighted at least once in the episode itself:

[Alphonse pulls out a stack of pictures of the Doctor, from William Hartnell to John Hurt to Matt Smith]

Alphonse: None of these men are here. Are you sure it's one of these?

River: Yes. He only had these twelve faces.


Doctor: What if he has a face that you don't know about yet?

River: He has limits.

Doctor Who "The Husbands of River Song"

It's truly astonishing the kind of mental leaps your brain will go through trying to ignore something you know to be impossible; this is something the Doctor himself has commented on at least once, and has experienced on many occasions (albeit usually very briefly). Even if River's instincts are screaming out to her that this man is familiar, he can't possibly be the Doctor.

Why does she recognize him at that moment?

There was no specific prompt, but it seems to have been related both to her monologue about what it's like to love the Doctor, and the Doctor's visible reaction to what is simultaneously:

  • Very touching (he had his moment of doubt about her earlier, but this monologue is about as romantic as you get when you're River and the Doctor)
  • A bit insulting (since she outright says that it's not possible for him to love her, something he seems rather upset about)

So yeah, just the pieces sliding together. The capstone is probably the Doctor's response when she seems to have figured it out:

Doctor: Hello, sweetie.

Doctor Who "The Husbands of River Song"

At that point, who else could it be?

  • 3
    A plastic droid could also have said "Hello Sweetie"...
    – user931
    Commented Dec 28, 2015 at 3:57
  • This is helped along by the fact that a good deal of time has passed for her since she last saw the Doctor. If memory serves me right, she mentions somewhere in the episode that she's over 200 years old. This does require some handwaving since I'm pretty sure her diary wasn't nearly full when she died in the Library, though I'd have to re-watch the episode to verify.
    – Cronax
    Commented Dec 28, 2015 at 10:10
  • 'He only had these twelve faces.' but wouldn't 12 regenerations give you 13 faces? i.e. you already have face 1, so after registration 1 you have face 2 etc, up to regeneration 12 giving you face 13... Commented Sep 28, 2017 at 6:53
  • 1
    @WiggotheWookie Yes, but Tennant secretly regenerated and kept his face (Smith describes it as "vanity issues" in "Time of the Doctor"). It's reasonable to assume River knows about this Commented Sep 28, 2017 at 11:42

This all seems to stem from what River believes to be a solid fact about The Doctor. The fact that he only has 12 faces or 12 regenerations.

She has pictures of all of his faces which she believes to be the only possible faces of The Doctor. This means that she is in a state of assumption, constantly disregarding any other people as possible doctors.

It's also likely she doesn't know that extra regenerations can be granted to Time Lords considering she has never met the only Time Lord outside of Gallefrey to have this gift given to them.

Also this is seemingly near enough the end of River's life it is unclear how long it has been from the last time she has seen The Doctor.

  • But in the episode with the 11th Doctor and the Nazis, didn't River give the Doctor almost all of her regeneration energy to stop him dying? So she knows that it is possible to do that; she has done it herself.
    – wizzwizz4
    Commented Dec 27, 2015 at 9:27
  • @wizzwizz4 What is your point here? Commented Dec 27, 2015 at 9:28
  • 3
    This did not increase the amount of regenerations he had that this just used her regeneration energy to counteract the end of his life. Adding regenerations to a time lords allowance cannot be done by any time lord and does not require the donation of one time lords regeneration energy. @wizzwizz4 Commented Dec 27, 2015 at 9:34
  • 2
    @wizzwizz4 Are you aware of how he got his new set of regenerations? When river donated her energy this was to stop him dying at that point in time her had no renegerations left during the special with John Hurt and David Tennant all the Doctors join forces in their TARDIS's to save Gallifrey from the Time War it is because of this fact that the Time Lord council give The Doctor a new set of regenerations. This happens after Matt Smith is given Rivers energy to save him from the poison. Commented Dec 27, 2015 at 9:43
  • 3
    I'd like to point out the Doctor is not the only timelord beyond Gallifrey to be granted extra regenerations. The Master has been granted or stolen at least two extra regeneration cycles. Once for his help in "The Five Doctors" and once during the time war as stated in "The Sound Of Drums".
    – Pharap
    Commented Dec 27, 2015 at 18:34

Hope can twist your mind.

River wanted this badly. She knew she wanted it badly. She probably suspected very early but ignored the voice screaming "it's him" in her mind because that voice sounds much like the voice of desperate self delusion.

Imagine the work she did learning those faces. Imagine the time she spent before she knew them all. Every stranger she met might be him. Disappointed over and over. Believing she might even be talking to him and he wouldn't even admit who he was (which is just like him).

So yeah, even after all the hints she wants to KNOW it's him. I wouldn't have blamed her if she'd have punched him after that, "Hi sweety", line.

For a time lord he sure knows how to keep people waiting.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.