River Song knows all the faces of the Doctor, but (as far as we know) she only met the 10th doctor once and all the other times she was with the 11th doctor. Therefore, the moment she saw that the doctor was the 10th, she should have known he was from a very early point and had no idea who she was. She however asks him where they were and pulls out her diary - and she has to stare at his face before she realizes 'it was very young'.

Was this only because they didn't plan on David leaving? I'm assuming this was an unfortunate mistake because they didn't plan on him regenerating so soon?

  • wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey River and The Doctor's timeline is.
    – Xantec
    Aug 22, 2012 at 15:35
  • 5
    Shouldn't this question be "Why didn't River immediately know when the Doctor was meeting River for the first time?" Because it's not the first time for River.
    – Martha
    Aug 22, 2012 at 16:51
  • 2
    Yes that is what I meant, when she was meeting the doctor for HIS first time.
    – Julene
    Aug 27, 2012 at 17:42

13 Answers 13


Given her Time Lord DNA, she might not have noticed the difference at first. Go back to "The Deadly Assassin". Runcible, an old schoolmate of the Doctor's, asked him if he'd had a facelift. He recognized the Fourth Doctor, in spite of last seeing him as the first. Furthermore, his reaction was more along the lines of seeing someone with eye glasses for the first time. He knew it was The Doctor, but wasn't really sure what seemed different about him.

From that, I've always taken it that Time Lords "see" each other differently than humans do. The outer shell is practically ignored. A regeneration, while a major change in appearance to a human, is barely noticed by another Time Lord.

It's possible, River "sees" The Doctor in the same way a Time Lord does. To her, the difference between 10 and 11 is like the difference between a human before and after a face lift.

  • 9
    Whoa, this is actually a fairly satisfying explanation, +1
    – evilsoup
    May 23, 2013 at 17:43
  • 8
    Doesn't really fit with Missy though - the Doctor should have had no trouble working out who she was according to this Jan 25, 2015 at 17:53
  • 2
    Actually, there's probably a way around that -- In series 3 of the revived series, the Master creates a low level psychic field to hide his identity from the Doctor. So Missy could probably have done something similar. Aug 3, 2016 at 3:06

I think the best way of reconciling this is to assume that she meets later regenerations as well as Ten and Eleven, and the Doctor thought it'd be too spoilerish to tell her what order they all come in. So when she meets Ten, her first assumption is that he's Fourteen or something. This probably only works if they're going to get around the Doctor's regeneration limit somehow, but I think that's a foregone conclusion anyway.

Note that River not only doesn't know that the Doctor hasn't met her yet, she doesn't even know that he hasn't done the Byzantium crash yet, and we know that happened to Eleven. So saying that she might have met Ten offscreen isn't sufficient to solve this problem; she must somehow not know that Ten comes before Eleven until she does her diary comparison.

Making things worse, she mentions a "picnic at Asgard" which she thinks came between the Library and the Byzantium crash in the Doctor's timeline. She also doesn't know if that's happened to the Doctor, and there aren't any other regenerations in between Ten and Eleven to have picnicked with her. I can only think of three ways to make sense of this, none of them particularly satisfying:

  • The Twelfth Doctor picnicked at Asgard, and lied about when in his timeline he was when it happened.
  • For wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey reasons, the actual events she mentioned are fixed points in time, but which regeneration of the Doctor did them is not.
  • River has prosopagnosia, or for some other reason is incapable of reasoning, "if events A and B happened to the same regeneration while event C happened to a different regeneration, then event C did not happen between events A and B on the Doctor's timeline."

EDIT: Given the events of "Time of the Doctor",

it's very possible that some later regeneration of the Doctor bears a striking resemblance to David Tennant. The Curator suggests that he'll probably find himself "revisiting a few [faces], but just...the old favourites, eh?" So River would actually be correct if she were to fail to reason as in my third bullet point (though there's no direct evidence that she knows it).

  • Your second paragraph isn't clear. Can you explain your conclusions?
    – Christi
    Aug 22, 2012 at 8:13
  • @Christi: How's that?
    – Micah
    Aug 22, 2012 at 15:14
  • After the library, River's song will end.
    – bitmask
    Sep 15, 2012 at 14:21
  • 1
    @Micah: You missed (4) "the Eleven and River had a picnic at Asgard offscreen sometime". From her jail cell immediately following her shooting him seems the obvious possibility - she could easily be mistaken about the order (for Eleven) of her encounters with Eleven.
    – Tynam
    Apr 9, 2013 at 21:37
  • @Tynam: Once she knows the Doctor hasn't done the Byzantium crash yet, she knows he's from a pre-Byzantium regeneration. So even if she's a little bit fuzzy about the order, she shouldn't have to ask him about Asgard, unless she literally doesn't remember whether it was Ten or Eleven she picnicked with.
    – Micah
    Apr 9, 2013 at 22:15

River has met the Doctor at least once off-screen, and probably more. She mentions a "picnic at Asgard" when they first meet in Silence in the Library, which we have never seen on screen. He had also given her a sonic screwdriver at some point.

A logical assumption that reconciles the fact that she doesn't automatically assume the 10th Doctor must be the first time they've met and the off-screen meetings is that at least some of these took place with the 10th Doctor.


Remember what the Tenth Doctor said about time?

People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint - it's more like a big ball of wibbly wobbly... time-y wimey... stuff.

And the timeline of the Doctor and River Song doesn't go side by side. Their timeline is kinda interwoven within the giant ball of timelines which is kinda messy.

As a time traveler, River Song knew that their timeline doesn't match with their ages. And they travel by themselves often, so they probably don't where is the other one in their respective time point. She could be meeting any Doctor.

Obviously it was not the first time she met the Tenth. She thought the Doctor was playing with her that he pretended he didn't know her by asking "Who are you?". She started checking diary with the Doctor so obviously this is not the first time she met the Doctor in a different time point from the last time they met. She had came to the end of her life ( which she didn't know until the last moment ) so her diary was full of record with the Doctor. It was a surprised for her to find out that the Doctor didn't know about any of the event she said. She soon realized that it was a really young Doctor and it turned out that it was the first time the Doctor met her.


I think I've had this all worked out for awhile. Let me know if you follow my reasoning.

It makes the most sense to suggest that River recognized 10's face at The Library, and assumed he would know her, because she'd met him before in her past, perhaps multiple times. I am a supporter of the off-screen encounters rationale, given how much time the Doctor spends there ["Had a bit of fun, you know. Traveled about, did this and that. Got into trouble, you know me. It was brilliant. I saw the Phosphorus Carousel of the Great Magellan Gestalt. Saved a planet from the Red Carnivorous Morg. Named a galaxy Allison. Got married..." - The End of Time].

It's also very likely 11 showed her images of all his past regenerations so she would at least know whether she was encountering one that would know her. It's quite possible that any of 1-9 encountered her before. Of course, she would have needed to keep her identity from them, and try not to be very memorable, to avoid screwing up the timeline. Whenever she calls out through all time and space for the Doctor, what's to stop any other of his regenerations from responding? [The TARDIS is my only answer for that, especially given the whole "Doctor's Wife" bit about taking him where he needs to go.]


I have a few theories on the subject:

  1. Ten's death was not written in time. From all we know, River could have done Byzantium, The Big Bang - or even every adventure with 10; this was re-written after 10 regenerated, so instead it was with 11. Remember, time is constantly in flux.

  2. River's timeline is not simply in the wrong order; it's a skewed order. She doesn't get younger every time we see her: The Angels in Manhattan could be years later than Time of the Angels. Therefore, she simply met 10 a few times, while continuing to spend most of her time with 11. Because 10 would have known her, River would not know how many regenerations into the past she could have known him. (This is the most likely option, and Moffat agrees.)

  3. River recognises him as a Time Lord without noticing his appearance. Time Lords recognise each other not through appearance - they can tell who another is even if they've regenerated. River has partial Time Lord DNA, and has obviously learnt how to speak Gallifreyan - it can be assumed she learnt how to do this, too.

  • 2
    "this is the most likely option, and Moffat agrees." do you have a source to back that up? I'm more curious than anything
    – childcat15
    May 24, 2013 at 1:27

While I do think that it was mainly because they didn't know Tennant would be leaving so soon, the matter is not without a number of possible reconciliations:

1) It could be that the events of "The End of Time" and the whole "returning Time War" business mucked up the timeline a little and resulted in Ten regenerating earlier than he should have. As we saw, the oncoming re-emergence of the War did cause some significant temporal anomalies such as "bad dreams" about the Master bleeding through into everyone in the universe's minds as well as the rapid development of the Ood race. However, this would retroactively alter the events of "Silence in the Library" (albeit to a very small degree) because River would likely not ask about about the Crash of the Byzantium. However, while his explanation provides an in-story "out" for the contradiction, it is rather pointless from an out-of-universe perspective as it simply ignores the contradiction as opposed to justifying it.

2) She assumed that Ten was a future Doctor (Twelve, Fourteen, etc.). Since she never meets the Doctor in the right order, it is very possible that she could have met some from far into the future (the 37th Doctor, perhaps, although that seems a bit of a stretch) and thus, Ten could still be considered "early days" for her, as the first Doctor that she met was Eleven, and thus, he would be the "earliest." I kind of prefer this explanation, as we know that the crash of the Byzantium occurred in Eleven's lifetime and the picnic at Asgard seems like something that Eleven and her would have done, considering how close they were. However, it is probable that she has met Ten more than once, as Eleven is already accustomed to meeting her in the wrong order in "The Time of Angels". From Ten's perspective, any subsequent encounters with a younger River than the one seen in "Silence in the Library" would likely have occurred when he was avoiding his oncoming regeneration, which he did in between "The Waters of Mars" and "The End of Time" (and, since this wasn't long after he lost Donna, it could have been when he told River about her, as the River in "Silence in the Library" was aware of who Donna was and seemed to know about what would happen to her). This doesn't really cause any major problems for this explanation (in fact, it helps to explain her "younger than I've ever seen you" comment, as Ten would have been older by this point), but it does seem odd that she would mention smaller events like the crash of the Byzantium and the picnic at Asgard when, if she did indeed mistake Ten for a later-but-still-early incarnation, they would have shared much "bigger" events together like rebooting the universe. (Although Eleven was still fairly "early" when that happened, so even now it should seem odd that she didn't bring it up.) Still, this seems to be the most likely rationalization given what we know.

3) She recognized Ten as "the Doctor," but not as any particular incarnation due to her "Time Lord sense." I'm not very fond of this explanation, as it presents some questions such as why, if she could sense who he was, could he not tell who she was? The "Time Lord sense" should technically work both ways. Plus, she obviously did recognize him (primarily because she had pictures of all of his incarnations, but it helps to assume that she mad met Ten before when he was later in his life, which does seem to be evidenced by Eleven's familiarity with their anachronistic relationship), so even if she recognized him because of her "Time Lord sense," she probably would have followed the exact same process (that is, asking him about events in her diary) and would have gotten the same problematic result as the one with which we are currently dealing (which is "why did she ask Ten about the crash of the Byzantium if she experienced it with Eleven?").


My favourite two theories are as follows, in reverse order of favourite

2) Time Lords barely see the physical sides of each other because their bodies change all the time, therefore, because River is part Time Lord, she sees the Doctor in a more metaphysical way. She sees his youth in his eyes and how they see things, not in his face or body.

1) River assumes that a future version of herself will have met the Doctor at an earlier time. Because she keeps meeting in the wrong order and he always knows her, she assumes that at some point in her personal future, an older River will meet an even younger Doctor, not suspecting that THIS time was the time that he first met her.


The problem is that she tries to sync diaries and asks about the Byzantium. Even if there were off screen encounters, the Tenth Doctor never kept a diary. The Eleventh didn't keep one until some time during the 200 years before his "death" at Lake Silencio.

Since the Eleventh Doctor was at the Byzantium and hadn't started keeping his River diary until some time between "The God Complex" and "Closing Time", the question about the Byzantium makes no sense.

If River believed Ten was a later regeneration than Eleven, she wouldn't need to ask the question about Byzantium, since the answer would be obvious. If he was an earlier regeneration than Eleven, then she'd know he doesn't keep a diary yet and hadn't done Byzantium yet. Either way the question makes no sense. She'd have asked about an event she'd had with the face she's looking at.

This leads to only two possibilities:

  1. My reference above to how Time Lords see and recognize each other. The scene in "The Deadly Assassin" with Runcible is the most clear.

  2. Timey Wimey. Due to The Doctor changing history, including "The Waters of Mars, rebooting the Universe and the most recent changes in "The Day of The Doctor", events have flowed differently for River. At the time of "Silence in the Library" she'd had some, if not most, of her adventures with the Tenth Doctor. However, in this timeline he regenerated sooner and now those adventures were with the Eleventh. Given her parentage, The Doctor still must have travelled with Amy and Rory in one or both of his regenerations.

  • "Sync diaries" may simply be a short form for "Try once again to make any sense of our messy respective timelines, with the aid of my own diary, which is an actual diary, and your memories, which I'm calling diary just to avoid this long sentence."
    – giorgian
    Nov 29, 2013 at 11:39
  • Whether there's a physical diary or not, the situation still stands. The Doctor at the Byzantium had one face and the Doctor in the Library had another. Either he was a future version in which case the answer would automatically be yes, or he was a prior version who'd yet to experience the Byzantium. It does little to nothing to narrow down his timeline and adds in the possibility of revealing information to him that he shouldn't yet know. She might as well have shown him a picture of Eleven and asked him is he's look like this yet. Why not just ask what number he is?
    – Carl
    Dec 10, 2013 at 21:25

Just because the Doctor was in his 10th iteration didn't mean that he hadn't met River Song. Remember, as far as River is concerned, she has no idea that she's about to die. So as far as she's concerned, it's possible that her future has met this Doctor in his past.

She most definitely has not met the 10th Doctor in her past before the Library - her second to last trip with the Doctor to the Singing Towers was with the 11th, as show in Last Night.

  • 1
    The 10th Doctor doesn't recognize River in Silence in the Library. I think it assumes an unnecessary level of deception to say he is pretending not to recognize here, even to Donna. Jan 15, 2013 at 17:37

River meets the Doctor for her first time in "Silence in the Library"/"Forest of the Dead". She either recognizes him because she knows him so well and his personality is pretty much unrecognizable, regardless of his face. She may also have met him later in his timeline, yet earlier in hers. We may be mistaken to assume that the next time the Doctor sees her is in "Flesh and Stone"/"The Time of Angels". There is no definitive evidence in that episode that this is only the second time he meets her. Ten may have come in contact with her any time in his timeline between "Silence"/"Forest" and "Flesh"/"Angels".


It can all be explained away by the fact that River 'lies', as does the Doctor to avoid spoilers. Any reaction she has could be a lie to avoid the Doctor finding out too much from her or the Doctor giving away too much too her. She could have known very well that this Doctor wouldn't have known about the Crash of Byzantium or the picnic at Asgard etc, but didn't want him to know that she knew that, so always pretends she doesn't know by checking the diary. Especially if she has met the 10th Doctor before and knows his knowledge is very limited, or has never met the 10th Doctor and has know idea how much he knows. By mentioning things that won't happen to him until his next regeneration it makes the meetings she does have with the 10th even more of a mystery to him - or something like that .....


I would just like to note to people - as I did read this somewhere......David Tennant was going to stay longer on the show as the doctor. But when new Directors or Producers were coming to the show - they were set to keep David on set as the Doctor. David essentially told the guys he'd step down so they can bring in someone new and do what they want with the story.

Did this influence the River story? Perhaps - as perhaps it was supposed to be the 10th Doctor who she did some of those future stories with, until 10th regenerated.

  • Can you provide some kind of reference to back this up?
    – Valorum
    Jan 11, 2014 at 19:16

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