All this week we have been looking at River Song episodes of Doctor Who. She is notable for being the companion who the Doctor keeps meeting out of order, and time travel is therefore a very important part of their story. But she is not just a time traveller: she is a time-travelling archaeologist.
Now, I have to admit that my first thought about River was that she was a big ripoff of Bernice Summerfield. You see, the Doctor has travelled around with an archaeologist before, and she is completely brilliant. For my money a far superior character to River, and not one who emerges from an era of Doctor Who where every companion is defined by their physical attraction to the Doctor and it’s degree of reciprocation. Bernice is still going strong on audio and if you ever want to embark on an audio spinoff journey… well, I would recommend Jago and Litefoot actually. But when you’ve listened to all of those go and buy the Bernice audios, and make sure you get everything from day one, because there are two decades of magnificent character development there.
The Bernice universe solves a problem that the River Song universe has, because the idea of a time-travelling archaeologist actually makes little sense, if you understand what an archaeologist actually does. There is no point whatsoever digging around in the sand for pieces of a metaphorical jigsaw puzzle, which you are trying to assemble to work out the social history of an ancient civilisation, if you can just pop back and see them for yourself. After her travels with the Doctor, Bernice is largely confined to a single time period, working for the Braxiatel Collection. So it makes a lot more sense, and also the Collection brings us on to the kind of person from history and literature Bernice and especially River Song are referencing: antiquarians.
So before the days where archaeology gained some sanity, and we’re talking basically the Renaissance onwards but very strongly during the Victorian era, a lot of wealthy academics set about collecting old things, and some developed a fascination for digging up and investigating old civilisations. Sometimes they used dynamite where nowadays a trowel and a brush would be considered more appropriate. These people can be loosely termed antiquarians, and by the Victorian era they were starting to appear in fiction, disturbing curses and the like. Several brave travellers were exploring deeper and deeper into the mysterious heart of Africa during the 18th and 19th Centuries in particular, and their accounts of their adventures captured the imagination. For a good example, have a look at my series of articles about Bayard Taylor’s A Journey to Central Africa over on my history blog, starting with this article.
So the idea of an archaeologist or antiquarian having exciting adventures was pretty ingrained by the 20th Century, and examples started to appear in early comics such as Doc Savage (1933) and the one lots of readers will probably be familiar with from their childhoods: Scrooge McDuck, in comics since 1947 and on television in Duck Tales from 1987. Then we have a line of inspiration that runs like this (probably): the outrageous exaggerater Percy Fawcett > Professor Challenger in Conan Doyle’s The Lost World > Indiana Jones. And here we get to the one who really captured the imagination. It’s not surprising. Who doesn’t love Indy? Since then we have had variations on the theme and, like Challenger, they don’t always have to be specifically archaeologists by profession in order to fit the mould: Rick O’Connell in The Mummy, Robert Langdon in The Da Vinci Code, and countless examples on television, including River.
The Doctor himself has a chequered relationship with archaeologists. When he first meets River he seems to have little respect for them:
I’m a time traveller. I point and laugh at archaeologists.
Although way back in The Tomb of the Cybermen he seemed quite pleased to be mistaken for one:
VINER: Look at him. Archaeologist written all over him.
DOCTOR: Really? Does it show?
Perhaps it was the events of Tomb that changed his mind. The actual archaeologists behave much more like antiquarians in that story, blasting their way into the tomb and releasing the metaphorical mummy’s curse: the frozen Cybermen. Strictly speaking the Doctor releases them, but that’s a story for another day. Another curse is released by an archaeologist in Pyramids of Mars, when Sutekh gets sort-of dug up by mistake. Then we have perhaps our best example of an antiquarian collector in the Classic series: Silverstein in The Web of Fear, whose insistence on keeping a Yeti in his collection results in a full-on invasion of London. So the antiquarians are troublesome enough, let alone the ones that travel through time.
It would appear that River’s story is at an end now, apart from audio adventures. I think that’s for the best, but maybe it’s time for a time-travelling archaeologist to take the opposite trajectory, and move from audio to television. After 20 years of wonderful Bernice Summerfield adventures, it would be about time. RP