River Song vs. Bernice Summerfield

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Guest contributor Gustaff looks into the similarities between the two characters.

Most of you who follow our favourite time travelling Time Lord in his bigger-on-the-inside TARDIS on television will no doubt know who River Song is. Unless you’ve been living in a cave or asleep for the majority of Matt’s run. She is like John Cena to some Whovians. Why compare the sexy actress to a wrestling champion you ask? Well, the more we see of her, the more annoying she gets. In both cases above, this is not true for me. I adore River Song and her journey the past few years and hope we’ll see more of her. To those of you who do not know who the other woman in the title is… She is Professor Bernice Summerfield: Who some fans believe Moffat ripped off when he created Song.

There has been many a banter and criticism over River Song and that Moffat copied Benny Summerfield’s character when he designed Song ever since she first turned up. I, a fan of both, believe this to be false and I am here to explain why!

Bernice Summerfield

“Hi, my friends call me Benny!”

Lisa-Bowerman-berniceA human professor of Archaeology from Beta Caprisis in the late 26th and early 27th century. She has travelled with the 7th and 8th Doctors. We first meet her in Love and War, where she met the 7th Doctor and Ace on the planet Heaven when the Hoothi attacked and stuck around after Ace left. In The Dying Days it is implied that she and the 8th Doctor danced. She is a very witty individual, a strong female who is not afraid to speak her mind. The character has proved very popular in novels and she even has her own spin-off in the audios and a short animated feature.

River Song

“Hello sweetie!”

the-wedding-of-river-song-promo pics-(14)A human professor of Archaeology from the planet Earth; born on an asteroid as a weapon to assassinate the 11th Doctor. She is one of those companions who shares a very tangled temporal web with the Doctor in that she first met the Doctor at a point in his life before he knew her, but she knew him intimately. She is extremely loyal and in love with the Doctor and the 11th Doctor has implied in The Wedding of River Song that their relationship is also of a ‘dancing’ nature. She is a very flirty individual and a strong female. The character has had a novel written around her and appeared in The Eternity Clock, a PC game.

Now from the brief description above, it is easy for someone to confuse River Song for a Bernice Summerfield knockoff. Both have travelled with multiple incarnations of the Doctor, shared a dance with him, both professors of Archaeology. But this is probably where the similarities end. Let’s see why…

A self-described psychopath, Song was inspired to become an Archaeologist as a means of finding the Doctor and seems to meet him through that connection. It has been theorised that she has no other use for the art other than finding and spending time with him. She has also shown to have a very adventurous and frisky spirit, which she flaunts by hitting on the Doctor most of any episode she’s in and like most companions in the new series, she is strong willed. She does sometimes seem to act like a Benny Summerfield who is permanently on Red Kryptonite judging by her very flirtatious and un-inhibited personality. She has a criminal record, up until the Doctor helped get her pardoned, but the most important aspect of River I think and something that not only establishes her as a whole, separate being from Benny AND every companion up until now, is that she is the only other person, apart from Lady Penfort, that knows the Doctor’s real name.

Summerfield, on the other hand, is a think-on-her-feet type of gal, highly observant, born adventurer and witty character. Most of the time, she parallels the opposite of how River acts. Unlike Song, she doesn’t enjoy fieldwork very much, but is more responsible and reasonable. Where Song can’t seem to stay mad at the Doctor for too long, Summerfield often fought and second-guessed the Doctor when she thought he was doing something immoral (since most of her travels was with the 7th Doctor, it probably was something immoral). She has shown to be a reserved and honest person. She is disorganised, sometimes tardy and forgetful. Like River Song, she is very open-minded and also like our psychopathic hero, keeps a diary. Though this is more personalized than River’s who mainly uses hers as a tool for measuring at what stage her relationship with the Doctor is whenever they meet.

From the discussion above, there are similarities between the two, but it can’t be said that Song was ripped off from Summerfield. They are two very different individuals in totally separate parts of the Doctor’s life. Like most companions in the new series, they share certain aspects that might confuse viewers, but Doctors 9 to 11 seem to exhibit varying degrees of one of Tom Baker’s most famous traits. By traits I am of course referring to the 4th Doctor’s bohemian and eccentric nature.

Some will defend this by stating that it is the same character and that sharing past traits isn’t weird when David’s Doctor almost copied Peter’s, but TV shows like Monk, Psych, The Mentalist and Castle, among others, also feature protagonists with some key eccentric or quirky characteristic. We, as humans, enjoy watching people like this, and it doesn’t mean the characters were ripped off from one another, merely that the concept has been copied: Audience A likes quirky concept A and C and so forth.

I believe it was a conscious decision in the new series that every incarnation of the Doctor, starting with Chris will have a varying degree of Tom’s quirkiness coupled with their own portrayal of the Doctor. Chris introduced us to “bohemianology”, David flourished in it and Matt’s Doctor took it to 11 (no pun intended). The logical reason for this decision would be Tom’s Doctor’s popularity. This has proved to be a good decision in my opinion and I can defend it by referring to Peter, Colin and Sylvester. Although they had brilliant portrayals each, their incarnations were drained of Tom’s bohemianism. It can be further theorised that Tom’s take on the Doctor might have inspired future writers to create present day eccentric characters such as Shawn Spencer from Psych or Rick Castle from…well Castle.

Even Jenna’s portrayal of Oswin reflected some of River’s personality, but that doesn’t mean Moffat copied River onto her. He merely took certain aspects that he knew viewers would like and added them to Oswin. I’ve gone off-subject a bit, but I’m sure everyone gets the idea.

I am not saying that Moffat might not have looked to Benny’s character for inspiration when he designed River, but she is not a knockoff. That’s like saying Martha Jones is a Rose knockoff since they both loved the Doctor. Or if you’re really smart, you can say they’re both Charley Pollard knockoffs from the audios who was very in love with the Doctor AND came before them OR if you’re Sherlock Holmes clever, you can say that all female companions that have had romantic feelings towards the Doctor are just Grace Holloway knockoffs who was the first to get frisky on screen.

On a last note…actually on a personal note; I adore both characters and enjoy watching and listening to them both. When I look at Doctor Who and all the changes it makes in all of its regenerations, I think: What if?

What if:

  • The Doctor didn’t fancy Rose? = Martha Jones
  • Patrick Troughton was a man of action? = Jon Pertwee
  • The Doctor had a companion who wanted a one night stand? = Amy Pond
  • Benny Summerfield was a flirtatious, ass-kicking, psychopath? = River Song

Every idea in the world is just a “what if” taken from something else…