Doctor Doctor Who Guide

Written by Jenny T Colgan, Justin Richards,
James Goss and Matt Fitton
Directed by Ken Bentley
Big Finish Productions, 2016
Stars: Alex Kingston (River Song), Paul McGann (The Doctor), Samuel West (Mr Song), Alexander Vlahos (Bertie Potts), Alexander Siddig (Marcus Gifford), Imogen Stubbs (Isabella Clerkwell), Gbemisola Ikumelo (Prim), Charlotte Christie (Daphne Garsington), Alisdair Simpson (Colonel Lifford), Oliver Dimsdale (Archie Ferrers), John Banks (Professor Straiton), Letty Butler (Spritz), John Voce (Jenkins),
Aaron Neil (Sanukuma Master)

“You know nothing about my life! You don’t know what I’ve lost, what I had to do, who I had to leave behind! You think you were a pawn in someone else’s scheme – you don’t know the half of it!”

River Song, The Diary of River Song: The Boundless Sea

Over the years, Doctor Who has hinted at River Song’s exploits away from her husband. On TV, we’ve seen some brief examples of her misadventures, such as her near death experience-cum-rescue on the Byzantium in the prologue to The Time of Angels and her dealings with Winston Churchill, Dorium Maldovar and Liz Ten (not to mention her impersonation of Cleopatra in a Roman army camp!) in The Pandorica Opens. She’s clearly also intimidated the Daleks at some point because she made one beg for mercy before dispatching it! Away from the TV series, she’s even applied her private detective skills in the e-novella The Angel’s Kiss: A Melody Malone Mystery.

But it was only recently in the 2015 Christmas special The Husbands of River Song that we really saw River in full flight. She showed that, oblivious to the presence of the Doctor, she can be every bit as resourceful, charming, vivacious, black-humoured, demanding, commanding, duplicitous, ruthless, mischievous and self-interested as the unsavoury characters and groups that she encounters in her travels, eg King Hydroflax, the Harmony and Redemption’s maitre ’d Flemming. And, without his knowledge, she’s not above stealing her husband’s TARDIS on occasions to complete her missions! Alex Kingston’s performance in The Husbands of River Song was strongly reminiscent of Harrison Ford’s famous archaeologist persona Indiana Jones, another character not averse to gambling on huge odds and skating on thin ice while striving to stay one step ahead of the plot’s antagonists.

The Diary of River Song is a great opportunity to hear River in her prime, strutting her stuff and (no doubt in her mind) being pretty marvellous without the Doctor around. It follows a similar formula to Big Finish’s other Doctor Who boxsets (including the recent adventures of BF’s other resident archaeologist Professor Bernice Summerfield) – four linked tales, each part of a greater story but each being sufficiently different in style and atmosphere to maintain the listener’s interest. There is definitely a pay-off in the final instalment, as River runs into an earlier incarnation of her husband – the Eighth Doctor (Paul McGann) – and must assist him without giving away her identity and potentially disrupting the Doctor’s timeline.

Jenny T Colgan’s The Boundless Sea is the most entertaining of the first three instalments. It’s a riff on the old MGM/Hammer Egyptian mummy horror story, as River investigates disappearances at a newly-opened Mesopotamian tomb in the 1920s. The tomb is plagued by mysterious fireflies and a reanimated 3000-year old corpse with an insatiable thirst for fluids. Doctor Who in the modern era has really upped the menace of its monsters as protagonists find that they cannot suppress natural, inevitable vulnerabilities that play to the creatures’ strengths, ie blink (the Weeping Angels), don’t look away (the Silence), don’t breathe (the clockwork men in Deep Breath) or don’t think (the Bank Teller in Time Heist). The Boundless Sea offers its own variation on these themes and as a result, the sense of threat in the serial’s climactic stages is convincing. Colgan, however, still manages to elicit enough sympathy from the listener for the villain of the piece; the mummy’s back story is tragic and poignant in equal measure, and even River herself can relate to the character’s desire for another chance at life – and revenge.

Justin Richards’ I Went to a Marvellous Party is a traditional “who-dunnit” on a spaceship that is host to one of the galaxy’s most exclusive, elitist parties, hosted by a triumvirate that informally self-style themselves as the Rulers of the Universe: Marcus (Star Trek DS9 veteran Alexander Siddig), Isabella (Imogen Stubbs) and Bertie (Alexander Vlahov, better known as BF’s Dorian Gray). River, of course, receives an invitation for the most mysterious of reasons, and it is not long before she is playing sleuth after two murders occur aboard “The Party” ship. This instalment is the weakest of the four serials. As Richards himself admits in the “Making of ...” CD, his task as a writer is to ensure that events unfold in a manner that links with the next story in the quadrilogy. Unfortunately, this means Richards’ story is really a “by-the-numbers” contribution that appears to have been hastily written and isn’t necessarily well thought out (and given this is the first boxset in a new series, I’m surprised that a “by-the-numbers” affair is required so early!). The reasons for the murders and the identities of the killers are anti-climactic and dull and as a result the serial proves to be quite underwhelming and disappointing.

James Goss’s two-hander Signs is a little more engaging than Marvellous Party, largely due to the camaraderie between River and Samuel West’s Mr Song (in the CD extras, West jokes that the part is a great opportunity for him to show off his wares as the next Doctor Who!), but the plot is not compelling faire either. River goes on a quest in search of the spore ships, vessels that are once believed to have seeded life in the universe but are now being employed to extinguish it on civilised worlds. The narrative flits back and forth through time, as River battles radiation sickness and is nursemaided by the enigmatic Mr Song who seems more concerned with the ways you prepare triangle sandwiches and a pot of tea than he is with River’s health or the threat posed by the spore ships. Of course, Mr Song’s agenda is not as benign as it ought to be and River proves to be ... well, not quite herself (spoilers!).

However, the ending to Signs feels hurried and ill-thought out – and the manner in which River extricates herself from her predicament is unconvincing. One of the common criticisms of modern Doctor Who is the manner in which the Doctor and his companions can often “magic” their way out of trouble without logical explanation. In Goss’s conclusion, we’re also expected to believe that River simply out-thinks her way out of her predicament but there is little evidence in the dialogue to convey how she worked out she was ever in danger in the first place! In the CD extras, Goss says that he wrote this piece within a day or so – you are definitely left wondering if he should have committed some extra thought to the conclusion.

Fortunately, the quality of the writing improves in the final instalment The Rulers of the Universe, as the Eighth Doctor becomes entangled in “The Party” society’s agenda to capture a spore ship. Not only does Matt Fitton deliver a cracking script after Richards’s and Goss’s weaker efforts but he also raises the stakes at two levels – for the Doctor, it’s about averting a cosmic plan that will change the universe forever, while for River, it’s about assisting her man and ensuring his survival without letting him know who she is.

Paul McGann gets to stretch his performance as the Eighth Doctor; this is the Time Lord closer to the end of his eighth incarnation, at an unspecified point of the Time War (before The Night of the Doctor), not the Eighth Doctor as we last heard him in the first volume of The Doom Coalition. McGann conveys a sense of weariness and cynicism in his Doctor that comes from having already witnessed aspects of the Time War first hand, even if at this point he has resisted pleas to actively take part. As a result, with the focus more on the Doctor, The Rulers of the Universe feels more like a regular BF Doctor Who serial than a River Song adventure. Nevertheless, there are still some quirky River moments – especially when she explains to a perplexed Bertie how she manages to sabotage “The Party” ship, despite apparently lacking the resources to do so. This wouldn’t be possible in a regular Doctor Who release; it’s the sort of behaviour the Doctor (not to mention most other Time Lords) would frown upon and would never dare to attempt or exact!

The dialogue between Alex Kingston and Paul McGann suggests this will be a great River/Doctor pairing for audio. With River set to guest star in The Doom Coalition saga later this year, it will be fascinating to see how this relationship is developed, especially as she will be journeying even further back in the Eighth Doctor’s timeline.

Despite the inconsistency of the scripts in this boxset, Big Finish’s sound production values as ever remain high (I particularly enjoyed Howard Carter’s James Bond-like signature tune for River) and director Ken Bentley does an impressive job of casting the supporting characters. Alex Kingston, of course, owns not just the part of River but really the entire saga. She has a commanding presence on audio that maintains your attention from the get-go, even in the two faltering middle instalments. We see how ruthless River can be when she’s crossed, especially in the concluding moments of Signs: “I’m sure it’s all very nice for two omnipotent forces to play chess with the universe ... but they’re about to discover that a pawn can become queen!”

Kingston also skilfully conveys moments when River expresses a whole gamut of emotions, eg compassion, humour, sarcasm, sadness, anger and remorse. She really puts her heart and soul into the performance and eclipses most of the supporting actors around her.

Overall, The Diary of River Song is a relatively good, if not brilliant, start to River’s adventures on audio. The boxset has its hits and misses but Alex Kingston proves that she can hold her own in a River-centric series and the stories, as diverse as they are in terms of style and settings, at least show that there is great potential for ongoing adventures. There’s an unanswered question from this boxset that, while probably minor in the scheme of things, could inform future adventures. River talks in The Boundless Sea of doing her “penance”, as if the reason she has taken up residence in 1920s London is because of an overwhelming sense of guilt (perhaps over her part in the Silence’s efforts to assassinate the 11th Doctor).  By the end of the boxset, it’s clear she is done being manipulated, whether that’s by the Kovarian chapter of the Church of Silence, or the Rulers of the Universe. No doubt in future series, this is one lady who will mean business!

 

 

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