This batch of four stories links back to River’s origins, illuminating her character in some fascinating ways.
I’m coming at The Diary of River Song from the wrong direction: a classic Who fan who hasn’t seen much new Who between Eccleston and Capaldi. I know of River Song— spoilers and all— but I’ve only ever seen her in Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead. So I’m sure I missed many nuances of these audios, although they provide enough context (and series 6 spoilers) to orient the novice listener. I’ve enjoyed getting to know River Song, despite being a classic Who curmudgeon who was dubious about her marrying the Doctor.
While each of these audios is its own mini adventure, they build on one another, establishing themes and plot elements that come together in the final episode. So it makes sense to review them together. As usual, I’ll be vague to avoid spoilers, then more specific in the “Spoilerific Comments” section below the divider.
The Lady in the Lake – 8/10
Once I got used to Terminus Prime having nothing to do with Nyssa’s Terminus, I warmed to this quirky story, a poignant mix of comedy and tragedy. Nev Fountain is not afraid to tackle grim issues like suicide or death cults, but he does it through the meta-lens of an 80s Who artificial world like Paradise Towers. However, the emphasis on characters’ personalities, backstories and relationships places this story squarely in the style of new Who.
That’s mostly because of River, of course. Alex Kingston shines in delivering the emotional as well as some physical punches. Along the way, a much-put-upon incarnation of death becomes her reluctant sidekick. He’s not her first choice when she’s trying to save lives, but he’s oddly relatable. River also acquires a starry-eyed fan; brace yourself for some gushy lines almost as saccharine as when River is going on about the Doctor.
Most of the stories in this series touch on how the Doctor has or hasn’t changed the way River’s ethical outlook, and that issue is firmly established here. Also, I’m not sure how much this comes out in her TV appearances, but behind the self-assured whirlwind-with-a-gun space adventurer, there’s a subtle loneliness to River’s character. I liked her depth in this one, which leaves her a bit ragged around the edges.
A Requiem for the Doctor – 7/10
It turns out that Jac Rayner’s Requiem for the Doctor is the only audio in this set with the Doctor and River working together throughout most of the story. A pity, because they have good chemistry, although the Fifth Doctor is a bit baffled by her. He’s surprisingly accommodating when she asks to tag along, no questions asked, but he did the same for Turlough.
Not that River has the Fifth Doctor all to herself. Brooke, who apparently joined him after he left Tegan and Nyssa to explore Amsterdam for a few days, is an up-to-date New Who companion peppering her dialog with “OMG” and cynical asides. She’s not pleased to have a rival. Women squabbling over a man is one of my least favourite tropes, but at least River’s not so much jealous as taking her relationship with the Doctor for granted.
Alex Kingston has been wanting a historical. She got half her wish, although 18th century Vienna doesn’t give River much scope for archaeology. Instead, the Doctor decides to take his newfound friends to a Mozart concert. Which results in their stumbling across a grisly murder (?) mystery. The friction between Brooke and River makes for some prickly tension while they’re investigating.
While the Doctor is somewhat backgrounded to allow River the spotlight, he pulls one stunt that’s notably heroic and facepalmingly risky. (He also sprouts a new ability I don’t recall in earlier Who, but it wouldn’t be the first time: see Venusian Aikido). River’s concern for him makes the danger feel more personal and more immediate. Like her dazzled follower in the first story, she starts gushing about who and how wonderful the Doctor is, a tell-not-show habit all too common in the Moffat era.
Unusually, Requiem addresses a complex problem that usually impacts women, affording a rare chance for a female lead working with other female characters to tackle it. This story is well-timed, coming out just before the remarkable “Gallifrey Waits No More” panel in which Rona Munro said:
“Womens’ actual experiences are not seen as heroic. Womens’ actual lives are seen as sad and depressing. I want to start a campaign for telling womens’ actual stories and demonstrating how brilliant they are.”
So while I wanted the Fifth Doctor and River to work together even more than they do and for the Fifth Doctor to question her more closely, there couldn’t be a better reason for him to step back and let her do some of the fast-talking and persuasion that’s usually his specialty.
My other minor quibble stems from the fact that I have trouble with certain kinds of “agony acting” if it lasts too long: gurgles, screams, wails, hysterics, groans of pain and so on. There’s rather a lot of that in this release.
A Dinner With Andrew (10/10)
Until I checked, I assumed this was a Jonny Morris script. I didn’t realise anyone else could craft timey-wimey so convoluted and ingenious. But no, it’s a John Dorney. And it’s brilliant, although it took me two listens and an an Excel spreadsheet to untangle the timeline macramé. You needn’t bother. You’ll get the general idea and arc, even if you can’t figure out its chronology.
So. The Doctor has a dinner date with River Song in an exclusive restaurant that Douglas Adams might have written (and essentially did, except that The Bumptious Gastropod is outside time instead of at the end of the universe). But if River’s not careful, this Doctor could wind up sharing the same fate as Dish of the Day. And she can’t tell him why, so she has to watch his back.
Along with other parts of his anatomy.
A Dinner with Andrew is a farce with plenty of flirting and flustered Five, but there’s an underlying pensive note to it thanks to a guest character whom River ropes into the mayhem. Even though the actor playing Andrew arrived in studio having not read the script (gee, who could that be?) he pulls off the difficult part with aplomb. The listener can’t help but sympathise with this poor nebbish thrown into the deep end.
Andrew is very confused. So is the Doctor. So is Brooke. Before long, even River is having to leave virtual post-it notes to herself. The only person who really seems to know what’s going on is the helpful maître d’:
River: “But I don’t see how I can do that if there’s no time here!”
Maître D’: “Your later self has already asked me this one hour ago. I will explain earlier.”
He’s a great character. I can’t help hoping we’ll hear from him again. If “again” even makes sense in this context.
Once again, River’s ethics are put to the test. Just what will she do, to save the Doctor’s life?
The Furies (9/10)
I’m always happy when Who riffs on classical mythology, even when it results in lurching minotaurs. On this occasion, the results are rather better, if more grim. All the threads from the previous three audios come together in Matt Fitton’s nailbiter of a script.
Most importantly, River’s old nemesis Madame Kovarian makes a triumphant return. I haven’t seen her TV episodes, but villain-gloating is an effective vehicle for necessary backstory. Kovarian is frustrated that River failed her, but she hasn’t abandoned her quest.
I doubt River has ever faced bleaker odds or a darker moment than she does in this story, raging impotently at the twisted woman who helped make her what she is. There’s some brilliantly biting dialogue between them, probing River’s past and upbringing in more detail than was shown on TV. This whole story boils down to a psychological duel between two strong-willed women with Kovarian’s minions, River’s replacements, caught in the crossfire.
The Doctor’s presence is more felt than seen in this story, but it’s a powerful one. He hangs over all of them in one way or another.
Although I didn’t notice until it was mentioned in the extras, the main players in this drama are women: villain, minions, hero, the lot. It includes something I’ve been critical of Big Finish for overlooking (since my favourite TARDIS team includes Tegan and Nyssa): emotionally rich relationships between women, which are every bit as valid a topic to explore as bro-ships like like Holmes and Watson, or the romantic relationships that dominate the box office and quite a lot of modern Who.
By the way, if you know River’s story well, you may recognise the face or name of Nina Toussaint-White, aka Melody Pond in Series 6. She’s playing a different character now, but there are ways in which she forces River to reflect on the person she once was.
My only knock on this boxset is that the Fifth Doctor and River don’t have enough time together, and Five’s extra companion is shoehorned in somewhat awkwardly (which is the point of the character). But they’re a great introduction to River that I think will please her longtime fans as well. They provide her with a nuanced arc and even some character development, as well as many chances to flaunt the competence, wit, skills, flirting and self-assurance she’s known for. I can see why she’s won so many fans.
Okay. Spoilers for all four stories below the break.
ANDREW. I just. LOVED him. On the second listen I caught the fact that Peter was slipping in and out of Yorkshire at some key moments, so that I guessed the solution to the time paradox, but that made it no less moving and distressing. Kudos to Peter for making Andrew so gormless yet incredibly charming and funny.
Countless Who stories have ended with the Doctor heroically offering his life only to be given a last minute reprieve when some guest character obligingly does the self-sacrificing in his stead. See even Requiem for the Doctor, where he says “there should have been another way.” In The Furies, that idea is flipped on its head: a sacrificial lamb is duped into putting his head on the chopping block by a character who, unlike River, won’t sacrifice herself to save the Doctor; she sacrifices somebody else!
It’s a downbeat note to end on, although it was presaged from Andrew’s very first scene. It’s fascinating to see River’s own evolution of thought from stories 1 to 4, brutally gunning down Lake in vengeance only to learn she’s wrong; arguing against Giulia’s quest for vengeance while being enormously sympathetic to her motives, coldly choosing Andrew to die in the Doctor’s place only to save him when minor nudging from the Maître D’ reminds her that she might be ruthless when necessary, but the Doctor would never approve of someone dying in his stead. And then Brooke, who hasn’t learned that lesson, does it for her. River claims she might’ve done it if she had too, but Brooke doesn’t believe her. The question is left open: would River have done it, if Brooke hadn’t?
Speaking of sacrificial lambs, Lily was a great bit of foreshadowing, despite my wanting to reach for insulin when she started gushing too much over River. Her regeneration presages Brooke’s. She dies despite River trying to save her. And of course there’s the early revelation of a lot more River-clones or genetic siblings running around. I need to go back and watch her whole arc; were they presaged on TV, or is that a new wrinkle introduced by Big Finish? And should they really be called Time Lords, or is River confusing Academy rank with species? Are there any others? Will the three Furies eventually kill Kevorian, or will she escape (and probably kill them)? There’s lots of loose threads yet to play with.
And I couldn’t figure out how to mention it without spoiling the fun, but I was curious to see how much River was going to embarrass the Doctor’s most uptight incarnation. She didn’t disappoint. Although making a hobby of nonconsensual kissing is an ironic thing for Amy’s daughter to do, especially since she keeps going back to snog Doctors from the days of “no hanky panky in the TARDIS.”