The Diary of River Song Series 09: New Recruit (Big Finish Review)

In theory (this reviewer having only heard three of the eight box sets released so far), The Diary of River Song wouldn’t appear to be one of Big Finish’s most compelling or essential ongoing series.  There isn’t a central narrative to follow, no great sense of jeopardy because the Doctor Who-savvy listener already knows when and how River’s story ends, and River herself appears so frequently in other Big Finish ranges (the Eighth Doctor’s Ravenous and the Tenth Doctor’s Dalek Universe, to name but two) that even she can’t provide a unique selling point, despite Alex Kingston’s unfailingly vivacious performance.

However, the plus side of all this is that River’s series is able to provide the kind of pulpy, inconsequential, fun adventures that are hard to come by in today’s shared-universe, arc-heavy pop culture world.   Without much effort – because she’s clearly been established as a resourceful time-and-space traveller, adept at using an array of methods to get about, and because it’s entirely consistent with her character to go wherever the most fun can be found – River, like the Doctor, can be dropped into almost any situation.

Indeed, there’s fun to be had when these situations have previously been occupied by the Doctor, just for the fun of seeing how her approach is different to the Gallifreyan’s.  And it’s from this line of thinking that the latest box set, the ninth in the series, draws its doozy of a premise: River arrives in the time period of classic Doctor Who’s (highly atypical) seventh season – that of slow-burning Earthbound threats, snarky scientist companion Liz Shaw, and the Brigadier’s khaki UN-iform – and takes the Doctor’s position as resident eccentric at the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce (UK division).

The Blood Woods

The first of this box set’s four stories is by Lizbeth Myles and elegantly establishes the new setup.  The Doctor is away on what is described as a classified mission, but the Brigadier (Jon Culshaw, reprising his impeccable channelling of Nicholas Courtney from The Third Doctor Adventures range) is prepared to accept River’s credentials for filling in his role.  (These credentials appear to include a reference from the Doctor, although which Doctor isn’t made clear.)

In a nice piece of character writing, Liz Shaw (Daisy Ashford making a beautiful showing in a role inherited from her late mother, Caroline John) immediately challenges the Brigadier’s decision, reasoning that she was originally hired as sole scientific advisor and should therefore be considered capable of fulfilling the role alone.  Naturally, however, her objection is overruled and she and River soon find themselves travelling to a quiet English village to investigate the unusual death of one Adam Taylor, a 22-year-old who has somehow wound up with an octogenarian corpse.

Myles is pretty much an expert on 1970 Doctor Who (having literally written the book on The Ambassadors of Death as part of Obverse Books’ Black Archive series).  It’s interesting that she and Lisa McMullin (writer of the fourth episode) faithfully reproduce the Brigadier’s patronising TV insistence on addressing Liz (a scientist with multiple doctorates) as ‘Miss Shaw’ while also having the audio Brig show deference to modern sensibilities by calling River ‘Dr Song’.  Having the character display both tendencies concurrently has the effect of suggesting that his attitude towards Liz had nothing to do with unconscious chauvinism and was actually a personal snub.

Despite this odd element, Myles’ dialogue is snappy and clever (including a hilarious re-purposing of a notorious Indiana Jones exchange) and the small but distinct cast of supporting characters are sketched in well.  The always-entertaining Abigail McKern is on plummy form as a local amateur archaeologist, while Kingston, Ashford and Culshaw meld into an engaging team in no time at all.  The tale offers eerie rustic mystery rather than the scientific bases and chunky fight scenes familiar from 1970-style Who, but it’s a decent start to the collection.

Terror of the Suburbs

James Kettle’s next story ups the comedy quotient considerably.  Taking the 1970s time period as a starting point, the writer essentially drops Rover and Liz into Mike Leigh’s classic satire of middle-class suburbia, Abigail’s Party.  The story finds Liz in her new home in the chic London suburb of Fetter Bailey, her lifestyle of endless fondue parties suddenly crashed by the arrival of River, who seems convinced that the surrounding blandness is a cover for something more sinister.  Not only are deaths going oddly un-investigated, there appear to be wild lions roaming the locality…

Via skilful multi-rolling, this episode’s tiny supporting cast are able to make Fetter Bailey seem quite populous.  It helps that the premise allows Kettle to draw on a range of 1970s stereotypes to create vivid characters who get laughs within a few lines of dialogue.  (Dale Superville is especially funny as camp hairdresser Tony, offering to work on the ‘bangs’ of a baffled River.)

The villains, when revealed, are equally entertaining – but any more detail would spoil things.  Suffice to say that Terror of the Suburbs is an engaging romp trading on the kind of comic/bizarre juxtapositions fairly unique to the worlds of Doctor Who, and as such is highly recommendable.

Never Alone

Helen Goldwyn’s story is the only one in this box set not to trade heavily on either the 1970s or its positioning within the Jon Pertwee period of Doctor Who.  (Although, as the writer admits in the supplementary interviews, these things were very much in her mind when crafting the story.)  It’s a technothriller which is only a period piece in that River is able to divine alien involvement because a tech company is manufacturing consumer devices that are beyond contemporary Earth technology.

After a computer science student is found dead bearing evidence of nanotechnological implants, Liz and River investigate his university faculty to find that other students have been disappearing.  Soon their investigation takes them to the Intertraxia corporation, where one such student, Marco (Jack Holden), has mysteriously resurfaced.  Along the way, they pick up a new helper in the form of Marco’s fellow student, the enthusiastic Pippa (Emma Swan).

The portrayal of these characters is the great strength of the story.  Goldwyn admits that a major motivation for the script was her desire to explore neurodiverse characters, and the introverted but ingenious Marco and the chaotically helpful Emma feel thoroughly relatable and real, the sensitive writing aided by the charming performances.

The story builds to a climactic revelation and confrontation that feels somewhat familiar, and unlikely to be the kind of thing that would tax River or Liz too much, even without the Doctor or UNIT on hand.  Never Alone isn’t the most exciting story ever, but its focus on characters that the listener can believe in and care about (another strong turn is that of Karen Archer as Professor Allen) is quietly impressive.

Rivers of Light

After a two-episode absence, Culshaw’s Brigadier returns here, and more importantly, so does the Third Doctor.  Tim Treloar – who has made the role his own in The Third Doctor Adventures while ineffably summoning the image of Jon Pertwee – is on hilariously apoplectic form as the Doctor discovers that River has been squatting in his lab and rebuilding his TARDIS.  However, the wider implications of River’s experiments are due to come into focus as UNIT is called to investigate strange emanations of light and energy in a Yorkshire mining town.

Lisa McMullin’s nimble and poetically-titled script takes in a few elements common to the Pertwee era – concerns over industry and the environment as expressed via mining being just the start – and remixes them entertainingly.  The UNIT team find themselves descending into the mine itself to discover the cause of the weird occurrences, at which point the story becomes fast-moving and full of the kind of jeopardy suggested by the setting, complicated by alien technology, time travel and the uneasy relationship between River and the Doctor.   The script uses all the characters well and to exciting effect.

When the connection to River is revealed – and the explanation for her presence on Earth – it’s satisfyingly done.  The interplay between Kingston and Treloar is highly entertaining, only slightly marred by the usual plot mechanics required in this series when River interacts with a Doctor who predates those with which she interacted on TV, and Ashford holds her own as a Liz who is quietly amused by River’s triggering of the Doctor’s bumptiousness.  There is, however,  a final plot revelation that is as likely to confound as delight, depending on the listener’s personal taste.

Overall, The Diary of River Song: New Recruit is good fun that never quite lives up to, or fully explores, its premise.  Largely because of the Brigadier’s absence from the second and third episodes, the selling point of ‘Doctor Who Season Seven, but with River in place of the Doctor’ is largely missed.  What we get instead is a kind of sci-fi Rosemary & Thyme starring River and Liz, and that’s certainly not without its charm.  With Liz’s professionalism meeting River’s flamboyance, with the clash between their differing expertise, and with Kingston and Ashford’s charismatic and commanding performances, there’s definitely more to be explored here.  Perhaps the answer is to strand River on 1970s Earth for a few box sets, and see how the dynamic evolves.  And a stronger presence from UNIT wouldn’t go amiss.

The Diary of River Song Series 09: New Recruit is available to purchase exclusively at the Big Finish site here, before going on general release on the 31st December 2021.

Extras

The supplementary interviews talk to all four writers, most of the cast and director Ken Bentley.  It’s particularly heartening to hear Alex Kingston and Daisy Ashford interviewed together, as it’s quickly apparent that the zesty chemistry they share in character is entirely natural.  Meanwhile there are some interesting insights from the guest actors into the challenges of recording audio drama remotely – something which quickly became business as usual for Big Finish during the first lockdown – and how it encourages actors to draw on their imaginations even more than usual.  The extras to Never Alone also include a fantastic 8-bit version of Howard Carter’s bombastic theme tune, as heard in the episode in a virtual reality sequence.  It’s arguably more fun than the real thing.

Synopsis

UNIT – the secret organisation established to deal with the odd and unexplained on Earth and beyond.

The redoubtable Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart leads the troops, and for scientific guidance relies on two brilliant advisors: Cambridge genius Dr Elizabeth Shaw, and UNIT’s newest recruit – that mysterious traveller in time and space known as… River Song.

9.1 The Blood Woods by Lizbeth Myles

With the Doctor indisposed, Liz is a little put out to find that the Brigadier has brought in another scientific advisor to take his place.

But when Liz and River investigate otherworldly goings-on in an English village, they soon find themselves relying on each other to survive.

9.2 Terror of the Suburbs by James Kettle

Liz has moved house. It seems she’s found a suburban utopia – until River Song arrives.

There is more to Fetter Bailey than manicured lawns and endless soirees. Dangerous creatures prowl the hedgerows, and something lurks in the freezers…

9.3 Never Alone by Helen Goldwyn

River believes Intertraxia is ahead of its time, but it’s already shipping innovations in entertainment and computing around the world.

When a dead man is found with alien technology implants, UNIT investigates. Liz and River are about to discover that those connected to the network are never alone…

9.4 Rivers of Light by Lisa McMullin

In a Yorkshire mining town, strange temporal distortions and rivers of light crossing forests are enough to get the Brigadier’s attention, and UNIT is mobilised.

But the Doctor is back, and he wants to know who’s been messing around in his laboratory. River’s reasons for being on Earth are about to be revealed…

 

Cast

Alex Kingston (River Song)

Daisy Ashford (Dr Liz Shaw)

Jon Culshaw (Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart)

Tim Treloar (The Doctor)

Karen Archer (Professor Allen)

Michael Chance (Sir Edward Hawkins / Captain Madsen / John)

Jack Holden (Marco / The Higher Power)

Holly Jackson Walters (Yvonne / Herta)

James MacNaughton (Simon)

Abigail McKern (Beatrice Gray)

Dominique Moore (Gemma)

Dale Superville (Tony)

Emma Swan (Pippa)

Claire Wyatt (Lucy / Hilde)

 

Credits

Written by Lizbeth Myles James Kettle Helen Goldwyn Lisa McMullin

Cover Art by Tom Webster

Director Ken Bentley

Executive Producer Jason Haigh-Ellery Nicholas Briggs

Music by Howard Carter

Producer David Richardson

Script Editor Matt Fitton

Sound Design by Howard Carter

Theme Music by Howard Carter

 

Suggested Listening

The Diary of River Song Series One

The Third Doctor Adventures Volume Five

The Third Doctor Adventures Volume Seven

TD Velasquez is a writer, film fan, author of the blog Life Is About Fiction (@LifeIsAboutFic), and a host on the horror-flavoured British podcast, --And Now The Podcast Starts!! (@AndNowPodcast)

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