The Diary Of River Song Series 2 Review
Gustaff Behr gives his spoiler-free verdict on River’s second audio outing.
It’s turning into a delightful little habit of Big Finish to cap off their year with an early release for The Diary of River Song, and 2016 is no exception. The last scheduled release for 2016 brings the year full circle and reminds me just how strong this season has been for the company. It isn’t just due to there being no television series this year. If you’re a seasoned listener of their products like I am, then you know that Big Finish follow their own set of rules and their titles often overshadow what’s going on in the television series. There is just no limit to their creativity.
Last year we got River Song meeting the Eighth Doctor in her series and this year she encountered him in his. There are two classic routes to take from here: You can either feature no Doctor in the next series and show that River Song can stand on her own without help from her husband or you can pick one classic Doctor and utilize them in one story to pay a little fanservice to the audience who are foaming at the mouths to hear River encounter more classic Doctors.
Naturally, Big Finish takes the third option and gives us two Doctors in the form of Sylvester McCoy and Colin Baker. Not only this, but instead of turning this into a fanservicey love letter-like romp to the fans, they decide to craft an incredibly complex and intricate storyline which is still very worthy and justifies the use of two Doctors.
In a previous conversation, I mentioned that this aspect is perhaps, amongst the many this box set has, the strongest. The Big Finish team know their characters so well and they know where the line between great storytelling and great fanservice is and this box set sits right on that line.
If you’ve been following my reviews, you will know that I have not yet to listen to a Guy Adams’ script that I liked. Perhaps it’s the interconnected storyline of these other episodes, or it’s the end of a dry spell, but this story featuring River and the Seventh Doctor really kicked open the doors to this series in a tale that is really confusing… in a good way. Okay, maybe not confusing, but some of the ideas, not just in this story but the others, is at times a bit tricky to wrap your head around… which makes it less surprising that even the Doctor and River have trouble remembering that two plus two still equals four.
Due to a multi-dimensional crash between the TARDIS and several other space-time vessels, the crew of the ship find themselves affected in strange ways as reality bends around them. The Doctor’s memory is hazy while River has difficulty focusing and ends up accidentally introducing herself as ‘River Song’ to her future husband.
Yup, Big Finish are finally done pussy-footing around. Both Doctors know River Song as ‘River Song’. She is not disguised in any way and they are not separated by a radio or a communicator or a middle-man. This is proper Doctor/River action.
A lot of this box set succeeds thanks to the benefit of hindsight. Expect to have lots of unanswered questions and a serious case of confusion at the end of this episode. It is Part One and I tip my hat off to Guy Adams for scripting an episode that does an out of this world job of introducing us to the overarching plot for the series.
More praise goes to the interaction between River and Seven. It. Is. Utter. Bliss. You’d think that with 12 Doctors some of their relationships with River Song would start to feel familiar, but Guy Adams manages to add yet another unbelievable layer to that already intricate dynamic by utilizing the characteristics that the Seventh Doctor is famous for. His relationship with River Song is completely different than his future incarnations’ and it works on so many levels. The story feels like a multi-Doctor story without containing any of the actual elements that are in those episodes.
Rating this story: 8.5/10
The gap between the ending of the previous story and the start of this one puts you in the mind of The Impossible Astronaut and Day of the Moon. Being the only story in the box set that doesn’t feature a Doctor, it’s important to acknowledge that not only is Five Twenty-Nine the Signs of Volume 02, but that John Dorney does a breathtaking job of showing us why River can carry her own series. The Doctor stuff is icing on the cake. That’s for us fans, but like Signs last year which also didn’t feature a Doctor, I can easily see this story being some listeners’ favourite.
Dorney imbues this bleak story with a deep emotional connection that tells the tale of a group of characters trying to outrun perhaps one of the weirdest disasters Doctor Who has ever produced: The Five Twenty-Nine.
I’ve said this before, but Matt Fitton and John Dorney are the Steven Moffats of Big Finish. With Five Twenty-Nine, Dorney slows down the brisk pace started in The Unknown to a virtual standstill and takes us on a heartbreaking journey featuring an old married couple and their android daughter Rachel, played by Alex Kingston’s daughter Salome Haertel.
The scenes with Alex and Salome are wonderful to listen to and I grew to care for all the characters involved, especially Rachel’s parents Lisa and Emmett Burrows, played brilliantly by Ann Bell and Robert Pugh.
The ending to Five Twenty-Nine is perhaps a little predictable, but this is down, in my opinion, to having already sat through countless timey-wimey Doctor Who episodes. It’s also not a big enough complaint to spoil the journey or the eventual destination.
Rating this story: 9/10
World Enough and Time
River Song arrives on a space station where she finds the Sixth Doctor as the CEO of a space Fortune500 organization on the verge of destroying the Earth…and it looks like the Doctor is in on it.
I’m still on the fence over which dynamic I prefer: Seven with River or Six. I apologize if this comes off as blatant fanboyism, but really, it simply is that good. Of all the classic Doctors, who would’ve thought it be Six who shows the most promise in striking up a romantic relationship with River Song. But then again, who can blame him? River Song has the intellectual valour to challenge him like Evelyn Smythe, Peri Brown’s beauty, Charley Pollard and Flip Jackson’s passionate lust for adventure, Constance Clarke’s no-nonsense attitude and Mel’s bossiness.
Let’s face it: Six never stood a chance.
There’s something hilarious listening to the Sixth Doctor complain about doing mountain loads of paper work and attending boardroom meetings. It’s clear that Colin Baker is the key to most of the humour in this story and let’s be honest, this episode is by far the funniest of the series, regardless of whose turn it is to fall victim to the joke.
This episode also does an exceptional job of exploring the relationship between Six and River. Their scenes together are this story’s highlights and whenever either of them appears, it becomes child’s play stealing the scene. Yet again, this dynamic is very different to any of the others we’ve seen so far and yes I’m counting the sexual aspects of Eleven and River’s relationship.
World Enough and Time is perhaps the weakest instalment of the series, mostly due to the company it keeps. The box set as a whole has fantastic consistency when it comes to characterization and storytelling so it’s a shame that World Enough and Time draws the short stick by looking the blandest when lined up with the others, but as I mentioned, it’s just the company it keeps.
Rating this story: 8/10
The Eye of the Storm
Another strength I should mention before getting into this final story is the radical shifts in genre this series makes use of. From timey-wimey catastrophes to urban survival thrillers to space operas; The Eye of the Storm uses the middle ages as a backdrop and features River, the Sixth and the Seventh Doctors all investigating the mystery of Schrödinger’s World…on their own.
When it was announced that Series Two would feature River and the Doctors working against one another, I sincerely hoped this wasn’t just lip service for publicity’s sake. I genuinely wanted the Doctors and River Song to be antagonists towards each other and The Eye of the Storm does a fantastic job highlighting the differing personalities of the Doctor’s incarnations.
Not only this, but due to the effects of the first story and the resolution of the last story, Big Finish finds a way to re-introduce the Doctors to River Song and flip their relationships with her on it’s head. Basically they get to have their cake and eat it.
Matt Fitton scripts a story which allows the characters to come at the problem from three different angles, meet in the middle, have a traditional multi-doctor argument before… working together to save the day. I use the term “together” very, very loosely though.
As expected, neither Doctor likes their counterpart’s method of doing things. The only thing they do agree on is that River Song cannot be trusted. River likewise bounces between Doctors on her investigation and comes to a similar conclusion which feels justified without feeling contrived.
Please note that River is always treated as the protagonist. While we do get a chance to see everybody’s point of view, neither Doctor is sidelined to “companion” or “side-kick” status. It’s still her show, but it also feels more like a crossover at times with other characters from different eras being afforded their own time to shine.
The last scene before the credits is perhaps the funniest/best of the entire box set.
Rating this story: 9.5/10
The Diary of River Song is highly recommended!