The Diary of River Song – Series 1 is one of Big Finish’s biggest and most ambitious releases, taking a much beloved (and somewhat polarizing) character from the revival of Doctor Who, the time-traveling archaeologist River Song, and throwing her into a series of grand adventures. Four different stories, each with their own distinct tone, showcase Alex Kingston’s turn as River as Big Finish attempts to expand upon and add to her character without the spectre of the Doctor looming over her shoulder. While the box set doesn’t quite succeed in that regard, that doesn’t stop Kingston and the supporting cast from putting on a smashing show that will delight both fans of River Song and fans of Doctor Who.
X X X X X
Alex Kingston (River Song)
Paul McGann (The Doctor)
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)
Samuel West (Mr Song).
The Boundless Sea – Jenny Colgan
I Went to a Marvelous Party – Justin Richards
Signs – James Goss
The Rulers of the Universe – Matt Fitton
Directed by: Ken Bentley
X X X X X
River Song has had more than enough excitement for a while. Deciding the universe – and her husband – can look after themselves, she has immersed herself in early 20th century academia, absorbed in writing archaeological theses. But when a mysterious tomb is found in a dry, distant land, excitement comes looking for River.
Can Professor Song stop any more members of the expedition from dying? What deadly secrets lie buried within the crypt? And will British Consul Bertie Potts prove to be a help, or a hindrance?
The box set kicks off (after a bombastic theme song that feels time-and-space spanning appropriate) with The Boundless Sea. Taking a bit of a break from the whole “traveling across time and space” grind, River Song heads to 1905 and takes up a position at a London university, spending her days researching and writing about the past and doing everything she can to avoid getting involved with the politics of academia and, heaven forbid, actually teaching. It’s not until reports come in about a newly discovered tomb in the Turkish portion of Mesopotamia and the disappearance of one of the excavation crew that River’s interest is piqued. Along with the British Consul from Constantinople, one Bertie Potts, River soon finds that the tomb is much more than simply the burial chamber for an ancient king. Aside from the dust mites that feed off of sweat and tears, the tomb holds a living resident, one who has survived for nearly 2000 years in total darkness and craves nothing more than the embrace of the ocean…
Jenny Colgan, who penned the Eleventh Doctor novel Dark Horizons, grew up watching Tom Baker’s run as the Doctor. Her love for that era is evident as The Boundless Sea could have come straight from the Tom Baker/Philip Hinchcliffe era of the show. The story borrows from the discovery (and subsequent “curse”) of Tutankhamun’s tomb and as well as the Universal/Hammer versions of The Mummy and the concepts of love and life after death taken in a horrifying direction. Gbemisola Ikumelo plays Prim, the Surene princess who was buried alive inside her husband’s tomb, but kept alive for nearly 2000 years thank to a series of microscopic alien drones that fell to Earth (“Probably debris from a passing starliner” River suggests) and absorb saline and electroytes from their victims in order to keep their host alive, in this case Prim. 2000 years has left her desicated from lack of water, insane from being trapped in darkness, and most of all angry at her fate because of her marriage. ”I loved him enough to die for him, not die with him!” Ikumelo plays the perfect Fourth Doctor era villain – angry, vengeful, and her dessicated form would look horrific on television.
Alexander Vlahos joins the cast as Bernie Potts, British Consul, who turns out to be more than he seems and a player in three of the four stories that make up this box set. Vlahos has experience with the audio format, having played Dorian Gray in Big Finish’s range The Confessions of Dorian Gray as well as turns in the BBC series Merlin and Versailles. In The Boundless Sea Bernie is your standard young British diplomat abroad – a little haughty, a little charming, a little mad for wearing a three-piece suit in the desert, and a little brave when the situation calls for it. The listener finds out though that the Bernie Potts we meet in the desert is actually a clone and the real Bernie Potts sent him to give River an invitation to an exclusive party, as well as seeing her in action to confirm if the rumors about her are true. And this Potts, once we meet him, is your standard middle manager craving advancement up the ladder, brash, arrogant, and completely falls apart once the chips are down. Vlahos does a wonderful job with both roles, making the switch from the clone-Potts in this story to the manager-Potts in the next story.
River Song always enjoys a good party, even when she’s not entirely sure where or when the party is taking place. But the party she ends up at is one where not everything – or indeed everyone – is what it seems…
Being River, it doesn’t take her too long to go exploring, and it doesn’t take her too long to get into trouble. The sort of trouble that involves manipulating other civilisations, exploitation, and of course murder.
River is confident she can find the killer. But can she identify them before anyone else – or quite possibly everyone else – gets killed?
I Went To A Marvelous Party finds River invited to a most exclusive engagement. Taking place on a modular starship in an isolated solar system, the Party (note the capital letter) is an gala that never ends. Guests come and go at the whims of its organizers, along the way sampling the finest of endangered species and rarest of vintages. The high-class function would normally be River’s glass of champagne, save for two minor details. First, the hosts of the Party use part of their spaceship to meddle in the affairs of developing societies. An earthquake there, the introduction of the microprocessor there, all to shape and alter the planet’s future to their own monetary benefit. Second, one of the Party’s hosts had been found dead in his suite. And in both cases, River just might be the perfect participant…
The manipulation of the lower-classes by the higher-classes who wallow in their own decadence with the main character trying to solve a murder while navigating the social labyrinth? I Went To A Marvelous Party (a story name that’s only topped by the never-produced Yellow Fever and How to Cure It) could have come straight out of the Sixth/Seventh Doctor era. Justin Richards (who has written a ton of stuff for both the Who novel range and several Big Finish ranges including the Fourth Doctor Adventure The Renaissance Man) gives us a story where the rich and powerful of the universe do whatever they damn well please, either to make an obscene amount of money or to further their own ambitious or personal whims. To them, the lower classes aren’t worthy of their time. Even the servants onboard the party ship are robotic so the elite can avoid mixing with the masses, and any “savages” brought on board by the elite are seen as “quaint distractions.” The listener can FEEL the disdain just dripping from every word River utters, no matter if she’s trying to play a bit dumber than usual or talking up her credentials in an effort to solve the murder of Jenkins, one of the elite who thrilled in the “decadence of the uncivilized.” And in this case the uncivilized savage is Spritz, taken from her planet by Jenkins for his amusement. Letty Butler plays Spritz as both overwhelmed by the incredible wealth and waste around her and abhorred by it, and her anger and hatred towards the dead Jenkins comes out in every word she utters about her former “handler.”
The other two main members of the party elite are veteran actors Imogen Stubbs as Isabella Clarkwell and Alexander Siddig (aka Bashir, O’Brien’s better half, from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) as Marcus Gifford. Both are fine in their roles as the upper class who pull the strings of those beneath them, although nothing really standouts in either performance. I Went To A Marvelous Party is more about the investigative side of River Song, a chance to show off her smarts as she pieces together the true culprit and their motivation. It’s a Miss Marple/Inspector Periot affair that works quite well with River putting on the “upper-class” airs to fit in with the real Bertie Potts trying to suck up to his superiors (“you don’t want the famous Melody Malone solving the murders,” he says in a nice call back to The Angels Take Manhattan.
While its an enjoyable story, the biggest surprise of I Went To A Marvelous Party comes at the very end when Bertie introduces River to a man who has been looking all over for her.
River Song is on the trail of the mysterious, planet-killing SporeShips.
Nobody knows where they come from. Nobody knows why they are here. All they do know is that wherever the SporeShips appear, whole civilisations are reduced to mulch.
But River has help. Her companion is a handsome time-travelling stranger, someone with specialist knowledge of the oddities and dangers the universe has to offer. For Mr Song has a connection to River’s future, and he would never want his wife to face those perils alone…
Signs is the Twelfth Doctor mind-screw episode of the box set. This time out, River Song is in full blown planet-saving mode as she rushes about the galaxy in an effort to stop a serious of biological satellites from wiping out one planet after another. Along side of her is none other than her husband, a quick-witted and dashing hero who bickers with his wife as much as he flirts with her as they attempt to save the day. There are a few concerns however. One, River has been dosed with an intense amount of radiation after an attempt to disarm a SporeShip and she’s slowly dying by degrees. Two, its not the TARDIS that’s racing across the galaxy to stop the SporeShips, but a second-hand spaceship called the Sarah Jane. And three, her husband might call himself the Doctor, but he wears a face she has never seen…
James Goss, a writer of numerous pieces of media for the expanded Doctor Who universe, follows up the incredible audio Torchwood: Fall to Earth with the best episode of the box set and perhaps one of the best single stories Big Finish has released in recent months. The story opens with River contracting fatal radiation poisoning at the hands of a SporeShip. As Signs progresses, it focuses on her slow descent into delirium while filling in the backstory about her relationship with this mysterious new Doctor. This Doctor says all the right things, knows about River’s past, has a working knowledge of Time Lord society, and even possesses the Doctor’s 500-Year Old Diary. River has seen all of the Doctor’s regenerations, but perhaps it’s entirely possible that this Doctor is somehow a regeneration past the eleventh and final one. Signs is a two-hander story, like Fall to Earth, and Goss uses that format to its advantage. There’s a lot of banter, a lot of flirting, a lot of arguing, and both failure and triumph in the dialogue between River and the Doctor, with nary a dull moment or a sense of boredom.
In some ways, the biggest success of Signs is showing how the relationship between the Doctor and River would beyond from the brief interactions on the television series. There is a level of comfort and familiarity between River and this new Doctor, and credit can do to Goss, Kingston, and Samuel West as this mysterious Doctor. West has done it all – actor, director, writer, screen, stage, movies, and a ton of acclaimed audio books, with the Daily Telegraph calling his reading of Brighton Rock one of the best audio books ever. West is simply perfect as the Doctor, feeling like he could have come from an alternate universe or the Unbound range. The charm, the optimism, the callbacks (including a dislike of spiders dating back to the Third Doctor), the ease at which he deflects questions to keep River calm as she dies…it’s all there in a great performance. I’m talking a “could we somehow cast him at a television Doctor” type of great.
Of course, there’s much more than meets the eye to this Doctor. Goss’ script keeps River’s sense of determination and curiosity as she drags her way through the Sarah Jane, trying to figure out the source of mysterious noises and a voice calling out to her. Once River figures out what is going on, the revelation and twist immediately brings to mind Heaven Sent, including River’s absolute fury and anger at her situation. The Doctor drops the pretense while revealing his relationship to the SporeShips as well as the party elite. However, the party elite decides that this knockoff Doctor hasn’t done enough with River to advance their plans, and decide to instead send an invitation to the real thing…
As shocking secrets are exposed, and a grand plan for the universe is revealed, River decides it’s time she took control of events once and for all.
Out in deep space, a clandestine society faces off with an ancient and powerful alien force – but, for River, there’s an added complication.
The Eighth Doctor has been caught in the middle, and she must make sure her future husband can arrive at his own destiny with all his memories – not to mention his lives – intact…
The Rulers of the Universe closes out The Diary of River Song’s first box set with a major event (even though the cover of the box set kind of spoils the entire thing) – River Song crosses paths with the Eighth Doctor, a Doctor she has never met and has been specifically forbidden to “play with” by the Doctor’s future incarnations. The party elite, the self-style “rulers of the universe” have their own concerns about the SporeShips and their impact on the bottom line. River Song was supposed to be the answer, but with the passage of time and the failure of “the Doctor” to provide a solution, Bertie Potts has his own idea. An invitation to this grand gala finds its way to the real Doctor, currently in his eighth incarnation and doing his best to avoid the Time War that even now is on the lips of party goers…and the party elite who are trying to find a way to profit from it. The Doctor is of course disgusted by the whole concept and wants absolutely nothing to do with the rulers of the universe and their plans for the Time War. But Bertie “convinces” the Doctor, via kidnapping his TARDIS, to infiltrate one of the larger SporeShips and figure out what makes them tick. For Bertie, its about how to profit from the biological weapons. For the Doctor, its about how to stop the SporeShips and recover his TARDIS. For the mysterious creators of the SporeShips, its about offering their services to the Time Lords to help fight the Daleks.
For River Song, its about beating the living hell out of Bertie Potts for putting her husband in danger helping the Doctor navigate the SporeShip without revealing her identity to him, and stopping both the creators of the SporeShips and the rulers of the universe once and for all.
Matt Fitton brings River’s first adventure to a close with The Rulers of the Universe. The writer of The Last Sixth Doctor Adventure – Stage Fright, Starlight Robbery, and Doom Coalition 1 – The Eleven turns in a solid script that brings together the purpose of the SporeShips and the motivations of the party elite while throwing both the Eighth Doctor and River in the middle. Fitton reveals the reason behind the SporeShips and their creators; they are an ancient race who helped seed a good bit of the universe during its early days, and are now using the SporeShips to clean up planets and civilizations that don’t meet their standards.
Alexander Vlahos is in great form in the “in charge until he’s not in charge and panicking” Bertie, but the center of this story is obviously the Eighth Doctor, which has both its pros and cons. On one hand, it’s Paul McGann who been on fire for Big Finish in recent years and his presence probably helped sway a few customers who weren’t River fans to grab this box set. During this story, the Doctor is on the edges of the Time War doing what he can to minimize the damage and keep the conflict away from the civilized worlds. The weariness that would eventually doom this incarnation out peeks through his demeanor during The Rulers of the Universe. He still has the charm and the hopeful words, but the optimism is slowly, ever so slowly, being burned out of his hearts to be replaced by despair and cynicism. But he’s still the Doctor, and he puts on a brave front and cheery smile as he works his way through the gunk and plant matter towards the heart of the SporeShip and its alien pilots.
The core of The Rulers of the Universe is the interaction, via communicator, between the Doctor and River, aka “Spritz.” River can’t reveal her relationship to the Doctor, but she knows he has to survive the SporeShip and does her best to balance the need to help him and the need to keep her presence a secret. Kingston and McGann click as a duo, which does go a bit to alleviate one of my concerns with this story. I felt that this box set should have focused on River without the presence of the Doctor, to show just how great a character she could be standing on her own two feet (and also to see how the character could be written by someone other than Steven Moffat, but that’s a whole other discussion I am not drunk enough for). Putting the Doctor in the final story as well as Signs could have undermined the character of River Song. But instead it helped to expand it a little bit, as we got to see how River would interact with the Doctor as his wife as well as a companion, and it’s a fun, positive dynamic between River and the Eighth Doctor, which I feel helps take River in a direction away from that of solely “The Doctor’s wife” or “Amy and Rory’s kid who was raised to shoot the Doctor in front of her parents.”
So, after four episodes and interacting with two Doctors, how is Alex Kingston’s first Big Finish turn as River Song? In one word – “fantastic.” Kingston embraces the audio format with ease, never faltering or sounding unsure with her delivery. Her voice and accent are an aural delight and her performances throughout all four stories each showcase a different aspect of her personality and character. The Rulers of the Universe shows the ruthless side of River, the one that television viewers have been shown snippets and glimpses of with her imprisonment and how others react to her. She takes down the party ship and the rulers of the universe with ease, utterly destroying the ship while giving the party guests a chance to get away…but as for the rulers themselves? The Doctor has always tempered River’s more violent impulses, and seeing how River reacts when its the DOCTOR has been put at risk is a bit shocking but completely in character, and Song sells both the fury and…the pride…at what River has done.
Taken as a whole, The Diary of River Song – Series 1 is definitely worth a pick up for fans of River Song as it showcases various aspects of one of the revival’s most famous characters in four uniquely different stories, each one with solid-to-great performances. For those who are a bit iffy on River, I would still recommend this box set solely for Signs, one of Big Finish’s best stories in recent months as Alex Kingston and Samuel West steal the show. The Diary of River Song continues the trend of solid releases based upon the revival of Doctor Who and bodes well for not only the future of this particular range, but for Big Finish’s future revival stories.
Cobi’s Synopsis – The Diary of River Song – Series 1 is four unique stories showcasing the different aspects of the space-faring, time-traveling archaeologist as Alex Kingston’s audio debut is simply smashing, specifically her chemistry with Paul McGann but also an absolutely fantastic turn with Samuel West.
Next up – Kate Stewart, Osgood and the UNIT team confront an alien invasion by the Nestene Consciousness and its army of plastic Autons…
Jemma Redgrave is Kate Stewart and Ingrid Oliver is Osgood in…UNIT – Extinction.