Big Finish Review: Doctor Who - The Tenth Doctor and River Song

Big Finish Review: Doctor Who - The Tenth Doctor and River Song

There’s a lot to love about The Tenth Doctor and River Song. Not only does David Tennant return as the Tenth Doctor after three volumes of audio adventures with a regular companion, this time he’s joined by Alex Kingston as the enigmatic woman from his future, River Song. It’s a pairing originally seen over twelve years ago on television and has now been afforded the prime real estate it deserves with their very own trilogy of highly entertaining audio stories.

After passing directing duties on the previous Tenth Doctor set of adventures to Ken Bentley, Nicholas Briggs once again takes up the reigns. Check out this release on the Big Finish website, and read the synopsis below:

The Doctor knows that River Song is a part of his future. A maddening, intriguing, but inevitable part.

Their lives are becoming inextricably intertwined, but in these early days – for the Doctor at least – they must navigate their relationship without too many spoilers.

Whatever her past, and the Doctor’s future, holds, River will make sure that he has fun untangling the mystery...

Expiry Dating by James Goss

The first time the Doctor met River Song, he saw her die. And now she’s asking him on a date. Well, not a date, exactly... More of a mission.

But the Doctor isn’t at anyone’s beck and call. Or so he thinks. With billions of lives hanging in the balance, can the Doctor afford not to do whatever River wants? Whichever one of him she asks?

Precious Annihilation by Lizzie Hopley

When jewels become lethal in the London of 1912, both River and the Doctor turn up to find out why.

A mystery takes them centuries into the past, and onto the high seas, where a superstitious crew edges towards mutiny.

The star-crossed couple are about to find out that, while gemstones inspire jealousy, love can be the deadliest treasure of all...

Ghosts by Jonathan Morris

River and the Doctor meet on the most haunted planet in the galaxy. The Doctor’s not sure it’s an ideal date - until they discover a mystery.

Something is wrong with the ghosts. Something might even be killing them...

And as the Doctor and River investigate, the truth of what’s happening on the planet of ghosts may prove deadly for them both.

The Review

“River!!” – The Doctor, various

Expiry Dating

More than anything, Expiry Dating is a lot of fun, riotous in the best of ways and full of the elements that characterise a great New Series Doctor Who plot: big action, close scrapes and alien races, complemented by an escape from an underwater base and lizard priests (of course). Being set after River’s introductory two-parter, the Doctor still has no concrete idea as to who River is – she’s a frustrating enigma, someone he’s not sure he can trust but to whom he is (slowly) warming.

The story boils down to River’s multiple attempts to attract the Doctor’s attention (in all his incarnations) ostensibly so he’ll help her break into something called the Apocalypse Vault. What makes Expiry Dating interesting, however, is that there is no real antagonist – instead it’s the Doctor-River dynamic that comes to the fore as Goss sketches in the nature of their relationship between River’s initial appearance and her return in The Time of Angels.

As advertised beforehand, Peter Davison and Colin Baker make cameo appearances as the fifth and sixth incarnations of the Doctor. Their inclusion – although fairly superfluous and not strictly necessary for the reunion between the Tenth Doctor and River – is not unwelcome and encapsulates the idea of River jumping up and down the Doctor’s timeline.

James Goss’ humour and wit are on full show and his script embodies the time-jumping tendencies of Steven Moffat’s writing; you can just see a story like this playing out in Moffat’s era of the show. Goss has a lot of fun inserting numerous allusions to past companions like Erimem (the Fifth Doctor says he is “visiting a friend in Ancient Egypt”) and Tegan (Davison’s impression of Janet Fielding is delightful), plus a sly topical reference to, ahem, “referendums [that] always end well”.

Precious Annihilation

After the continuity fest that is Expiry Dating, the second story is more conventional fare. That is by no means a weakness as Lizzie Hopley provides a sturdy middle entry; in fact, the worldbuilding and evocative audio landscape bring to life the episode’s vibrant and colourful journey through the past. All it takes it one glance at Tom Webster’s uber-colourful cover to realise the lively canvass being painted in Precious Annihilation.

Hopley sends the Doctor and River on something of a treasure hunt, tracking down imploding gemstones and uncovering the greed and avarice of the trading companies of history. Seventeenth-century Elizabethan England sounds just as you expect, with the muddy squalor of London’s streets and the creaking timber of shipping vessels being realised with enticing sound design. The supporting cast of Barnaby Kay, Joe Jameson, Joe Sims and Anjli Mohindra capture with skill archetypes like the snooty ship captain, the barmaid and the grovelling sailor.

One of the main benefits of composer Howard Carter’s involvement on these stories is the chance for River's theme from The Diary of River Song, which Carter also scores, to feature, as it does with particular vivacity in Precious Annihilation. Carter’s sweeping orchestral score is a good fit for both the bombast of the Tenth Doctor’s era and River’s stylishness and panache.

The Doctor-River pairing is different to that of most companions. Having a second capable and experienced time traveller involved opens up new storytelling possibilities, because the latter is often just as clever as the former – and it’s certainly helpful having more than one capable of flying the TARDIS when in need of a quick escape from peril. Precious Annihilation is a prime example of the Doctor needing River just as much as River needing the Doctor.

Ghosts

Tennant’s Doctor, it seems, is a Ghostbusters fan. He wasn’t afraid of ghosts in Army of Ghosts, and he ain’t afraid of them this time either – although he’s keen to uncover the mystery of the titular apparitions that appear in Ghosts, where a classic story setup is at play: a small group of ragtag individuals encounters the Doctor (tick) on an alien world (tick), which in this case is a planet-wide necropolis locked in perpetual twilight, and race against time to figure out what’s going on before they meet an untimely demise (tick).

Ghosts brings to mind a previous Tenth Doctor adventure from Big Finish, The Creeping Death (a menacing and deadly fog/mist picking off members of the group one by one) as well as the Twelfth Doctor two-parter Under the Lake/Before the Flood (ghostly apparitions that are actually holograms/projections). And that might be where it ends in a more conventional Doctor Who episode – but this is New Series Doctor Who, and that means there’s an extra twist, and it’s a time-bending twist worthy of the Moffat era.

Jonathan Morris has written River is at her most enigmatic, mysterious and dangerous, and the Doctor as only slightly more familiar with his future wife. The story, like the previous two, is high-energy and fuelled by a pair of exuberant performances – but it’s also a fraction more unsettling, if not overly scary. The eerie screams that augment Carter’s brass-and-drums score are great, but ultimately it’s the interplay between the Doctor and River that again stands out.

The Extras

When it comes to actors discussing their Big Finish recording experience in interviews, life under lock down is the new Big Finish lunches; trading descriptions of their home recording setup has become par for the course. In a brief yet poignant moment, Kingston draws a parallel between the isolated nature of the recording process with the epistolary storytelling of Expiry Dating.

The production team has high praise for David Tennant and Alex Kingston as lead actors. Director Nicholas Briggs in particular lauds Tennant for his preparedness and intelligent asking of questions, and commends Kingston’s infectious positivity and strong grasp of the character she plays. The path by which Lizzie Hopley’s story came to be included in this set is also intriguing, and she hints at a few other Tenth Doctor projects she currently has in the works. Hopley’s name-dropping anecdotes of past Big Finish acting jobs is fantastic too. The creative juices are still strong at Big Finish in 2020.

Final Thoughts

It’s simply a delight hearing the Tenth Doctor back in action – and to have him joined by River Song makes these three stories a must-buy and compulsory listening. One of the most highly anticipated releases of the end of 2020, The Tenth Doctor and River Song lives up to expectations: these are three exciting, expansive and lively tales featuring a talented pair of leads playing two delightful and long-lived characters. Long may they continue at Big Finish.

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