Big Finish Review: The Diary of River Song Series 5

River Song is a complex space-time event with huge possibilities for the character in the Doctor Who universe – as well as creatively through storytelling, as evidenced by Alex Kingston’s huge year at Big Finish in 2019. River Song features in no less than 13 hours of audio drama this year, and Kingston herself will also feature in August’s Transference. Her solo series kicks it all off with a popular event release featuring not one, not two, but four Masters!

The Diary of River Song Series 5 is directed by Ken Bentley and produced by David Richardson. It is available on the Big Finish Productions website until general release on March 31, 2019.

River Song 5 - cover

Read the synopses below:

The Doctor isn’t the only Time Lord River runs into on her travels up and down the timeline.

The Master, in all of his - or her - guises, also has a chequered history with Professor Song. And whenever they meet, it’s a close call as to who comes out on top...

It’s something River must get used to: there are three people in her marriage – at the very least!

The Bekdel Test by Jonathan Morris

Back at the start of her imprisonment, Doctor Song becomes a guinea pig for an innovative new security system.

But it’s her fellow prisoners she needs to be most wary of.

Because it’s early days for Missy, too. The Doctor is dead, and she is outraged that somebody else killed him first...

Animal Instinct by Roy Gill

On a world where vicious beasts stalk ancient ruins, Professor Song teaches a student the finer points of archaeology.

But then she meets an incarnation of the Master who is desperate to survive.

And if they are going to escape this place alive, they all must work together.

The Lifeboat and the Deathboat by Eddie Robson

Stranded in the Vortex, a father and daughter do their best to survive, living on salvage in a ramshackle vessel.

Elsewhere, an obsessive ship’s captain hunts down a vengeful monster, whatever the cost.

And River is caught between them, uncovering an old enemy in the most unexpected new guise.

Concealed Weapon by Scott Handcock

A deep space exploration mission nears its end – when suddenly, the crew start to die.

River must try to protect her colleagues and work out what else is on board their ship.

Something is stalking them, and the deadliest Master of all has his own plans for River Song...

The Review...

The Bekdel Test

River Song 5 - The Bekdel Test

A universe without the Master? It scarcely bears thinking about.

Whereas previous releases in the River Song range have featured the character at a later stage in her career, The Bekdel Test jumps back along her timeline to when she was a prisoner in the Stormcage Facility for killing the Doctor. This story sees River waking up in a new facility called the Bekdel Institute and being greeted by a levitating black cube with an attitude. A new prisoner soon arrives – the Master in the Missy incarnation – and the two find themselves needing to work together to escape the prison.

The episode, with its fairly simple set-up, is a fun test run for Missy on audio, and her banter with River while working together to break out of the prison are the highlight. Missy’s presence here is the first example of an element of the Twelfth Doctor’s era being used in a Big Finish audio drama, although the Twelfth Doctor himself will first appear in February’s The Astrea Conspiracy in the Doctor Who – Short Trips range.

Male-to-female regeneration is played for laughs here, as is the name-dropping of multiple notorious Time Lords in a case of mistaken identity for Missy. The episode in general is very witty and funny, an aspiration discussed by writer Jonathan Morris in the behind the scenes interviews. He succeeds in channelling Missy creator Steven Moffat’s humour-filled dialogue, and appropriately gives Michelle Gomez much opportunity for accents and wild impressions.

This first episode was probably the one this reviewer was most looking forward to. Hearing the witty and fabulous River Song match up against the frenetic and dangerous Missy was highly enjoyable and the entire reason for listening to this episode. This also bodes well for Missy’s first solo boxset outing in February.

Overall, The Bekdel Test is a humorous tale full of twists that offers a platform for Missy at her most volatile, and plays well into the mythology of the parent show.

Animal Instinct

River Song 5 - Animal Instinct

The plot of the second episode is rather traditional, featuring spaceships, other worlds and alien predators in the shadows. River is doing some archaeology work with a new protégé, encountering a slumbering Master lying within a stasis chamber inside a tomb. After he wakes, they are forced to work together to reach the Master’s TARDIS residing within a Meso-American-themed ziggurat. Suffice to say, the journey doesn’t go smoothly, with a variety of puzzles, traps and translations in their way.

This Master is eloquent and malevolent in equal parts, with no patience for petty humans.

Again, the dynamic between the Master and River is the highlight here. His relationship with River plays into deeper similarities of sociopathy and the use of masks to conceal one’s true self. Despite begrudging working together with River to achieve a common goal of survival on the hostile planet, this Master, like Missy before (or after?) him, still betrays and double-crosses those around him like all versions of the Master.

The Master’s desire for self-preservation is his defining feature, especially in this incarnation. Writer Roy Gill intentionally presents scenarios where River’s morals are brought into question, such as when she decides to journey onwards, seemingly undisturbed, after the Master (spoilers) despatches one of their travelling companions to save the group. Yet, by the end, the Master’s conniving selfishness is distinguished from River’s inherent goodness of heart despite her sociopathic tendencies.

Animal Instinct is probably the least “event piece” of all the episodes, owing to Geoffrey Beevers’ Master having appeared multiple times previously on audio, and having first appeared back in 2001. Yet the themes explored across the hour – such as animalism, light and dark, and base instincts – as well as of course his interactions with River Song make this episode a worthwhile addition to the set.

It also warrants being said that this story in particular is best listened to with good-quality headphones for a more immerse soundscape including the jungle, night-time rain and tomb interiors.

The Lifeboat and the Deathboat

River Song 5 - The Lifeboat and the Deathboat

Episode three is another ground-breaking release for Big Finish, with the return of Eric Roberts to the role of the Master after over 22 years. He appeared briefly in 1996, and one would now hope he returns to the role at least to fill in the gap of continuity – and to tell more intriguing stories.

This time, River is working together with a man named Daniel (played by Eric Roberts… the conclusion is obvious) and his son Allison to repair their vessel stranded in the Time Vortex. Meanwhile, a man named Valencia is recruited by the admiral of a time vessel to embark on a trip through time, where they are threatened by a Vortex-dwelling serpent creature targeting time-travelling craft.

There are multiple story threads that do not immediately appear to connect – and initially, it is uncertain what role the Master plays in it all. River and Master still get to work together to solve a problem, but the Master is as focused on self-preservation as always, and does not hesitate to eliminate extraneous members of the crew. Once it all comes together, however, the mystery fits together well.

The role of the Master often demands a kind of dichotomy of character – where a refined, benevolent exterior is contrasted with a suave, menacing evil or a volatile unpredictability underneath. Eric Roberts has that – a comforting, believable warmth (helped by the fact that his character ostensibly has a daughter) is undercut by a chilling menace beneath.

The largest appeal this story has is Roberts’ return, and the way it leads on fairly closely from the 1996 TV movie Doctor Who left off for the character of the Master – that is, falling into the Eye of Harmony. The only slight on the episode is how River still is not able to have fully separate adventures away from the presence of the Doctor, who has a background presence here and crops up often in conversations with the Master.

Concealed Weapon

River Song 5 - Concealed Weapon

River and four fellow crew members awake from 50,000 days in cryo-sleep on a deep space exploration mission – but when someone is quickly killed and five life signs are still registered on board, suspicions are thrown about.

In contrast to the first three episodes, a significant portion of the drama passes before River meets this version of the Master. Writer Scott Handcock takes a leaf from Big Finish’s War Master series by refusing to place Jacobi as the Master in absolutely every scene – rather, he exhibits an admirable restraint when threading the Master throughout the story. This builds the spectre of his imminent presence, which is still strongly felt due to the many bodies that drop in quick succession.

Derek Jacobi’s version is the least empathetic of all Masters, and the one who appears least likely to help – rather, the one most likely to kill mercilessly to further his intricate plans. Like Beevers before him, he has little patience for humanity, continuing to show his exasperation at their fallibility and predictability in being lured into traps. He is probably the most Shakespearean and theatrical of his incarnations – scheming, conniving and silently threatening – which makes for entertaining drama.

As it features the War Master, the story is set in the Time War – and the Master wants to ‘get in on the action’ and win, and crafts a plan to make the most of the scientific expedition River is a part of.

Deception, double crosses and evil plans ensue. A final confrontation between River (with her history of mental conditioning) and the Master (with his penchant for hypnotism) leads to an intriguing ending – and it seems that the Master has achieved a victory this time.

Concealed Weapon shows off the Master’s wartime machinations with little levity. The story builds the menace via the character’s elusiveness, and ends the set with hints at the further plans of the Machiavellian Master in future boxsets.

The Extras...

An hour of behind the scenes interviews accompanies the four-story set, which provides pleasantly informative insights into how different writers approached different aspects of the characters of River and the Master. Whereas Jonathan Morris looked to Steven Moffat for inspiration for Missy’s dialogue, for example, Roy Gill examined River’s sociopathic side and independent adventures as shown in episodes such as The Husbands of River Song.

Members of the crew also take the opportunity to have their say, with highlights including producer David Richardson’s evident glee over getting not one but two big coups by attracting both Michelle Gomez and Eric Roberts to record for the company. Considering it has been 22 years since Roberts’ single appearance, this entertaining boxset certainly has proven to be an event release.

Some Final Thoughts...

As delightful and canon-expanding these encounters are for River, one still hopes that she will be allowed to have some truly solo adventures away from the Doctor, the Master, and the various other characters she has or will be meeting through Big Finish. Considering how frequently the character is being featured in audios this year, perhaps in the not-too-distant future some of those escapades will be solo adventures.

Nonetheless, The Diary of River Song Series 5 is fun, dynamic and full of action. The set starts off strong with a witty and zappy first story, delving into morality and themes of animalism and personal identity, before ending with an explosive and dangerous final act that exhibits the worse of the Master’s character for the best type of storytelling.

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