Big Finish Review: The Diary of River Song Series 8

Big Finish Review: The Diary of River Song Series 8

That extended, brassy, Bond-esque intro music marks a triumphant return for time-travelling, tomb-raiding archaeologist River Song, and one of the Big Finish's standard-bearing franchises. River has almost become, like the Eighth Doctor, the intellectual property of Big Finish and their house of ideas: an outstanding Doctor Who character whom writers can take further and deeper within audio adventures. This series of four stories is loosely themed around robots: allies, enemies, and those that could go either way.

The Diary of River Song Series 8 has been directed by Ken Bentley, and written by James Goss, Tracy Ann Baines, Alfie Shaw and Jonathan Morris. It’s available to purchase at the Big Finish site here, before going on general release from the 31st March 2021. Here's the synopsis…

It’s River and robots! Professor River Song is an expert in many things, but her tech skills are tested in these encounters with robotic friends and foes.

Over the course of four episodes River will battle Mechonoids on an ice world, meet K9 in a ‘forever home’, and help a treasured android friend discover her destiny in the stars...

The Review...

Slight Glimpses of Tomorrow by James Goss

River’s back, and her mission concerns Rachel (Salome Haertel): an immortal but unworldly android whom River met all the way back in series two. Slight Glimpses of Tomorrow is a sort-of sequel, picking up where that story left off but pitching us into a new adventure immediately. 

River takes Rachel to an ancient city on an alien world, to witness the invention of jewelry there. Rachel’s puzzled, but River explains that she’s teaching her to ‘see’ eternity: to help prepare her for a very long life, and to give her the gift of perspective. It’s a tantalising starting point.  They meet a woman, Armis (Isabella Inchbald), constructing a pyramid. Posing as an aunt and niece, they interrogate Armis. Ostensibly a tomb for her not-yet-deceased husband, the pyramid is actually a means for Armis to mount her primitive telescope and see the stars more clearly. River and Rachel’s understanding of her pioneering work, and their literacy, impresses Armis - in this society, women aren’t permitted to read.

“Are you gods?”

“No! Are we?”

Rachel shows little regard for blending in and remaining impartial, while River, the more seasoned time traveller, is much more laissez-faire. River and Rachel’s personalities fit - or clash - beautifully in this scene. There’s a real economy in the way writer James Goss tells us everything we need to know about these characters in a few short sentences.  After a 5-year jump into the future, we’re back - the pyramid is complete. But 1,000 years later Armis is gone, killed by men who threw her from the tower, as are the metal sky maps which she built - scrapped to build weapons. It’s the first example of many in Slight Glimpses of Tomorrow showing how scientific progress is more often lost, destroyed or discredited than it is preserved.

That theme of the fragility of knowledge and progress is realised in a series of vignettes, as River and Rachel continue to jump through time. Later, in a floating city of jade, Rachel befriends a young noblewoman who’s not keen on finding out why her bed is decorated with the remnants of Armis’ sky maps. When River and Rachel are locked up after a plague befalls the land, we see that Rachel’s cellmate is obsessed with recreating the sky maps - painfully conscious they could be wiped out again. Finally, we witness a Prime Minister and her brother clash over how to deal with an unseen enemy: diplomacy, or annihilation. It all leads to a spontaneous, reckless decision by Rachel to save the people of the planet from catastrophe.

The time jumps are dizzying and thrilling, but expertly handled by Goss - we know exactly where we are throughout the story (though a messy montage at the finale of the episode slightly lets this down, in spelling out that which was heavily implied).

Slight Glimpses of Tomorrow is feminist, and proudly so, in centering the stories and triumphs of women at the center of scientific discovery and enlightenment. It’s an optimistic slice of science fiction about the value of experts, cooperation and knowledge for the sake of knowledge - it couldn’t be more timely.  The extended cast make a great impression in their small screen time, particularly Stewart Clarke’s Sheriff of Nottingham-esque baddie Darion, and the snappy, Moffat-esque dialogue that has defined River since her debut all the way back in 2008 has been faithfully resurrected. This is a confident, enjoyable start to the series. 

A Brave New World by Tracy Ann Baines

In the next adventure, River and Rachel reach a ship heading off the planet. We learn that Armis is finally getting the recognition she deserves: the ship has been named in her honour, and features a replica of her original star maps. The ship, on the run from a massive solar flare, is carrying the entire planet’s population to salvation in cryosleep pods.  That being said, there are a few caretakers maintaining the ship: Captain Linos running the show, her second-in-command and engineer Bryson, and Aaron the technician. Their meeting is inauspicious: Bryson almost airlocks the two stowaways, but they’re saved by an intervention from the captain.

We learn that oxygen is short for the skeleton crew of the ship: Rachel, an android, gets a free pass, but River is taking up valuable resources by being there. Rachel opts to stay with her new friends, while River disembarks for new adventures, including a sly cameo from an old friend.

Rachel’s lessons in perspective continue when she takes a tour of the ship with Aaron. She learns that, for the ship’s crew on their long journey, their work is for life: they’re going to live out their days overseeing the ship, before letting another generation of colonists take over. They’re not willing volunteers: in fact, they drew the short straw back home. Rachel, beginning to understand the preciousness of life, is saddened. She also meets Aaron’s science experiment: a collection of ravenous electric eels. Yes, that will become relevant later.

“Never argue with a woman with a gun and a grudge”

Rachel’s a quick study - she understands the ship’s workings within two days of arriving, and this draws the attention of Bryce and Linos. Surely an android could handle the ships’s workings without human supervision? It’s not long before River is called back to the ark to sort things out.

The acting sometimes falls short of the usual high standards, and it’s possible that the remote recording means that the actors aren’t always connecting in the way that in-studio recording with the close supervision of a director allows. Meanwhile, certain elements could charitably be described as slightly silly, and the chaotic action of the final parts is hard to decipher. It’s not the strongest adventure of this series, but an appealingly unique premise saves it from being skippable. Exploring themes of free will and utilitarianism in a way that’s moving and dramatically interesting is no small feat either, but Tracy Ann Baines manages it deftly in what is only her second credit for Big Finish. Meanwhile the sound design is at its best here, especially in a scene in which River battles "Voltarian death mechas", and in the audio treatment of Rachel's speech as she merges with the ship’s supercomputer.

A Forever Home by Alfie Shaw

Onward to part three, in which we join River in her natural habitat - locked up and looking for a way out. Her captors have stolen her vortex manipulator, and escape seems impossible. She’s being kept in a cage until she’s “properly housetrained”, and is given barely edible nutrition served up three times a day. Naturally, this doesn’t suit the professor, and her dialogue is dripping with sarcasm, more so than usual. Most strangely of all, her captors are a robotic cat (FE-, pronounced feline - get it?) and one impeccably mannered, laser-equipped dog. Affirmative! It’s the return of John Leeson as K-9, last heard in The Fourth Doctor Adventures. 

K-9 claims not to recognise River - but it’s a deception. She’s being kept under lock and key for her protection by the Doctor, it seems. For what could be the hundredth time, River laments what the Doctor has gotten her into. After a bioweapon attack on a starship, it seems, the Doctor’s set up the home as a centre for River’s treatment - on a planet where robots have kept humanoid pets for centuries. Oh, and naturally, they’re trapped in a time loop.

“As tempting as that doesn’t sound, I think I’ll be off”

But doubts set in when FE- bares a set of steel claws to pacify River. While the professor plays nice with her whiskered warden, she tries to recruit K-9 to search for her confiscated manipulator. Hearing River’s dry, cutting wit bouncing off his rigid programming, failing to make a dent, is a real treat.

River’s quarters are upgraded after a few days of good behaviour, and this window of opportunity eventually leads us towards some answers. The plot of A Forever Home is more driven than usual by the unwinding of the core mystery - there’ll be no spoilers, of course, but I can reveal that the dungeon keeper will be unmasked and that DNA thievery, a tragic origin story and an army of laser robots all figure in the climactic moments. It’s also worth the price of admission to see K-9’s abilities made use of in a terrific action sequence, and there’s a fun secondary role for Leeson.

It all leads to a powerful conclusion and a nicely chilling glimpse of River’s more ruthless side. As frequently as their paths cross, our hero isn’t the Doctor, and a reminder every now and then goes a long way.

Queen of the Mechanoids by Jonathan Morris

In January, an interview with Doctor Who saviour Russell T Davies was published, in which he suggested that the series could sustain a universe of interlinked stories, Marvel-style. In a snippet from the Waitrose Weekend interview, he suggested, “We should be sitting here announcing The Nyssa Adventures, or The Return of Donna Noble, and you should have the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors together in a ten-part series. Genuinely. And I think that will happen one day.”

While we wait for the world of TV to catch up, Big Finish have been proving for years that the concept of a shared universe works - and this story, released just a few days after that interview, is the best illustration anyone could hope for. To sum up: in Queen of the Mechonoids, River Song encounters Anya Kingdom (Jane Slavin), a character from Big Finish’s Fourth Doctor Adventures, and Mark Seven (Joe Sims), who first appeared in a long out-of-print Dalek Annual. Their destination? A city of Mechonoids, a robotic race whose first and last TV appearance was in 1966. 

Even if you’re not up to date on all these disparate media and long-running stories, the usual mantra for enjoying Big Finish audio adventures applies - don’t worry about it too much, and just enjoy the ride.

The final adventure in this series begins as Space Security agents Anya and Mark answer a distress call from River, and meet her on a barren ice planet. Rerouted from their ship, Mark and Anya discover a lost civilisation - a city on stilts, built to last centuries. But when they arrive they find River may not have been as imperilled as she indicated. She’s survived on the planet for 31 days, and the Mechonoids, the occupants of the city, have actually built a throne for her. Her presence, we learn, isn’t as accidental as it seems.

Nonetheless, she elects to leave with Mark and Anya, but after falling through a hole in River’s ship, they end up beneath the surface of the ice. A great deal of time is spent exploring the planet’s subterranean caves, and trying not to get eaten by the local wildlife. But there’s something even worse down there: a human, Annam Henic (Derek Griffiths), who has escaped a war in the past and lies plotting his revenge. Are he and his mechanical allies happy for their hiding place to be disturbed? Reader, they are not.

“Reactivation complete!”

As well as the principal cast, Nicholas Briggs brilliantly recreates the voice of the Mechonoids - as beings built to serve humanity, they lack the malevolence of the Briggs’ iconic Daleks, but he captures their eerie placidity perfectly. It all comes crashing down with a mad gambit from River, and the collision of two warring factions of Mechonoids. Queen of the Mechonoids is certainly the standout of the collection, and that’s partly down to the story’s willingness to explore the slightly more manipulative, reckless and dangerous side of our hero. She’s at her best when she’s doing the wrong thing in service of the right thing, and Jonathan Morris’ story gives us everything we want. 

The presence of Anya and Mark enlivens the story by giving the willful, headstrong River a pair of cooler heads with whom to spar. The Doctor Who Extended Universe™ will continue when Anya and Mark return in Dalek Universe, set for release in April 2021, and it’ll be just as fun to see them sharing adventures with that other great maverick, the Tenth Doctor.

In the sweeping history of Big Finish, encompassing thousands of stories and hundreds of characters, Series 8 of The Diary of River Song makes a perfect case for its own existence. Did you like the previous series? This box set refines that formula, deepening our relationship with time and space’s premier archaeologist and throwing just enough surprises into the mix. Or are you a newcomer? It’d be harder to justify this as a perfect starting point to a new listener - the clue is in that big ‘eight’ in the title - but you could always begin here and work your way backwards? Strange it might sound, but given the subject, it couldn’t be more appropriate. 

The Extras...

The box set comes complete with extensive cast and crew interviews, for each story, amounting to almost an hour of behind-the-scenes insight and gossip. Luckily, this isn’t total overkill, and as a palette cleanser after each story they’re perfectly proportioned.

David Richardson, long-standing producer of the series, introduces each of the stories with compelling information about their place in the wider story. He shares that the River Song series has a special place in the hearts of the Big Finish team, and comments that “hopefully we’ve got a long way to go with this.”

Richardson reveals that at an early stage of script development their original story concepts were scrapped, and reworked to suit a remote working atmosphere. A fun feature of these behind the scenes extras over the last few months, across many different series, has been hearing actors describe their remote working methods: Alex Kingston’s bashful admission of having no technical expertise is a hilarious highlight. Hearing various actors recall the challenges of working during last summer’s heatwave brings back bittersweet memories. There’s pathos, too, when Laura Aikman (A Brave New World) talks about missing the face-to-face which comes with studio recording.

Richardson also shares that many of the story’s events will lead into into the narrative of the upcoming Dalek Universe - including the recurrence of the Anya and Mark, the Mechonoids and even Alex Kingston.

The writers discuss their inspiration, including Tracy Ann Baines revealing that she was Inspired by future one-way Mars expeditions for A Brave New World. Speculation about who would volunteer for such a journey, and how it would affect us, fuelled her story. Meanwhile Jonathan Morris (Queen of the Mechonoids) pays tribute to the work of Terry Nation multiple times, to the extent of hiding an easter egg in one of his character’s names.

One of the highlights of these interviews is hearing Alex Kingston and her daughter Salome recording together, and a glimpse of their very sweet relationship. The number of other actors called upon to contribute are too many to name. Their insight into how they found their characters are particularly interesting: Sam Benjamin, for his portrayal of the ship’s computer in A Brave New World, was inspired by Michael Fassbender’s laconic David in Prometheus.

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