River Song is back and better than ever – in a new box set of four audio stories that are some of the best to feature the character. Big Finish is really taking good care of River Song.
I have tried to not include too many spoilers, Sweetie.
3.1. The Lady in the Lake
Nev Fountain is back. We have sadly seen very few scripts from him in recent years so it is great to see his name on this box set. It is also a surprise to see him writing for someone other than Peri, who he has done so many excellent stories for.
The first tale of the set takes place on a world where people are assisted in the act of dying. The service includes everything from playing chess with the metaphorical embodiment of death to being burnt alive by a gigantic dragon. River is looking for a repeat visitor, someone who is dying over and over again…
Fountain’s scripts are usually very funny and he doesn’t disappoint. There are some wonderfully daft concepts in the play, such as club card points for a euthanasia planet. As you’d expect from such a subject, there are also moments of real heart and drama. There is a certain scene between two people that is similar to a scene from Doom Coalition, but the outcome and purpose are very different.
Fountain tackles some ideas that are central to Doctor Who, in a way I haven’t seen before. We get to see the fallout from A Good Man Goes to War and learn more about River’s time with Madame Kovarian (Frances Barber).
3.2. Requiem for the Doctor
It may sound like a daft thing to say, but music and audios go together so well. Setting a story that revolves around the death of Mozart enables Big Finish to play some beautiful music as the Fifth Doctor (Peter Davison), River, and Brooke (Joanna Horton) dash about saving the world.
That final name may have you puzzled – who is Brooke? You will have to listen to the set to find out, but the addition of a previously unseen companion for the Doctor gives the story an extra edge of intrigue. Brooke butts heads with River as they vie for attention from the Doctor who is obviously oblivious to all their efforts.
It is nice to see that River doesn’t know everything about the Doctor and can still be shocked.
I find that I often forget how good Peter Davison is. He is one of my favourite Doctors, but you always know he will put in a good performance (unless he is completely unengaged with the script). Hearing the youthful exuberance of Davison rapidly explain something whilst on the run works just as well in audio as it did on television. He is on fine form in this script and gels very well with Alex Kingston.
This is after all the story in a River Song box set and I am yet to mention the main lady. This is the problem that comes from always including the Doctor. Try as Big Finish might, I feel that he will always overshadow her. Whilst it is great to hear them together, it can distract from River’s own universe; she doesn’t seem to be allowed the same freedom that Lisa Bowerman’s Benny has been given over the years. River says she has a life outside the Doctor – let us see that.
3.3. My Dinner with Andrew
Wibbley wobbly, timey wimey: Love or hate those words, they are a great shortcut to describe when writers use time travel as a plot device, rather than as a vehicle to get to the story. John Dorney is one of Big Finish’s best writers, having been the author of so many of my favourite tales. You may have heard of the Restaurant at the End of the Universe (courtesy of Douglas Adams); now River finds herself in the Restaurant Outside of Reality.
Over the course of several, uh, courses, River has to juggle multiple people, multiple time jumps, and multiple wardrobes. We get to see River thinking on her feet, making it up as she goes along. The Doctor would be proud.
There is intrigue and danger in this story, but mostly it is just a hilarious farce, fitting as a spin-off of a show that’s produced The Romans and The Unicorn and the Wasp. Nobody is quite sure exactly what is going at any moment. There is always another time jumper or another character ready to move in and switch the order of events.
3.4. The Furies
River’s life may often revolve around the Doctor, but the final part of this box set is all about her. Thankfully. We see more of her backstory than ever before. Big Finish really is leaving their mark on the character and that is no bad thing.
We are introduced to River’s sisters, girls grown from her genetic material. They are not given names until they are sent out on a mission, but still have an odd affection for their mother Madame Korvarian. River’s hatred of Korvarian is juxtaposed with her sisters’ love of her. They know she has done terrible things, but they still have some affection for her.
There are a few actions scenes that don’t quite work on audio; the one thing people don’t do in a fight is describe the environment, so it can feel a little forced at some point. The medium is not the best at bringing across the idea that these women are fearsome warriors.
Having the cast consist almost entirely of women is still something that can seem weirdly novel, although it was not something I noticed whilst listening – just something I realised whilst thinking about the release in retrospect.
Not only is this one of River’s best outings, it is also a triumph for Big Finish as a whole. If you’ve been turned off by Professor Song before, then I urge you give this a listen. You won’t be disappointed.
The Diary of River Song: Series 3 is available from Big Finish for £20 as a download or £23 on CD.