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Big Finish Review: The Diary of River Song – Series 5

The Diary of River Song: Series 5 continues to pit River Song against various famous faces from across the Doctor Who universe. With Series 4 having brought Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor into the fold, Series 5 sees River come up against the Doctor’s arch nemesis, The Master, in many incarnations of that character. This is my first foray into the world of River Song at Big Finish so the question is, did I enjoy it?

Cover Art for The Bekdel Test
Cover Art for The Bekdel Test

THE BEKDEL TEST

Jonathan Morris has one of the most challenging things to do with The Bekdel Test and that is bringing Michelle Gomez into the world of Big Finish. Ahead of her own boxset due for release in February, this is a good look into how her own series is going to pan out.

And to his credit, Morris does a very good job. He forces two characters who are direct opposites to work together and then lets us watch the chaos that ensues. Missy is the same crazy version of the character that she was on television and Michelle Gomez seems completely at home with her character on audio.

Indeed, Morris makes the absolute most of the great chemistry between Alex Kingston and Michelle Gomez with a number of little moments which are laugh out loud. We’ve got one little scene where River goes through every rogue Time Lord in existence including the Rani and The Meddling Monk before she works out who Missy is. Gomez pitches Missy’s disgust just perfectly! How could anyone not know who she is?! And there is a great throwaway line to the Comic Relief special, The Curse of Fatal Death! It is a reference that only Doctor Who fans will probably get but it is a great one! Well done Mr Morris!

With this being my first time listening to The Diary of River Song, I was impressed with how good Alex Kingston was on audio. River Song is perhaps one of those marmite characters amongst fans, many love her but there are just as many who unfortunately don’t. I must admit to being someone who quite liked her character and Kingston’s performance in particular. There were moments where Stephen Moffatt would go a little too far with the innuendoes, but that isn’t a problem that Morris has. He keeps things tense and interesting and litters the script with plenty of twists and turns. There were a couple of moments which surprised me and the supporting cast was excellent too.

The Bekdel Test was a great way to open this set and kept me excited for the next adventure and the upcoming boxset for Missy herself, one can never have too much Michelle Gomez!

Cover Art for Animal Instinct
Cover Art for Animal Instinct

ANIMAL INSTINCT

The second story for this set, Animal Instinct sees River Song coming up against perhaps the evilest incarnation of the Master, Geoffrey Beever’s decayed Master. Author Roy Gill is really good at keeping the Master’s identity a secret from River Song at first as this is perhaps the incarnation that casual viewers are less familiar with.

With River Song and her assistant Luke stumble across an ancient temple and stumble into a trap set for the Doctor. Waking the Master up from his stasis pod, they soon discover a secret history for this world and how that ties in with the plans of The Master. Roy Gill has gradually garnered quite the repertoire at Big Finish with his work on The Omega Factor range being standouts for me and he really has a handle on things here. His characterisation of River is spot-on, making her a much more Doctor-ish character than she is over the rest of the set. And Alex Kingston works brilliantly alongside Geoffrey Beevers. The pair have fantastic chemistry, Beevers’ silky voice and Kingston’s quite loud tones sound really nice together.

What really works quite nicely is that there are a few moments here and there, where this Master seems to rub off on River, causing her to make some surprising decisions and giving us some nice little twists here and there that catch us on the wrong foot.

One thing that Gill hasn’t forgotten to inject though is some elements of humour. As well as being perhaps the most callous incarnation of the Master, Beevers can also be one of the funniest. His Master has no understanding of the way humans work and that is clear here when he comments on how River manages to control Luke without the use of shocking weapons and threats. Kingston’s disdain at the comments help really sell the scene and Beevers’ genuine surprise at how this can work is hysterical.

The supporting cast here is great again, providing more than a little cannon fodder for the Master but the actors make their characters so likable that when one of them bites the dust, you really feel it. Overall, this is another strong entry to the set and another enjoyable stand-alone story to boot.

Cover Art for The Lifeboat and the Deathboat
Cover Art for The Lifeboat and the Deathboat

THE LIFEBOAT AND THE DEATHBOAT

The third story of this set is perhaps the most surprising of all and certainly garnered a lot of the focus in the different media outlets that jumped on it because it was a slow news day. Eddie Robson was given the hardest job of all here in the form of bringing back Eric Robert’s TV Movie version of the Master.

Setting his story on board a floating mishmash of a ship stranded in the time Vortex, he gives the Master just one location to work from and this, in turn, allows us to get a good look into where his mind is at. The biggest problem with the TV Movie for me is the way the Master is written, by people who claim to have been fans but have clearly never seen a Master episode of Doctor Who in their lives! That isn’t the case here and Robson gives this ridiculed version of the character some much-needed dignity.

Eric Roberts for his part does a damn-good job in the role. Being the only American in the cast, it isn’t difficult to work out who he is but I must admit I was a little flummoxed at the beginning, as he sounds absolutely nothing like he did on television. Of course, Roberts is older now and naturally, his voice would change but it took me a while to work out it was him! The change in tone for his voice though is a great thing because he gets across a much softer side of the character before snapping into evil-Master mode at the end. And although we still get a couple of theatrical moments, things are dialled down much more nicely and Robson and Roberts give the character a new lease of life. Hopefully, this won’t be the one-and-only time we hear from Eric Roberts with Big Finish, perhaps a rematch against the Eighth Doctor is now on the cards?

Robson has proved time and time again that he can handle some of the timey-wimey aspects of the show expertly, especially when it comes to bridging some of the confusing gaps or mistakes in continuity between the modern series and the classic series. He does this again in a rather imaginative way to explain how the Master survived the events of the television movie and for the most part it works, though it does stretch the imagination a little. But the rest of the episode is so enjoyable that you can forgive this little hiccup.

The Lifeboat and the Deathboat is a surprisingly enjoyable story which allows the TV Movie Master a time to shine. Eric Roberts has great chemistry with all the main and supporting cast and hopefully we’ll hear more from him again in the near future. And hopefully, his successful turn here will finally make the production team behind the TV Movie give Big Finish the rights to the characters of Grace Holloway and Chang-Lee. Now there’s a boxset I’d be the first in line to purchase!

Cover Art for Concealed Weapon
Cover Art for Concealed Weapon

THE CONCEALED WEAPON

The fourth and final outing in this set, Concealed Weapon sees the return of another evil incarnation of the Master, Derek Jacobi’s War-Master. Written by Scott Handcock, who perhaps has the best handle on this incarnation, The Concealed Weapon is another great story and a great way to close out the set.

Over the few years that he has been working with Big Finish, Derek Jacobi’s War Master has quickly become one of the most evil versions of the character since the character’s creation. With the Time War raging all around him, this is a Master who has gone a little more insane and just doesn’t care anymore. I’ll never get over his treatment of his ‘companion’, played by Jonny Green in the Only the Good boxset and here, his treatment of the supporting characters is just as vile.

Perhaps the best thing about this story is that River Song knows exactly who this Master is. We’re given no explanation as to how that is possible but we don’t need one as there is a real sense that she has no idea how to stop him. Almost throughout the entire story, the War Master has the upper-hand until River Song finally puts a stop to him at the end but there is a real sense of threat and unease as his plans begin to take form.

As with any good Master story, it ends with his plans coming down around his ears but it is a lot of fun getting to that stage and Scott Handcock makes sure he gives us plenty of misdirection in the meantime with characters shifting or having shifted allegiances throughout the piece.

With the series being headed by Alex Kingston, this story really is Jacobi’s show and it is clear how much he revels in being thoroughly evil!

Derek Jacobi and Alex Kingston at the recording for Concealed Weapon
Derek Jacobi and Alex Kingston at the recording for Concealed Weapon

OVERALL

The Diary of River Song: Series 5 is a massive success plain and simple. It has four incredibly strong stories all penned by competent writers. The whole cast, main and guest for all stories do a terrific job and for my first foray into this range, I was incredibly impressed.

All the Master’s were used incredibly well, Michelle Gomez is always a delight as is Geoffrey Beevers and Derek Jacobi but we know they all are, the biggest surprise was certainly Eric Roberts who stepped up to the plate brilliantly.

If this set proves anything it is that River Song doesn’t need the Doctor around to deliver some cracking storytelling. With the range having been commissioned for a further two sets, the future seems bright for River Song. We’ll next hear from her in the upcoming Legacy of Time and Ravenous: Vol 3 and Alex Kingston will head Transcendence, a Big Finish original.

It seems that Alex Kingston is going nowhere anytime soon as so long as the sets she is part of are as strong as this one, I’ll be there!

SYNOPSIS

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…

Written By: Jonathan Morris, Roy Gill, Eddie Robson, Scott Handcock
Directed By: Ken Bentley

Cast
Alex Kingston (River Song), Geoffrey Beevers (The Master), Eric Roberts (The Master), Derek Jacobi (The Master), Michelle Gomez (Missy), Laurence Kennedy (Director), Fiona Hampton (Zerelda / Charlotte Henries), Richenda Carey (Darial / Admiral), Andrew Fettes (Hewel / Prison Guard), Timothy Blore (Luke Sulieman), Delroy Atkinson (Dav Christos / Therian Leader), Emily Woodward (Adella Franz Therian), Lucy Heath (Alison), Sasha Behar (Admiral Eno), Himesh Patel (Ayrton Valencia / Engineer), Eleanor Crooks (Kaliopi Mileska / Robot), Christopher Naylor (Number Two / Computer / James), Vineeta Rishi (Amita Burman), Orion Ben (Nina Purkis), Tom Price (Hugo), Jacqueline King (Michelle Lambon). Other parts played by members of the cast.

Producer: David Richardson

Script Editor: Matt Fitton
Executive Producers: Jason Haigh-Ellery and Nicholas Briggs

Jordan Shortman

Jordan has loved Doctor Who for as long as he can remember and television in general. Many people blame his old teacher for what they believe his is obsession, he doesn't care though, his head is off in time and space most of the time.