The Diary of River Song: Series Five – Starring Alex Kingston, Geoffrey Beevers, Eric Roberts, Derek Jacobi, Michelle Gomez, Laurence Kennedy, Fiona Hampton, Richenda Carey, Andrew Fettes, Timothy Blore, Delroy Atkinson, Emily Woodward, Lucy Heath, Sasha Behar, Himesh Patel, Eleanor Crooks, Christopher Naylor, Vineeta Rishi, Orion Ben, Tom Price & Jacqueline King. Written by Jonathan Morris, Roy Gill, Eddie Robson & Scott Handcock Directed by Ken Bentley – 5xCD / Download (Big Finish)
The Diary of River Song, as a series concept, can, like its parent show, both have its cake and eat it – it can run a box set on the basis of a single story-arc across four stories, or a shorter arc across fewer stories with some add-ons or cut-away stories, or, as here in its fifth series, it can simply pluck episodes from across all of River’s timeline.
Here, in little more than a couple of introductory lines at the top of Episode One, The Bekdel Test by Jonathan Morris, it sets out its stall simply and effectively. River is married to the Doctor. When you’re married to someone, even in their distinctly complicated temporal manner, you take on their baggage, because their baggage becomes your baggage. And so we’re off, picking instances from River’s diary when she ran into four incarnations of the Doctor’s biggest baggage – his one-time friend, regular enemy, now…something slightly more complex than either. These are four glorious adventures in which River Song meets the Master.
In The Bekdel Test, what we have are people – or at least, people-like constructs – who imprison the evil, the stark raving bonkers, and the deeply useful. Which is how you get noted psychopath and Doctor-killer River Song into catfighting distance of Missy, the quixotic, comedic, unpredictable incarnation of the Master played by the quixotic, comedic, unpredictable Michelle Gomez. Cue hilarity – no really, it’ll make you laugh out loud – when River mistakes her for a range of other potential Time Ladies, and then they team up to try and break out of the unbreakable prison. There’s more to The Bekdel Test than simply trying to escape from a prison of course – there would have to be, to justify the presence of the two time-twisters, and there’s a deeply cryptic clue as to what’s really going on in the title. Good luck with that one. You could argue that the plot beneath a plot beneath a plot…beneath a plot is a touch too twisted for most human brains to cope with, but that’s the point of getting these two together. They’re both accustomed to being the cleverest life-form in the room – if you’re going to face a problem that can give the pair of them their money’s worth, it has to be twistier than the average paradox. Getting Alex Kingston and Michelle Gomez together in a story is absolute verbal dynamite – you simply have to light the fuse, run away to a bunker of your choosing and listen to the explosions. Too much of these two together might prove to be exhausting, but here, there are enough sharp edges to their relationship to stop it falling off the cliff of smugness, meaning The Bekdel Test is a sparkly game of mad invention which ends jussst the right side of that fun/exhaustion borderline, resulting in a story that will come back to you for the quality of its lines weeks after you’ve listened to it.
Animal Instinct, by Roy Gill, brings us River the archaeologist and professor – both of which elements of her personality it’s sometimes easy to forget. Ancient ruins, vicious beasts, and Geoffrey Beevers’ more aristocratic, burned, less playful Master combine to make this particular expedition rather less straightforward than it might otherwise have been. Technically, Animal Instinct is a Jumanji episode – River, her student, a couple of locals with a useful ship…and the Beevers Master have to get from A to B without dying along the way at the hands, claws, teeth and other appendages of destruction of the indigenous fauna. As such, it’s perhaps not the most innovative use of Beevers’ Master, but Gill’s writing of the character, and Beevers’ performance, do enough to keep you interested in him – and in his reaction to and relationship with River, from start to finish. It would undoubtedly by a spoiler to tell you if they all survive. But it is the Beevers Master, waking up here from quite a long cryo-sleep, so you can probably do the body-count mathematics unaided.
The Lifeboat and the Deathboat, by Eddie Robson, is a real landmark moment for Big Finish, because having resurrected TV Masters Beevers, Jacobi and Gomez, and invented a couple of its own, in the likes of Alex Macqueen and James Dreyfus, this story brings the Eric Roberts Master from the Eighth Doctor TV movie back for a second story.
And you know what? In Robson’s hands, what you get is a fantastic Master, absolutely in some ways the antithesis to the showboating version who likes to drezzz for the occasion in the movie. This is a Master in deep cover, playing a time traveller with some sincerity and dedication, revealing the almost casual callousness of his incarnation only briefly and when necessary to get the job done.
The job, this time out, is to keep his daughter safe – yes, you read that right – in the vortex, salvage scrap, and keep out of trouble while a timey-wimey version of Moby Dick plays out around him. As events catch up to him, and River cottons on to who he is and what he’s actually up to, a secondary plot emerges which would have had no problems fitting in on Star Trek: the Next Generation, as neither the Roberts Master nor almost anything or anyone else, is what they seem.
Roberts is a revelation here if you mostly know him from the TV movie, and more from him at Big Finish would be a joy. Oh, and just in case you were wavering over the ‘Add to basket’ button, yes, you absolutely get an explanation here of what happened after the TV movie that let the Master survive.
And River Series Five ends with Concealed Weapon, by Scott Handcock.
Ooh, the craftsmanship here. It’s the same sort of feeling as when you read a really good book, find a painting or a piece of music that opens up the windows in your mind and shows you its artistry, so you nod at it and smile. What a Chippendale is to chairs, Concealed Weapon is to Master stories. And indeed, River stories. Set during the Time War, this is River getting by as a crew member on a deep space exploratory spaceship. The crew emerge from cryo-sleep, and then things start going oddly wrong. There’s an intruder down in the bowels of the ship somewhere. The computer starts getting properly HAL-style uppity. And all the while, from the available evidence, River believes her husband is coming to save her and explain things and be infuriating.
He really isn’t.
This is a match-up of River and The Man With Black Holes In His Eyes, Derek Jacobi’s War Master. What he’s doing there is revealed in an exposition-heavy rush at the end, but there are two necessary caveats to that. The first is that his late reveal in the story allows him to be what this Master has historically, on TV and in audio, been – a force of hidden pollution, striking like a cobra when necessary. Knowing he’s there before River does gives his presence an unspoken threat here, before the reasons for his presence are even actually relevant, and that gives you an elevated heartbeat throughout much of the story, like watching a horror movie, knowing the stalker is out there in the dark and watching the innocent encounter him cluelessly.
And secondly, the forced march of an ending allows River to reclaim the right to her story – it’s always a danger when you have a Master in your story that they’ll overpower your presence. But the ending shows River in all her compassionate, bloody-minded, psychopathic, never-play-chicken-with-ME-Sweetie glory, stealing the War Master’s thunder and turning his tables in a gloriously River style, leaving her a latecomer to the party of his presence, but an unconquerable badass once she knows what’s what.
The fifth series of The Diary of River Song is a full-on power-chord of writing and performance, with four great Masters pitting their different wits and styles against the phenomenon that is River. The straightforward episodic nature of the stories allows them each to be a breath of fresh air and a punch of new energy, and the different ways in which River engages with them all make for a whirlwind waltz of fun and danger. For our money, this freshness, energy and punch makes The Diary of River Song Series Five a joy, both for the match-ups with the Masters, and as a River series in its own right. Tony Fyler