Doctor Who: River of Death – Written by John Peel & Read by Nicola Bryant (BBC Audio)

John Peel is a name well-known and massively respected by fans of Doctor Who books. The reasons could fill a review by themselves, but they mainly boil down to two central points.

Number 1: John Peel really gets Doctor Who, what makes it tick and what makes it explode.

And Number 2: John Peel’s just a really good writer. Whatever the field, whatever the world, to read (or in this case, listen to) a John Peel story is to begin bimbling along comfortably, impressed by the completeness of the world, and then, quite suddenly, to go “Oh!” and realize that you’re in the company of one of those writers. Ones that go further, with really sharp skills, and are determined to give you the best time you could possibly have in their world.

Doctor Who writing has been lucky enough to have a handful of those writers over its decades, and Peel is one of them. 

So, a trip with Sixie and Peri, written by Peel? Strap in, because you know you want to come along for that.

Added to that, when it comes to the relationship between Sixie and Peri, there are only really two candidates to give you an authentic reading, and with the best will in the world, Nicola Bryant’s Sixth Doctor tends to be better than Colin Baker’s Peri. So while you’re still celebrating a Peel Sixth Doctor story, double down, because with Nicola Bryant on reading duties, you’re in for a treat.

That’s in fact particularly relevant here, because the story is very much centred on Peri’s feelings and experiences as the adventure rolls on. It’s even one of those rare cases where it’s Peri’s choice where and when they go, and Peel makes that entirely believable.

We’re at the Grand Canyon in its pre-tourist era. Peel freely and believably invents a trip for ten-year-old Peri to the big old hole in the ground, ruined by all the people who’d also come to look at the big old hole in the ground. So, as requested, the Doctor takes her to what they both believe is a pre-settler age, to see one of Earth’s most impressive natural sites in all its unspoiled glory.

Time travel tip #1 – if you’re going to go and see the Grand Canyon, do not park your space-time craft so close to the edge that the instant you disembark, it plummets into the abyss and is carried away by the mighty Colorado river. It’s the fastest way known to carbon-based lifeforms to become a galactic hitchhiker…

See? Instant Peel quality – instant dilemma. Get the Tardis back, somehow. That involves a whole lot of climbing, a whole lot of ideally not plummeting to your doom, potentially some lethal river swimming, and also, not dying of dehydration or starvation. That single decision maps out the potential journey of the story.

Fortunately, there’s a timing error here that adds even more drama and adventure to events, as far from being the only human beings on the continent, as they’d planned, the Doctor and Peri have actually landed at the Grand Canyon in 1869, when explorer Major John Wesley Powell and his team are also exploring the Canyon and the Colorado. Hopefully, as they say, being the “first” – by which of course they mean the “first white” – people to do so.

It’s at this point that you appreciate a strong creative hand at the tiller, because – spoilers – River of Death is that most difficult form of Doctor Who story, the pure historical. There are no aliens using the mighty Colorado to power up their star drives, no interstellar diplomats making First Contact with the native Americans (and the complicated consequences that would entail), or anything like them to provide the drama and scope of this Doctor Who story. 

No – Peel lets the nature of the terrain, the difficulties of traversing it, and the characters of the explorers create the wonders and the challenges of the story.

One of the reasons behind the practical death of the pure historical in on-screen Doctor Who was the difficulty of manufacturing enough genuine peril from such stories. Here, the hour-and-change runtime might make that significantly easier to deal with, but Peel nevertheless crams plenty of organic peril into the story – Peri nearly falls into the canyon, actually falls into the Colorado, shares meagre rations, gets mistaken for the Doctor’s wife, and navigates an increasing disagreement between members of the party which ends in a spoiler-laden moment of drama.

She also manages to do all that without seeming in the least like the irascible and sometimes whiny person as which she was occasionally written during her on-screen days. This is a Peri for whom the word “plucky” could have been coined. Enthusiastic without being saccharine, she’s an enjoyable companion on this journey, and is in fact very much allowed to be the central character through which our point of view is given to us.

Among all of which, there’s some lovely stuff – the views of the canyon that ten year-old Peri had wanted, seeping into her grown-up self and, to coin a phrase, filling up her senses. The extra-wonderful view of the stars, seen on a car-free, plane-free world, from the bottom of a spectacular hole in the ground. And even some touching stuff for the Sixth Doctor, as he admits to being glad he can share these moments with Peri – in between disasters.

Nicola Bryant is on gorgeous form here, delivering a TV-recognisable Peri, but also one that, as Peel writes her, has more breath and calm and wonder (similarly, between drownings) than the Eighties TV writers were largely able to give her. Part of that’s down to the absence of alien slug-monsters or vicious Time Lords, but it’s also partly down to the combined skills of the writer and performer, and the distance from the Eighties on-screen dynamic, in which this story – like much of the Big Finish output – is able to luxuriate

The result of all of which is a short trip that feels on the one hand perfectly paced and timed, and on the other, all too short, because the ambience it creates makes you want to stay with its characters for just a little bit longer. It’s a perfectly satisfying pure historical – it takes you into an era and to the lives of historical people you may never have heard of, and it educates you without ever preaching. 

It delivers all the peril you could want, and all the warmth as well, and you never feel the lack of the usual alien malevolence. The past is quite alien enough as an environment to make the Doctor Who format work – and in John Peel’s hands, it works both brilliantly and beautifully.

Go take a trip down the River of Death for yourself, then tell me I’m wrong if you can. Tony Fyler

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