The Diary of River Song Series Eight

Posted in Audio by - February 02, 2021
The Diary of River Song Series Eight

Released January 2021

SOME SPOILERS FOLLOW

Through the course of 2020 and continuing into 2021, Big Finish has proven remarkably adept at altering its practices to follow the changing public health guidelines as COVID-19 continues to spread around the world. Although in many cases this has meant individual performances and production work from isolated locales to bring to life established scripts, in others it has meant a complete production change to accommodate what can be achieved. Such is the case with The Diary of River Song Series Eight that, although not composed of the originally intended four stories, now sees the eponymous archaeologist confront a sequence of robotic beings.

Opening this eighth series is James Goss’s ‘Glimpses of Tomorrow’ with a very delayed callback to the series two story ‘Five Twenty-Nine’ as River returns for the synthetic person Rachel who was left behind on a dying world, hoping to teach her how to confront the change of eternity by experiencing the history of another world. Of course, the opportunity to demonstrate how much a synthetic being can change her own thought processes based on the evolution of a civilization and the particular views of those she comes into contact with is one brimming with potential, but that potential is somewhat let down by the very fact that Rachel is synthetic and thus – whether a stylistic performance choice or not- much less emotional and enthusiastic about the whole affair than River clearly is. There is no denying that both Rachel and River receive plenty of development over the course of this sequence of vignettes that ultimately results in genuine good being done, but the chemistry between Alex Kingston and daughter Salome Haertel as well as the expectedly strong supporting performances do not manage to fully overcome a slower pacing than most River Song stories feature that sadly presents little tension along the way. Still, the educational premise for this opener offers a strong hook that takes the series in an unexpected direction at least temporarily, and the unique perspective afforded of this civilization’s development with the consequences of an open-minded individual on both the society and that individual helps to form the foundation for an intriguing start to this latest series.

After a blistering introduction to the many facets of humanity in a society’s many stages, Rachel has decided join a new society on the start of its journey away from solar flares in Tracy Ann Baines’s ‘A Brave New World.’ Unfortunately for her, entwining herself in one place and time reveals some of humanity’s worst instincts as she is exploited and forced into resultingly subservient positions aboard the ship. In truth, there is little here that hasn’t been done countless times before from the setting to the emergence of a dangerous threat and the unintended consequences of actions taken so long ago, but Rachel’s struggle for survival as she adapts to everything thrown her way and even comes to experience a burgeoning feeling of love elevates what is otherwise fairly standard though undoubtedly confident narrative fare. Indeed, the very personal position that Rachel’s circumstances put River into provides plenty of additional fuel for the adventure, and the amplified tension compared to the preceding story lends a greater sense of immediacy to Rachel’s continuing development and education. Strangely, though, Homer Todiwala almost mirrors Haertel’s somewhat flatter delivery that is much more befitting of a synthetic person than a living one; nonetheless, the hearts of these two as well as of River by extension provide a fitting counterpoint to Laura Aikman’s utterly heartless Captain Linos amidst the increasing despair of a well-executed base-under-siege tale. This isn’t a revolutionary story by any means, but as a seeming conclusion to Rachel’s saga it works quite well and features an immensely enjoyable cameo that only further contextualizes the dramatic and rapid-fire lifestyle of River.

River is once more imprisoned without her vortex manipulator to escape in Alfie Shaw’s ‘A Forever Home.’ However, in between a traditional setup and ultimately fairly routine villainous reveal lies one of the more unique stories this range has offered to date. Fueled by an incredibly varied performance from Kingston that truly delves into the inner workings of River and her relationship with the universe as well as by the wonderful inclusion of John Leeson as K-9 that brings all conventions of Doctor Who into question, this is a story layered with subversions and surprises that never loses its focus or gets too caught up in its more fantastical ideas. For a story that begins with humans being walked by animals and that eventually quite literally pits dogs against cats, there is a remarkably emotional story at the core that even manages to give its villain a more human edge amidst the atrocities that have occurred on his watch. Tracy Wiles and Clive Hayward give spectacular performances throughout that help infuse both familiarity and utter uniqueness to their respective main roles, and the true darkness lurking beneath the seemingly absurd levity of River’s initial circumstances gives an incredible level of depth and poignancy that hits on a much more personal level than many River Song stories attempt to reach. ‘A Forever Home’ is a true standout for this audio range and the potential it holds no matter how serious or ridiculous any one story’s synopsis may suggest, and strong direction and sound design that lean into more absurd tendencies only further heighten the emotional toll of the drama while bringing the established K-9 effortlessly and uniquely into the breathtaking world of River Song.

Jonathan Morris closes out this series with ‘Queen of the Mechonoids’ which also serves as something of a prequel to the upcoming Dalek Universe saga that will be released throughout 2021. Space Security Agents Anya Kingdom and Mark Seven will come to feature in that series, but here they are tasked with answering a remote distress call that reveals River Song ruling a city of Mechonoids. Of course, despite their incredibly evocative aesthetics, the Mechonoids in their limited time on screen alongside the First Doctor were a fairly verbally stunted race, and as such the supporting characters and plot are required to do a lot of the heavy lifting narratively to fluidly bring them into the audio medium and to set them up for future appearances without alienating what has been presented before here. To that effect, there is little doubt that Jane Slavin and Joe Sims will be superb recurring characters based on their energy and emotion here, but the resulting plot’s slower pace and its revelation of a hidden evil beneath the surface that is almost cartoonish in its execution are far too underwhelming for a series that excels with its audaciousness. Nonetheless, the ties to the Space Security force and the smaller details peppered throughout ensure that there is enough in addition to the leading performances to keep listeners hooked. This is a very typical story in the Terry Nation style for better or for worse, but tagging a prequel to an upcoming series to the end of a box set of an established series is an interesting choice that may or may not prove prescient depending on how the upcoming stories play out. As it is, ‘Queen of the Mechonoids’ ultimately fails to truly capitalize on the Big Finish debut of the titular race and ends this eighth series that certainly featured some ups and downs on a confident but fairly predictable and straightforward note.

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