The Diary of River Song: New Recruit

Posted in Audio by - November 02, 2021
The Diary of River Song: New Recruit

Released October 2021

SOME SPOILERS FOLLOW

River Song, the enigma who would go on to become the Doctor’s wife, has been involved in some capacity with nearly all of the Doctor’s many known lives. Directly interacting with incarnations she should and should not have according to known time and tangentially involving herself with still more, she has been an ever-present force that Alex Kingston and Big Finish continue to develop to great effect. In the ninth series of The Diary of River Song, New Recruit, the secretive traveler has joined UNIT to assist Dr Elizabeth Shaw as the organization continues to look into the mysteries of Earth and beyond.

Lizbeth Myles opens this series with ‘The Blood Woods’ and the Brigadier bringing River in to assist Liz in the Doctor’s unexplained absence. Naturally, Liz is a bit less than gracious accepting this new assistant since she sees this as an opportunity to prove herself in the role she was hired for prior to the Doctor’s arrival, and there’s an understandable hint of resentment from Liz as the Brigadier attempts to manoeuvre around any sort of perception that he does not have complete confidence in her. This is a fascinating dynamic that in many ways mirrors the slight distrust between the Doctor and the Brigadier in season seven, and Jon Culshaw is superb as the Brigadier confronts the personal and more militaristic problems in his way. For River’s part, this story that likewise captures the unique tone of the Earthbound season seven presents her as a slightly more subdued presence which allows her confidence and boisterousness to perfectly enter this world and to slowly win over Liz. There is something of a rivalry that eventually gives way to a mutual respect and even camaraderie, and Daisy Ashford and Alex Kingston are likewise wonderful as this melding of distinct Doctor Who eras unfolds. This is all against the backdrop of an archaeological dig in an old English village replete with property disputes, demonic dogs, and fatal early aging, and the narrative swerve as the otherworldly menace is revealed in full expertly challenges everyone involved and makes the most of both UNIT and River. This is a highly atmospheric and tense tale that wonderfully highlights just how much vitality this particular era of Doctor Who still has, and the infusion of River into the very real dangers present in the most normal settings of 1970s Earth appears set to pay immense dividends for fans of the Pertwee era and River alike.

James Kettle’s ‘Terror of the Suburbs’ sees Liz blissfully living in a suburban utopia, surrounded by close friends and hardly worried about returning to work at UNIT in the least. There is something far more dangerous in Fetter Bailey than the impeccably manicured lawns and endless social gatherings might suggest, however, and it’s up to River Song to help Liz uncover the truth. This is a story that quite proudly displays its more comedic undertones at all points, a fact that does let down the ultimate villainous scheme and threat somewhat at the end, but it nonetheless provides another great opportunity for the more conservative and measured personality of Liz to compare and contrast to the more modern and free-wheeling stylings of River. Yes, this is a plot that is quite straightforward and at times repetitive as the terrors of modern technology take on an altogether more frightening role in the daily lives of Fetter Bailey’s denizens, but the localized influence that so strongly affects even Liz’s most powerful memories remains a constant and suitable menace to keep the more outlandish and even stereotypical visuals grounded with genuine emotion. There’s no question that this story is simply a vehicle for both Daisy Ashford and Alex Kingston to shine as the supporting characters are strong and enjoyable enough but ultimately forgettable soon after the end credits roll, and in that respect it has to be deemed a success since the burgeoning friendship between their two beloved characters is perfectly on display as the two flit between domesticity and life-threatening danger. Having a production filled with such hammy supporting performances and an overall tone to match is an incredible departure from the more serious tone of the preceding serial, but while the experiment does provide unique opportunities for its lead duo to continue to develop, it’s ultimately a style that very much should remain a one-off in order to allow the dangers to resonate all the more profoundly.

Shipping entertainment and computing innovations around the world, Intertraxia is certainly ahead of its time in Helen Goldwyn’s ‘Never Alone.’ When a man is found dead with alien technology implants, however, UNIT is sent to investigate, and Liz and River quickly find out just how interconnected those using this network are. Unfortunately, in a story featuring characters that feel much more modern than the 1970s setting should allow, there is little outside of the incredible dynamic between Liz and River that stands out in any meaningful fashion. Advanced entities have hijacked intelligent individuals to distribute their weapons across Earth on countless occasions, and the enemy presence never really comes to life beyond filling the most generic of menacing and domineering roles. At the very least, taking the fight to the villain in a mental landscape is a climactic styling less frequently explored, but not enough is done here to truly take advantage of the unique opportunities such a setting allows beyond a Ghostbusters homage and admittedly catchy old-school video game variation on the main theme. This is a story that has enough potential to overcome its generic plotline, but the supporting performances are relatively uninspired as well and do little help the sterling pairing of Ashford and Kingston elevate the production as a whole. Fortunately, this charismatic leading duo has already proven to be an incredibly effective and dynamic force, and the writing and performances continue to bring out the very best of the radically different personalities that share a common determination and fortitude when faced with an evil of any scope. As it is, while fans of both Liz and River will assuredly find enough to enjoy, those looking for the essence of early 1970s Doctor Who or for something either more profound or unique will be let down compared to the previous two offerings.

Finally, Lisa McMullin closes out this ninth series with ‘Rivers of Light’ as UNIT is mobilised to investigate temporal distortions and rivers of light crossing forests in a Yorkshire mining town. Naturally, the biggest draw of this story is the appearance of the Third Doctor to finally and directly interact with River. Tim Treloar has all but perfected Pertwee’s intonations and cadence over the past several years while fronting Big Finish’s own The Third Doctor Adventures series, and he is once more superb as he returns to UNIT and tries to come to terms with the mysterious woman who has assumed control of his laboratory and TARDIS while even moving the TARDIS console back into its interior. This comes to reveal a subtle arc for this set that links together River’s previous actions and the Doctor’s absence, and the Doctor’s effusive anger that eventually gives way to a subtle admiration for the woman he still understands so little of by story’s end is an undoubted highlight as River finds herself in a much less amiable position alongside this incarnation of her one-time husband than she has typically experienced with any other. Perhaps unavoidably, however, this does mean that the brilliant dynamic that has developed between River and Liz does take on something of a lesser role than in the previous stories, though it is intriguing that Liz almost seems to revel in the Doctor’s jealousy of sorts stemming from the friendship River and she have developed on their adventures together in his absence. Still, the dark setting is used to its fullest, and while the supporting cast again can’t quite stand out amidst so many charismatic and beloved leads who interact so incredibly naturally and vividly, the Gallifreyan twist surrounding a planetary and solar conveyance as well as River’s otherwise-unseen associate is a brilliant narrative thread and conclusion to what is such an effective love letter to the Third Doctor era. Treloar, Ashford, and Jon Culshaw as the Brigadier once more prove to be the perfect trio to again delve into this nostalgic era with, and Kingston adds the perfect stylistic flair to allow ‘Rivers of Light’ to prove the full potential that this particular set can reach following a somewhat mixed bag with the earlier tales.

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