The Diary of River Song Series 10: Two Rivers and a Firewall

Posted in Audio by - August 07, 2022
The Diary of River Song Series 10: Two Rivers and a Firewall

Released August 2022


One of Big Finish’s most prolific characters that originated in the new series of Doctor Who, Professor River Song, the renowned archaeologist and one-time wife of the Doctor, returns for an impressive tenth series of audio adventures in The Diary of River Song: Two Rivers and a Firewall.

‘The Two Rivers’ by Tim Foley opens this tenth set with an incognito River joining an expedition to find and investigate the tomb of the legendary River Song. River, of course, has no knowledge of her body being buried on this planet, and she is puzzled as to why the statues here do not resemble her as her team nears the tomb. Surviving several traps and an attack from a fungal entity that continues to become more aggressive and dangerous with its very personal means of attack, River finds that the woman buried here is, in fact, a version of her from another universe, a version whose life is decidedly not centred about the Doctor. This allows for a fascinating dichotomy to unfold as two versions of the character who have taken such distinct paths interact, and the more straightforward and less flirtatious alternate version who comes from a universe wherein the Time Lords died out long ago allows for plenty of references to the proper River’s previous adventures as she explains why she can no longer regenerate and how much her deep connection with the Doctor has changed her. Indeed, as the two Rivers take an increasingly complex series of trips through time to stop the release of the fungal entity and, just as importantly, to save the life of Professor Dern who accompanied River on the original expedition, the importance of love and interpersonal connections becomes a poignant and subtle but powerful force for self-realization. The subtle interactions with Dern’s life are tactfully written and performed, and the immense chemistry between Alex Kingston and Mimî M Khayisa as the two Rivers allows the expected banter as well as the more intimate moments to resonate equally effectively. The villainous Karla-Gard does ultimately fall somewhat flat, but it nonetheless serves its purpose to advance a plot that is unafraid to embrace both the multiverse and paradoxes, allowing this set to open with a confident instalment brimming with the expected high energy and charm.

In ‘Beauty on the Inside’ by Lizzie Hopley, River schemes to place the winning bid on a painting for which a biochemist gave her life to smuggle out of a closed colony. It seems to be a perfectly normal piece of art about a royal family that is otherwise fairly forgettable, but in short order she finds herself in the presence of the Tremagi ruling elite who do not age and, in fact, are obsessed with the appearance of youth. Stealing children from the surrounding villagers to perform humble tasks for them, the rulers are also deeply unpopular, and River is determined to find out how these people became so deeply misguided and how to put an end to the travesty on display. Unfortunately, ‘Beauty on the Inside’ is a story brimming with strong ideas that don’t quite fully come together, and while exploring the consequences of an ever-continuing life and how scruples can become distorted and degraded is a strong foundation, the royals as characters never manage to develop enough to allow this particular element to truly resonate which then results in a more generic malevolent influence. Hopley does try to add another layer to the story via Lazari Helosta’s misguided and surprisingly personal experiments with nanobots and a forgotten connection to the past, but what should have been the focal point of the entire narrative is introduced far too late after brief bits of foreshadowing and becomes another missed opportunity to truly develop the many elements of drama and intrigue on this world. Chris Harper and Abi Harris do well in their multiple supportive roles comprising the Tremagi and Helostas as written, but even the infectious energy and confidence of Alex Kingston are unable to overcome a story that doesn’t quite know how to unite its ideas and spends far too long treading water without meaningful dramatic tension. There are plenty of intriguing elements here, but ‘Beauty on the Inside’ just can’t quite manage to meet its full potential and is something of a misstep for such a self-assured series.

In ‘Black Friday,’ Lauren Mooney and Scott Pringle take River to Omnia Forum, the greatest shop in the galaxy, as it celebrates two hundred years in business. Answering an invitation to a tremendous gala and sale and given an artificial intelligence named Amica to guide her upon her arrival, River is surprised to find the complex nearly devoid of life except for Mikhail whom she stumbles upon during her investigation. As might be expected, the writers lean into the more overtly comedic side of River as she explores this very common setting that is so far outside of her common norms, and while there is certainly more that could have been done to fully develop the individual zones within the centre, these wanderings within such artificiality expertly set the scene for the pervasive threat that the returning Autons present. Indeed, the very threat of everything plastic being a weapon of sorts provides the perfect workaround for the silence of the Autons as a race as River and Mikhail try to uncover the truth about what has happened here and to escape, and the voice through which the Autons do eventually speak to explain River’s presence makes perfect sense within the confines of the story and manages to further escalate the threat. However, as surprisingly effective as this approach to the Autons is, it’s the chemistry between Alex Kingston and Paul Bazely that quickly becomes the highlight of this release as River and Mikhail likewise try to uncover the mysteries so obviously hidden within Mikhail’s past that he can not remember. The ultimate truth is, of course, predictable given the isolated setting, but the two manage to form a deep and believable relationship incredibly quickly that allows for a genuine openness and intimacy that River so often sidesteps with her more ostentatious stylings. There undoubtedly is room for even deeper characterization, but Mikhail makes an instant impact as a supporting character and provides a thoroughly engaging extra layer to a what already proves to be a successful re-emergence of the Autons for Big Finish.

Barnaby Kay concludes the tenth series with ‘Firewall’ which takes place after the harrowing events of ‘Silence in the Library’ and ‘Forest of the Dead’ in which the Doctor manages to save River’s consciousness to a hard drive following her demise. Of course, the rules for any sequel- and especially one to such an iconic pair of stories- is to have a genuine and meaningful purpose for continuing the story and to not simply retread what has previously been done. Unfortunately, ‘Firewall’ fails to prove why it needs to be told and all too overtly follows in its predecessors’ footsteps. Indeed, much of River’s journey here is a carbon copy of what Donna was already shown to endure within the virtual environment, here with the returning Proper Dave as her husband and Charlotte of the famed CAL as her child. Harry Peacock and Merryn Dowley are both very strong in those respective roles, but River having dreams, going to the playground, and eventually realizing that nothing around her is real offers exactly nothing that is new. Kay does at least try to take the narrative into a different direction as the three come to realize the truth by highlighting a hacker who harbours misguided animosity against the Doctor and has decided to go after River as a result, but this whole plot is utterly nonsensical and never manages to provide any palpable sense of threat. Yes, it does ultimately give River a tremendous opportunity to prove how big her heart truly is, but ‘Firewall’ is ultimately a strange mix of ideas that never seems to find any sort of confidence as it finally strays from its source material. There’s nothing wrong with continuing the saga of River Song after her final adventure in life, but the first foray into this otherwise uncharted territory fails to capitalize on the untapped potential and relies far too much on the strength of its performers and the natural charisma of Kingston to try to elevate a story that sadly is nowhere near the typical level this series delivers.

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