A little while ago, I wrote about some of the free samples that Big Finish was putting out in response to COVID-related lockdowns. I ended up hearing bits and pieces of a whole bunch of their output. As Christmas rolled around, I knew I wanted to spend some of my gift money getting the full story for at least one of those titles. I chose The Diary of River Song, volume 2!
(Daily Doctor Who #49)
River Song, of course, is a recurring character on Doctor Who played by Alex Kingston, who showed up from time to time all the way from Season 4 (Silence in the Library) to Season 7 (The Name of the Doctor), and then for one Christmas special (remember them?) called The Husbands of River Song which aired in 2015, shortly after Season 9. She was a unique character in many respects—she met up with the Doctor out of chronological order, she has a very Time-Lordish backstory, and she had an unusually intimate relationship with the Doctor, even to the point that they considered themselves married to each other.
With all this in mind, the character is perfectly positioned for expanded universe storytelling, especially if she can meet the earlier incarnations of the Doctor that Big Finish has access to (which all makes perfect sense as long as they don’t remember her at the end of the story). I gather she co-starred with Paul McGann’s 8th Doctor in the first volume of her series, so this time around she is paired with both Sylvester McCoy (the 7th Doctor) and Colin Baker (the 6th Doctor).
But River doesn’t play second fiddle to either incarnation of the Time Lord, and stays at the centre of the action over the series’ four episodes. These tales, all crafted by different writers, tell a loosely connected overall story, even though they are different in tone, setting, story focus, and supporting cast.
I was actually a little disappointed by just how loosely the stories were connected. The sample that Big Finish released was 5:29–the second episode of the series. It focuses largely on a synthetic teenager named Rachel whom River has discovered is the sole survivor of the unexpected destruction of the planet earth. It’s a sad story about Rachel having to say goodbye to her parents during a quiet apocalypse, and is told with a lot of feeling. I assumed that the whole series would focus on this character and expand on her situation—but as it turns out, she barely figures in the rest of the series. And so while the other adventures were fun in different ways, they all kind of paled in comparison to the sample offering.
The first story is The Unknown by Guy Adams, and is a bit of a light-hearted affair in which the TARDIS gets mixed up with both a time-shielded ship that River has traveled on and mysterious planet that is riddled with temporal anomalies. All this timey-wimey nonsense creates a bunch of chaos for everyone involved. River teams up with the 7th Doctor to deal with things, resulting in all the problems being reset at the end of the adventure. Then River arrives on the planet and discovers that somehow it is the earth, displaced in both time and space, and from a distant future when a disaster has wiped out all life. The story ends as she stumbles across and reactivates the damaged android Rachel.
Then it goes to 5:29 by John Dorney. River travels back in time to find Rachel before the disaster, and finds that she is being raised by a kindly couple who cannot have children. The story sets up a compelling mystery–without any explanation, whenever in turns 5:29 pm in a particular time zone, all power is suddenly lost and every living thing in that area dies. The story starts with River trying to understand what is happening and looking for a way to save to save people, but it quickly turns into a tale about accepting the inevitability of death (Dorney even states that he realized somewhere in the course of writing the story that it was really about dealing with terminal illness). It’s an intimate drama full of devastatingly authentic emotion—maybe the most affecting of all the Big Finish audios that I have heard, really. It’s well played by the whole cast, including Robert Pugh and Ann Bell as Rachel’s parents, and Alex Kingston’s real-life daughter Salome Haertel as Rachel herself.
River leaves this tragic situation and heads into the third episode, World Enough and Time by James Goss (not to be confused with World Enough and Time by Steven Moffat, an episode from season ten of the TV series). Rachel and her story are left behind as River follows a signal she found to futuristic company which sells to people bespoke dreams. It turns out that the 6th Doctor has recently bought the company and has become its chairman, because he’s suspicious of their activities. And he has good reason to be—nightmares are creeping into the dreams, monsters are eating the sleepers, and the company is secretly stitching together a duplicate earth made up of alternate universes which they plan to sell to people after the monsters kill everyone on the real earth. Phew! A lot of stuff going on!
It’s a funny story with some good satire of business and bureaucracy. And unlike the 7th Doctor’s natural suspicion, the 6th Doctor becomes quite enamored with River Song, which brings out a romantic side of the character we don’t normally see. Once I got adjusted to the fact that Rachel’s story wasn’t being continued, I quite enjoyed World Enough and Time—even if the ending didn’t really make sense to me. The destruction of the earth is poured out at 17:29, which presumably is referencing the mysterious apocalypse from 5:29, but there’s no explanation as to why it always happens at 5:29 local time, rather than all over the whole earth all at once. It was a central part of the mystery from 5:29, and so it needed a bit of meaningful development to make sense of it. (There’s some other messy audio editing at the end of the story which also makes the plot more confusing than it needs to be).
The last story is The Eye of the Storm by Matt Fitton. It brings both the 6th and 7th Doctor together with River, where they discover that the time-monsters that have caused all the trouble started things by planting its eggs in a woman from the 1600’s, which means for the next several hundreds years they can survive on all the potential energy from all the alternate choices that this woman and her descendants will never make, until they emerge ready to properly eat the earth in the previous episode….
Yeah, it’s pretty confusing, actually, and just made me miss Rachel and her story even more. There is an attempt at deep pathos by making the climax of the story about sacrifice, and implying that only River can achieve this victory because only she understands sacrifice so well. It’s a nice idea, but the story doesn’t fully sell me on the idea.
It is nice to hear the different ways that River relates to the two Doctors present. Once again, her interaction with the 6th Doctor is rather romantic, while with the 7th it’s quite adversarial. There’s a very funny sequence where the 7th Doctor defies all her efforts to take away his memories of her—dodging her drugs and refusing her amnesia lipstick—until she is forced to just knock him unconscious to get the job done.
So in the end I was a little disappointed in The Diary of River Song volume two, but really only because the first episode I heard was so good. 5:29 does such a good job setting up both character and plot, and the rest of the series just can’t keep up—it’s not bad, but a bit of a missed opportunity.