Review – The Diary of River Song – New Recruit

Review by Jacob Licklider

October was already set to be a celebration of the Third Doctor era, bringing out the second Third Doctor Adventures set this year, but July saw the announcement of The Diary of River Song: New Recruit, sending River back to Season 7 with the Doctor travelling Europe and Liz and the Brigadier left back at UNIT. Of course, Tim Treloar reprises his role of the Third Doctor for the final story, but this is a celebration of the early years of the Pertwee era with a twist, putting River in the role of the Doctor and Liz as a companion making for a very different dynamic. Each of the four stories pastiches a Pertwee style story with the final one in particular providing one last twist for a Pertwee story which Big Finish have been unable to do until very recently which ends the set with one very pleasant twist. This twist is one which listeners would not want to have spoiled, and the TARDIS Wiki articles for these stories do provide spoilers so I implore potential listeners to avoid looking anything up about these stories. This review will only include light spoilers for plot details, but none of the big twists will be spoiled.

Lizbeth Myles provides her second UNIT era story with The Blood Woods, the opener of this set which is essentially a pastiche of The Daemons, where River and Liz are sent to a small village in the countryside where an archeologist, played by Abigail McKern, is attempting to excavate burial sites and artefacts near the land of Sir Edward Hawkins, played by Michael Chance, who is determined to get her off his land. Jon Culshaw reprises his role of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart here and throughout the set, but he’s a bit of a background presence as Myles’ script understands the limiting format of one hour, focusing in right on River and Liz’s relationship. The dynamic between Kingston and Daisy Ashford both sparkles and allows the sparks to fly as throughout the story River essentially has to prove herself while Liz has to learn to accept assistance from someone just as intelligent (if not more so) than her. It’s not a relationship that is easy going at all which is a lot of fun as they begin to build a bond, then River reveals what her doctorate is in and that sets a justified Liz into a rage. This is a story that explores the fact that Liz was meant to be the scientific advisor to UNIT before the Doctor showed up, so she feels entitled, rightly so, while he is away to fulfil that role. McKern’s Beatrice Gray is taken straight out of the Tom Baker era, emulating characters like Amelia Ducat in The Seeds of Doom and Amelia Rumford in The Stones of Blood, while Chance has a somewhat tropey but enjoyable turn as Sir Edward. The Blood Woods is very much a story of two halves, the first really focusing on River and Liz while the second tells a very fun yarn. 8/10.

Terror of the Suburbs does an almost Lovecraftian take on the suburbs with the premise of Liz moving to the suburbs and taking leave of her job and her senses, until River shows up. Author James Kettle seems to specialise in these off-kilter dramas where there is a normal situation completely warped by aliens. He’s done it in Barrister to the Stars and Shadow of the Daleks, and it is also done here, with the setting of the suburbs being where most of the drama comes from. Everything in the neighbourhood is perfect, there are cocktail and dinner parties every day, a hairdresser does everyone’s hair, there are freezers in every house, but nobody ever seems to
cook and nobody ever seems to leave. Kettle doesn’t keep it a secret that things are off, with River immediately clocking what’s going on, setup as the hiccup in paradise, to borrow a phrase from Timewyrm: Apocalypse. This story kind of feels like Timewyrm taking its best ideas and actually focusing in on them, doing the trouble in paradise without just ripping off The Krotons. There is an interesting inclusion of two sisters from East Germany, placing this right in the middle of the Cold War, adding some fascinating implications for what’s actually going on once the plot is revealed and the resolution is great. The villains also give some interesting Richard O’Brien/Patricia Quinn in The Rocky Horror Picture Show vibes, bringing some camp to the horror which makes the horror comedy a great episode. 9/10.

The third story of the set is perhaps the one with the most problems. Never Alone by Helen Goldwyn should work, it plays off the fears of being alone and adds some ideas about living in a computer as the earliest computers and video games begin to be created. Melding alien and human technology to build towards a threat should also be a winning formula, and the 8-bit version of The Diary of River Song theme song is most definitely a plus for which Howard Carter should be commended, but this is a story that just didn’t grab me nearly as much as Goldwyn was intending. On a second listen Emma Swan’s performance as Pippa struck me as a lot of fun and Jack Holden playing both Marco and the Higher Power also worked very well, but this is the type of story that doesn’t quite feel like there’s enough time to breathe. Goldwyn is
excellent at scripting but the single episode format doesn’t work as well as it could for a story like this. If this were a two-parter it would probably work just a little better, with some extra characters thrown in and playing it a bit more on the horror level. Everything else is there, but it’s a decent story surrounded by stories that just grab the listener more, though it serves as a nice calm before the finale. 6/10.

The set closes with a claustrophobic tale set in a Yorkshire mine, Lisa McMullin taking cues from The Green Death in Rivers of Light, which lets UNIT as an organisation shine while the Doctor is back. Jon Culshaw is masterful here with the Brigadier and the Doctor having some brilliant interactions, but for the majority of the runtime it is Tim Trelor and Alex Kingston performing off each other brilliantly. The Doctor is essentially in Liz’s position in The Blood Woods, he doesn’t trust River which isn’t helped by the fact they meet each other at 3:00 AM in the TARDIS which River has been messing with in an attempt to repair it. Once everything goes underground the suspicion only builds as it becomes clear that River knows what’s going on and there are points where the listener can’t help but wonder if this is a River who isn’t afraid to betray the Doctor for her own ends, it’s happened before and could hypothetically happen again. The sound design also helps bring everything in close as the claustrophobia of the mines come together wonderfully, Howard Carter’s sound design perfectly pairs with Ken Bentley’s direction. It is Ashford, Treloar, and Culshaw who work off each other brilliantly throughout with Alex Kingston making such a good addition that it’s almost a shame the Doctor wasn’t in more of this set to build to this conclusion. 10/10.

Overall, The Diary of River Song: New Recruit is a release which was almost perfect for late October, with each episode essentially playing on horror tropes and phobias in odd ways, even if the tone of the stories aren’t outright horrific in nature. The performances are brilliant with Alex Kingston and Daisy Ashford being the highlights in every episode while Tim Treloar and Jon Culshaw come close behind. Highly recommended. 8.25/10.

You can get it on download/CD from Big Finish.
Order from Forbidden Planet.

Review  The Diary Of River Song (Series 8)

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