Welcome to DoWntime’s not-too-regular column, Assessing Stress. That’s where we assess … stress. Or more accurately, talk and debate about the newest episodes to hit the television screen, the new releases from Big Finish, and all these good things.
And today, Scribbles and Tibère say “hello sweetie” and get ready to face the metaphorical representation of Death, as they cover the latest batch of adventures from everyone’s second-favourite time-travelling archeologist! Spoilers … (after the ‘read more’ tag, of course).
SCRIBBLES: The consensus between us is, I think, that this has opened 2018 on a high note. It’s easily the most exciting River Song set yet, and it is very much her story, centred on her character and mythology. Though the presence of Peter Davison is felt throughout, the focus never wavers on the character this story is about. And it’s all the stronger for it. If you are a River Song fan in any way interested in her audio content, you owe it to yourself to pick it up. Because this is, without a doubt, the best bang for your buck of River Song audio content. So if you’re on a budget, pick this one up, and fast, before the pre-order price slips away forever, because you won’t do better. Though there’s niggles–Big Finish could still stand to indulge some of the more unscrupulous sides of River or showcase her bisexuality–the overall production has a lot to say about some of the most important aspects of her character, while exploring her personal mythology further than anything since the days of series 6 onscreen. It’s a treat.
TIBERE: It’s one of the best sets Big Finish has put out in a long while, I think it’s fair to say. Up there with the like of The New Adventures of Bernice Summerfield I or Doom Coalition IV – it’s just a triumph. There are many factors that contribute to this, some really spoilery, but I think the main two are, first, as Scribbles put it, just how tailored to River the story is, how deeply it is drenched in her character and her imagery, and then, how coherent the narrative is. There’s a level of attention to details and themes here that’s truly spectacular, and the symbols and images echo from one story to another in subtle, surprising ways. Also, maybe more than any other New Series release from the company, this is incredibly close to the actual text of the show, building off events we saw on screen and exploring their ramifications and consequences – there’s this real sense that you’re listening to something not only good, but important, that makes you learn new and crucial things about that character and that might even have an impact on how you’ll approach the original, televised narrative in the future. Sure, it gets a bit too heteronormative and non-polyamorous, but there are some good steps in the right direction and the personal focus of the stories more than make up for it. As far as Big Finish’s approach to “filling the gaps” goes, this might be one of their greatest triumphs. Yeah, it’s just a bloody wonderful story and you should check it out – plus, it’s continuity-free, so, as said Scribbles, definitely pick this one if you want an introduction to River’s extended universe content.
1) “The Lady in the Lake”, by Nev Fountain
TIBERE: And we begin by immediately diving (diving, Lake, get it?) in the symbolical field of death. Which feels very much like a theme running throughout the boxset – death and renewal, death and resurrection. It’s an episode that stands out in that it’s removed from the main plot of the set, but it’s also an absolutely fantastic, standalone introductions to world this story wants to take us in. The value of sacrifice, of death, corrupted and twisted, put at the service of vulgar, exploitative means – the magic of the Time Lords, this sort of primeval pond or river (which is a metaphor Matt Fitton will directly use in the last story) being tainted. “Sacrificial daggers as acupuncture needles”, that’s one of the best lines.
SCRIBBLES: I so want to love this story, and there are many good reasons to. There’s a stunning exploration of what the ramifications of River’s regeneration abilities might be at the core of this, all built out organically from a core image juxtaposition of River Song and Aztec sacrifice. Really, this story has the most fascinating CD extras, and it’s wonderful hearing Nev Fountain discuss how the concept snowballed from that image Alex Kingston offered. It becomes nothing of the sort in the end, but it’s very much built from that core juxtaposition: here we have a story about how River aesthetically connects to sacrifice, and whether that really means anything. Unfortunately, and I hate to have to put a disclaimer on my enjoyment of this story, I do think it fails on some of the crucial emotional payoff. While on a plotting and thematic level it is pretty pristine, and I love twists like the reveal of Lake and concepts like the newly blessed with regeneration family developing fanaticism from testing their limits, I think significant parts of this story lose track of the personal side of events. Some of the beats I’d like to see most just lie outside of the remit of the story. For example, when and how did River learn she might have family out there in the universe? That’s the sort of setup that’s understandably skipped over to leap into the heart of the setting, but I think saving the emotional interiority of River to use on the conceptual setting means that it feels curiously hollow. For me the biggest weak spot, however, is in Lake/Lily’s climactic death. Everything about it should be brilliant. It’s a fantastic idea for a beat that feeds a whopper of a pre-credits sequence. But I don’t think the story ever quite commits enough to what this family means for River personally. We know she doesn’t want to be alone, and that’s a great, great moment, but why can’t she connect to anyone else? Why does it need to be this makeshift family? What do they mean to her? It’s all a bit too fast. Nev Fountain crams in enough enjoyable ideas for a box set of its own, which is always an admirable thing, but it’s a lot to take in opening a set. The other part letting that down is in the execution. Lily’s post-regenerative trauma dialogue is a bit too scattered and obvious to really sell the emotional bond, I think, and though the actress convinces of how zonked out she is by the whole process, it means she can’t convince as much with wanting to be with River forever. Plus, I don’t think the story really commits enough to the possibility of Lily’s survival and travels with River to make it hurt. I’m nitpicking. I know I am. This is a fundamentally clever and inspired thing. But it misses the highest marks because it does everything but remember to make me feel. The themes are there. The concepts are there. The character beats are there, in theory. It’s really very good, don’t get me wrong at all, Nev Fountain is an immensely talented writer who is clearly very interested in finding something fresh and new to say about River, which I’m very grateful for, because it’s all worth saying. But the heart feels like the Aztec dagger has already torn it out.
TIBERE: I absolutely loved this story, which, I have to admit, might come from the fact I pretty much lap up everything Nev Fountain writes (I even liked “The Widow’s Assassin”, and god knows that one is as problematic as it gets!), and I think part, if not all of the emotional disconnect one can feel in front of it is intended. There’s something extremely wrong, extremely dissonant with that setting, this planet full of rich people (which is a nice way to avoid having to directly tackle the subject of people that commit suicide out of sheer distress) coming to kill themselves.
SCRIBBLES: Though, I confess, that was my other criticism. It’s an innately sad location. It’s a place where people go because they’d rather die in dreams than keep going on facing whatever they do in life. It’s crass and comedic, but it gains its dark weight because there is a pathos to that. I would have loved to see the reasons people who aren’t Time Lords would come to such a place. Even if they are rich people looking for a thrill, there’s a humanity there this story never goes for the jugular on. That feels like a missed opportunity to me. And looking at events like that of the library, I feel like there’s more to be said about the connection of River Song to fantasy spaces and death, too. That’s hung over our knowledge of River since we first met her, and it’s a shame we can’t reflect on any of that here. This story is very obsessed with the here and now of its concepts and humor. That’s all effective. But it misses the few beats and emotional undertones that could make it an outright classic, rather than just a pretty damn good start.
TIBERE: Well, see, I didn’t interpret it like that. It’s not a place where people are trying to end their life in peace – they come here to die in a spectacular fashion, creating their own grandiose fantasies, being a prophet burnt alive or a hero dying in battle. It’s capitalism applied to suicide – I think that with a premise like that, trying to create deep pathos for people directly impacted by the location would feel very uncomfortable. Really, it’s a world of illusion, of make-believe, of perverse oddity – in a way, River is also projecting her fantasies on that setting, really, trying to bring life to death, to renew and regenerate, becoming a knight in shining armor, but there’s this sort of silent trauma that creeps up and corrupts everything. I agree that a lot of emotional beats come and go a bit fast, and that Lily can be a bit of a problematic character, but I think the impact of her death, and the collapse of the illusion around her, still hits very hard – using a sort of embedded narrative, here, with River digging her tomb as the pre-credits, is a brilliant move that casts a shadow over the rest of the narrative. The shadow of Death, really, which manifests itself in more subtle way than a random guy called Kevin (a relative of yours?).
SCRIBBLES: Unfortunately, Justin Richards beat everyone to that punchline with Kevin the Black Shadow Monster and reluctant assassin in “The Resurrection Casket.” Perhaps that’s why I’m so longing for more emotional substance here: I’ve heard the best gag done here already in Who, though the fact that two writers managed to come up with the idea of a cheerful killer named Kevin is tremendously amusing and has me concerned about the connotations of my name.
TIBERE: I’m pretty sure you’re hiding a corpse under your bed now. But, back to my point – there’s something inevitable about the whole thing, from the multiple causal loops that shape the narrative to the fact, that, well, it’s kind of a direct reinterpretation of the final beat of “The Doctor Falls”, the Time Lord killing his female self. Which, I guess can be interpreted as a flaw of the narrative, but that’s also how tragedies, in their purest, Greek form, work. You know how it’s going to end, and wait for the knife to fall, in terror and pity. That Fountain (and by the way, the fact a story that literally drowns under water puns is written by a guy called Fountain is kind of hilarious) manages to make that waiting period into a quasi-romp, if one which is regularly interrupted by the dead serious, and deeply unsettling, thoughts of Lake, is a rather impressive trick. Yeah, I’m ready to defend it as an outright classic, I think, even if I definitely see the value in your points. Still, we can both agree on River making rude gestures at camera being a pretty wonderful bit of comedy, yes?
SCRIBBLES: River’s characterization was, for all my niggles, delightful here. It’s been on and off in past in audio. I think Matt Fitton has never hit a wrong note with her, but many talented Big Finish writers have been struggling to find the balance between her love of the Doctor and her independent, dangerous streak. This hits it. It’s nice to have another adventure for her without the Doctor after set two pushed the narrative of her clashing with past Doctors to its logical end-point. Diary II did that very well, I think. I just don’t want to see her range ever revolve around the Doctor to that extent again now it’s been done. Travelling solo under Fountain’s pen, she gets to be delightfully selfish and caring here in equal measure, mixing crassness and violence with charm and warmth. The rude gestures were great, and I love the whole thing about club card points, because let’s face it, she would. How about we see her stolen club card shopping spree next time, eh? The world could always use more glamorous criminal River.
TIBERE: Matt Fitton’s been the best at getting her character and themes, and Dorney’s probably got her voice and lines down even better. I quite like what Jenny Colgan did with her in the first set, too, even if you and I can’t stop debating about her audio.
SCRIBBLES: Because I love it, and he …
TIBERE: … I really don’t. But yes, her characterization is just wonderful. That little throwaway gag about her being just here to collect premium points you mentioned, for instance – which gets a call-back in the finale, by the way, just as yet another proof of the impeccable plotting. Which does raise an interesting point, really – because the whole shopping thing is kind of very associated with Bernice at this point, but yet the writers here find a way to make River distinct and unique in a way they never quite got before. There’s a really unique mixture of ruthlessness and warmth to her – where Benny would go shopping just because she likes it, River is kind of both skillfully cultivating and genuinely enjoying this image of materialist glamorous seductress. It’s subtle, but there’s a wealth of subtle little character moments that really add up to make her into a three-dimensional, layered character. Really, that’s always the danger when writing characters after their exit from a show – making them simpler, reducing them to their broadest elements.
SCRIBBLES: That’s always been a ponderous thing to ask about the Diary range, as well. There’s the odd choice of generally setting these encounters after “The Husbands of River Song” to cut to after the bulk of her development has happened, and many of the stories have gone over pretty familiar beats. Stories like “Signs” and “The Boundless Sea” had good climactic beats, but in some ways, they were a bit obvious, and lacked new and daring insight into who River is. And the second series, while for me at least more polished and enjoyable, was very much a story about how River wades through two Doctors getting in her way, which, while delightful and ending in a magnificent little speech about love and agency, doesn’t really leave too much space to explore new ground. Fountain starts us off with a more layered and introspective approach to River.
TIBERE: Here, she’s a flawed, likeable, complex, amoral figure. No matter our thoughts on the quality of these stories in and on themselves, I think that’s the main takeaway: they are unabashedly, 100% raw uncut River.
2) “A Requiem for the Doctor”, by Jacqueline Rayner
TIBERE: It’s interesting that we mentioned “The Boundless Sea” several times while discussing the opener, because this feels very much like a spiritual successor to it – maybe there’s something obvious to be said about them being the two stories written by women for the range. They’re both meditations on agency, feminism and toxic power structures.
SCRIBBLES: This and “The Boundless Sea” are my idea of the perfect standard River story. Both are very much about taking the aesthetics of a general Doctor Who story and crashing River Song into the moral center. “The Boundless Sea” turned out to be a fantastic little story about victims of oppressive systems and toxic gender roles, and how people propagate or reject them, which found a great specificity to River by the time of the climax. “A Requiem for the Doctor” is similarly quite polished and deep beneath the basic structure of the romp plot.
TIBERE: I can’t deny I enjoyed this a lot more than, well, uh, its prototype, if that makes sense? I think that what really appealed to me was just how subtle, sneaky and layered Rayner’s writing gets here. It’s the simplest story of the set in many ways, really, but the script is fiendishly clever in the way it throws red herrings and subtle hints around. The Doctor’s constant changes of state depending on who of River and Brooke is channeling the Aqua Galatia, for instance – it would be tempted to lean into these a lot more, but no, they’re essentially kept in the background, as little hints to pick upon or enjoy on rewatch.
SCRIBBLES: For me, what was most delightful was the constant tension of how Brooke was to be paid off. The preceding cliffhanger isn’t subtle in connecting her to events as a potential threat, from the name to the treatment of her introduction as cliffhanger worthy. But Rayner’s very savvy in how she keeps that on the back-burner. What we have here is basically two plots nestled into each other and thematically informing each other, linked by the concept of aqua tofana. Like you said, the foreshadowing with the emotional impact of the poison is very skillfully done, the Doctor going from feeling amazing to having sudden pangs when she turns up a great little subtle but pointed choice. While Brooke and River’s feud could feel like a bit of a sexist cliche, Rayner devotes just enough time to building a convincing facade for her, and her insecurities in comparison to River are quite sweet. One has to wonder how much of that is sincere. Brooke doesn’t realize River is her sister yet, but her need to prove herself better than River is very much the through-line for her character. And the way the plot resolves manages enough thematic and emotional payoff in the genuinely poignant and disturbing sacrifice of Giulia to almost feel like it could end there, before finally dropping the obvious final act twist right when you start doubting it’ll ever come in this story. The confrontation between Brooke and River over love and hate may be a bit obvious, but that doesn’t make it any less worthwhile. I mean, we live in a world right now where love being more than hate is a message we just need to be hearing. And it pays off wonderfully by the end of the set, in later explorations of how hollow and false Brooke’s hate is. Because it’s the same hate River had, once upon a time, and it was blotted out by her love. We get her biggest, most life-changing dilemma played out again in that TARDIS scene, and I don’t care if it’s a bit obvious. It’s necessary and good.
TIBERE: I have to admit, the first time I listened to this story, I had an issue with how predictable I thought it felt. On relisten, though, that’s very much the intended effect – to the point of trolling, even: I mean, the very first scene literally gives you all the answers you need. They namedrop the Aqua two minutes into the first bit of dialogue! It’s shameful and so gracious and I love it. It’s a great concept, that – because not only does it create a constant threat looming over the characters (and a threat is is – damn, this story goes quite far on the gore, doesn’t it? It was unexpected, if kind of enjoyable in a macabre way), but it’s a threat entirely channeled through the medium of character. Their emotions are literally weaponized. And having a slow piece that allows you to explore these emotions does wonder for the structure of the set, generally speaking – the actual plot then is used as a sort of catalyst for the themes and emotions of the overall narrative, with Giulia the poison dealer embodying both the idea of abuse and toxic familial relations, and the quest for vengeance River renounces. I think that’s where this audio truly hits – there’s a sense of direct relatability to what Giulia has experienced, a raw realness that was, at least for me, lacking with “The Boundless Sea” and its bride walled up alive.
SCRIBBLES: And here I again have to comment that I love “The Boundless Sea” and quite disagree. If anything, for me, the marital subplot was the most perfunctory and plot-driven aspect of this story. While certainly a moment with good thematic resonance, Viktor and his wife never quite get the personal exploration and resonance that Prim did. They’re efficient plot hooks and mirror the interpersonal conflicts of Giulia, a very wonderful character, quite well, while building up the subtextual conflicts with the Doctor, River, and Brooke. I did like, however, the suggestion that Viktor, or at least some of the husbands, were not killed from abuse, but rather spite. It’s a nice complication of the dynamic, with awareness for how facile the suggestion that it’s all men beating their wives portrait can be, even while it does nonetheless carry a lot of truth and effect many women like Giulia. The point is, abuse isn’t just a men on women thing, nor is it just a marital thing. River Song’s whole story is about abuse, and never once did that come from a man. And Brooke’s whole reason for being as she is is that same abuse. Abuse, really, is the through-line for both series 6 and this box set, which just helps what makes this set feel like such a good tribute to River. Furthermore, I like how this debate plays out over the body of the Fifth Doctor, the biggest “nice guy” in Doctor Who history, and, out-of-universe, one of the most public faces of skepticism toward a woman as the Doctor. River is in many ways a proto-female Doctor, and finding a way to play out a debate over whether this man is abusive to her narrative is a rich thing to do.
TIBERE: Maybe on a technical level, it can get a bit mechanical, I suppose – marital abuse in a River audio is kind of a perfect combination, it’s a plot that makes so much sense. Still, I think that’s the kind of moment that really allows for some good, juicy dramatic monologues, and the acting of Issy Van Randwyck really struck an emotional chord with me. Plus, its resolution is just a perfect cocktail of symbolism, too – music used as a catalyst for emotions and a tool of power, which directly echoes “Husbands of River Song” and the whole “there is a Song” / “memories become stories” motif of series 9; Giulia stopping drinking the water that grants her immortality (still, the Pond of Life metaphor! It holds up, people!); and her reclaiming her female agency through death, that death that was corrupted and denied in the first story, by proudly standing up on a stage, facing the world. Wonderfully cheeky bit of symbolism, that – and very true to the Moffat era, that loves using symbolical stages to add to the characters’ metatextual journey. You mentioned earlier the whole “love” resolution, which could feel quite easy, but I think the audio manages really well on that front too, in that it acknowledges that love is not some kind of stellar power from above, but an ultimately selfish, if beautiful emotion. “She was selfish.” “I think everyone is, sometimes” – is perhaps one of the most defining lines River ever got – what was it that Russell T. Davies said about Rose, that she was, “wonderfully, beautifully selfish”? That comes to mind. That there’s a desire for beauty, transcendence and perfect love even in our little self-centered life, I think that’s a comforting message, and one that’s so perfectly in line with who River is as a character.
3) “My Dinner with Andrew”, by John Dorney
TIBERE: Interestingly, what I get out of this audio, maybe above all else, is how interesting its handling of Five is. Which is ironic, considering how little actual time he actually spends within the narrative – but still, there’s this sort of incredibly fun play on his perceived passivity, that Eric Saward resented so much he basically spent his entire tenure with Six trying to “fix it”, his tendency to be a sort of innocent bystander getting swept in bigger things. River manipulates him from beginning to end – really, he’s only a tool in a game being played by powerful women, her, Kovarian, Brooke – which really tells you all about how the range has evolved, considering River said she was “a pawn who was going to be queen” in the first set …
SCRIBBLES: The use of the Fifth Doctor in general in this set is quite a remarkable thing, I think. The fact is, Peter Davison is in every story here, including as the Doctor. And yet, never once does he even come close to threatening to take over the narrative. Like you say, he gets his fair share of being a pawn. But more than that, he’s a catalyst, which really showcases what he’s always been to River. That was the central joke of “The Husbands of River Song.” The Doctor is important to River, her origin and her closest love, and he’s involved in many of her adventures, but her life does not and never has revolved around him, and when she’s adventuring, he’s more her prop than the other way around. Dorney stated his mission statement for this story was to indulge in as much gratuitous mind-wiping of the Doctor as possible in response to criticism of common use of said device, and it makes a hell of a statement, and an on-point one at that, of what the role of the Doctor in a River Song story is, even before Matt Fitton follows up by locking him up dead in the great metaphorical refrigerator for an hour.
TIBERE: They literally fridge the Doctor to give River motivation. It’s perfect.
SCRIBBLES: They don’t just kill him! They lock his corpse in a box! Shame they didn’t go full Green Lantern comic homage and have him all chopped up and shoved in a literal refrigerator, but hey. It’s a hell of a subtle moment of thematic and political beauty.
TIBERE: It makes total sense, too – like, he’s constantly twisted, even robbed of his entire identity – he’s seen through cracked mirrors, spawning doppelgangers, be them some random bloke named Andrew or a killer robot. God, though, that has to be one of Davison’s best performances ever – three roles he all makes different and memorable effortlessly. Kudos. Also, you’ve got to love how he gets objectified, and yes I do mean sexually – seriously, this is as sexual River has ever gotten on audio, implying she cosplays as Five in bed, making comments about Andrew’s penis, flirting with the Maître d’Hôtel, and tongue-kissing both the Doctor and Brooke (hey, some gay in a River audio! That took some time!).
SCRIBBLES: That said, it’s a shame River’s only gay moments in the Diary sets come with her sisters. Saving a damsel in distress from a dragon and kissing a woman is all good, but it’d be nice to see her doing that with people who don’t share cloned DNA from her.
TIBERE: I said Dorney has the voice of River down a T earlier, and I will still stand by that – he gets the comedy and the sympathy, but also the flirtatious glamour, and a fair share of honest-to-god chilling mercilessness. I mean, it’s pretty much a tale of “River ruins a random guy’s life by kidnapping him at gunpoint to have him impersonate her husband in a deadly restaurant full of assassins.” God, though, what a premise. What a fun audio! It’s just utterly delightful – I think this between that and last year’s “False Negative”, John Dorney really is building up a back-catalogue of perfectly plotted romps. Because holy shit, in terms of structure and narrative building, this is sheer poetry (my boy). It’s not enough to structure the entire audio like a menu – which in and on itself is an incredible idea, even if he kinda stole it from Hannibal -, no, he even goes as far as putting little nods to the “dishes” we are currently on in the dialogue! The “soup” section has River declaring that her timeline is a big temporal soup; “fish” gives Kovarian saying there’s “something fishy”; “dessert” has Brooke stating that Five got “his just deserts” … I love it. It’s not gratuitous either – it’s very much a style of storytelling that fits and defines River: basically, Dorney is doing his version of “The Big Bang”. But it’s never just an hommage – it’s fresh, it’s creative, it’s thematically relevant, and overall, well, pretty perfect.
SCRIBBLES: He’s clearly got a fantastic handle on farce. I just adore how doomed the Doctor’s double Andrew is from the start. In River’s story, a tale about abuse and agency and pawns, he’s the lowest man on the totem pole. And the great, unfortunately often unspoken truth about River Song is that she can be a selfish prick. So immediately, “My Dinner With Andrew” establishes a poignant tension: what will River do to this innocent man for her own ends? It’s sick, twisted, poignant, and riotously funny. It’s never once afraid to lean into the deeply uncomfortable and sketchy subtext, complete with River forcibly kissing and stripping people here. And it manages, I think, to pull it off.
TIBERE: It’s interesting, what you say about the doomed Andrew – because there’s still this idea of death at play, isn’t it? The whole thing is about changing a fixed point in time, the death of the Doctor, by piling up increasingly elaborate gambits, one on top of another. There’s kind of an implicit parallel with “Lady in the Lake”, another story about trying to avoid death – and River’s ruthlessness echoes Lake’s. Except of course, she is trying to help someone else, not herself; and that she doesn’t go through with sacrificing Andrew. There’s quite a bit of darkness at play here, really – and I think Kovarian is a prime example of that. She’s basically a comic relief here – or rather, the straight woman lost in a sea of increasingly absurd occurrences that make it all a lot more funny. But she is an utterly depraved character, and the end of the episode, not to mention the finale, soon remind us of that.
SCRIBBLES: Kovarian here is quite an interesting figure, of course. I think it’s safe to say that, given her importance to River as a character, an appearance was overdue, and Frances Barber does not disappoint.
TIBERE: Something I really appreciated about her appearance, and the episode in general, is how they riff on series 6 beats – like, Kovarian’s plan here is virtually the exact same she hatched before: have a conditioned assassin shoot the Doctor and create a fixed point in time that the good guys must then stop. Hell, River even mentions that putting a robot duplicate of the Doctor in his place worked before! It’s a really fun but of metatextual homage, but I also think it has deeper implications, as the next story will explore: Kovarian is fundamentally incapable of coming up with anything new because she is a pathologically obsessed woman trapped in the same narrow worldview. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result …
SCRIBBLES: And yet, never once does it feel like a rehash. The core beats are the same rich ones series 6 used to become personal favorite of mine, but John Dorney, and later Matt Fitton, successfully dodges making it an outright repeat by leaning into the lunacy here, and changing the consequences in the follow-up. Like you say, with Kovarian, it leans into the insanity of her doing this same plot again, and I love the slight baffled way she and Brooke respond to the fact that they actually managed to kill the Doctor. The setting of the Gastropod as a fixed point to kill the Doctor is great, as well. Removing it from time makes it feel suitably different enough, but I almost wish we got a scene of Kovarian with a big evil plans list of places where the Doctor dies in a fixed point. Probably tonally better that it didn’t, but the story all but takes us to that point with her, without every making things feel too weightless.
TIBERE: It’s kind of being written with the implication that the listener has seen series 6, has seen that plot before, and has a series of predefined expectations – which makes it all the more fun and meta, because it kind of forces you to adopt the point of view of River, this woman who knows all the rules, who knows how the narrative of Who works. You are scheming alongside her, trying to come up with your own masterplan. And I think that’s the greatest success of the episode, really – creating, through all the fun and the tragedy, a deeply empathetic connection with a character that had rarely been darker before.
4) “The Furies”, by Matt Fitton
SCRIBBLES: Planet Mondas, quite wrongly I think, claimed that this set is special because “even if you ever not that keen on River on TV give this a go and you will be pleasantly surprised by her depth of character.” To phrase my disagreement as tactfully as possible, I am strongly convinced that the whole strength that is that it recaptures and expands on the depth of her character from the televised series. That’s what makes this latest Diary set the roaring success it is, because it engages with the complexities and emotional hardships that defined her life in the televised series. Matt Fitton is, as I have said many times before, one of the Big Finish writers who best understands River, and his love of the character shines through here. “The Furies” is a love letter to the character of River Song and her backstory as developed in my controversial favorite run of Doctor Who, series 6. It is deeply, deeply defined by the traumas we discovered in that series that forever color who she is, and it pays them off in beautiful ways. Outright making the abuse subtext of series 6 text with the use of the term “gaslighting” is just one of the ways this makes itself the essential extrapolation of who River is from the TV series and the most vital tie-in audio story she has ever had. This is just the most important story River Song has ever gotten since her onscreen appearances, even moreso than Matt Fitton’s last attempts to make a statement on the character. It is a triumph.
TIBERE: It really, really is. As any Who story, if you try to go and look for potential niggles, I guess you can say the Deterrent is a bit of a functional monster, or that the emotional potential of Andrew’s demise is not fully explored, but really, why would you when the story offers you just so much good stuff? Because I think, really, it’s an incredibly generous story, that gives you these scenes you’ve always wanted to see before – an acknowledgement of Amy and Rory’s trauma after Demon’s Run, a deeper look at River and Kovarian’s connection … In a way, it is fanservice, yes – but it’s fanservice that makes the character better, more layered, more interesting, and her story plain better.
SCRIBBLES: We mentioned above the way this set’s arc plays into similar plotting to series 6, and certainly, in some ways, this is a spiritual successor to “The Wedding of River Song.” That episode fits the same narrative, of what happens after Kovarian kills the Doctor, but here, in the Doctor’s general absence, the narrative shifts to shine a new light on the emotions involved. I personally think the series 6 finale is a tremendously under-appreciated episode that focuses pleasantly on Amy and River’s trauma in light of what the Doctor has become, but Matt Fitton brings up the one thing the episode could have benefited from but never could have done: it removes the Doctor from the equation. That shift in the balance of a similar narrative approach means that, instead, the magnificent beats that grace “The Wedding of River Song” in subtext become furious, powerful text. This is very much an extrapolation of the preceding arc and episode, complete with calling out the abuse that defines the series and combatting it with River finding solace in the strength of other women with similar wounds, just as she and Amy did in the garden at the end of series 6. Which, of course, is one of the many scenes that quite rightly gets a direct reference here.
TIBERE: Not only does the episode manage to offer truly spectacular character moments, but it does that while pushing the set’s thematic obsessions to a breaking point – the death motif of course finds its climax with the death of the Doctor hanging over the entire narrative, but there’s also this theatrical pattern I identified in the first two stories, with the tragic underpinnings of “Lady in the Lake”, and the performance arts’ role in “A Requiem for the Doctor”. Here, you literally have a story named after a Greek tragedy, a Greek myth – the Orestaia, in which a man that has killed his mother (because she, herself, had killed his father) is pursued by the Furies until the city of Athens finally decides to take justice away from the gods and into their own hands, creating the judiciary system, with lawyers and prosecutors and all that good stuff. Which, really, is in a certain way what happens here – River and her sisters facing the trauma of Kovarian and delivering justice onto her as best as they can, turning the vengeful Furies of the tale into sci-fi fighter clones (also, interesting tidbit – there are three Furies, Megaera, Tisiphone and Alecto, and you end up with three living sisters, Brooke, H2 and O – it all checks out). There’s a fascinating network of imagery, here, mixing not only the past of the show, but also elements of christianity, with the Papal Mainframe, Tasha Lem or the Headless Monks getting a namedrop, and the deeply pagan landscape from which River spawns from. This idea of her as the source, the pond from which the others drink is fascinating, of course, as already mentioned – but even that has its root in ancient myths, with different areas of waters being associated with minor goddesses and nymphs that would represent them (and who’d often be subject to the most unpleasant aspects of a patriarchal society, come to think of it). And the final fate of Kovarian is not so different from the ones of the Great Damned doomed to Tartarus, trapped into a neverending loop of pain – after having to make the choice, what’s the most obvious torture possible for her, between the man she hates walking out alive or the entire universe she swore to protect dying.
SCRIBBLES: I like the method of torturing Kovarian with the idea that the story of the Furies is real, even though of course it isn’t. River Song, like so many Moffat characters, her mother for example, is a character tied up in stories. Her life, from the beginning, is tied to a book. Her death in her debut story is quite literally bookended with River closing the book. This range acknowledges that in its title, The Diary of River Song. And that’s not the only one, as River is tied to literature and storytelling in a few plays in Doctor Who. She debuts in a library, for heaven’s sake! And a whole episode leans heavily on her being her own detective femme fatale in an unrelated pulp series. So River taking a story from her own childhood and using it to regain control is thematically stunning. It’s also a great way to turn the tables on Kovarian, who very much tries to reconstruct the Doctor Who universe to make herself the noble protagonist, no matter how idiotic and misguided her plans are.
TIBERE: And the way this tale is conveyed through us, the listener, is through the story of Doctor Who itself, as a medium – with a past Doctor, Five being the messenger of doom (“We took the Furies … and dressed them in cricket whites”, what a great line), repeating the same tick-tock nursery rhyme that rhythmed series 6.
SCRIBBLES: Though it’s never explicitly stated, the white figure of the Doctor, for me at least, brought to mind the Watcher of “Logopolis,” who’s always been a fantastically nebulous bit of imagery connected to the arrival of the Fifth Doctor. The Watcher there, of course, was a herald of the Fourth Doctor’s inevitable change into the Fifth. Here, the Watcher, if that’s indeed what these visions are, gets to be the figure of tormenting vengeance for the Doctor, and with Frances Barber’s dedication to portraying the time-honed Doctor Who archetype of a megalomaniac slipping away from sanity, it feels practically right out of Macbeth in a sci-fi romp skin.
TIBERE: God, I can’t believe I didn’t mention Barber’s acting before, because that’s maybe the single best thing in an already stellar audio. Her feverish delivery of the rhyme as she loses her grip on reality is truly something to behold – the acting in Big Finish is generally very good across the board, so we don’t talk about it all that much, but she gave me actual chills. I also appreciate the way they end up giving River the upper hand throughout the story while never a single time undermining Kovarian’s threat potential: she is a genuinely clever character, as her anti-assassination-by-clone failsafe proves. And the way she tries to manipulate her daughters, by offering them names, a chance to drive the spaceship … There’s something just incredibly realistic about the way she’s acted and written – the abuse she inflicts has an impact, a texture, makes a really powerful impression.
SCRIBBLES: Speaking of descents from sanity, Brooke’s is at the forefront here. Her character goes through a lot of very different motions, from murdering her own sister to finding her own way back to River’s side. Less charitably, it could be said that this all happens a bit quickly, and certainly it does, but it helps that this story never once shies away from the fact that she is pushed to make irrational, impulsive decisions from conditioned hate. There’s probably good future payoff to get, if the range ever wishes to return to her and the sisters, regarding how they all process this death at the hands of one of their own; even if it is the result of Kovarian’s machinations with their heads, blood is on Brooke’s hands.
TIBERE: I feel like in a way it’s kind of playing on certain beats Amy went through during her tenure as a companion – this idea of the repressed coming back to haunt you, of involuntary actions that betray trauma. Of course, Amy didn’t stab to death any poor Leadworth passerby, because her traumas weren’t exactly the result of abuse directly inflicted upon her by a religious zealot, but there is still a throughline.
SCRIBBLES: This would be more like if she stabbed her aunt or her mum, I think. But, granted, seeing as the little of those characters we see in Amy’s life consists largely of microaggressions…
TIBERE: Brooke’s destiny is basically the inevitable consequence of her treatment – she’s pushed so far into the violence, into that circle of abuse that has been a recurring theme of River audios, from “The Boundless Sea” to “A Requiem for the Doctor”, that she can only cope with that level of trauma by killing as a coping mechanism.
SCRIBBLES: And so she, rather than River, is the one who ultimately breaks down and indulges the morally questionable impulses of her family’s trauma. She grooms Andrew for death. It’s a very well-calculated beat. River is capable, I think, of this, whatever Brooke says, but it preserves the ambiguity there while still going through with the inevitable doom hanging over Andrew’s head from his introduction in a delightfully savage and cynical moment.
TIBERE: I mean, she literally says in the Rayner episode that “she could still kill”, so I think the text backs you up on that one. But yes, this is a fascinating beat, that – one that I think the episode could have gained by dwelling on a bit more. Because she doesn’t just prepare him for the kill – there is a also a sort of compassion there, where the dialogue seems to imply that she has given him life advice on multiple occasions, stirred his life in a better direction, and even set him up on a date. Of course, you might read that as a farmer making sure his cattle is happy and well-fed before the kill, but still, there is a moral ambiguity here, a level of compassion and complexity in the way she interacts with the world and other people.
SCRIBBLES: I think, more than that, it’s a product of guilt. As Brooke becomes aware of the things she has done as a result of her upbringing, she tries to soften her blows. I can relate to that, honestly. I may not have grown up in a murder cult, but I did have a time where I bought into being inundated with strange political and spiritual beliefs that I think did cause me to say hurtful things to people, and I can understand her drive to pamper here. I imagine, in a way, she almost wants treating Andrew well to let her off the hook, because what she does here is so fundamentally cruel. It doesn’t get rid of that guilt, but it almost certainly helps.
TIBERE: Oh, definitely. She’s very much morally shady – but the mere fact we can have that kind of in-depth discussion about her motives speaks volume about the storytelling quality on display here. Which is universal, really – there’s just a wealth of small, but incredibly details, from the way Kovarian describes River’s childhood bedroom, to the interactions between the four sisters, that don’t get, in the grand scheme of things, that much screen time, but manage to have a very believable bond and a distinct personality.
SCRIBBLES: Speaking of the bedroom, the mentions of her childhood birthday gifts being deadly weapons are wonderful. I would love to one day see a story focusing on young Melody, and exploring just how she was raised to be what she is and when she started wanting to get away. There are so many things she knows, or thinks she knows, even when we see her as a child, and I have to imagine there were many missions and lessons she experienced that made her that way.
TIBERE: You can see traces of her conditioning all over the narrative, really – like the fact everyone call the Doctor the Demon and seem to have an entire mythology centered around him and the horrors he brings in his wake. Which makes the fact that the entire narrative is basically building towards a reverse-conditioning of Kovarian all the more satisfying (especially when River has to work for that by talking to her sisters and help them understanding the abuse they’ve received and recovering from it). There’s so much stuff to explore here, I absolutely can’t wait to see where they’ll go next.
SCRIBBLES: For now, though, this’ll do. It’s the most focused and detailed examination of River’s background, well, ever, and it works magnificently.
TIBERE: Everyone involved deserves a standing ovation. This story – and really, this whole set, are just a masterclass in Who storytelling.
SCRIBBLES: Let’s just hope it’s only the beginning.