❉ Four engaging, satisfying and unexpected encounters with River Song.
“Freed from continuity concerns and preconceptions about their interplay that accompany meetings with her future husband, her encounters with the Master take some unexpected turns.”
With 2019 being the 20th anniversary of their Doctor Who audio line, Big Finish Productions is quite sensibly pulling out the stops. In addition to epic releases like the upcoming multi-Doctor set The Legacy of Time and the return of fan favorite Sheridan Smith in The Further Adventures of Lucie Miller, this year also finds a number of characters – or at least particular incarnations of those characters – making their debut appearances for Big Finish. When Michelle Gomez let it slip last year at the ReGeneration Who convention that she’d be reprising the role of Missy opposite Alex Kingston as River Song, the reaction was more excitement than surprise. Surprise came a month or so later when Big Finish announced that Gomez would be just one of four incarnations of the Master that River Song would meet, including one more version who hadn’t yet appeared in a Big Finish story.
Eric Roberts reprising the role of the Master in Series 5 of The Diary of River Song is quintessentially Big Finish way to celebrate their two decades of Doctor Who on audio. Beyond their ability to find spaces in continuity most fans would never have imagined possible, they excel at rehabilitating the reputations of contentious characters. Though not as divisive as the televised tenure of Bonnie Langford as Mel or Matthew Waterhouse as Adric, the quality of Roberts’ 1996 portrayal of the Master opposite Paul McGann remains the subject of spirited debate. His appearance in the story The Lifeboat and the Deathboat won’t end that debate but might change some minds in his favor.
Starting with his early-2000s appearances, Beevers has recast his one-off television portrayal into the essential embodiment of the character, depicting a ruthless, shriveled soul beneath the superficial charm of the other selves. As demonstrated in last year’s Short Trips release I Am the Master, this makes him the most malevolent of all the incarnations.
Scripted by Eddie Robson, who remains one of Big Finish’s most versatile writers, The Lifeboat and the Deathboat recalls a more experimental era of Doctor Who fiction. With an almost dreamlike quality and a narrative that gives its narrative questions room to breathe, it’s the most distinctive story in the set and arguably the best. The mystery unfolds gradually in both plot and character terms, and only when its two plot strands collide is the Master revealed for who he truly is. Roberts’ handling of the shift from stoic survivor and caring parent to manipulative villain is a validation of his original casting.
The stories before and after feel more conventional, with set-ups and settings that can be more neatly encapsulated, but are also very engaging. In fact, in some respects they’re more satisfying than many of the stories teaming River Song with earlier incarnations of the Doctor in previous volumes. Freed from continuity concerns and preconceptions about their interplay that accompany meetings with her future husband, her encounters with the Master take some unexpected turns.
This shows through in Animal Instinct, the episode written by Roy Gill where River meets the incarnation of the Master portrayed by Geoffrey Beevers. Animal Instinct has the skeleton of a “traditional” Doctor Who story in which an ancient mystery must be solved for the greater good, but this particular version of the Master allows for some bleaker than usual moments. Starting with his early-2000s appearances, Beevers has recast his one-off television portrayal into the essential embodiment of the character, depicting a ruthless, shriveled soul beneath the superficial charm of the other selves. As demonstrated in last year’s Short Trips release I Am the Master, this makes him the most malevolent of all the incarnations.
When handled properly the Master brings the Doctor’s character into focus, and the same holds true for River Song. If the Doctor sometimes serves as the metaphorical angel on her shoulder, in Animal Instinct the Master is a more infernal influence, trying to nudge her moral compass in more questionable directions. “If I wanted guidance from a sociopath, I’d look in a mirror,” River tells tells him at the outset of the adventure, but she soon finds that circumstances make his cutthroat approach rational if not morally desirable. Ultimately her fundamental decency wins out at more than a little cost to the Master, who seems unlikely to forget and even less inclined to forgive.
When River asks Missy whether she feels different after regenerating into female form, the Time Lord replies, “I feel like me. I felt like me before. Silly question.”
This bill comes due in the set’s final story Concealed Weapon, featuring Sir Derek Jacobi reprising the role from the televised story Utopia. Though Jacobi had even less screen-time in the TV series than his fellow one-off Masters, Beevers and Roberts, his incarnation is the one fans unambiguously wanted to play the role again. Since 2017 he’s been spreading joyful malice in both his own audio series and other Doctor Who spin-offs from Big Finish. Scott Handcock’s script plays like a mash-up of the original Alien movie and The Devil You Know, Handcock’s own story from last year’s Gallifrey: Time War set that teamed Jacobi’s Master with Louise Jameson as Leela. River Song makes it through her Time War encounter better than Leela did but only just.
That’s convenient because otherwise she wouldn’t have made it to the set’s first story – the one that doubtless spurred the most curiosity among fans, The Bekdel Test by Jonathan Morris. The pairing with Missy in a story set in the midst of the storyline about the Doctor’s death at Lake Silencio makes this one of the more direct tie-ins with the television mothership in River Song’s series to date. Its prison-break premise is ideal from a plot standpoint as it provides Missy and River a plausible reason to be in the same while giving them a ready-made dilemma to solve, allowing the character moments to shine.
Because casting Michelle Gomez as Missy was a key part of the groundwork for the recent change of the Doctor’s gender on television, it’s not surprising that the Master’s change of gender is touched on here. Fittingly, the dialogue is dismissive of the “issue” in the best way possible. When River asks Missy whether she feels different after regenerating into female form, the Time Lord replies, “I feel like me. I felt like me before. Silly question.”
Overall the set leaves the door open for future meetings between River Song and at least one of the versions of the Master. Whether such a meeting would be a good thing is an open question. While it would be nice to hear an encounter between River and Missy written by a woman, there’s a quality of capturing lightning in a bottle that seems to invite the law of diminishing returns. In the meantime, enjoying this set and looking forward to Missy’s own soon-to-be-released series of audio adventures is the rational course of action.
❉ ‘The Diary of River Song – Series 5’ was released in January 2019. It will be exclusively available to buy from the Big Finish website until March 31st 2019, and on general sale after this date.
❉ Don Klees has spent many years in the video business. This continues to enrich his life in many ways, chief among them being able to tell people he watches television for a living. An avid consumer of pop – and sometimes not-so-popular – culture, Don is a regular contributor to We Are Cult.