‘The Diary of River Song: New Recruit’ reviewed

❉ An intriguing set of stories centred around Alex Kingston’s time-travelling archaeologist and UNIT’s Liz Shaw.

“You very quickly become convinced that River and Liz Shaw, the Doctor’s scientist companion, are genuine friends, despite not having known each other very long… a testament to the acting skills of Kingston and Daisy Ashford, playing Liz, taking over her mother’s role from the TV series…”

Big Finish have gone back to the ‘70s – or is it the ‘80s? – this month with The Diary of River Song: New Recruit, the ninth series of the Doctor’s wife’s further adventures, in which Alex Kingston’s time-travelling archaeologist enjoys a quartet of adventures with the Third Doctor and his UNIT chums.

It’s hard to believe that Kingston has been playing River on audio for six years now and has recorded an incredible fifty adventures in that time. With that in mind, you may be forgiven for believing there isn’t much more to do with the character, especially since the selling point of this box set, “River Song meets the Third Doctor”, has been done before (albeit very briefly, in series six).

Wisely, the creative team behind the box set have chosen to go in a slightly different direction to what the cover suggests, and the collection is all the stronger for it. Whilst the Doctor himself does turn up, as does the Brigadier, these appearances are confined to the opening and closing episodes.

Really, this is a set of stories all about River and Liz Shaw, the Doctor’s scientist companion in the 1970 season which inspired this spin-off. The relationship between the two women is clearly the centre of all four stories in the set.

You very quickly become convinced these characters are genuine friends, despite not having known each other very long, surely a testament to the acting skills of Kingston and Daisy Ashford (playing Liz, taking over her mother’s role from the TV series), and also to the writing team which is pleasingly majority female, adding a real sense of authenticity to their relationship.

The first episode is The Blood Woods by Lizbeth Myles. It wastes little time in setting up the premise, opening in the Brigadier’s office as he discusses the eponymous new recruit with Liz, before said new recruit River makes her first appearance and is immediately set to work on a case.

This isn’t the first time that Ashford and John Culshaw have played Liz and the Brigadier on audio, but many listeners to this box set will be coming to their voices anew. You can rest assured that they are very good matches for the original actors. They’ve clearly practiced their impressions well, and it really benefits the experience for the listener.

Jon Culshaw and Alex Kingston © Tony Whitmore

There’s some engaging banter filling out the rest of the opening minutes before the plot proper gets underway. This plot proper sends River and Liz on a road trip, to a suitably spooky English village where a young man has died of extremely old age. It’s reminiscent of stories like The Stones of Blood, especially in the wonderful character of Beatrice, an elderly archaeologist who forms a bond with River just as Professor Rumford did with Tom Baker’s Doctor in that story.

It also takes inspiration from The Hound of the Baskervilles in its monster, a debt acknowledged in the text itself. With its roots in a deliciously evil countryside setting, a trio of incredibly strong women letting their intelligence and scientific prowess out whenever possible and a healthy sci-fi twist towards the end, it’s hard not to like this story.

Episode two is Terror of the Suburbs by James Kettle. Something is clearly wrong from the outset with this one, opening on a new Liz getting to grips with life in a seemingly perfect town which is 1970s culture to a tee. But why doesn’t she recognise the woman at her door with the curly hair from her old life at UNIT?

It’s reminiscent of 1975 TV story The Android Invasion, with its perfect village where all is not as it seems, but that doesn’t mean to imply it’s derivative – far from it. It may not be a story that suits everyone’s ears, but this is sickly sweet 1970s as Doctor Who has never done before. It’s a world full of lawnmowers, freezers and dinner parties, and stripping back the busier cast of the first entry to focus more on River and Liz proves to be a great move. You can tell Kettle has done his research on this one, and fans of The Good Life and likewise shows of the period may find themselves impressed.

Never Alone by Helen Goldwyn is the third entry in this set, and it’s a real fast mover of a story, with an interesting plot and excellent characterisation of the leads.

After performing a post-mortem on a body found in the woods, River and Liz are drawn to the mysterious Intertraxia, with the words “Never Alone” as a clue… it’s another story featuring just River and Liz without any other UNIT influence, and again it’s all the better for it. With River having identified an alien influence just four minutes in, some listeners may find the pace a little too fast. But it’s a story which commands your attention, and it shouldn’t apologise for that.

Despite the brief for this box set very clearly having been “River Song, but make it 1970s”, this story is surprisingly modern. The settings and characters wouldn’t feel out of place in a Doctor Who today, and the character of Pippa makes an excellent temporary companion for Liz and River.

This is the episode featuring the video game edit of the River Song theme tune, which has already attained a certain degree of fame in online fandom. Featuring dietetically in a wonderfully off-the-wall dream sequence, it truly is, as the kids say, a “bop”, and one of many brilliant new pieces of music in this story from Howard Carter. The box set is worth it for this alone.

The final story of the set is Lisa McMullin’s River of Light, and for some people this will be the most exciting story in the set, as it’s the one where River Song and the Third Doctor finally meet.

Those disappointed by Peepshow, the afore-mentioned Series Six story where they met briefly, will be pleased to know this isn’t a mere cameo. It’s a full-on adventure between the pair, and will probably satisfy any listeners who’d been eagerly awaiting this meeting.

Tim Treloar is playing the Doctor this time, as he has in many other Big Finish productions. Treloar’s impression does take a bit more getting used to than his contemporaries’, but as you lose yourself in the drama, you certainly start to hear more of the original Jon Pertwee’s voice in the impersonation.

The plot of this one is another mission for River and Liz, as the Brigadier dispatches them to a Yorkshire mining town with reports of strange light patterns in the sky. The word “mining”, in association with the Jon Pertwee era, immediately recalls images of The Green Death, the 1973 classic which said goodbye to Katy Manning’s character Jo Grant.

It’s hard to shake this image while listening, but it’s not the same story. Although it does also have political commentary like the best of the Pertwee era, this time the parallels are drawn to the 1970s power cuts and not to an eco message. It becomes its own story and will pleasingly remind newer listeners of some of River Song’s adventures in series five of TV Doctor Who, via certain elements of the plot.

Tim Treloar, Alex Kingston, Jon Culshaw, Daisy Ashford © Tony Whitmore.

As with last time, this episode features some stunningly good music and sound design by Howard Carter, including some very beautiful variations on the River Song theme tune again. I have to say the music in Big Finish audios doesn’t often stick out to me, but on this occasion the work here must be commended.

Overall, this is an excellent set. Ken Bentley has directed an intriguing set of four stories here, and the overwhelmingly female writing team has very much benefitted the release and added some sincerity to the relationship between River and Liz. Although River’s goodbyes to her new friends in the final story seem somewhat rushed, the collection ends on a very unexpected cliffhanger which hints at an exciting direction for series ten to go in, and you definitely come away from this knowing that Big Finish have much, much more to do with the character of River Song.

‘The Diary Of River Song: New Recruit’

Written by: Lizbeth Myles, James Kettle, Helen Goldwyn & Lisa McMullin
Director: Ken Bentley
Script Editor: Matt Fitton
Producer: David Richardson
Executive Producers: Nicholas Briggs, Jason Haigh-Ellery

Duration: 240 minutes approx.

❉ ‘The Diary of River Song: New Recruit’ is available exclusively from the Big Finish website at £24.99 as a collector’s edition four-disc CD box set or £19.99 as a download until 31 December 2021, and on general sale after this date. Click here to order.

❉ Ezekiel Thorp is a Doctor Who and Casualty fan from North West England, and can be found on Twitter @Praxeus_stan where he’s usually going into deep analytical detail on Battles in Time cards.

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