It’s back to the spirit of 1970 as River Song signs up as UNIT’s new Scientific Advisor for a seamless fusion of two massively different Doctor Who eras
The past few weeks have been a veritable chocolate box for fans of the Third Doctor era. Between Conspiracy in Space’s space thriller for the Doctor and Jo, infernal investigations for he, Sarah Jane and the Brig in The Devil’s Hoofprints, and now River’s arrival during the days of Liz Shaw’s tenure as UNIT Scientific Advisor, there’s been something for all tastes. Yet these latest pages from The Diary of River Song have a slightly different agenda. New Recruit isn’t just a careful reconstruction of the characters and style of the time, though that’s a definite element. No, it seeks to inject one of the most chaotic and modern characters in 21st century Doctor Who into a classic season with an incredibly well defined feel and approach of its own.
How does it work? In a word: brilliantly. Quite how well is genuinely surprising with the key to it being the interplay between the central trio of Liz, River and the Brigadier. The changes to the dynamic that comes with swapping out the Doctor for River feel completely true to the characters. It’s testament to how strongly the team of Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks established them.
Daisy Ashford and Jon Culshaw continue to excel at bringing Liz and the Brig to fresh adventures
Skillful casting helps this along hugely. Daisy Ashford stepping into Caroline John’s knee high boots as Liz. The casting of an actor who also happens to be the daughter of the original again pays off amazing well. For anyone with any lingering doubts that these recastings are simply a mark of respect, or done for good publicity, this should comprehensively set them right. Ashford is a fine actor, who brings great skill and understanding to Liz. But it’s more than that, and more than some genetic gift of similar voices. Ashford uniquely understands her late mother’s every shift of tone and emphasis. Each and every turn from sternness, to wry amusement, to bristling outrage, is simple perfection. It’s a vocal performance so good you actually hear every raise of a skeptical eyebrow.
New Recruit also includes one of Jon Culshaw’s best performances as Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart. A gifted impersonator he’s always struck a careful balance between capturing Nicholas Courtney’s voice and performing as an actor. It’s something underlined by how, in the extras, he slips effortlessly into note perfect impressions during interviews, but gives himself a little more room to maneuver in the stories themselves. But the Brig of Season Seven, at his most guarded, clipped and professional suits Culshaw down to the ground. For most of this boxset he’s almost indistinguishable from the original. Most importantly that fundamental mixture of professionalism and humanity that defines the Lethbridge-Stewart is in full evidence.
New Recruit is also a welcome change of pace for River Song, in a break from high concept space opera
But where does that leave Alex Kingston as River, the gatecrasher who somehow turns the big event into her party? There’s a subtle recalibration in evidence here, where Dr. Song has to at least pass as an Oxbridge educated 1970s professional scientist under the noses of two people who are nobody’s fools. She therefore fits right in with a quartet of stories that are more X-Files than Star Wars. It’s a welcome chance to see another aspect of River, who’s so often caught up in huge, outlandish, shenanigans, as she plays detective a little bit more than usual and gets to show her guts and smarts to full effect.
The Blood Woods starts the box set strongly, with a smart exploration of Liz and River’s evolving relationship
As for the stories themselves, The Blood Woods kicks things off on a high. Liz is left understandably irked when the Brig simply informs her that in the Doctor’s absence he’s recruited a certain Dr. River Song as her assistant. And the story is very much about the two forming a working partnership. It’s a strand that chimes well with Liz’ own introduction in Spearhead from Space, and the things she’s put up with professionally since. After all, she was effectively demoted the moment the Third Doctor collapsed out of his TARDIS. Meanwhile, the scenes where the Brig defends Dr. Song’s appointment and conduct since to Miss Shaw, before raising his own concerns directly with River in private, are a splendid bit of characterization.
The threat, meanwhile, involves the near universal myth of the ‘Black Dog’ who points out those about to die. Here defined as ‘Black Shuck,’ but known elsewhere as the Grimm, or the Padfoot, and the basis of The Hound of the Baskervilles it’s such a classic folklore monster it’s surprising it’s never been on TV. Why has it marked Liz and River for death, and is it anything to do with a nearby archeological dig? The plot contains enough twists and turns amid the atmosphere and character work to make a superior Big Finish adventure.
Terror of the Suburbs is familiar territory but shows off a rarely seen side of Liz
Second story Terror of the Suburbs opens with Liz sunbathing in her garden among her circle of friends. It’s striking that, of all the Doctor’s companions, Liz is the one we’ve never really seen off duty. Compared to Jo, or Tegan or Amy, it seems strangely impossible to imagine who her favourite band might be, or what her go-to takeaway choices on a Saturday night are. So it’s a shame that Suburbs quickly pivots the scene to reveal we’re in a somewhat overfamiliar trope.
Calling upon Stepford Wives and The Prisoner as touchstones, Terror of the Suburbs takes place in the new London commuter town of Fetter Bailey. But why is the population almost entirely high achieving women in various fields? Why does nobody ever seem to quite manage to leave for work in London? And why are all the women so unrelentingly chirpy and superficial? When River invites herself to stay over in Liz’ guest room, she’s determined to get to the bottom of the change in Liz and the town’s secrets. The result is a fun enough romp, but one unfortunately hot on the heels of Torchwood: Ashenden. It draws inevitable comparisons to that six-parter’s deeper and more satisfyingly dive into many of the same ideas.
Never Alone plunges River and Liz into a classic Seventies paranoia thriller
Meanwhile, techno thriller Never Alone provides a 70s twist on exactly the sort of case you’d normally expect Kate Stewart and Osgood to be all over. Eight disappearances of young people have one thing in common – they were all students on the same science course. And when one of the missing persons turns up dead, killed in a seemingly impossible way that suggests alien technology, River and Liz are soon on the trail. Before long it emerges that an up and coming tech company Intertraxia has been luring the students away from academia. Eventually the hunt brings the pair from redbrick universities and corporate labs to the unreal domain of “the Higher Power.”
Never Alone works well as an evocation of the paranoid science fiction thrillers of the seventies and early eighties, such as Colossus or Brainstorm. Although the final confrontation once all is revealed takes a little too long to play out. But Never Alone also gives us the gift of the best variation on a Big Finish theme tune since Jago and Litefoot spent a boxset swinging in the sixties. It’s almost worth picking up New Recruit for that track alone.
Finale Rivers of Light fully exploits the potential of the pairing of River Song and the Third Doctor
Final story Rivers of Light provides a strong finish while mixing up New Recruit’s formula by having River’s husband finally get home. Yes, the Third Doctor is back and doing his best Three Bears impression. Who the devil is this Goldilocks who’s been sleeping in his TARDIS? Leaving the meeting between River and this Doctor until last is a canny move that maximizes the fun to be had. The Tim Treloar Doctor has always seemed a little grumpier than Pertwee’s. But that’s to his advantage here as his howling outrage at River’s brazen cheek is turned hilariously up to 11. And by giving Liz and River three complete adventures together as equals before this sets up some wonderful scenes of them ganging up on the Doctor, leaving him spluttering protests.
It’s a high point for the Brigadier, too. He balances renewed suspicion about River with understated amusement at the Doctor finally getting a taste of his own medicine. From the Doctor having to ruefully admit his latest world-saving gizmo is actually River’s work, to Lethbridge-Stewart’s discreet horror at the entire concept of the Doctor having a love life, Blogtor Who spent much of this story beaming. And whether by accident or design, we even close the loop on the “Relief!” handcuffs gag in last week’s Halloween Apocalypse!
River and UNIT make such a surprisingly natural pairing it’s a shame the fun has to end
Rivers of Light also satisfyingly ties together River’s entire reason for being here in the first place. In the finest River Song tradition, her heart is at least adjacent to the right place, even her methods don’t meet the Doctor’s approval. But with the whole planet in danger, River, Liz, the Brigadier and the Doctor unite to save the day. Meanwhile, the exact nature of the threat creates a lovely sense of synergy of Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who invading Terrance Dicks’.
All in all, Diary of River Song: New Recruit hits every target you’d want from the concept and more. It certainly left Blogtor Who wanting more from Daisy Ashford’s Liz. And who knows, it never did seem fair Liz was the only companion to never visit another time or planet on TV… maybe when she leaves UNIT she can hitch a lift with a friend with a vortex manipulator and get to Cambridge the long way around…
The Diary of River Song: New Recruit
UNIT – the secret organisation established to deal with the odd and unexplained on Earth and beyond.
The redoubtable Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart leads the troops, and for scientific guidance relies on two brilliant advisors: Cambridge genius Dr Elizabeth Shaw, and UNIT’s newest recruit – that mysterious traveller in time and space known as… River Song.