River and the Robots star in The Diary of River Song Series 8, as the series moves out of the Doctor’s shadow and reaches new heights
From the point of view of a Doctor Who fan, one of the surprising aspects of the Covid-19 pandemic that’s dominated almost everything over the past year is how little impact it has appeared to have had on Big Finish. Superficially at least. A few comments about everyone recording remotely covered all the work and the stress doubtlessly involved. But, thanks to the innovation and dedication of the Big Finish family, to the listener’s ear everything on the surface has moved smoothly on. There’s been hardly a ripple to show for the mountains being moved on the ocean floor. Series Eight of The Diary of River Song is a case in point.
The original plans for this boxset were declared unworkable in the new normal of 2020. Too many technical challenges. Too small a pool of actors set up and ready to go with those home spun, blanket fort recording booths. They had to largely throw out original scripts and write major overhauls and complete replacements in record time. The originally intended epic arc regenerated into a looser ‘River and the Robots’ theme. And yet… if the interviews at the end of the set didn’t tell you, you’d never have guessed.
Slight Glimpses of Tomorrow kicks off with a thoughtful study of human, and android, nature
In fact, in many ways, these smaller, more personal windows into River’s character feel deliberately planned. A perfectly paced pause in a range that usually stops for breath as infrequently as its lead. It’s a contrast with River’s normal operating procedure emphasised by the presence of Rachel as her new companion. Longtime River fans may remember Rachel from back in Series Two. That series featured a pace so breakneck that it jettisoned entire subplots between chapters with almost indecent haste. Rachel, an android teenager originally built as a comfort to a childless couple, was last seen during that boxset’s slightly chaotic conclusion. Now, six series later, River has picked her up where they left off. And she’s taken it upon herself to guide Rachel as she searches for her own place in the universe.
Unexpectedly, the Doctor River channels most in this quest is the Seventh. In Slight Glimpses of Tomorrow she brings Rachel on a journey through time. Together they see the entire cycle of a humanoid civilization on a distant planet. They follow the society from its first inklings that their planet is round, and witness their slow, tortured extinction following a pointless and stupid war. According to River, standing apart from events and accepting the transitive, pointless nature of life, builds character. But like all the best takes on Pygmalion, one suspects the student’s ultimate rebellion is a feature of the Professor’s plan, not a bug.
A Brave New World brings Salome Haertel‘s Rachel to the fore
A Brave New World concludes Rachel’s story, for now. She’s decided to leave River to help crew a colony ship and guard its precious cargo of sleepers. After all, she’s uniquely suited to the task of a three century tour of duty. In fact, she’s a little too perfect for the job in the eyes of the skeleton crew. Soon their own selfishness pushes them to abuse Rachel’s trust in the most horrific way, with disastrous consequences. When River returns to check on her protegee, there’ll be hell to pay!
Despite being confined to the first half of the series, River and Rachel’s relationship is very much at its heart. As an android, Rachel has no emotions. Yet, as time goes by, she understands them. She can intellectually process whether an event is sad, happy, enraging, funny. She feels compelled from deep within to meet cruelty with mercy, despair with comfort, joy with satisfaction. Alongside there is an ironic inhumanity of those who treat her as a mere object or soulless tool. Themes as old as Pinocchio, explored by generations of fictions robots before this. But Blogtor Who has rarely heard it done so well.
Much of the credit has to go to a sensitive, intelligent performance by Alex Kingston‘s real life daughter Salome Haertel. She resists any temptation to make Rachel sound more typical as her emotional complexity develops. Instead, Haertel skilfully portrays a young woman whose brain is literally wired a little differently. For her part, Kingston turns her hand deftly to River’s more thoughtful mood in these stories. Her towering anger when others threaten her charge is no less impressive.
A Forever Home quickly takes its superficially silly premise into strikingly dark places
River gets plenty of time with her own thoughts once more in A Forever Home. Its initial setup of a planet of robot dogs and cats who keep human beings as pets seems comical. But it soon gives way to something much darker. Even the presence of John Leeson as multiple pound shop knock offs of K9 (except one which might be the real one) only adds to the unsettling tone as they threaten and cajole the humans in the usual prim but chirpy manner. A Forever Home carries over the theme from the previous stories of people who treat others like commodities. But this time the villain is treating River herself like property. Though that’s nothing compared to the secrets kept by disappointingly monikered robot cat Fe-Line (how could they resist ‘K10’?).
With River spending much of the duration in a cramped cage (or ‘crate’ as K9 insists on calling it) eating actual dog food it allows the archaeologist to show her mettle in a different way than usual. Not a story of the usual freewheeling agent of chaos three steps ahead of everyone else then. But one of patience, determination and a refusal to be break. And ultimately revenge. This is still River after all.
Queen of the Mechonoids puts River Song back in familiar territory, keeping one step ahead of danger
River is back on more familiar footing in final story, Queen of the Mechonoids. (And, yes, Blogtor’s checked three times – we’re definitely spelling it ‘MechOnoids’ today). Anya Kingdom and Mark Seven continue their quest to conquer the whole of Big Finish by stealth as they pop up in The Diary of River Song to hunt down the origin of a distress call. On arrival the Space Security Service agents meet first classic Doctor Who robots the Mechonoids and then their queen; River Song. Not only has River easily taken control of an entire civilization before anyone else even arrives, she’s naturally only telling Kingdom and Seven half the full story as to why she’s there and why she needs their help. Well, maybe a third of the full story. At least a quarter of it.
This is River at her dazzling, twinkling best as she practically dares people to mind as her layers of subterfuge are peeled back. Jane Slavin‘s no-nonsense Anya Kingdom is a perfect foil for River too. With her mix of annoyance and weary acceptance as events get progressively wilder and Terry-Nation-ier she calls to mind Nicolas Courtney’s Brigadier. Perilous hikes through subterranean caverns, giant ice squids, armies of robots standing around shooting at each other, Kingdom greets them all with the low grumble of a pre-coffee Monday morning. By contrast, her partner Mark Seven is remarkably prone to hysterics for an android when backed into a corner. Though most of the time he succeeds in maintaining an air of disdain for the silliness unfolding around him.
It will be certainly fun finding out what the space-crime fighting duo and the Tenth Doctor make of each other when plunge into the Dalek Universe later this year.
The Diary of River Song hits its stride with Series Eight, promising that the best may be to come
The looser theme of The Diary of River Song Series Eight has resulted in one of its strongest boxsets yet. Each story here is one that could fundamentally only be told with River. This boxset pushes her into new, and not always comfortable, places. And it feels incredibly fresh for a series now on its eighth boxset. Now standing on its own without guest appearances by Doctors (the odd cheeky cameo aside) it feels like the best pages are yet to come in The Diary of River Song.
The Diary of River Song: Series 8
It’s River and robots! Professor River Song is an expert in many things, but her tech skills are tested in these encounters with robotic friends and foes.
Over the course of four episodes River will battle Mechonoids on an ice world, meet K9 in a ‘forever home’, and help a treasured android friend discover her destiny in the stars…
- Alex Kingston (River Song)
- John Leeson (K9 / Simmons)
- Laura Aikman (Linos / Shuttle AI)
- Sam Benjamin (Bryson / Council Leader)
- Nicholas Briggs (The Mechonoids)
- Stewart Clarke (Darion / Prince Rapu)
- Stephen Critchlow (Dubontis / Bandolian)
- Derek Griffiths (Annam Henic)
- Salome Haertel (Rachel)
- Clive Hayward (Balthazar Drix)
- Isabella Inchbald (Armis / Cassie / Alstra)
- Joe Sims (Mark Seven)
- Jane Slavin (Anya Kingdom)
- Homer Todiwala (Aaron / Demon)
- Writers: Alfie Shaw, Jonathan Morris, Tracy Ann Baines and James Goss
- Cover Art: Tom Webster
- Director: Ken Bentley
- Executive Producers: Jason Haigh-Ellery and Nicholas Briggs
- Music: Howard Carter
- Producer: David Richardson
- Script Editor: Matt Fitton
- Sound Design: Howard Carter