Eddie Robson and Scott Handcock
Produced by David Richardson
Script edited by Matt Fitton
Directed by Ken Bentley and Jason Haigh-Ellery
Stars: Alex Kingston, Michelle Gomez, Geoffrey Beevers,
Eric Roberts, Derek Jacobi, Jacqueline King, Tom Price
Big Finish Productions, 2019
Sometimes I like to look back through my diary, to remind myself, to keep things in order. Sometimes I go all the way back to when I was first locked away in the Stormcage, back when the Doctor was “dead” and spending his afterlife treating his assassin to dinner – discreetly, of course. The first of my 12,000 consecutive life sentences … Only it was never just him I had to keep track of. Sometimes I’d find myself removed from custody for entirely different reasons. You see, when you marry someone like the Doctor, you take on his baggage as well …
River Song, The Diary of River Song: The Bekdel Test
Having all but exhausted her tour of the classic TV series Doctors – in reverse order, from Paul McGann to Tom Baker – in the first four volumes of The Diary of River Song, Alex Kingston’s intrepid and mischievous archaeologist and adventurer now rubs shoulders with multiple incarnations of another Gallifreyan renegade – the Doctor’s intellectual rival and the psychopathic Time Lord/Lady universally known as the Master (or latterly Missy).
Unlike earlier boxsets in the River Song series, which were episodes with a predominant story arc, this latest offering is an anthology of self-contained stories, each set at different points in River’s professional career (she is Dr Song in the first instalment, then professor in the others). The only linking theme is the character of the Master, albeit in different but otherwise lethal incarnations, eg Michelle Gomez’s madcap mistress of mirth, Derek Jacobi’s theatrical and manipulative genius, Geoffrey Beevers’ cadaverous yet still keenly intelligent and crafty persona, and Eric Roberts’ surprisingly subtle yet calculating father-figure.
The first instalment The Bekdel Test introduces River to the character’s female persona from the get-go. It is by far the best and most fun of the four episodes, thanks to the strength of the writing and dialogue, and great performances from Kingston and Gomez, who just chews up the scenery as Missy and literally steals the limelight from Kingston.
Author Jonathan Morris (as he indicates in the behind the scenes commentary) closely follows the Steven Moffat playbook of witty dialogue and banter to help drive the story along. The River/Missy dichotomy simply could not work without the pithy exchanges and the underlying sexual tension over the other’s relationship with the Doctor. For the listener there are plenty of amusing barbs and insults traded between them, even as they are forced to work together against a common foe:
Missy: I’ve been following your career with great interest – and some amusement, and a lot of envy. You see, you’ve just done the one thing that I never quite managed to do …
River: And what’s that?
Missy (raising her voice): You killed the Doctor!
River (mournful): Yes, and I will never forgive myself for it!
Missy: Oh, don’t be so hard on yourself, dearie. [Pointed remark] I’ll never forgive you for it either!
Missy (expressing mock hurt): I wanted to do that!
Morris’s script is well conceived and paced, with plenty of action and self-deprecating humour. Most importantly, the reason the two protagonists have been brought together is entirely plausible. Even with two alpha females striving for the spotlight, there are some other fascinating, albeit largely underused characters that liven up the narrative – from the Bekdel Institute’s nameless, yet smug Director (Laurence Kennedy) to Darial Cho’s (Richenda Carey) taste for “creative homicide”.
Perhaps Morris and Big Finish ought to consider revisiting these characters in future River Song instalments. It seems pretty clear from his description who the Director’s “silent partners” are, so perhaps there’s not really much more to add to his character development. However, Darial Cho is creepy enough that she could take centre stage in a tale of her own.
The second episode in the set – Animal Instinct – pits River against Geoffrey Beevers’ emaciated version of the Master (although it’s uncertain if it is Beevers’ incarnation pre-Keeper of Traken or post-Dust Breeding – it doesn’t really matter in either case, listeners can take their pick). Roy Gill’s script cleverly turns the tables on both characters in its prologue – following an ancient prophecy, River breaks the seal on a sarcophagus, expecting to rescue the Doctor, but instead frees the Master who set up the casket as a lure to snare the Doctor in the first place! The “crispy” Master and the Doctor’s wife soon become uneasy allies as they journey to a lunar colony where the Master was once worshipped as a god. The problem for the touring party is that the inhabitants of Cheska Minor – hyper-intelligent, feral werecats with sun goggles! – have rebelled against their god and are determined to remove the satellite array that the Master installed to keep their world in endless daylight and suppress their savage instincts.
Animal Instinct is an entertaining chapter, even if it does bear some superficial resemblance to the final classic Doctor Who TV serial Survival. That tale, too, featured the Master (portrayed by the late Anthony Ainley) lording it over a colony of feral werecats – the Cheetah People – in the ruins of a dying world. The difference, thanks to River’s presence, is that Animal Instinct is a lighter, less angsty tale – no teenagers trying to prove a point here, just archaeology student Luke Sulieman (Timothy Blore) trying to prove he is made of the right stuff to his mentor.
While he doesn’t steal the show from Kingston as Gomez does, Beevers’ performance is more urbane; his voice has lost none of that mellifluous tone that carries undercurrents of menace and guile. Gill not only contrasts this version of the Master to River but also expertly highlights some disturbingly similar characteristics. For example, River recognises that a wounded member of their exploration party will have to be sacrificed if they are to escape a werecat; the Master follows through on this without the slightest compunction and then remarks later that he can tell River would have done the same had the situation escalated.
One of the other comparisons (which is also inferred in in this boxset’s other instalments) is the “obsession” that the Master/Missy has with the Doctor – that is, the desire to impress or kill him (or in some instances both). The Beevers Master’s exclamation of outrage and disbelief when River reveals that she married his arch nemesis (implying that she beat him to it!) is an almost priceless moment.
The Lifeboat and the Deathboat is notable for reintroducing Eric Roberts, who reprises the part of the Master for the first time since the ill-fated 1996 TV movie (his dialogue was recorded in Los Angeles while the rest of the full cast recording was completed in London). Perhaps it’s partly down to Eddie Robson’s writing but Roberts’ performance is subtler and less hammy than it was on television. Indeed, Roberts shows in this episode why he was once an Academy Award nominee – he delivers an almost understated performance as an apparent doting father to a teenage daughter Alison (Lucy Heath). His performance is so convincing in the first 20 minutes that you’re left wondering if he is playing yet another hapless character (in the vein of his paramedic Bruce and Anthony Ainley’s Tremas) who will become another vessel for a disembodied Master. The truth, though (as River discovers), is literally stranger than fiction …
The only drawback to this more subtle, “human” portrayal is that Roberts’ voice seems too tender and easy-going – to the point that it lacks the resonance and authority you’d usually associate with the Master. Perhaps this is just a side effect of conducting separate recordings across two continents but it does intrude on the listening experience. Nonetheless, when Roberts is in full Master mode, there is an underlying menace and cold-bloodedness in his tone that takes you back to his 1996 portrayal.
The serial features quite an extensive supporting cast, considering it is mostly set aboard time/space flotsam in the time vortex. Alison is a moody, anxious teenager with a secret that not even she’s aware of, Admiral Eno (Sasha Behar) and Ayrton Valencia (Himesh Patel) provide an intriguing juxtaposition between confident soldier and hapless engineer, and their quarry Kaliopi Mileska (Eleanor Crooks) exudes enough “crazy” to be a convincing threat to everyone in the time/space machines that have been cobbled together.
Further, only in a Doctor Who tale – or a Who-related spin-off – could a simple VHS video cassette of a rubbish 1980s US teen comedy feature be a catalyst for the chain of events that River encounters. It’s a reminder of how quirky and weird Doctor Who can be – but it’s also a perfect example of why we as fans love and adore it so much.
It’s also interesting that the Roberts Master’s fate – along with that of Mileska – is left open-ended. While it’s highly unlikely that this combination of psychopaths could get their own spin-off series, there’s a certain appeal to seeing what other havoc they might together wreak upon the rest of the universe.
Then again, the Master/Missy has often caused havoc quite comfortably on his/her own, and it’s doubtful the character would ever really enjoy being part of a psychotic, Natural Born Killers-type of couple. That’s definitely the impression you get from listening to the great Sir Derek Jacobi’s portrayal of the Time War-era Master in the fourth and final serial Concealed Weapon. The Master in this tale enjoys his subtle manipulation, torture and murder of the supplementary characters far too immensely to ever let anyone else in on the fun. There’s almost a Hannibal Lechter-style levity, glee and mischievousness to Jacobi’s performance that rivals Gomez’s turn as Missy in The Bekdel Test.
However, whereas much of Missy’s antics are written to comical effect, the War Master’s humour is overtly more sinister because it occurs against a backdrop of claustrophobia, homicide and betrayal. All the while, Jacobi still comes across – through his jovial voice – as comely, polite, charming and paternal. The performance is even more powerful (and disconcerting) for this writer, considering he has endured several years of his two- and four-year old daughters being reared on the BBC children’s program In the Night Garden – in which Sir Derek is all of those qualities as a benign narrator!
Scott Handcock’s script is very clearly – and unashamedly – a “love letter” to Ridley Scott’s original Alien film (with a nod as well to its inferior prequel Prometheus). There are certainly parallels - a deep space exploration crew that (like the hapless members of the Nostromo) emerges from hypersleep; an ill-fated French-accented captain (played by Jacqueline King, formerly Sylvia Noble, Donna’s mother on TV!) with a name reminiscent of one of the Nostromo crew; an airlock sequence; a homicidal maniac; and a highly dangerous nascent creature that said maniac wants to exploit and weaponise.
Nonetheless, despite the lack of originality in the premise, Handcock still conveys an atmosphere of dread and impending doom, particularly through the emotionless, relaxed tones of Torchwood’s Tom Price (the former PC Andy Davidson). Price is the only other male voice in the serial – apart from Jacobi himself – and does an outstanding job of playing the ship’s computer Hugo, which is hijacked and reprogrammed by the Master. There is a cold and calculating manner to Hugo even as it maintains a veneer of cheery friendliness and helpfulness that strongly evokes the cold, emotionless candour of the title characters in the classic Tom Baker serial The Robots of Death.
The mostly female supporting cast is very good and highly convincing, even as it becomes clear that they are nowhere near as harmonious or altruistic as they seem. Indeed, some of them harbour hidden agendas that ultimately doom them all – and leave their flanks horribly exposed to the Master’s machinations.
It’s particularly effective that the Master is also sparingly used in the tale – indeed (although we as listeners know it has to be the Master), for River, all the hints point to an incarnation of the Doctor being present. The fact Jacobi has only half the airtime that his successor and predecessors have in the preceding instalments makes his performance all the more impressive.
Throughout this review, you’d be forgiven for thinking I’m talking about a Master boxset and not a River Song one, given all the praise lavished on the four actors who play the Master/Missy. Nevertheless, Alex Kingston continues to impress as River Song, and clearly enjoys the broad quality of the scripts on offer, as well as the ability to work with Gomez, Beevers and Jacobi. The character clearly holds her own against three of these “masterly” incarnations – but is clearly unnerved by the War Master, who strikes a decisive blow against her colleagues.
Concealed Weapon, if it is not the best of the four serials, certainly runs second to The Bekdel Test as amongst the best offerings of this latest River Song boxset. Overall, the quality of all the serials is extremely high, with only The Lifeboat and the Deathboat perhaps being the weakest of the four (even then it’s still superior to quite a few of the serials in the earlier River boxsets). Indeed, this is probably the best of the five River Song boxsets to date – and it has been (dare I say) a “masterstroke” by BF to pair River with different incarnations of the Doctor’s greatest “frenemy”, and not just the classic Doctors.
It also acts as a great primer for the final Ravenous boxset at the end of this year, when all four of these incarnations will square off with Paul McGann’s Doctor (and presumably each other) as that story arc reaches its conclusion. For future River Song releases, it would still be great to see a few more stories in the vein of The Husbands of River Song (in which River gets up to mischief without the intervention of different versions of renegade Time Lords) but for the most part, River’s adventures have gone from strength to strength as they have combed the depths of Doctor Who’s rich history. Although I favour a more long-term approach, I wouldn’t say “no” to more rounds between River and Missy or the War Master – nor to Professor Song eventually crossing paths with John Simms’ Master, and even Alex Macqueen’s and James Dreyfuss’ portrayals. There is a rich seam still to be tapped!