Written by Matt Fitton, John Dorney,
Guy Adams and Paul Morris
Directed by Ken Bentley
Stars: Alex Kingston, Jamie Glover, Jemma Powell,
Claudia Grant, Ralph Watson, Clive Wood,
Christopher Benjamin, Angus Wright, Nicholas Goh
Big Finish Productions, 2019
“So you know what happens to us?”
“No, I know what happens to everything else. I know what happens to the Miniscope and everything outside our personal experience. Think of it as an old story we’re walking around in!”
Dibbsworth and River Song, Peepshow
It’s been strongly hinted in the Doctor Who TV series - particularly in the 2015 episode The Husbands of River Song - and in prior Diary of River Song instalments that the Doctor’s wife is more than happy to engage with her husband’s past incarnations and 'borrow' the TARDIS from time to time for her own escapades while he is preoccupied.
Volume 6 of The Diary of River Song gives us an insight into the form those adventures take. It takes four serials from the first four Doctors in the classic era of the TV series – An Unearthly Child, The Web of Fear, Carnival of Monsters and The Talons of Weng-Chiang – and provides the listener with three prequels and a ‘midquel’ (a story running simultaneously with events in the original).
The first serial – An Unearthly Woman – takes us right back to the beginning, as River (Alex Kingston) goes undercover as a relief teacher at Coal Hill School, a few months before the fateful events of the very first episode. What’s fun about this episode is that it pairs River with teachers Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright, and their pupil Susan Foreman, all oblivious of the great adventure that awaits them. What is also neat is that these are the ‘contemporary’ versions of the characters, as originally played on TV in 2013’s An Adventure in Space and Time and subsequently in Big Finish’s own First Doctor Adventures audios – Jamie Glover (Ian), Jemma Powell (Barbara) and Claudia Grant (Susan).
The engagement between River and these ‘modern’ iterations of the original characters is one of the highlights of the box set. Kingston, Glover, Powell and Grant all interact naturally (which would not necessarily have been the case if Kingston had been paired with original cast members William Russell and Carol Anne Ford). Kingston also particularly relishes some of River’s moments with the trio – flirting with Glover’s Ian, providing counsel to Powell’s Barbara and lending a sympathetic ear to Grant’s Susan. These interactions are also capped off by two riotous encounters with the First Doctor (David Bradley), who is oblivious (rather than immune) to River’s charms!
The story itself bears some superficial similarity to another Coal Hill escapade in 2014’s Peter Capaldi episode The Caretaker, in which the streets of Shoreditch are being stalked by an extra-terrestrial hunter. In this instance, the antagonist is far more sinister than the quite comical Skovox Blitzer and (unintentionally) shares some vague similarities to the Kasaavaan of Jodie Whittaker’s second series opener Spyfall. Long-term, owl-eared listeners of Big Finish’s Doctor Who range will no doubt also pick up on a subtle ‘Easter egg’ that ties into the Eighth Doctor’s recent audio adventures.
The Web of Time takes River back to late 1960s (or is that mid-1970s?) London in the thrall of the Great Intelligence and its robot Yeti a few days before the Second Doctor and his companions arrive in The Web of Fear. River is on the trail of a rare extra-terrestrial artwork that has somehow found its way to the National Gallery but then finds herself in pursuit of a mother-and-daughter duo of looters who ‘nick’ her prize before she can. To add to her woes, River is forced to rescue the ill-fated Captain Ben Knight (who is destined to meet a grisly end at the tendrils of the Intelligence in the TV story) and drag him along for the ride throughout the abandoned capital. And as if having Knight questioning her altruism throughout the story isn’t aggravating enough, River subsequently finds herself being drawn into the Intelligence’s ‘web’, its curiosity in the time traveller having been piqued by her insertion into events.
John Dorney has a penchant for writing for characters with tragic histories and/or fates, so Captain Knight fits that bill quite neatly. While it is also quite poetic that the original actor in Ralph Watson reprises the part of Knight almost 50 years on from the original Web of Fear serial, the romance of this rather novel casting is somewhat shaded by the reality of it. Knight is presumably in his late twenties but Watson’s voice sounds considerably older and deeper, conjuring images in the listener’s mind of a much older man. Watson is unarguably great, and he puts his all back into the character but even the best of Big Finish’s sound wizards cannot disguise the age discrepancy in his voice. It perhaps would have been better had the captain been recast, and maybe Watson cast in another role (even as the Intelligence) as a nod to his involvement in the original serial. Nonetheless, Watson and Kingston have some great moments as the no-nonsense, compassionate soldier and the wise-cracking, opportunistic and sometimes ruthless archaeologist. Knight is very much the moral compass of this story; he is the one who lectures River about her duty and responsibilities, especially as she is armed with foreknowledge of the Yeti threat.
Knight may be River’s conscience in The Web of Time but her next sidekick – Dibbsworth – in The Carnival of Monsters midquel Peepshow pales by comparison (particularly in the courage stakes). Clive Wood’s hapless security guard starts off as quite obtuse but, thanks to Guy Adams’ character development and the dialogue between Dibbsworth and River, becomes quite likeable and sympathetic by the end. (Dibbsworth has an entertaining anecdote about riding a donkey in Blackpool which most individuals who meet River or the Doctor would very likely relate to!)
Wood has to compete for airtime with photocopier-eating sabretooth tigers, bemused yet stoic Sontarans, clueless Ogrons and marauding Drashigs. Nevertheless, even with Dan Starkey standing in for the Sontarans and Adams as the Ogrons, Wood eclipses them all as the comic relief – especially when he stands up to a Drashig with a banana!
Starkey has played numerous Sontarans for Big Finish over the years and once again excels as he channels the original actor Kevin Lindsay in his portrayal of Commander Sturmm and the other Sontarans in his unit. Adams also puts on a very ‘simian’ performance as the Ogrons – although being an audio tale, the characters, even with their limited vocabulary, probably have more dialogue in this than they ever had on television!
In all, Peepshow is a fun, laugh a minute romp around the edges of another classic Doctor Who tale. The story only really reaches emotional heights when River briefly crosses paths with Tim Treloar’s Third Doctor in the closing moments of the play. It’s a touching, bittersweet meeting that foreshadows the conclusion of The Green Death – but it shows just how much River cares for the Doctor in all of his incarnations and why she can never stomach seeing him heartbroken.
Heartbreak is another theme of the final serial in this set – The Talents of Greel, a prequel to the timeless Tom Baker epic The Talons of Weng-Chiang and an unlikely romance story. Given Talons was only ever intended as a one-off tale by Robert Holmes in the late 1970s, the serial has spawned a number of sequels and spin-offs, both in print and on audio – most notably in the Jago & Litefoot series. With Trevor Baxter (Litefoot) having passed away, Christopher Benjamin (Jago) gets to rub shoulders with Alex Kingston, as River infiltrates the Palace Theatre a mere week before the Fourth Doctor and Leela arrive, and foils an earlier scheme of Li H’Sen Chang (Nicholas Goh, recreating the late John Bennett’s part on TV) and his deformed master Magnus Greel (Angus Wright, who reprises the role he first played in the Peter Davison tale The Butcher of Brisbane).
Paul Morris’s script ties quite cleverly into Talons, as he builds on a random piece of dialogue of Greel’s (Michael Spice on TV) about time agents in the original teleplay (this notion, little more than paranoia on Greel’s part, has been further developed in the modern TV series as the Time Agency, to which Captains Jack Harkness and John Hart belong). However, Morris also manages to add a human dimension to the story by introducing us to former Moulin Rouge starlet Celestine (Milly Thomas), who it transpires has an unexpected connection with Goh’s Chinese magician. Morris’s writing, coupled with Goh’s performance, consequently gives Chang a far more sympathetic characterisation than he had on TV and makes him far less of a villain and a caricature. While Goh is excellent in the part, his characterisation sadly (at least from a continuity perspective) doesn’t quite marry with the original Robert Holmes portrayal, which is more evocative of Saxon Rohmer’s Fu Manchu, and Bennett's subtly menacing performance.
Wright, however, more successfully captures the madness, anger and frustration in Spice’s original portrayal of Greel. This is no doubt helped by his earlier turn in The Butcher of Brisbane, and indeed in the CD extras, Wright remarks that while he worried he had forgotten how to play the part, the script was so well written that five minutes into the recording booth he had effortlessly slipped back into the role.
The other highlight of this tale is the duet between River and Jago on the stage of the Palace Theatre. Both Kingston and Benjamin clearly enjoy performing a bawdy song which will invite plenty of laughs from long-time Whovians. It may not be as accomplished as some of the clever musical numbers that were performed in the Sixth Doctor tale Doctor Who and the Pirates (2003) but it’s nevertheless a fun romp, particularly as River tunelessly attempts to raise her voice to the right keys in the course of the song and Jago chips in with his own helpful merry gems.
Long-term fans may be disappointed that River’s relationship with Jago is not as flirtatious and mischievous as it so often is with the Doctor and other incidental characters. However, as Morris and Benjamin explain in the CD extras, this would simply not be consistent with the hard-edged showman and businessman that is portrayed early in The Talons of Weng-Chiang and would be much too close to the more mellowed, experienced infernal investigator of the Jago & Litefoot series. Nonetheless, Morris finds a use for Jago that fits the plot and Benjamin’s wonderfully fruity tone and knack for using encyclopaediac dialogue – all while sounding bemused by events that occur around him – is as entertaining as ever! It’s great that while J&L may have come to an end, BF is still finding avenues for Benjamin’s character in other spin-offs, notably this story and a future Paternoster Gang instalment. I’m sure future forays in the Doctor Who main range (alongside Tom Baker or Colin Baker) aren’t out of the question – and it would be great to see the character interact with even Captain Jack in a period Torchwood tale!
The Talents of Greel is, by far, possibly the strongest of the four tales in this boxset, with The Web of Time also a major highlight, given that prequels to any classic Doctor Who stories in the past would have been suspiciously viewed by some quarters of fandom as utter heresy or ‘fanwank’! Nevertheless, BF manages to make all of the tales work quite plausibly – for the most part. At a time when some fans have been rattled by the recent revelations of recent series finale The Timeless Children (which have potentially rewritten the lore of the TV series as we know it), The Diary of River Song Vol 6 might be a reassuring journey back down ‘memory lane’ - albeit with its own modern twists and iterations
It will be interesting to see if this experiment of River dancing around other Doctor Who tales might be repeated for Doctors Five through Eight. Perhaps there’s more mileage to be had out of obscure classic era tales like Terminus, Vengeance on Varos, and Paradise Towers and Paul McGann audio Seasons of Fear. As I’ve written before in my previous reviews of the River series, I would still prefer that our heroine engages in her own escapades that aren’t so heavily anchored to the Doctor, the Master or the Doctor’s past. Nonetheless, it’s a fun romp through the TV series’ history and Alex Kingston continues to be outstanding as the Doctor’s rogue archaeologist wife.