Since opening her diary for Big Finish, the time-travelling archaeologist Professor River Song (Alex Kingston) has dutifully picked her way back up her husband’s timeline, most recently reaching the Fourth Doctor. For this fifth volume however, River chronicles encounters with another Time Lord – one who is presented in four different, but equally deadly flavours.
This release also marks an audio double coup as two incarnations of the Master make their audio debuts; In addition to the “crispy” Beevers and Jacobi “War Master” versions, Michelle Gomez reprises her role as Missy and thrillingly, Eric Roberts returns as the Master who battled the Doctor in 1996’s TV Movie.
The Bekdel Test
Set during her Stormcage incarceration, River finds herself transferred to another facility. Ostensibly there to prove their security system, and with Missy introduced as a fellow prisoner, it transpires that their jailers have a different agenda altogether.
What follows is a hilarious prison break story, with writer Johnny Morris having indecent amounts of fun; he gently mocks all manner of Moffat-isms, teases about the Master’s numerous many resurrections and makes all manner of call backs through some terrific banter.
Michelle Gomez delivers an exhaustingly full-on performance, which augurs well for Missy’s upcoming solo series, with great support from Richenda Carey and Fiona Hampton as fellow prisoners.
Roy Gill gives us Professor River Song, utilising a student’s practical examination to indulge in a spot of tomb raiding. Reviving an ancient sun god, she is naturally expecting to find the Doctor – but so is the decaying husk she awakens.
Making a hasty alliance, the trio are soon bound for his former residence, the neighbouring planet, crash landing in a hostile jungle terrain. The story then becomes one of survival, with this Master appropriately proving he believes in the survival of the fittest in what feels like the most traditional story of the set.
Seemingly the first encounter between the pair, from his point of view, Geoffrey Beever’s urbane Master shows admiration for River and there is some discerning comparison of their methods; he employs hypnotism, while she dominates by force of personality. Also, we loved the notion of The Master’s resting place being ‘culturally appropriated’!
The Lifeboat And The Deathboat
The surreal third tale finds River on an unstable scrapyard ship in the time vortex, stranded with a man named Daniel and his temporally sensitive daughter. Together, they survive by harvesting parts of damaged time vessels after they are attacked by a creature which resides in the vortex.
Eddie Robson’s story plays its cards slowly; naturally we suspect the identity of Eric Roberts’ character from the outset but there is mystery afoot as the crew of another ship, the “Best Before”, are introduced.
This Master’s continued survival is addressed with both a clever and satisfying explanation – albeit one which potentially poses more questions than it answers. Eric Roberts remains as malevolent in the role as ever, if a little less theatrical – it seems there is no call for “drezzing for the occasion” on audio! Let us hope can he be coaxed back again, as we would love to hear more… how great might a box set pitched against Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor be?
Scott Handcock, director and producer of those War Master audios, crafts a script which holds the villain in the shadows for as long as possible, with River mistakenly believing the Doctor is about to save the crew of the ship she is on. Consequently, the Master enacts his diabolical plan unhindered, picking off his victims one by one in a tense murder mystery.
Among the guest cast, Tom Price (Torchwood‘s Andy Davidson) is excellent value as Hugo, the ship’s AI, and Orion Ben (Detectorists) plays an entertainingly unsubtle ship’s engineer. Also, Jacqueline King (best known as Sylvia Noble) also plays the captain, unrecognisable with a French accent.
Out of the Doctor’s shadow and freed from the inherent continuity issues his presence brings, this quartet of stories successfully provides a different slant on River Song with no over-arching storyline, just four brushes with the Master she needs to survive.
Each has much to recommend it, with the changing Masters allowing a character study of evil; for all the dastardly schemes and plans, this is a Time Lord who is never more dangerous than when their survival instinct kicks in. When necessity demands, they also work well with River who, unshackled from the Doctor, has the room to be more pragmatic and ruthless.
Next up for River are a pair of special releases, firstly meeting Leela in The Eighth Of March box set and then paired with fellow archaeologist Bernice Summerfield for The Legacy Of Time, Big Finish’s 20 years of Doctor Who celebratory release.