Thanks to the vagaries of pandemic scheduling and other production quirks, The Diary of River Song series 8 shows River in the company of various androids and robots — but who can be trusted?
When last we heard from River (in her own series as opposed to with the Tenth Doctor), she was solving crimes in a variety of hats (see the cover for The Diary of River Song series 7 and our review.) One year later and we have four more stories, each focussing on one or more artificial entities. That’s robots and androids to you and me.
Who writes history?
First step… cast your mind back to The Diary of River Song series 2, back in 2016. That set (revisit our review from the time) included a rather splendid tale in which River (Alex Kingston) met android Rachel (Salome Haertel, Kingston’s real life daughter). Roll forward to 2021, and James Goss brings back Rachel in Slight Glimpses of Tomorrow. We can’t help but feel the word slight applies well to this story. It begins as a rather heavy-handed exposition of the weakness of men and the damage they cause to society as it takes a set of staccato jumps through a planet’s history. The purpose is for River to give Rachel a chance to understand the forces of history and the ability (even for a time traveller) to shape them. The result is that the characters never stay anywhere long enough for the listener to get properly invested in what’s happening to individuals. This may be deliberate, but we found it frustrating.
Where the story works well is in the relationship between River and Rachel. Where it fails to score is in neglecting other obvious targets of injustice such as poverty and class. While it’s clear Rachel is developing as a thinking entity, the performance emphasises her android nature. It’s close to monotone in places and it’s a Catch 22 for the production team. Rachel is an android and talks in a specific neutral way. In the absence of any visual cues, the story struggles to bring her emotional growth to the fore.
In space, no-one can hear you save the world
Next up, A Brave New World by Tracy Ann Baines places Rachel on a spaceship carrying thousands of people in suspended animation. The staccato scene jumping continues and River seems rather haphazard in her decision to leave Rachel on board while swanning off to join a certain someone in an extended cameo. Meanwhile Rachel is taken advantage of and it’s all very bleak.
Cue a return for River, an alien monster and a hyperactive sequence of River being clever. We do get to learn how Rachel has more compassion and forgiveness might be expected. We can’t help but feel there’s a better story in here than the one we got.
K9 and friends
There’s a welcome change of approach in Alfie Shaw’s Forever Home. River is unclear how she ended up where she is, but does know she is now (supposedly) the property of FE- (pronounced Fee line). Tracy Wiles is good fun as FE-, but the centre of attention is K9. Yes, John Leeson is here as K9. And some other robot dogs…
The first half of this tale spends a little too long exploring the absurdity of the situation, and the last 40% is a well constructed mystery explained and dark purposes explored. It’s River at her best, even if the whole thing felt like it need a little more polish.
In Queen of the Mechonoids, writer Jonathan Morris gets to pen a follow-up to a series whose one-off monster (the eponymous Mechonoids) only appeared in one TV adventure, The Chase. Performed by Nick Briggs (more noted as the voice of the Daleks) they did often come across as just Daleks with the name changed, another consequence of an audio only medium. The story also brings two characters into play: Anya Kingdom (Jane Slavin) and Mark Seven (Joe Sims). It’s an interesting juxtaposition. Jane Slavin was excellent as WPC Kelso in The Fourth Doctor Adventures series 8 (see our reviews of volume one and volume two), we felt her character was let down (as did Tom Baker’s Doctor!) and Jane Slavin’s Anya Kingdom (who may or may not be related to former companion Sara) ended that set as someone the Doctor couldn’t trust. It’s clever character construction and she (with her companion android Mark Seven) are due to feature heavily in the forthcoming Dalek Universe range (April 2021 sees the first of these).
River is very extroverted, tends to the chaotic/anarchic and finds the fun in situations. In contrast Kingdom and Seven are methodical and somewhat dry in their approach. The exact connection to Dalek Universe is ignored here and we have a story of a planet of Mechonoids and River being clever. We do also have a great villain in the form of Annam Henic (Derek Griffiths). Criticisms aside, this is probably the strongest story of the set.
While fans of River Song will find plenty to enjoy in terms of performances, we found the boxset as a whole lacked impact. Assuming there is a direction of travel for this series, we’d like the next boxset (none have been announced) to be more on track than this. This set was very much a set of two halves, with the overall standard of the second pair of stories re-balancing from the first.
The Diary of River Song series 8 is available now from the Big Finish website on both CD and digital download formats. The boxset also comes with the familiar interviews and behind the scenes material.