Audio Frequencies (DWM #510, April 2017)

Reviewed this issue:

The Diary of River Song: Series Two
The Star Men
The Beast of Kravenos

Big Finish don’t make it easy for themselves, do they?

Having established in her very first appearance that she and the Doctor went “way back – just not this far back”, one of the few certainties of River Song’s spaghetti timeline is that David Tennant’s was the youngest of her beau’s faces she ever clapped eyes on.

Undaunted, Big Finish went on to pair Alex Kingston’s space-haired archaeologist with Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor – and now here she is, all at Sixes and Sevens with Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy, pushing the writers into ever more creative workarounds (a brush of amnesia lipstick here, a memory-affecting magnetic field there) in order to rewrite history.

Listening to this second volume of The Diary of River Song, you’ll appreciate them going to such effort – if only for the joyous feat of turning the Sixth Doctor into a romantic lead. That’s right: River was always a weapons-grade flirt but, after all those skinny boys, she now finds herself falling for the more robust charms of Old Sixie – “that brilliant, brave, bombastic man”. And he’s a bit smitten in return, truth be told. At one point, River finds herself shackled to a wall while the Doctor carries out a body search (“Mmmm… warm hands”), and later she orders him to “shut up and kiss me”. She’s even a fan of The Coat, which just goes to show that, if love isn’t blind, it’s certainly colour-blind.

In characteristically timey-wimey fashion, though, it’s his successor she meets first, in series opener The Unknown. Like a female Star Trek reboot (and I’m sure Twitter would be totally fine with that, by the way), Guy Adams’ witty actioner finds River serving as science officer aboard the Saturnius – an experimental spaceship capable of navigating temporal anomalies. Well, that’s the theory at least – in truth, it all turns into a hot mess of death and destruction after a dimensional space-time shunt (good luck with the insurance claim on that).

“Physics is having a day off,” declares River – well it certainly wouldn’t be the first time in Doctor Who – but at least the meat in the ship’s fridge is still before its date. So far before its date, in fact, that it’s climbing out and trying to eat them first.

Fortunately for River and Captain Maddie Bower (a welcome Big Finish debut for the wonderful Anna Maxwell Martin), help is at hand from a mysterious fellow calling himself the Doctor, who no-one can remember arriving onboard. It’s a lovely script for Sylvester McCoy, who really suits the role of the enigmatic space pixie popping out of nowhere and averting imminent catastrophe by frantically chalking calculations on the walls and floors of the ship.

Five Twenty-Nine signals an abrupt change of pace, as River traces one of The Unknown’s more intriguing plot threads back to Earth in the distant past (which is our future, keep up). On a remote island community, she charms her way into the home of Emmett and Lisa Burrows and their daughter Rachel – actually a “synthetic” the couple have sacrificed everything to acquire. The resulting examination of what it is to be human is a well-rehearsed philosophical discussion, familiar from everything from Pinocchio to Data off Star Trek, but this is so beautifully done, it never feels hackneyed.

Adhering to the old maxim that one death is a tragedy, a million deaths a statistic, writer John Dorney keeps his focus on this one family, even as an apocalyptic shadow is cast across the Earth, with whole time zones falling dark and silent at precisely 5:29pm.

Like a sci-fi When the Wind Blows, the sense of creeping dread is palpable, as the family listen to news reports crackling out of their ancient wireless. In one uniquely chilling scene, a radio announcer calmly and stoically counts down the seconds to doomsday, trying to offer what reassurance he can, before the world – or that bit of it, anyway – ends not with a bang, or even a whimper, but silence, save for the gentle wash of the waves.

Desperate to save someone, River commandeers a boat, the Saucy Maiden (well what else?) and literally tries to outrace time. But with all hope seemingly lost, the fleeing refugees sits down to one last supper, and a tender conversation about what love means. With terrific, compassionate performances from Robert Pugh and Ann Bell – all warm, earthy tones – and Alex Kingston’s daughter Salome Haertel giving a good account of herself as Rachel, it adds up to one of the most affecting and poignant hours of the entire Doctor Who canon. John Dorney’s Eighth Doctor story Absent Friends recently won the online category at the BBC Audio Drama Awards; I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Five Twenty-Nine makes it two in a row.

River’s red-hot lover rides onto the scene in James Goss’s World Enough and Time. Or, at least, there are the stirrings of a workplace romance, as River starts a temping job at Golden Futures – a dreams processing agency where the MD, one Dr John Smith, is being distracted from his usual universe-saving duties by trying to keep on top of his emails and judging the office Bake Off.

Colin Baker has form in the boardroom, of course, thanks to 70s soap The Brothers, and he feels right at home here, pompously pointing out that “agenda is already a plural, of agendum”. But his 51% shareholding doesn’t appear to count for much (“I’m the MD and I can’t even open a ventilation shaft!”), and he and River soon discover that some very nasty sleeping partners are feasting on the firm’s dreaming clients. Specifically, they’re feeding off the “potential energy” of the dreamers – which I can’t help thinking has become more of a cliché than those ventilation shafts these days: if in doubt, reach for an alien parasite feasting on emotions. Maybe it’s time this particular trope had a little nap time of its own?

That aside, Goss’s script is good value, especially when poking fun at office politics. “Could someone call HR? My PA has just pulled a gun on me,” says the Doctor, only to be told: “It’s after five – they’ve gone home.” We’ve all been there. Even the big bads’ big plan is reduced to IT speak, as they prepare to “deploy” a whole new artificial Earth as casually as you might roll out a website update.

Set-closer The Eye of the Storm shifts the action to Newgate Prison, 1703, where River is incarcerated with one Daniel Defoe (cue sly nod to Moll Flanders). With both Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy on board, it’s essentially The Three Doctors. Unless River is a professor this week? It’s hard to keep up. Anyway, drawing together plot strands from across the box set, it sees our heroes joining forces to save the Earth from “catastrophic dimensional slippage”.

Such weighty concerns are always a sideshow in these team-ups, though, the real interest lying in the character interplay. In this case, River’s still lusting after the Sixth Doctor, but admits “Some days I dream of having two of you to play with”. You might want to hold that thought for a moment. Or you might not.

At the heart of Matt Fitton’s story are an ordinary husband and wife who the Doctor declares the most important people in the world. It’s a nice idea, but the couple’s emotional journey can’t help but feel like a slightly tepid retread of Emmet and Ellen’s fate, and I did find myself willing everyone to move out of the way so we could get back to the real business of finding out what happened to Rachel the robot.

Despite the strongest material being weighted towards the front end, this second run of River Song adventures – deftly brought into harbour by director Ken Bentley – delivers and expands on the promise of last year’s debut, with Messrs Baker and McCoy adding their own idiosyncratic stamp to the proceedings.

For her part, Alex Kingston never played River Song like she was a guest on someone else’s show – how could you, really? – so it feels natural to have her front and centre, radiating proper star quality in a performance that’s as bold and brassy as her clamorous theme tune. Plus, you have to admire the confidence of any production so in love with Doctor Who that it allows Colin Baker to quote from both King Lear and The Twin Dilemma; you just know someone at Big Finish could make an argument for them being equally worthy texts, and I love them for that.

If there’s a classic text informing The Star Men, it’s almost certainly Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass, from which it borrows its central premise of a spaceship returning home with a crew who aren’t quite feeling themselves. Protégé of Christopher H Bidmead that he is, though, Andrew Smith refracts the idea through the prism of early Eighties Doctor Who for this Fifth Doctor adventure, set during the “TARDIS crèche” era of Adric, Nyssa and Tegan. That means, despite taking place on a remote planet at the edge of the galaxy, the spaceships are named after proper astronomers like Carl Sagan and Johannes Kepler, there’s some chat about ‘entropy’ and the titular Star Men turn out to be highly evolved coelenterates (coral, to you and me) supercharged by solar energy.

This thin covering of scientific legitimacy has become deeply unfashionable among Doctor Who fans, who have collectively decided that, on balance, they prefer the Douglas Adams-inspired “undergraduate humour” Bidmead and John Nathan-Turner were so keen to eradicate. But why shouldn’t Doctor Who try a bit harder to exploit the vast wonders of real, actual science? Especially if the alternative is another psychic parasite feeding at the all-you-can-eat emotional buffet.

Tonally, Smith’s story plays like an Earthshock-style military blockbuster, complete with – oh, the irony – Adric averting a spaceship from crashing into a planet, using only the power of maths. It’s the sort of thing that, back in the day, would have had their kids throwing down their Ataris and rushing to do their homework in a bid to be more like their favourite time-travelling swot.

Okay, maybe not, but it does attract the interest of a young science prodigy called Autumn (she falls for him, you could say). For those keeping score, that’s Adric and the Sixth Doctor presented as objects of desire this month. As my grandmother used to say: there’s a cup for every saucer.

Our journey backwards through Doctor Who’s middle ages brings us to 1980, as Justin Richards’ The Beast of Kravenos kicks off a new series of adventures set during Tom Baker’s swansong year.

So we open with Peter Howell’s zingy, space rock version of the theme, but are then disoriented to find ourselves whisked straight to the New Regency Theatre, circa 1890, where K9 is performing doggy tricks for the paying punters. (“He’s showing them his probe. Impressive!”)

The Doctor, it transpires, has taken rooms in Baker Street, from where he and his old friends Jago and Litefoot are engaged to track down The Knave – a flamboyant criminal who leaves a playing card as a call sign and specialises in dispatching his victims inside locked rooms.

This is the sort of milieu more readily associated with Doctor Who’s mid-70s gothic pomp than Tom Baker’s late burgundy period (even K9 has to switch to imperial measures), though Lalla Ward’s Romana 2.0 faithfully channels something of the spirit of 1980 with bafflegab about a “nucleonic phased pulse generator”.

It’s a rip-roaring Jekyll and Hyde pastiche in which Ward, John Leeson, Christopher Benjamin and Trevor Baxter are all reliably fabulous. As for the leading man, you can always tell when Tom’s amused by a script, and here he’s on robust, vigorous form – this is the Fourth Doctor at his most imperial, a world away from the subdued, bloodless figure of his final TV stories. It’s a further demonstration that, while it may be for others to make history, Big Finish are experts when it comes to remaking it.

Published in Doctor Who Magazine issue #510, April 2017 © Panini UK Ltd

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