With ‘The Husbands of River Song’ still fresh in our minds, now’s the perfect time to check in with this first Big Finish excursion for the time travelling archaeologist, occasional psychopath and thief. River’s always been one of my favourite aspects of the show and this series not only shows that off but just how versatile, complex and likable she is as a character.
‘The Boundless Sea’ by Jenny T Colgan is an early front runner for Big Finish audio of the year. It opens with River in semi-retirement, working in early 20th Century academia and content to let the world pass her by. Until a young woman disappears during a tomb excavation and only River, and unusually helpful British Consul Bertie Potts, are able to help…
Every aspect of this story turns like a precisely machined clock. The initial idea is exactly the sort of thing that makes River take notice and Colgan has a lot of fun putting a fiercely independent female academic in the middle of a time period where society expected those words to stay as far away from each other as possible. Better still, the frustration she feels ties into the deep groundswell of frustration and rage that ‘The Husbands of River Song’ explored. River is furious, for very good reason, and the situation she falls into gives her a chance to work through that.
Especially as the ‘villain’ of the piece is tragic rather than evil. Without too many spoilers, River finds herself on remarkably similar ground to her opponent. Both are women overlooked and oppressed by the actions and decisions of others. Both are boiling with rage at that fact. Both make different choices. Colgan’s needlepoint subtlety shows us neither makes the wrong call. As interesting is the way it ties River, her reputation and the things that have been done to her into a larger canvas. That in turn folds back into the oddly callous, manipulative feel the 11th Doctor had at times and in turn that further emphasizes River’s complexity.
It’s a brilliant script, with a great sci-fi conceit as well as a complicated villain and some excellent supporting turns. Top of the list there is Alexander Vlahos as the delightfully flappy Bertie. River having a ‘companion’ of sorts is a fun dynamic I hope returns in series 2 and the pair spark off each other very well.
But the script is what stays with you. Colgan does three impossible things at once, setting up the series’ premise, referencing River’s complex emotional background and telling a done-in-one story. It’s brilliantly effective work and it sets the series off at a dead sprint.
Right to the party at the centre of Justin Richards’ story. ‘I Went To a Marvellous Party’ is an entirely different set up from ‘The Boundless Sea’, dropping River on a party space liner run by the rulers of the universe. Well, sort of…
Again, there are multiple things going on here. River seeking answers with her customarily belligerent charm is always fun and Richards goes to town on that here. Like Colgan he shows us a River who is a far subtler, more perceptive figure than everyone else around her. The locked room murder mystery at the centre of the story is perfectly constructed and gives her a chance to not only show off but do some good along the way.
Richards’ script also moves the overall plot along and sets up something that’s so obvious it’s amazing it’s something the show has never really done before. The villains of the series have an intricate, interesting set of justifications that bounce off altruism, capitalism and the sort of benevolent dictatorship that makes sure the trains are both clean and running on time. There’s something Banksian about them and Richards, as well as Vlahos relishing an entirely different take on his character, have a lot of fun with them.
These first two discs tie together neatly and the third? Opens with River dying and gets more ambitious from there. James Goss’ script is essentially a two hander between Alex Kingston and Sam West as, well, let’s call him Mr Song. Charming fellow, travels in time, lots of interesting knowledge about odd fields. No TARDIS though…
Goss excels at stories like this and there’s huge fun to be had listening to Kingston and West doing their best Thin Man in space routine. There’s the same warmth and humour you saw in the wonderful final third of ‘Husbands of River Song’ and West has huge fun with a role that he’s charmingly, and openly, been campaigning to get for a while.
Except of course this is a James Goss script and nothing is ever as simple as that. The central idea is gloriously unpleasant; organic spacecraft of unknown origin that render entire civilizations down to mulch. River wants to know where they come from, Mr Song wants the same thing. But then, River keeps having bad dreams…It’s a complex puzzle box of a story that ties everything that’s come before it together with consummate ease and sends the series hurtling into the final story at a dead run.
‘The Rulers of the Universe’ brings everything together on every level. The story arcs are combined in a way that’s logical and fun and previous episodes inform the script throughout. This is a complex, coherent story told across four standalones and Fitton does a great job of bringing the whole thing in to land.
This is also the Doctor story, because there had to be one. But River doesn’t get anything easily at this stage in her life and neither, it seems, does the Doctor. This is the 8th Doctor, circling the Time War and trying to work out how he feels about it. He’s the love of her life and a complete stranger. He’s the key to solving the problem and she’s the key to saving his life.
But there’s a catch; they can never meet.
Fitton’s script nails the 8th Doctor at this stage in his life. Serious to the point of taciturn, driven, disgusted by what’s being done around him. He echoes his older incarnations and has hints of the men to come too. McGann is on top form and Vlahos again does excellent work in the scenes they have together.
But this, like every story before it, is Kingston’s show. She takes us through River the academic, the action hero, the trauma survivor, the problem solver and the ruthless personification of vengeance. She’s absolutely, categorically, a heroine. But she’s also the last person you want to mess with and her scheme here is executed with glorious relish. If anything, her scenes with McGann, albeit at distance, are even better. There’s a sweetness to their scenes which ties the whole massive story back to River, her heart and where she chooses to put it.
Verdict: This is a brilliant debut for Professor Song and another example of Big Finish continuing to perfect this modular story arc approach. The scripts are great, the performances are note perfect and Ken Bentley’s direction is character centric, subtle and suits the scripts like a glove. There are a few moments in every story where characters are a little verbose about what they’re seeing but that’s a tiny detail in what’s otherwise a fantastic set of stories. The Doctor may be out, but you really should see the Professor now. 9/10