Monday, December 26, 2016

The Diary of River Song, Series 2

Sometimes it's good to give in to temptation. There's an argument that pairing River Song with the classic Doctors is an obvious, fan-pleasing thing for Big Finish to do. But you know, River Song is a grandiose, goofy, wish-fulfillment action-hero character, so why not go with that and have some fun? The eighth Doctor's appearance in the first boxset was charming, but limited by the need to keep the continuity of their "first" meeting in "Silence in the Library" intact. For the second series, Big Finish has taken a route that allows her to have a much more substantial interaction with the Doctor. Or rather the Doctors, since both Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy are in this one, as River as two of her husbands get caught up in a strange temporal crisis that threatens (of course) the existence of planet Earth.

Things kick off in Guy Adams' "The Unknown." River has joined an expedition investigating a mysterious planet that has appeared in Earth's solar system. But things are going wrong. The crew's memories are fuzzy. Their tempers are flaring. They can't seem to get where they're going. And the stars are disappearing. The only hope may be the stowaway who appeared in the engine room: a funny little Scottish man.

"The Unknown" is a solid start to the set. As will be the case throughout, its strength is less in plot than in atmosphere and character interaction. River and the seventh Doctor make a nice team, though I don't think Adams' script creates as lively an interplay as it might, and even when he's giving a basically good performance Sylv apparently has to make some weird choices. This isn't exactly a horror story, but there's a definite eerieness to what the characters are experiencing, and the sound design brings that across without trying too hard to be spooky. I really liked this story on first listen; if I'm struggling to find ways to praise it now that's because the set only gets better from here.

The sole Doctor-free story in this box is "Five Twenty Nine," by John Dorney. Earth is doomed, and River doesn't know why. All she knows is that every spot on the planet is falling silent when its local time switches from 5:28 to 5:29. If she can keep herself ahead of that wave long enough, she might find a solution, and save the lives of the people she's just met. But this may the one problem River Song can't solve.

As character drama this is probably the best story in the set. It doesn't break any new ground, but like "Signs" from the first series, it puts River's determination front and center to good effect. Alex Kingston is as great as ever, and the guest cast give performances that elevate what are basically stock characters. Robert Pugh and Ann Bell are effective as a middle-aged couple, and Salome Haertel is... interesting as their synthetic daughter. I'm not sure whether Haertel is giving an excellent performance as a robot with a flat affect, or a wooden performance as a lifelike robot. The fact that the actress is Alex Kingston's daughter and has no previous experience suggests one answer. In any case, it works in the context of the play. For all that the world is in peril, there's a quiet realism to this one that gives the ending the needed resonance.

James Goss, who wrote the standout story of the first series, returns in "World Enough and Time." River has discovered that a corporation called Golden Futures has a major role in the mystery she's working to unravel, so she's taken a temporary job there to get to the bottom of things. It's easy to be sidetracked, though, when the managing director turns out to be surprisingly lovable, for a man with a bombastic personality and absolutely terrible fashion sense.

Yes, it's the sixth Doctor this time, and he and River have an unexpectedly wonderful chemistry. Colin Baker doesn't often get to play romance, and he does a fine job of it here, as his Doctor finds this new employee quite charming indeed. In contrast to the sexually charged (often tiresomely so) banter between River and the eleventh Doctor, there's a delicacy to what unfolds here that feels perfect for the character. It's not all flirtation, though: there's an evil regime to topple, and as is fitting in her series River takes the lead, discovering that the Doctor is not as in control of his own investigation as he might believe. If there's a downside to this story, it's that some of the humor around Golden Futures falls flat. Based on this story and "Harvest of the Sycorax," Goss is on-the-nose and behind-the-times as a satirist. The corporate culture jokes here are nothing you haven't heard before, to say nothing of a takeoff on the Microsoft Office assistant Clippy that is about fifteen years behind topical. But the story gets the important stuff so right that I can hardly mark it down over a few moldy gags.

Everything comes together in "The Eye of the Storm" by Matt Fitton. As the Great Storm of 1703 approaches, a far more dangerous spacetime crisis is forming. River, the sixth Doctor, and the seventh Doctor, are all on the scene, but are they the solution, or the problem? And what do ordinary Londoners Isaac George and Sarah Dean have to do with it?

This has the feel of a finale from the new series: hectic, handwavey plotting, with an emotional throughline that's supposed to tie everything together. I'm not sure it succeeds at that. The characters involved are guests rather than regulars, and thinly-drawn ones at that. But the actors do what they can, and the sound design of the climactic scene is absolutely top-notch. Anyhow, there's a lot to enjoy on the way to that moment. Each of the three leads is convinced that only he or she can stop the crisis, and their efforts to push each other out of the way are pretty funny. River was collegial with these Doctors in the earlier stories, but now the competition among them is just as enjoyable. The reason I said that I'm not sure Guy Adams gets as much out of Seven and River as he could is that Fitton has a lot more fun with them, and of course Colin Baker could have an entertaining argument with a sock drawer, never mind Alex Kingston. We also get a nice taste of the cross-Doctor squabbling that's half the fun of such stories, and it's even rooted in intelligent observations about how their characters differ.

When I realized that the Doctor was going to be in three out of the four stories in this set I worried that he would crowd River out of her own series. But that doesn't happen. The odd imprisonment aside, she's very much the one in control, as she would have to be given her responsibility to the Doctor's future and the stability of his timeline. I know some listeners will feel that the pleasure of having her meet past Doctors properly is offset by the forgetfulness that has to follow, but I think that misses the point: we remember, and more importantly so does River. However much she might want to, she can never have the genuine, open relationship she does with the later versions. The coda to this set, in which she does what she has to do, is quite moving, and fits these fleeting encounters into the larger melancholy of her relationship with the Doctor. (There's also a very funny moment that's great for the characters involved.) The knowledge that this isn't a well Big Finish can go back to again and again makes this series all the more powerful. We'll always have the Great Storm of 1703.

I'm really impressed at what Big Finish has done with River Song. I wasn't her biggest fan during her TV appearances. She was great in "Silence in the Library," but during the Smith era River was too much one of Steven Moffat's sexy quip generators and not enough an actual human being. The Diary of River Song strikes a better balance. She hasn't lost the edginess (or the sex appeal), but she also has the vulnerability and the warmth you need if you're going to be a sympathetic protagonist. Which is to say, she finally feels like someone the Doctor could actually love. Perhaps that's why I don't mind how often he's popping up in her series. I hope he's not in the next box set as much as he's in this one-- you gotta give a girl a little time on her own-- but I wouldn't him making another one-off appearance. She has yet to beguile Tom Baker and Peter Davison, after all. And if series two is anything to go by, such meetings would fully realize their potential.

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