Review by Jacob Licklider
There is a saying that every cloud has a silver lining, and for Doctor Who fans, especially those invested in the expanded universe, the COVID-19 pandemic and associated lockdowns has created a big silver lining. The devastating shutdowns of the arts has made the entertainment industry turn to other methods for creating content, and Big Finish Productions made no delay in taking advantage of many actors who were now available to record remotely due to the pandemic. One such actor is David Tennant who had already worked with Big Finish as the Tenth Doctor in three individual volumes, plus a myriad of cameos, and with lockdown meaning he was available, Big Finish commissioned a special fourth box set featuring the Doctor’s future wife, River Song. The Tenth Doctor and River Song is essentially the fourth volume of The Tenth Doctor Adventures range, and was wholly conceived during the pandemic due to availability. Three stories were produced and released in late November 2020 in a box set and as three individual stories, all set after Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead for the Doctor and at various points in River’s life, picking up on the implication that the Tenth Doctor would have met her again in this incarnation from that story. The overarching theme of these stories is exploring how that relationship is different from the Eleventh and Twelfth Doctors’ dynamics with River. The Tenth Doctor through all three stories treats River like a mystery to be solved, and becomes more and more annoyed at her constant evasions.
Expiry Dating by James Goss is where this aspect of the set is the most apparent, setting itself up as the second meeting between the characters from the Doctor’s perspective, but for River it feels very early here for her as well. River in Expiry Dating is incredibly flirtatious, bordering the personality featured at her worst in the Eleventh Doctor’s era, but the writing from James Goss, the performance from Alex Kingston, and the main idea behind Expiry Dating helps save the character from that fate. The premise is not dissimilar to Goss’s own R&J released earlier this year: River and the Doctor share several correspondences and near meetings as River asks the Doctor to steal a scroll from an order of monks which know the date of the end of the universe. River of course wants it stolen so that she can make money because apparently that’s the motivation of archeology? Yeah, this aspect of the story is something that doesn’t work well and honestly isn’t necessary for telling the story Goss is trying to tell, especially when you get cameos from the Fifth and Sixth Doctors, and learn just how River has gotten the Doctor’s past selves into the story.
There is the real sense of mistrust the Doctor has for River which makes sense; he doesn’t realise that he’s already met her several times in the past and this story gives him the impression that she’s just a con artist, something that makes the idea interesting. The letters also feel incredibly true to character and flipping between Tennant and Kingston’s narrations as there’s this back and forth between the two as the Doctor tries to undo River’s shenanigans while River tries to undo the Doctor’s shenanigans. It’s antagonistic and makes for a good dynamic. Overall, Expiry Dating is great, but there was more that the story could do to avoid falling into poor characterisation for River and fully flesh out its premise. 7/10.
Lizzie Hopley goes to an old trope against greed for the premise of Precious Annihilation, having the Doctor and River team up to get to the bottom of a mystery involving gemstones. These gemstones end up killing those who possess them, believed to be a curse and showing a bloody history going back to the Elizabethan era. The mystery aspect of what these gems are (spoilers, they’re from space, who’d have guessed?) is pushed incredibly well by Hopley and gives enough intrigue to drive the plot forward. The continuous set piece after set piece allows a different interaction for the Doctor and River, as unlike Expiry Dating, there isn’t as much antagonism here; instead more mystique of River from the Doctor and River is portrayed as more toned down and older.The older portrayal of River is something that Big Finish Productions have refined to a tee, allowing the character a return to the character seen in Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead where Alex Kingston made River her own, striking a balance of fierce confidence and intellect, which would eventually be thrown out of balance in subsequent appearances. There is swashbuckling action, scenes in taverns, and everything you really need to enjoy a pseudo-historical Doctor Who romp. It firmly establishes a relationship for River and the Tenth Doctor going forward. 8/10.
While Expiry Dating and Precious Annihilation both provide great romps, it’s the final release of this trilogy ‘Ghosts‘ from Jonathan Morris which is the stand-out. Ghosts is a down and out horror story, taking place in this cemetery planet with a cast of five, playing out like an hour-long horror play. The Doctor and River are on a planet filled with ghosts and three human survivors are waiting for a ship to take them off-planet that will never come. The ghosts are disappearing and supplies are running out, making this an incredibly tense little adventure, that becomes further elevated by its twist.
Like many of the great horror stories, Ghosts ends with a twist about the scenario the characters were dealing with. The story starts by drawing the listener in with character drama and interactions, and eventually pulls the rug out from underneath the listener with a final twist as the solution to the story’s problems comes from the big twist. Morris makes the listener feel for these five people and their eventual fate isn’t an entirely happy one. Tennant and Kingston are great in their roles, while Mina Anwar, Sam Benjamin, Tim Bentinck, and Emma Swan all have specific archetypes and roles to fill. Every character is an archetype from the hero, to the heroine, to the loving couple, or even the young rebel. The single hour runtime works incredibly well for the story Morris is trying to tell while Nicholas Briggs provides absolutely sublime direction for this story and Howard Carter’s sound design and score is haunting. Special mention for the entire set must also be made of Wilfredo Acosta who ensured the sound engineering worked out while recording remotely. Ghosts is the pinnacle of the set and the first real experimental Tenth Doctor story. 10/10.
Overall, The Tenth Doctor and River Song may have been a set borne out of a pandemic, but it fulfils its purpose and makes a lasting impression on the listener. Taking full advantage of actor availability, it tells three varied stories and is a good example of limited resources making something great. 8.3/10.