Review by Jacob Licklider
If you follow the reviews I have written in the past for IndieMacUser I have indulged in discussions on how Big Finish have during the COVID-19 pandemic, but what hasn’t been discussed yet is the releases which have been disrupted. Luckily Big Finish Productions rarely announce releases before recording has at the very least began, yet The Diary of River Song Series 8 has become one of those releases which had to be changed while recording was occurring due to the pandemic. The first story in a very different version of Series 8, Slight Glimpses of Tomorrow was recorded and included in the eventual release, but the subsequent three scripts were put on hold and replaced with three different scripts. This gives this eighth series of The Diary of River Song an overarching theme of River meeting robots, as each story includes a robot in some capacity, in many of the stories multiple robots. This does end up bringing each episode of the series deeper into the wider Doctor Who universe with appearances from K9, Mechonoids, synthetic humans, and even other Doctors, unlike the previous set which attempted to set itself apart from the parent show by only including one villain from that show, with the rest of the stories being standalone. While not a problem for the set by any means, it does mean that fans who were hoping for this spin-off in particular to stop relying on the show’s lore will have to wait at least until Series 9, if not later. There will also be spoilers for The Fourth Doctor Adventures: The Syndicate Master Plan so please go listen to that one before reading this review or listening to this audio.
Slight Glimpses of Tomorrow by James Goss is the opening story and was the one story of the set recorded before COVID-19 way back in 2019. From a production standpoint, it does stick out a bit as being recorded in a studio, if eagle eared listeners know what to listen out for. Goss’s script also feels like a setup for a complete box set with River and synthetic human Rachel, with this story giving Rachel an idea of what it means to be human. Full disclosure, I have not listened to Series 2 of The Diary of River Song which is where Rachel first appeared, but from what I can gather from asking those more familiar with her character and Goss’s script, she is a character who doesn’t understand emotion. As such, Salome Haertel plays the role as close to emotionless as possible, however, this has the knock-on effect of sometimes coming across as if Haertel isn’t actually acting but speaking in a monotone. This doesn’t pose much of a problem in this story, however, as she reappears and becomes the focus of the next story, her performance falls flat at points. Now this suits Slight Glimpses of Tomorrow which is a premise the entire cast is clearly having fun with. River takes Rachel throughout the history of this alien planet where a scientist and philosopher called Armis comes to terms with her planet’s place in the universe, builds a tomb, and begins to understand the stars. In a little over an hour, James Goss covers several themes of patriarchal societies, the progress of science, and the wonder that comes with understanding the world around you. This could be described as a story totally against the idea of rationalism destroying romanticism and ends up as a brilliant start to the set as the audience learns along with Rachel what it means to be alive and to live. It’s rarely ever easy and not always pretty, people will be thankless to what you eventually do with your life, but it is a life and only you can live it. 8/10.
Rachel and River’s story ends with the second release of this set, A Brave New World from relative newcomer to Big Finish Tracy Ann Baines. ‘A Brave New World’, however, is quite a step down from ‘Slight Glimpses of Tomorrow’ for a multitude of reasons. Baines has some good ideas here and continues the main thrust of Rachel becoming more alive, but the story itself is The Ark with Rachel in place of the Monoids. The premise is the same as The Ark with a spaceship heading to a new world where resources are limited and the people in charge of the ship will not see the new world. Now, this is one aspect where Baines diverges in having the crew of the ship actually take the chance to put Rachel in charge, as Rachel is synthetic, won’t age, and be forced to take over the ship. There is a romance between Rachel and a character called Aaron who might also be a synthetic human, but it’s not actually clear. The romance also isn’t clear, but something that just happens out of nowhere. Rachel and Aaron share a few scenes and the listener is told that there is chemistry between them, but neither Salome Haertel nor Homer Todiwala give it. The script is also written so that Rachel has developed, more or less, into emoting which is commented on and her being hooked into the ship takes those away, but the performance doesn’t actually convey that, instead relying on a robotic filter over the voice which makes it feel even less natural. River also leaves Rachel ; meaning that the audio cuts back to her having several adventures with various incarnations of the Doctor, specifically those who weren’t represented by the other series of The Diary of River Song which is a nice bit of fan service. This sadly brings the episode down further as this is a story where excluding River until she reappears to save the day at the end would have actually allowed more time to develop Rachel and her resistance to captivity and the relationship with Aaron. As it stands it’s just a subpar version of The Ark that could have capitalised on what Goss laid down. 4/10.
The quality does return, however, with the absolutely absurd and surreal A Forever Home. Alfie Shaw is the writer this time around and more well known for being the producer of the Short Trips range, and here writes a full-length story. The premise here is that River Song has found herself sick and in the care of several robots including K9 and FE-LINE, a character from Tales from New Earth (aka that one really baffling spin-off). The titular ‘forever home’ is essentially a suburban hell where all of the houses are the same and the many K9 units take their patients out on walkies on a lead and feeding them sludge-like food. John Leeson is allowed to give a rather sinister performance as K9, as the story develops into this weird story of River going slightly insane in a very comfortable prison. Leeson just makes K9 sound so incredibly smug in his performance which was always there when he was companion, but as an antagonist (note antagonist and not villain) there is just this added layer of depth that makes it all the more interesting to listen too. Shaw’s script also adds themes of identity and becoming one’s own individual which seems to at least work in three of this series’ stories. Tracy Wiles as FE-LINE, and two smaller parts, is excellent as a lot of this story is just a three hander between Wiles, Kingston, and Leeson. Now like many listeners I have not heard Tales from New Earth, but FE-LINE is a character reminiscent of the artificial intelligences inhabiting the VNAs of Ben Aaronovitch and Kate Orman. Wiles makes this character her own and holds her own with Leeson and Kingston’s formidable performances. If there was one flaw to be pointed out with the idea is that there isn’t as much to be seen of the other prisoners living in the other houses, though once everything is revealed with a true mastermind (played brilliantly by Clive Hayward going completely over the top in the right way). There are plenty of twists and the last line of the description of this story on the Big Finish website reveals far more than it actually should though without the context you don’t actually know what it means. 9/10.
Jonathan Morris writes the finale of this set, Queen of the Mechonoids, leaving the best for last. Now this story is part of the setup for the Tenth Doctor event Dalek Universe set for release throughout 2021, including the Mechonoids (which River rules over as Queen), a return from Anya Kingdom, and the return of the Space Security Service tying things into The Daleks’ Master Plan. Now for those wondering if this will be required for Dalek Universe, probably not. I’d highly recommend it as it’s kind of a comedic effort from Morris, who excels at comedy and horror, but it seems that Dalek Universe will be listenable on its own without this. Nicholas Briggs should be applauded for portraying the Mechonoids. One large issue with their appearance in The Chase, and to a lesser extent in The Juggernauts, is that their dialogue was often difficult to understand. Briggs as an actor, partially from always playing the Daleks, has a deep understanding of the importance of diction and is able with the Mechonoids to dictate more clearly than any other appearance of the robots, yet not falling to over-dictating the lines as to make the Mechonoids not sound natural. Joe Sims plays Mark Seven, a character created by Terry Nation for his unmade Dalek spin-off and previously played by Alan Cox. Sims gives the android agent life, however, he is slightly overshadowed by the return of Anya Kingdom. Anya reappears here after her adventures with the Fourth Doctor has changed her and Jane Slavin is always a delight. Her interactions with River are wonderful and she deserves every appearance she has upcoming. Derek Griffiths plays the villain and the Mechonoids are used wonderfully here, much like in The Juggernauts. Queen of the Mechonoids may be a comedy, but it is a comedy one will remember after listening. 10/10.
Overall, The Diary of River Song: Series 8, despite having one story that is subpar, is still a set worth listening to as it is a series of the spin-off that actually pulls off a running theme through each of the stories. While it is most definitely not what Big Finish was intending for this series, it does work on its own. Alex Kingston is always a delight and Ken Bentley’s direction is always sublime, especially having to deal with a mix of in studio and in home recordings in these uncertain times. 7.75/10.
Download/buy here: https://www.bigfinish.com/releases/v/the-diary-of-river-song-series-08-2321
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