Thursday, 27 September 2018

The Diary of River Song: The Boundless Sea by Jenny T Colgan and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it About: River Song has had more than enough excitement for a while. Deciding the universe – and her husband – can look after themselves, she has immersed herself in early 20th century academia, absorbed in writing archaeological theses. But when a mysterious tomb is found in a dry, distant land, excitement comes looking for River. Can Professor Song stop any more members of the expedition from dying? What deadly secrets lie buried within the crypt? And will British Consul Bertie Potts prove to be a help, or a hindrance?

I’m going to be straight with you: I’ve put off reviewing this series until the last possible moment. But it has come to a point now (four series in and with more to come) that if I don’t get on top of this there will be far too much material and I will never bother. And the truth I am genuinely interested to see what Big Finish have to say about River and how she will be handled by writers other than her creator. God bless Big Finish, they have become the retirement home of all those characters that the TV series has exhausted or simply moved on from. Whether it’s Churchill or Lady Christina or old Doctors or New Earth or River or Missy…this seems to be where all popular TV characters come to die. I know I have made the joke before but I swear it won’t be long until Big Finish tackled London Investigation’N’Detective Agency (LINDA for short). There are two ways of looking at this. Big Finish are giving these characters a whole new lease of life and a chance to breathe in a brand-new medium, offering a chance for these characters to take the lead role rather than playing sidekick to the Doctor. That’s the optimists POV. Alternatively, you might think that Big Finish are the ultimate leechers of any half popular figure from televised Doctor Who, cynically cashing in on the New Series logo and spreading the talent of their best writers thinly (and producing their most mediocre work because of it) amongst a multitude of unnecessary ranges. At the very least these new ranges could be handed to fresh writers to the company as a chance to open out their writing pool, which has become extremely insular. Do we need the further adventures of Lady Christina? Was everybody deeply fascinated about the continuing meetings between Churchill and the Doctor? My opinion lies somewhere in the middle of these two extremes.

One of the early spin of successes of Big Finish was the Dorian Gray series. A dark, emotional, complex series with a central protagonist who is ageless and thus the series can jump up and down his time stream, switching genres and tones. With bite sized instalments, stunning production values, a terrific central performance from Alexander Vlahos and most importantly of all script writing of a very high standard this series really stood out as a hard hitting, adult and deliciously exciting avenue for Big Finish to explore. Why are you talking about Dorian Gray when this is a review about River Song? Because River has as confused and complex a timeline as Dorian and one of things that began to emerge from the reviews that I was reading was that this series has the opportunity to dip in and out of the various moments of her life. That’s pretty exciting. It means it not only attempts to enhance the TV stories that she appeared in (and boy do some of them need it), not only does it give fresh writers the chance to tackle the character at various stages of her life but it also means the series has a chance to be unpredictable, diverse and imaginative with where it sets its stories. If you don’t like the idea of a Melody Malone adventure, hang on because Madame Kovarian is back in the next story. If you’re not keen on that idea, she’s romancing Colin Baker’s sixth Doctor. Whilst Big Finish have perhaps taken the idea that River has met every Doctor to its extreme (and now with her meeting every iteration of the Master it’s like the fanwank cannot stop gushing) but you have to admire their attempts to keep this series fresh and interesting, and in how they appeal to regular Doctor Who fans whilst doing so. It kind of reminds me of another Archaeological Adventurer that Big Finish has on their books with a rich history that they can dip in and out of and in which they have in recent years added elements of Doctor Who to keep people interested.

Hello Sweetie: So why was I so reluctant to pick up this set and give it a whirl? Well, River herself mostly. I’m of the opinion (and you can shoot me down in flames like this) that River was at her best in her first story (the Library where she was a genuinely interesting portent of the future) and in her last (Husbands, where River’s timeline came full circle, she was at peace with herself and had finally come to realise that she wasn’t the be all and end all of the Doctors life). Everything in between ranged between entertaining (I enjoyed her appearances in series five on the whole, even though the continuing mystery of her identity was dragged out far too long for no decent narrative reason) to the toe curlingly awful (much of series six where the series became so obsessed with River and her timeline that the show got lost up its timey wimey rectum). Come A Good Man Goes to War and Let’s Kill Hitler I just wanted her to go away; she was turning the series into something nonsensical, smug and overtly sexual in misogynistic way. Mostly because of River, series six is a no-go area for me. I simply cannot bring myself to watch the majority of it again. The scene where she is murdering people and the Doctor is visibly turned on by it might just be the nadir of NuWho. Forget the Moon being an egg. None of this is entirely the fault of Alex Kingston, who is a powerhouse in the role but she can only say the words that have been given and if Steven Moffat chooses to write her as a vacuous, violent, deeply self-satisfied space bitch then that is the performance that she has to give. At times I think that even Kingston lost herself a bit in the role, expressing an over confidence when a subtler interpretation might have made the character more palatable. It’s interesting that I highlight her first and last appearances as her best because I think they highlight precisely what I am talking about. In The Library the mystery of her character is raised and it is long before the series has become obsessed with the character, and in Husbands it is after the series has fallen out of love with the her. And in both Kingston is much less overt and in your face and far more reticent in the role, whilst still maintain her charisma. The question is…which way are the audios going to go?

In a bland direction, apparently. River comes highly recommended as an archaeologist. For once there is a damn good reason for River to be pushing her gender in peoples faces. If that makes it sound like I don’t like strong women, nothing could be further from the case. My point I that strong women don’t have to point out that they are strong women, they simply are strong women without any kind of label. She’s stuck in the early years of the 20th Century where women had to work damn hard to prove themselves in any kind of academic field and River simply runs rings around the lot of them (but then with her knowledge of future events, like Bernice, why wouldn’t she?). She’s had her fill of travelling and just wants peace and quiet to finish her studies (year, right). River did love her husband and she died for him for him many times. Life has been cruel to her and she can be very angry about that. You might call that revelatory dialogue but there’s nothing there that we didn’t already know.

Standout Performance: It just goes to show what good writing can bring out in an actor. I had no clue until about halfway through this story that Bertie Potts was being played by Alexander Vlahos himself, who I lauded so much praise just a few paragraphs ago. Potts is a desperately tiresome character; a sexist, arrogant man who turns on a sixpence when he opens out to River and suddenly starts treating her with respect. I would have had more respect for the man had he maintained his misogynistic ideals throughout, it would have at least have shown some consistency of character. Vlahos struggles gamely to give him some element of likeability, and fails.

Musical Cues: A huge swelling orchestra of a score…but let’s be honest River was never going to be introduced in any other way than the most dramatic way possible. In fact, the theme is rather good. It begins wistfully before gaining melodramatic momentum before bursting and suggesting a life full of fun and adventure.

Isn’t it Odd: Can you imagine anything more obvious than explaining the ability to travel the stars and the web of time through HG Wells? Or to sum it up with ‘Space is big.’

Result: I don’t know what I was expecting from a River Song series…but the last thing I was expecting was something this safe. The opening fifteen minutes are incredibly lethargic and slow to get to the point. We are introduced to a number of secondary characters, none of whom are especially relevant (let’s call them fodder) or interesting and River taking a backseat and simply hanging around and studying is hardly the most dynamic way to introduce her character. I can imagine Colgan figured the idea of River resting in a period setting would equal an atmospheric listen but there’s a lack of detail in the setting (both in the writing and the direction) that separated me from the story. I’ve always said that with any new series I will give its pilot a watch and a chance to impress in some small way. An idea, a character, a twist, a line even. Something that makes me sit back and raise and eyebrow and think ‘this is worth sticking with.’ The Boundless Sea serves as a pilot for the River Song series and whilst it certainly wasn’t incompetently told or directed, there was no point where I had one of those wow moments. For the most part my reaction was ‘meh.’ River comes up against sexism in the early 1900s. River digs about for things. River finds an unexpected treasure. River unearths deep dark secrets. River wins over her sceptics. If this was a Bernice Summerfield script I would be rolling my eyes at the tiredness of it all (Benny uncovers civilisations every other week) but as the opening punch to a brand-new spin of it is astonishing in its lack of audaciousness. And it’s lack of danger and thrills. Amazingly, I found myself longing for some of Steven Moffat’s irritating timey wimeyness to liven things up…or at least some smug one liners! The dialogue is functional rather than crisp, the characterisation was predictable rather than exciting and the plotline was mundane rather than riveting. Perhaps Big Finish just isn’t good at kick starting their ranges? I don’t think that is necessarily true (say Dalek Empire and Cyberman both opened with something pretty memorable) but the wave of new ranges lately have meant that the novelty of such things has worn off and it takes something pretty special to stand out from the crowd. And this just doesn’t cut the mustard. Ah well, things can only get better: 4/10


Bloody Marquis said...

Yeah, the first box set doesn't stand out outside of the last story. To me, the third volume works absolute wonders and fixes a lot of issues people had with Series 6.

Adam Graham said...

This is weak, but it's also the weakest story in the series, but stick with in. The 3rd and 4th stories in this set are really quite good and the third series really finds its stride.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you about TV River. She was smug and over confident, and I personally found she had more chemistry with the 12th Doctor than the 11th,maybe because of the actors ages? Kingston and Smith looked like an awful Mrs Robinson thing but Kingston and Capaldi looked like husband and wife. In big finish you find they have to resort to new and fascinating ways to conceal her identity from the various Doctors. Will they make her meet the first 3 Doctors via their impersonators?