Tuesday, 2 October 2018

The Rulers of the Universe written by Matt Fitton and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it About: As shocking secrets are exposed, and a grand plan for the universe is revealed, River decides it’s time she took control of events once and for all. Out in deep space, a clandestine society faces off with an ancient and powerful alien force – but, for River, there’s an added complication. The Eighth Doctor has been caught in the middle, and she must make sure her future husband can arrive at his own destiny with all his memories – not to mention his lives - intact…

Hello Sweetie: This is as good a time as any to tackle the idea of River meeting the classic iterations of the Doctor. Is there a point to this beyond the novelty of experiencing the chemistry between Kingston and Baker (x2), Davison, McCoy and McGann because there is no good storytelling reason for it to take place? Since the Doctor can never know who River is, the writers have to constantly find creative ways for her to meet him but to have no impact on his life as herself because that happens for the first time with the tenth. And it’s a bit of a one trick pony, but with the Doctor’s making an appearance on the cover of every set it’s clearly a trick that this range will be playing over and over again. I would have far more respect for this series if River went at it alone without the need to drag on Doctor Who for inspiration. But it would seem that she is intractably linked to him and everything that happens in her life has to revolve around him. I’m not sure what that says about River as a strong female character but I don’t like it very much.

Breathless Romantic on the Verge of a Midlife Crisis: ‘You haven’t seen me angry. Not yet.’ This is the early days of the Time War for Paul McGann, probably around the time of his first or second box set set during that period. He’s angry and depressed, a far cry from the cuddly puppy he started his life as (especially in Big Finish terms). It’s not his War, it’s nothing to do with him, he simply tidies up the mess left behind when he finds it. At the moment he is keeping right out of it. He knows things are serious enough that if it ever actually touches somebody they will be begging to get out. He was never one to let people suffer so when he discovers that millions are in danger from the SporeShips he immediately sets about trying to uncover their mystery. River considers this incarnation of the Doctor young, naive and idealistic. The kind of Doctor that thinks he can run from a Time War. There are certain Doctors that River isn’t allowed to play with. The Doctor’s method of defeating his enemy here is quite ingenious. For once the climax of a Big Finish story is built around the idea of the Doctor being one step ahead and having a complete plan in place rather than him having to improvise a rather naff way of bringing the story to an end. The Doctor tells River not to get on her bad side.

Standout Performance: Without a doubt, there is incredible chemistry between Kingston and McGann. Maybe that justifies the experiment in itself. River’s Doctor was always Matt Smith but for some reason that always felt like a mother trying to seduce her sons’ friend. With Capaldi it was built on respect and with Tennant there was such a shroud of mystery so it was a one-sided chemistry. With Alex Kingston and Paul McGann, it is just sexy. Just about perfect, in fact.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘You know the biggest mistake your little club ever made? Annoying a psychopath with time on her hands. And the second biggest? Involving my husband.’
‘Amateurs are the best kind of everything. They do it for the love.’
‘You’re not Gods. Just a cruel, ancient and powerful race. And you should not that in my time of life I’ve had quite enough of those.’
‘Do all the world building you want in pre-history!’

Great Ideas: A super rich Elite with a penchant for the remote control of planetary systems, calling themselves the Rulers. They want in on the Time War, they think they can exploit it somehow. Pictograms have appeared on all the planets where life has been wiped out by SporeShips. A race of people that look at entire civilisations as experiments in a petri dish. One step into the Time War and your entire civilisation might vanish out of existence. A pendant that can keep you ten nanoseconds ahead of your enemy, a Time War weapon that the Doctor has managed to procure.

Isn’t it Odd: The Doctor is as prominent as River on the cover of this set, and he’s mentioned forwardly in the synopsis for this instalment and in the marketing video. All of which goes to show that in order to generate sales Big Finish are happy to blow any surprises that this story might hold. It feels like Fitton is going for a Night of the Doctor style surprise in the pre-titles sequence with Paul McGann’s beautiful voice turning up unexpectedly but given the company has been raving about his inclusion for yonks before this was release, it feels like a waste of effort. I wondered why River never managed to find out anything definitive about the SporeShips…we were waiting for the Doctor to turn up and discover all the answers. I’m not sure that is the sort of message this range should be promoting.

Standout Scene: The moment when a very confused and intrigued Doctor asks River (under the guise of Miss Spritz) to tell him more about herself. The music swells excitingly and for a moment you have to wonder if River will spill everything just to be able to spend some time with the Doctor as herself. The last monologue is the first time the dialogue approaches anything like what Steven Moffat would have put in River's mouth.

Result: ‘The fact that you want to be part of it means that you utterly fail to understand it…and stop calling it my War!’ With the Time War making its presence felt and the Doctor playing a big part, this has an immediate advantage over its predecessors. The question is when a story features the Doctor this heavily are you listening to it as a River Song story or a Doctor Who story? I was immediately more interested in this than at any other point in the box set but it was for entirely the wrong reasons. It worries me that River hasn’t managed to successfully stand on her own two feet away from the Doctor, the first two stories in this set being exceptionally weak compared to the latter, Doctor-centric material. However, Rulers of the Universe is a gripping listen because Paul McGann is simply too good playing grumpy and much of the material is enlivened by his bad-tempered performance. This is actually much better material than McGann’s Time War set, with the backdrop of the conflict feeling much more dangerous and the inclusion of the SporeShips tying this into the larger narrative of the box set. You might think that this a pretty ambitious bit of storytelling but the best of this story is borrowed from the television series. River feels much livelier and engaging in this story, again down to the Doctor’s proximity. She feels much more like her old self because we are so used to her taking part in Doctor Who. Alex Kingston notches up the level of desperation in her voice because she is interacting with one of the real Doctors and the sparky relationship she has with McGann supersedes anything that she had with his peers. The SporeShips continue to be an interesting notion and their builders are a genuinely frightening presence. It has been a while since I have heard a Big Finish production give an alien race this level of menace. Dramatic, climactic and hectic, The Rulers of the Universe is a memorable end to a disjointed box set. I proceed cautiously, assuming that River will always work when she is paired with the Doctor but unconvinced of the point of her having her own series otherwise: 8/10


Dovid M said...

I may be wrong but Im fairly certain River claims in the Time of Angels that she has met every doctor, so while it's contrived, it is technically canon.

Anonymous said...

I just commented on the Mrs Robinson relationship on your previous review and now I see you think the same about her relationship with the Matt Smith Doctor. I will say it again: the actors ages play an important part. McGann and Capaldi are of a similar age, not too far from Kingston's With Matt Smith it feels like an older woman trying to seduce a young man.

Literate Dead said...

The tough part of suggesting the River Song series is that I don't think the series truly came into its own until the second season. The first season is... well, okay in places, but doesn't really do anything, and some of the stories fail to be engaging. The second season, by comparison, has River more directly deal with Seven and Six in turn, and comes off stronger for it (Alex Kingston and Colin Baker play off each other wonderfully; but then again Baker works well with pretty much everyone!). But the best story of the set doesn't feature any Doctor, putting River into her own personal Kobayashi Maru test. The third season is very good as well, particularly for the hilariously chaotic 'My Dinner with Andrew'.

I would say if you get around to it, the followup seasons are more worth it. But, that's your call to make, naturally.