Big Finish: Doctor Who - THE DIARY OF RIVER SONG 9: NEW RECRUIT Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Big Finish: Doctor Who - THE DIARY OF RIVER SONG 9: NEW RECRUIT Review

Matthew Kresal finds the spirit of 1970 (or was that 1980?) is strong within the latest River Song box set from Big Finish.
It's hard to believe that it's been nearly fourteen years since Alex Kingston made her on-screen debut as River Song in Silence in the Library, let alone that Kingston has spent half that time playing the role for Big Finish. It's been the case, and River's appearances on audio have taken her up and down the length of the Doctor's timestream, not to mention encounters with a number of the Time Lord's foes. Or, indeed, meeting up with her spouse's allies. The latest Diary of River Song set, given the subtitle New Recruit and released last autumn, is a case in point of the latter as Modern Who's time and space traveling archeologist teaming up with the UNIT team of the early Third Doctor era.

It's an interesting set-up for a set, creating, in essence, a spin-off within a spin-off. The 1970 season of Classic Who has always had something of a standalone quality to it, given Caroline John's Liz Shaw had an off-screen exit from it, and its tone received dialing down somewhat in the following season. Yet, thanks to Big Finish having delved back into the era first in the Companion Chronicles and now in The Third Doctor Adventures with Daisy Ashford taking over her mum's role as Liz and Jon Culshaw as the Brigadier, Season 7 has also proven ripe for expansion. And into that season's set-up, Big Finish drops River alongside Liz to give the two a series of their own.

Lizbeth Myles kicks things off with The Blood Woods. Mirroring Robert Holmes' script for Spearhead From Space, the episode opens with UNIT recruiting its new scientific advisor before getting involved with a mystery that puts River and Liz to work. It's an intriguing opening for the set, one that evokes some of the folk horror that was in vogue in the 1970s, perhaps more so than it does some of the UNIT TV stories of either Season 7 or later. What it most firmly does is establish that this isn't simply a case of dropping River into the Doctor's place as the relationship she has with both Liz and the Brigadier makes that clear, if nothing else. Indeed, the partnership and chemistry between UNIT's scientific advisors drive the episode forward, establishing the tone both between the character and for the stories that follow. It's no mean feat and one that Myles succeeds at splendidly.

The set moves from the countryside to the suburbs for its second episode. Writer James Kettle notes in the extras a whole slew of influences on Terror of the Suburbs, the ones this reviewer picked up on were the Stepford Wives and The Prisoner, with its mix of seemingly carefree characters and a blissful but menacing setting. Kettle also has fun exploring the idea of what Liz's life outside of UNIT would look like, an area that's surprisingly been little explored even at Big Finish. Doing so gives Kingston and Ashford some wonderful material to play with and off of each other, not to mention offering some twists for characters and listeners alike. Not to mention playing around with seventies nostalgia along the way.

The seventies, lest we forget, had a darker, more paranoid edge to them (and this review doesn't just mention that for its author having once contributed to a short story anthology on that theme). Helen Goldwyn's Never Alone picks up on the decade's concerns with the intersection of technology, corporations, conspiracies, and "brain drains" and puts a Whovian twist on them. The result is a fast-paced thriller that wouldn't be out of place in the UNIT sets with the current era team, though Goldwyn's evocation of the era and its technology (made possible by the "fun" that is UNIT dating) firmly put it into the early days of the Third Doctor's exile. Not to mention giving Song and Shaw a temporary companion in the form of Emma Swan as Pippa or giving composer Howard Carter the chance to do a fun take on River's series theme.

Lisa McMullin gets to pen the set's finale with Rivers of Light. In keeping with bringing Modern Who style to Classic Who, McMullin pens what could easily pass for a season-ender in the Who's current TV incarnation. Something due in part because it delivers on the fourth name and face on the cover art, bringing together River Song and the Third Doctor, played once more by Tim Trealor. And, oh, do the verbal sparks fly between them! Along the way, McMullin not only lets River bounce off the Third Doctor and the Brigadier (who doesn't appear in-person during the middle episodes) but also weaves in plenty of tropes and Easter eggs for fans of the era, tying up the loose arc that has run throughout the four episodes. The result is an immensely satisfying listen, particularly with its final scene completing the trick with a twist that is almost worth picking the set up for in its own right.

The thing that makes New Recruit worth picking up, though, is the chemistry between its lead. Kingston proved herself as a recurring character turned sometimes lead character in her appearances in televised Who and, of course, in her earlier Big Finish sets. Ashfield, meanwhile, had been neatly taking over her mum's role, catching much of the cadence and attitude of those 1970s performances. Put together in these four episodes, the results are engaging and delightful, with a sense of a quick friendship and mutual respect coming out of the first episode and building throughout the entire set. Hearing them interact with Culshaw and Trealor, both picking up on iconic TV characters, is just the icing on the cake. All of which makes it a shame that the set ends how it does, with the sense that things were getting started. Needless to say, if Big Finish ever wanted to do a "Song & Shaw" set, as it were, this reviewer would happily give it a listen.

Until that day comes (if it does), enjoy the four episodes of this New Recruit as it brings together two eras of Doctor Who with energy, humor, and pure thrills.

The Diary of River Song Series 09: New Recruit is available to purchase from the Big Finish website.

Matthew lives in North Alabama where he's a nerd, doesn't have a southern accent and isn't a Republican. He's a host of both the Big Finish centric Stories From The Vortex podcast and the 20mb Doctor Who Podcast. You can read more of his writing at his blog and at The Terrible Zodin fanzine, amongst other places.

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