Audio Marvellous, totally, bloody marvellous. As you might have gathered, I'm rather enamored with Doctor Professor Song and the actress who plays her, so the idea of a dedicated spin-off is really, quite welcome. But oh the danger. Apart from Big Finish having to produce something featuring a time travelling archaeologist which sounds totally unlike the Bernice Summerfield stories (not easy given that Benny is a clear influence on this television character) it also has to feel as though it's a natural extension of the television revival.
Well it does on all counts. She's entirely unlike her antecedent. River's motives ambiguous and her methods reckless and very much the figure who devised the baroque approach to contacting the Doctor in Time of the Angels, who can barely suffer fools, generally men. As is often the case when actors shift a character into a new medium, Alex seems to take a few beats to get into her stride in translating her performance to audio but within minutes,Song sings again, entirely charming and electric and dangerous.
There are a couple of niggles. An element of the overarching story (oddly) has strong echoes of Paul Magrs's Fourth Doctor Nest Cottage audios which is distracting if you're already aware of that story. Plus much like the design on the box set cover, to an extent River is pushed to one side in the final installment in favour of the Eighth Doctor ultimately becoming the figure who confronts the main antagonist. Which isn't to say she doesn't have a strong story thread of her own, you will punch the air, but it feels like an odd piece of structuring.
But the writing from all four authors is incredibly strong, notably James Goss's typically experimental third part which is a two hander best approached without any knowledge so, y'know, spoilers. Everyone has captured exactly what it must be like for River, still learning what it means to be a Time Person, finding herself running into her husband but unable to tell him who she is, because as she says, he's yet to go through the change that leads to him becoming the man she loves (which in and of itself is an interesting delineation).
Quick skippable spoilery discussion about placement: It's very much about The Diary of River Song as an information source and how it structures River's life, not simply an audio crutch to allow for exposition. Although it's very non-specific about timing, my guess is it's some time after The Angels Take Manhattan in the two hundred years mentioned in Husbands helping to account for why she's so clued in on his earlier incarnations almost expecting one of those to show up instead of a future version.
The Rulers of the Universe.
Here we are, Paul McGann's first occasion playing the Eighth Doctor during the Time War on audio. With just his brief pre-regenerative television appearance to build on, the approach in performance and writing is to return to something of his pre-Dark Eyes state, more adventure seeking, less cynical about the universe, perhaps because he realises that it might not be around for very much longer. He's notably treating the TARDIS as a friend again, perhaps because he's travelling alone and she's as close to a companion he has now.
Deciding to go with this version of the Eighth Doctor is somewhat dictated by this being a spin-off from the television revival and the pre-regenerative Time War version most likely to be familiar to the potential audience; teaming River with the even younger pre-Storm Warning figure or even not specifying where he's from in his timeline would have been the braver approach but as a result, the writers are also boldly able to make the war a central part of the narrative, perhaps as a pre-cursor to the upcoming boxed set.
As expected his interactions with River are frustrating because he can't know who she is, but as is becoming customary between Kingston and her various opposite numbers, the chemistry is palpable. Throughout there's also the nagging question: if this is set after the second Doom Coalition box, how does he not know who she is and this seems to her first interaction with him, although she's clearly aware of him and able to describe him. Will they meet on equal terms then and if so, how will he forget her again?