After this years Christmas special, The Husbands of River Song, Big Finish pushed forward their latest New-Who inspired box set The Diary of River Song forward from January to Boxing Day; then, immediately after the episode aired, they pushed it forward even further to Christmas Day. It certainly seems that December is the month of River Song. In this new box set, featuring four hour long stories, we get to see what our favourite Time Lady(ish) archaeologist (part time) gets up to when the Doctor isn’t around. In this review, we’ll be looking at the penultimate story; Signs by James Goss.
River Song is on the trail of the mysterious, planet-killing SporeShips.
Nobody knows where they come from. Nobody knows why they are here. All they do know is that wherever the SporeShips appear, whole civilisations are reduced to mulch.
But River has help. Her companion is a handsome time-travelling stranger, someone with specialist knowledge of the oddities and dangers the universe has to offer. For Mr Song has a connection to River’s future, and he would never want his wife to face those perils alone…
From the longest title of the box set (I Went To A Marvellous Party) to the shortest in Signs, we go from a murder mystery to a tale of total deceit. As the synopsis suggests, River is no longer aided by the companion of the previous two stories, Bertie Potts, but is now instead aided by her husband. Yes; that husband. Well supposedly. The reader knows that Samuel West isn’t the Doctor. Well yet; this could be a Moffat trick and West is the thirteenth Doctor, but anyway… It’s rather refreshingly infuriating to know a basic fact that the main character doesn’t in a Big Finish story. Whilst River is totally content that this man really is an incarnation of her Time Lord husband, we as the listener know that he’s an imposter; that this is almost definitely a trap, but we are totally powerless to help. This is something that I very rarely find happens in any medium of entertainment, but is something I don’t think I’ve ever encountered in Big Finish before.
Apart from the fact that River is almost certainly ensnared in a trap, there’s also the problem that River’s apparently dying. This is River stuck between a rock and a hard place; she can either die sooner or prolong her life but her brain turns to mush. And River has work to do. Both the ‘Doctor’ and herself are trying to track a SporeShip before it can devastate any more planets. In this story we see River at her most Doctor-like so far in this series; she’s solving this problem using her intellect; no violence, no threats, just observations, deductions and reasoning.
James Goss has done a sterling job at fan service in this story. First of all, there’s the fact that since the ‘Doctor’s’ TARDIS has disappeared, he has a new ship, named the Sarah Jane; a tiny detail that made me smile; I have to admit I still miss Elisabeth Sladen. There are many, many more references to past adventures in this story, mainly from the ‘Doctor’; it makes the listen extra rewarding for hardcore Whovians as you try your best to catch as many references as possible.
Signs does something different to the previous two; whereas The Boundless Sea and I Went To A Marvellous Party were both linear, with River purely at the heart of the story, in this story, River both features and narrates; a device which I think works exceptionally well. Personally, I think it gives the impression that the River in the story is River alive, conscious and still dying, whereas the River that is talking to the listener directly seems to be an unconscious River, on the brink of her untimely demise.
One thing I thoroughly enjoyed was Samuel West’s portrayal of the ‘Doctor’. Both Goss’ writing and West’s performance was totally Doctor-like. If you let a non-Whovian (apparently they exist) listen to this story and they didn’t know which actor played the Doctor, they’d more than likely accept Samuel West’s portrayal as an official one. Everything about his characterisation is on point; his intonation appears to be so much like every Doctor before him, his calm, soothing, trustful voice; his affection towards River and his clumsiness, his childishness, his foolishness and his Doctor-iness are all perfect. There’s a moment in the seventh chapter of this story that is utterly heartbreaking between the ‘Doctor’ and River that cemented this performance as utter perfection.
In the latter third of this story, we see River in a place we’ve never seen or heard her from before. In a university. Professor River Song being a professor, giving a lecture on her thesis of the origins of the SporeShips. This is a great way for us to see the side of River that normally has to be shunned to the back whilst she’s on adventures in time and space, and also a great way to tell the listener some of the important facts of the story. My favourite part of this scene however has to be the cameos. We never hear them, but we’re told that there are twelve (or maybe thirteen) cameos in this short university scene. From the number you might have worked out who it is. You may or may not be correct in that assumption.
The resolution to this story is utterly chilling; from having a dying River for the majority of the story to having a furious River in the final few minutes as she discovers the truth of the imposter Doctor. We’re used to seeing River annoyed at the Doctor; we’re used to seeing the fury of a Time Lord; but in this instance, we get the fury of the Time Lord’s wife. And it’s as discomforting, if not more so than when we see the Doctor being extremely cross.
Concluding the story, we go full circle, back to the beginning. This is something that I suspected might happen to help explain how this story came to be; however I have to admit that I didn’t think we’d go quite as far back. I loved the result however. If you listen to this and feel that it seems somewhat disjointed, during the ninth chapter, everything falls into place and joins up perfectly.
If there’s one thing I didn’t see coming, it was the very end of Chapter Nine and Chapter Ten, when the story took a rather timey-wimey turn. Something akin to Heaven Sent but different. I’d tell you what exactly, but spoilers!
This is perfect Big Finish. I never thought I’d enjoy a story quite as much, James Goss is an absolutely brilliant scriptwriter, Alex Kingston and Samuel West worked perfectly together; the score, the sound effects, the editing, everything was absolutely perfect. This site has been running just over six months, and this is the first story I have thought was flawless. Hats off to everyone involved.
The rating system on the Gallifrey Archive is achieved on a scale of 1-10.
For Signs , I will give a rating of: