River Song is back! Big Finish is giving us a peek into her diary once again with the second series of adventures focussing on River’s travels. Today, I’ll be reviewing the second episode, Five Twenty-Nine.
River has made a terrible discovery.
Billions of lives hang in the balance. But if she can save just a few, then it might just help her solve the conundrum of Earth’s destruction.
But how can she win when survival becomes a race against time itself? A race against Five Twenty-Nine?
It’s hard to think that in a box set based around River Song, that only one story out of the four would feature her without the Doctor. In Series 1, she had two (or three) stories without her Time Lord husband, giving both the character of River Song and the listener time to see what River gets up to on the regular occurrence that the Doctor isn’t around. When River isn’t with the Doctor, we as the viewer or listener gets to see a different side to her; one where she’s in control and her moral compass isn’t as strongly pointed towards the right direction.
I adore John Dorney’s work. It’s not an uncommon opinion, his writing for Big Finish (and his acting) is fantastic. So I’m always looking forward to hearing his latest work. With the pre-title sequence, we’re already given a lot of cryptic information about the characters of this piece, mainly about Salome Haertel’s character, Rachel. (Fun little fact, Salome is Alex Kingston’s daughter.)
Rachel as a character is already fascinating within the first five minutes; she seems extremely logical and analytical, and all for good reason… (Spoilers!) Her rapport with River, who has found herself pretty much marooned on a remote island, is instant, and you can tell that Alex and her daughter have history.
There are references to a Torchwood story that talk about similar subject matter too, making me wonder if there’s potentially a link, or even an allusion to a future pairing of River Song and Torchwood (Captain Jack and River Song flirting, it’d be endless and divine).
Within mere minutes, we get to see a side of River that is very rarely seen or heard; having River be so compassionate and tender towards someone who doesn’t necessarily need the empathy is refreshing. She’s not besotted with the Doctor at all, she’s not doing this to impress him; River’s actions here are purely her own, and I love her being a good person.
Considering that John Dorney has been nominated for a BBC Audio Drama Award for his script Absent Friends, it seems that in Five Twenty-Nine he’s decided to flex his emotional muscles yet again. The whole dynamic between Rachel and her parents is stunning, it’s underplayed and never once overdone in an attempt to pull at the heartstrings. John Dorney is quickly becoming the writer of ‘feels’ at Big Finish. No complaints from me.
The idea of having River Song attempting to save one small island worth of people from the oncoming apocalypse is somewhat beautiful. If you’ve followed River’s life in the Whoniverse, you know that she has become somewhat acquainted with death, destruction and despair, and to have River seemingly decide that death won’t beat her today is brilliant; it reminds me of the Ninth Doctor in The Doctor Dances. We all know how beautiful that episode is.
One thing that I have to applaud John Dorney for is making River somewhat useless in the situation; she’s trying her best to save as many people as possible, but her best just isn’t enough. Seeing River be somewhat powerless is a great change, and I love it when the writers make the main character out of their depth. The same thing goes with my feelings towards the Doctor; he’s great when he’s saving the universe, but when he’s acting purely out of desperation, that’s when he’s the most Doctory to me.
As sentimental and personal Five Twenty-Nine is, it doesn’t mean that the story is without some grim and grizzly themes and moments. The way I thought about the story was as a fairy tale in reverse. We start with the Happily Ever After, and it quickly becomes more and more nightmarish. Personally, I think it makes for a much better story.
The conclusion of Five Twenty-Nine is so incredibly bittersweet, having Rachel’s parents make a decision that must seem impossible is so utterly heartbreaking, even though you know that they’ve made this decision in the hope for the best possible outcome.
Whilst time travel does play a part in Five Twenty-Nine, I really enjoyed the fact that the whole story doesn’t rely on it; one of my fears for The Diary of River Song box sets was that it’d just be an excuse for extremely timey-wimey stories filled with paradoxes and clever outcomes. Having River star in a story that is fairly linear is really refreshing, as she’s not using her Vortex Manipulator as a Get Out of Jail Free card at every opportunity.
Overall, Five Twenty-Nine is a beautiful story about mortality and family. John Dorney once again proves that he can write from the heart and make a real emotional rollercoaster as well as sci-fi romps. Once again, I must applaud you Mr. Dorney.
Should you want to purchase The Diary of River Song 2, it’s currently available from Big Finish here for £20 for a limited time on digital download, or £23 for the CD box set.