Doctor Who spin-off review: River meets four Masters in The Diary of River Song – Series Five

We know how River Song handles her husband in Doctor Who. But how will she handle his worst/best enemy in the fifth series of her own spin-off, The Diary of River Song?

The fifth series of Doctor Who spin-off The Diary of River Song is something very special. Previous box sets were all focused on River meeting earlier incarnations of her husband – incarnations that couldn’t remember her. However, after series four, in which she met the Fourth Doctor, Big Finish decided to change things.

For example, instead of a huge, over-arcing story that River somehow becomes involved in like in previous box sets, the fifth series is more of an anthology. Each episode is set at a different point in River’s life, from her imprisonment at Stormcage to her days of travelling as an archaeologist.

But there’s one other thing that stands out about this series. There is a Time Lord that River meets across all four episodes, but this time, it’s not her husband. Instead, it’s the Doctor’s worst enemy: the Master!

Best of all, it’s not just one incarnation that she’s meeting, but four! Not all at once, as each encounter happens in a different episode. But it allow for four very different takes on the same core idea. It also allows for different performances, and even a relationship to build between the two characters.

So how is The Diary of River Song: Series Five? Does it live up to its potential? Is it one of the stronger series in the range? Let’s find out!

River meets Missy in the first episode of the series. But will even they be able to escape from the Bekdel Institute?
(Image credit: The Diary of River Song/Doctor Who/Big Finish Productions.
Image obtained from: Big Finish Productions.)

The Bekdel Test

It’s early days for River Song. She’s only recently started her imprisonment at Stormcage for killing the Doctor. And yet, she’s somehow been transferred to a new prison already. One that’s apparently inescapable. She doesn’t believe that, not at first. But as River’s attempts to escape continue to fail, is she really stuck here? And why is she really at the Bekdel Institute?

The Bekdel Test feels like it naturally sits alongside Series Seven of Doctor Who. With it being early in River’s story, we get to explore just a little bit of the aftermath of the events of Series Six from her perspective. This is the earliest we’ve seen of River’s life in The Diary of River Song, so it really is a fascinating glimpse.

But it’s not just early days for River, either. Because Missy has also arrived at the prison. And she’s not happy that someone else killed the Doctor first…

River meets Missy

Michelle Gomez is as delightful as ever as Missy, and it’s so fantastic to hear the character in her earlier days. At this point, she’s still very much evil, and certainly shows no sign of “redemption”.

And of course, she’s great to listen to against River. Two clear Moffat era characters in the same episode – it really is a wonder that this never happened on television! While the other three episodes have River meeting incarnations that wouldn’t have likely happened on the small screen, this episode feels like it should have happened at some point.

But I still love how this works out. This feels like a great bridge from the Silence arc of Series Six to the Missy arc in Series Eight. Jonathan Morris has written a great script that captures Moffat’s style perfectly, while still making this very much River’s story.

With a relatively light tone and a huge amount of hilarious dialogue, The Bekdel Test is a perfect episode to begin this series.

A Master desperate for survival meets River for the first time.
(Image credit: The Diary of River Song/Doctor Who/Big Finish Productions.
Image obtained from: Big Finish Productions.)

Animal Instinct

From the newest incarnation to the oldest. Or, at least, oldest surviving actor from the TV era. Yes, in this episode, River meets the decaying incarnation, as played by Geoffrey Beevers.

Roy Gill’s script packs in a lot of parallels between these two characters. He explores their differences, but he also reminds us that River is not the Doctor, and quite possibly has just as much in common with the Master as she does with her husband. So while they are two very different characters, the Master still respects her. More than most of the Doctor’s companions, certainly.

Of course, he’s still a particularly ruthless individual. Particularly when he, River and a few others are trapped on a world with very dangerous creatures. He’s not afraid to do whatever he can to survive. Is River prepared to do exactly the same?

Professor and tutor

Like this month’s Devil in the Mist, Animal Instinct is very much a survival story, particularly against nature. It’s written well, and the story moves at a very fast pace once it reaches the main location.

We also get to hear River as a tutor in this one. It’s definitely a fresh angle for her, and gives us a good glimpse of how she teaches students, with one of them essentially being a companion for her for this story. It’s a different look at River that we don’t often see.

But it’s River’s interaction with the Master that makes Animal Instinct really stand out. While in The Bekdel Test, it was fun and relatively lighthearted, Animal Instinct‘s exploration is considerably darker. River often claims to be a psychopath, but is she as bad as the Doctor’s worst enemy? How this story explores that question makes Animal Instinct a very satisfying listen.

In 1996, Eric Roberts played the Master in the TV movie. Over two decades later, he returns…
(Image credit: Doctor Who/BBC.
Image obtained from: official Doctor Who website.)

The return of Eric Roberts

Like The Bekdel TestThe Lifeboat and the Deathboat is another major episode for Big Finish. Because just as the former is Michelle Gomez’s first appearance as Missy for Big Finish, so too is the latter for another Master. In this case, the one played by Eric Roberts, who had only played the role once before in the TV movie with the Eighth Doctor.

I’ll be honest: this was something that I never thought would happen, mainly for two reasons. The first is that Eric Roberts is a very busy American actor (seriously, just look at his IMDb page). So the idea of him doing any work for a small British audio company seemed unlikely, if not even impossible.

The second reason why his return seemed unlikely to happen? The fact that he’s not exactly been one of the more popular Masters for fans. You could argue that the same is true for Paul McGann, who often ranks towards the bottom of polls himself.

However, ask anyone who’s listened to Big Finish, or even just seen the movie, and it’s clear that very few people have a problem with his on-screen performance. Only that there’s so little of it, outside of audio.

The same wasn’t true with Roberts. His portrayal of the Master is radically different in the film, and there are so many moments of pure campiness. Especially with this very memorable quote:

I always…dressssss for the occassionnnnn.

(No, that’s not the correct spelling normally, but if you’ve seen that exact moment, you’ll know it’s accurate.)

Again, I need to be honest: this was the episode I was most worried about. But not because of Eric Roberts himself. It was more to do with the story, and how it would handle his return.

Is The Lifeboat and the Deathboat a strong return for Roberts’s Master? And does it handle a continuity issue nicely?

In the time vortex, River Song comes across a very different incarnation of the Master…
(Image credit: The Diary of River Song/Doctor Who/Big Finish Productions.
Image obtained from: Big Finish Productions.)

The Lifeboat and the Deathboat

Eddie Robson has given us a number of great stories over the years. The CondemnedThe Raincloud Man and Human Resources are especially brilliant listens. So I was eager to hear how he’d handle River Song with his latest story, at least.

The Lifeboat and the Deathboat is a bit of a peculiar one. It starts very much in the middle of things, with River working with a father and his daughter, in the middle of a strange kind of junk yard in the time vortex. Why she’s there and what’s really going on are gradually explored as the story unfolds.

This is probably one of Robson’s stranger stories, but it’s an enjoyable one. There’s a lot going on and many story elements crammed in. Along with finding out what the junk yard is, we also have the equivalent of a Moby Dick story going on in the time vortex, too. Oh, and of course, there’s a psychic psycho on the loose. Like I said, there’s a lot going on, and I think the story benefits from a re-listen. Which isn’t a bad thing, really.

The movie Master’s return

One thing that surprised me: there’s a surprisingly long buildup before the Master is revealed, at least to River. It’s a good moment, but up to that point, the Master’s villainy is somewhat underplayed. However, that does improve with the rest of the story.

How is Roberts’s Master handled overall? Writing wise, he’s handled far better than the TV movie, due to it being more consistent. In the TV movie, we remember the extremely campy moments. But at times, he also had this quiet sort of menace, especially during his scenes with Chang Lee. It’s this version that Robson has decided to focus on more for his characterization of this particular Master.

As for Roberts himself, he’s not too bad, performance-wise. Perhaps a little too underplayed at times, but that’s to be expected after 22 years. It’s also possible that he’s not used to the format of audio. If he does come back, I suspect his performance will improve over time as he gets more comfortable with the role.

Mastermind

There is one personal issue that I have with The Lifeboat and the Deathboat. While it has a great story, it also has a major continuity issue. Not with the stories on television, but with one of Big Finish’s own stories: Mastermind.

Not only did that earlier story provide another explanation for how the Master escaped the TARDIS after the TV movie. (Which was originally told in a short story, Forgotten.) It’s also one of the greatest Master stories ever written. The explanation for this incarnation’s survival in The Lifeboat and the Deathboat seems to completely contradict that.

I hope that at some point, the discrepancy gets addressed. Were two Masters created after the TV movie? Does he end up in the Eye of Harmony a second time? Unlikely, but not impossible. Regardless, this is just a personal problem that I have with the story.

Overall, The Lifeboat and the Deathboat is a decent audio. An interesting re-introduction to Roberts’s Master that could lead to more interesting stories. (But seriously, Big Finish – we need to know what happened with Mastermind!)

The final episode of the series features the War Master. Will River be able to survive against one of the Master’s deadliest incarnations?
(Image credit: The Diary of River Song/Doctor Who/Big Finish Productions.
Image obtained from: Big Finish Productions.)

Concealed Weapon

Concealed Weapon is an interesting story. It’s one that owes a lot – and I mean a lot – to Alien. The crew of a ship awaken from a deep sleep. There’s some kind of killer on board, hiding from them. And, of course, they start getting picked off, one by one.

It’s a pretty familiar plot. And considering that the entire box set has been focused around the Master – with Derek Jacobi on the very cover of this episode – well, you can probably guess who the killer of the story is.

But that doesn’t stop it from having a few good surprises along the way. And, while it takes a while for him to show up, Jacobi’s War Master is, as ever, absolutely brilliant. He’s charming and yet utterly ruthless, and he really gets to have his villainy unleashed in this one.

When he’s the protagonist in his own series, there will be long periods of time when he’s hiding behind a polite and generally likable facade, before the gloves eventually come off and his true evil is revealed. What’s refreshing about this story is that he gets to be the antagonist. And, of course, he plays that really well.

A serious threat

River also works well against this Master. What’s made this box set so rewarding to listen to is how River reacts to the Master each time. In the opening story, she doesn’t take Missy seriously, and she’s confident she can stop her.

However, with every encounter, River understands more and more exactly why the Master is the Doctor’s greatest enemy. With every encounter, she’s more threatened. So that, by the time she meets the War Master in Concealed Weapon, she’s instantly worried and taking his threat seriously.

One more interesting aspect about Concealed Weapon is that, while it does work as a stand-alone story, it also connects to Rage of the Time Lords, the third series of The War Master out later this year. I’m definitely curious how it connects back to the Master’s plan in that set, and if it will enhance Concealed Weapon on later re-listen as a result.

Overall, this was a decent episode to end the set on. Hearing Jacobi’s Master is always a delight to hear, and River works well opposite him. As she does against all the Masters, in fact. It was a simple idea, to have her meet four incarnations of the Doctor’s archenemy. But it worked out brilliantly. Another strong release in an excellent spin-off.

Have you listened to the fifth series of The Diary of River Song? Which Master do you think worked with/against River best? Let us know in the comments below.