River Song: “You know, my favorite thing about this time period?”
Liz Shaw: “The discovery of Hawking radiation?”
River: “The boots! Look at them! My legs look amazing!”
River Song joins UNIT during the first part of the 3rd Doctor’s run! The concept of dropping that time-traveling archeologist into that vaguely 1970s/80s-era scientific and military alien-invasion milieu was too tempting to resist, although I was curious about how the Doctor, the Brigadier, and Liz Shaw were going to be portrayed, since Jon Pertwee, Nicholas Courtney, and Caroline John have all passed on and are not available for audio work.
Like most of these Big Finish audio drama sets, this one contains 4 separate adventures.
The Blood Woods
The Doctor has been suddenly called away to deal with Sensorites. In his absence, Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (voiced by Jon Culshaw) has hired a new assistant to aid Dr. Shaw as UNIT’s acting scientific advisor — one Dr. Song (Alex Kingston). The Brig insists on addressing them both as “Miss” no matter how many times they correct him.
The Brigadier has every confidence in his new UNIT recruit. She was highly recommended by the Doctor, or so a file left on the Brig’s desk and a (rather suspect) phone message lead him to believe. Her credentials include the British Rocket Group. He can’t think why she hadn’t come to UNIT’s attention before.
Liz (voiced by Daisy Ashford) is a bit prickly at first, not least because the Brigadier has brought River in without even consulting her about who she might be working with. She’s also suspicious about who this strange woman is.
Even though River is familiar with technological gadgets that Liz has never seen before, Liz doesn’t trust her new assistant’s assessment of the curious case under UNIT investigation at the moment: a young man discovered dead in a village near Shrewsbury, apparently of old age. River thinks it might be a temporal distortion.
And then there’s her flippant (but truthful) answer to Liz’s question if is she an alien like the Doctor; no, she’s not an alien, but she’s not from Earth either… although her parents are.
In spite of her qualms, Liz accompanies River to the village, which is reminiscent of Devil’s End in The Daemons. It’s got hostile villagers with a secret, and a gruff, brandy-drinking archeologist named Beatrice Grey who is digging the site of an ancient battlefield. The dead boy was working with Dr. Grey. The local landowner Sir Edward is certain that Dr. Grey’s work encroaches on his own adjacent property. He wants her not to disturb the dead.
One odd thing: none of the bones dug up on the supposed battlefield show any sign of breaks or wounds.
Oh, and there’s a monstrous dog with glowing eyes who appears at night. When Liz and River confront Sir Edward about it, he insists that they’re trying to create a scare based on an old local hellhound legend.
Based on the information they’ve gathered, the two women suspect that Sir Edward is behind whatever’s going on, but it turns out they’ve completely misread the situation. By the time it’s all sorted out, the Brigadier has brought UNIT in for a showdown with the villagers and the hellhound, and Liz has come around to admit that she rather likes working with River. She and the Brigadier agree that River Song will be staying on with UNIT for a while.
“It’ll be such fun!”
Terror of the Suburbs
As the second story opens, Liz Shaw appears to be living in an idyllic, if somewhat vapid, suburban community just outside London with beautiful sunny weather and a PA system reminiscent of the one in The Village. The inhabitants talk incessantly about lawnmowers, their new freezers, Mah Jong, and the fondue and dinner parties they throw almost every evening.
Then River shows up. Liz has been missing from work for 6 weeks, and she’s come to rescue her.
Liz doesn’t recall River at first, but soon remembers the Doctor and “someone with a mustache.”
Other people in the community also seem to be intellectuals or artists or other women who have done outstanding work in their fields, but none of them have been doing much work lately. There’s a famous cellist, an animal behaviorist who’s done studies with big cats, two sisters who are East German Olympic medalists and, the odd man out, Tony the hairdresser. Cars are parked outside every house, but no one ever drives to the city even though they repeatedly say how convenient it is to go there. They all have lawns that no one mows or waters, but that look perfectly green and trim; so does the grass on the golf course where no one plays. Everyone has one of those great new freezers that Liz, when asked, can’t remember ever putting frozen food into or taking it out. No one notices nor questions these oddities until River points them out to Liz, but the blinkered effect seems less strong once Liz gets away from the houses.
During the first evening’s dinner party, one of the guests is mauled by some sort of animal and taken to hospital. The culprit turns out to be a Barbary lion, a nearly extinct northern African species that provides the first clue as to where this place really is. In northern Africa. (River did know that already, but hadn’t told Liz yet.)
A trip to the electrical center, where the freezers come from, and where the injured person is really being kept, shows them what this place actually is and who is behind it. Yes, it is a sort of dinner party after all.
A number of brilliant university students have disappeared in the last few weeks. One boy, named Ian, turns up dead; he had locked himself in a shed in the woods, but couldn’t keep out whatever was pursuing him. When Liz examines his body, she discovers metallic splinter deliberately embedded in his fingertip. River identifies it as nanotech, well ahead of anything produced on Earth in the 1970s and not of this planet at all.
Before his death, Ian had used this to burn two words into the wooden floor of the shed: Never Alone.
River and Liz go to the university to question the elderly, arthritic Professor Allen and bubbly, effusive student Pippa Faraday about the dead boy and other missing students. All the students were in the professor’s class.
Just then, one of the other missing boys, Marco, shows up on television; he’s being interviewed about his inventions, new gadgets which are to be available to the public tomorrow from a company called Intertraxia. These gadgets sound remarkably like the iPod and iPhone, far too futuristic for 1970s/80s tech. Is that where all the other students have gone — recruited by Intertraxia? But how does that explain Ian’s death?
River and Liz, with Pippa tagging along, visit the company to talk to Marco. He seems strangely unhappy with his success, not surprised to hear about Ian’s death, and behaves as if he’s being watched or not alone in his office. Once or twice, we hear a scuttling, whirring sort of noise something like a mechanical insect.
Before they leave, River pinches a scrap of discarded tech from the office wastebasket. When she and Liz examine it back at the UNIT lab, it looks like a component of something larger, and has grabby little pincers that also serve as legs.
While they are at the UNIT lab, Pippa meets Marco at his surprisingly posh flat provided by Intertraxia. It’s where they live, he explains, until they are “fully integrated”. He’s already got some electronic components embedded in him, but there’s a final piece that he doesn’t want to have installed. It was resisting this that got Ian killed.
But he’s not alone here either, and both the kids get fully integrated. While their bodies lie on the floor in a semi-comatose, dreamlike state, their minds are now part of a virtually reality mainframe, connected to each other and to everyone else who’s been integrated.
These same components are in all the new gadgets about to become available on the market worldwide.
“Who’d want to spend their afterlife in a computer?”
Once Liz and River realize what the components are for, and find the two comatose kids, River enters the mainframe herself to combat the Higher Power behind this scheme to overrun the world. Liz, meanwhile, goes back to Professor Allen to learn, to no one’s surprise, that the older woman knows a lot more about what’s going on than she’s previously let on.
The best part: while inside the mainframe, Marco thinks them all into a Space Invaders-esque video game. The zippy electronic music, however, is a version of the Diaries of River Song theme. This music returns during the end credits.
While these two stories are a lot of fun, they are distinctly focused on the developing relationship between River and Liz. While I enjoyed their investigations, not to mention the personality clashes between a careful scientist who’s used to making her way in what’s still basically a man’s world, and a flamboyant and somewhat amoral 51st-century woman for whom late 20th-century sexual politics are ancient history, I missed the thoroughly old-fashioned and somewhat clueless voice of the Brigadier popping in now and again.
And what about the Doctor? He’s been out chasing Sensorites since before the first story and there’s been no sign of him yet. But he must show up eventually — Look, he’s right there on the cover art!
Rivers of Fire
Okay, here we are at last. The Doctor (voiced by Tim Treloar) returns to his lab at UNIT HQ. He’s been dashing around Europe these past months, sent on a wild Sensorite chase. Guess by whom. He’s not happy to come back to find a very strange woman camped in his Tardis, nor that she’s moved the console back into the control room*, reinstalled it, and has been attempting to fly it. She’s also conducting some sort of scanning experiment. They start to argue right away.
In spite of the recommendation that got River her UNIT job, this Doctor has no idea who she is.
She tells him that she’s from the CIA — the Celestial Intervention Agency of Gallifrey, which exiled him on Earth. He assumes she’s been sent to check up on him, which only ruffles him further.
Meanwhile, up in Yorkshire, there’s a mining strike going on, and a power outage. River has detected some peculiar electromagnetic emanations in the vicinity that may be connected. The Brigadier reports that some “squirrels and badgers have turned up frazzled” in the nearby woods, as if they’ve been struck by lightning. He wants to send Liz and River to investigate — or the Doctor instead, now that he’s back.
While the Doctor drives north in Bessie, the two women use River’s Vortex Manipulator to jump to the site for investigation. Liz and River have become good friends by this time.
Both Liz and the Brig are struck by how unimpressed and unintimidated River is by their stranded Time Lord. Liz asks her about it:
“Do you have some sort of history?”
“It’s worse than that. We have some sort of future.”
A young couple, one of the miners, Simon, and his police-officer girlfriend Gemma, had been out in the woods the night before, looking at the weird, glowing streams of light in the ground, when they picked up a small metal cube. Tonight, they can’t help noticing that, while the power is out everywhere else in town, the lights come on only where Gemma happens to be at the moment; the cube is in her pocket.
The cube, by the way, turns out to be bigger on the inside. It glows too, and responds to the rivers of light. A deep and mellifluous voice speaks to the young couple, but I’m not sure they hear it consciously. The voice tells them to “find the source.” Simon heads down into the mine, following a compulsion.
Before she knows it, Gemma is “glowing like a Christmas tree,” and calls herself “the Deliverer of Worlds.” When the Brigadier and his soldiers find her in the woods near the mine, he sensibly has her cordoned off.
Liz and River pop in, and head into the mine without waiting for the Brigadier or Doctor. River hints that she knows exactly what this phenomena is and that she is in some way responsible for it. She knows about the little metal cube. It soon emerges that this is exactly why she’s joined UNIT in this time period and what she had set up her experiment in the Tardis to find.
This final story starts out reminding me of The Green Death, which involves bizarre phenomena in a mine in Wales, but once the cast is assembled in the mine and the facts begin to come together, there’s more than one twist I hadn’t expected. No giant maggots with fox-teeth here.
Like Liz, the Doctor is highly suspicious of River when they first meet, but as they work with each other to solve the problem and save the world, he comes to admire her, if not entirely trust her. By the very end, after the crisis is over, he even agrees to meet her for dinner. “Wear your cape.”
So, how did the voice actors do in place of the late actors who created their roles?
Daisy Ashford does well enough as Liz, nothing strikingly out of place. Tim Treloar’s Doctor is inconsistent. Sometimes he’s spot-on; during one conversation between the Doctor and Brigadier in the final story, I can shut my eyes and see Jon Pertwee and Nicholas Courtney speaking. But sometimes he doesn’t sound as much like Pertwee.
Jon Culshaw’s voice work is remarkable. He does a great job of giving us a convincing Brigadier. Each one of the discs in this set has interviews with the actors, writers, and other people behind the scenes in these audio dramas; Culshaw talks about how he recreates the voice of the Brig… and [SPOILERS] how he impersonates Roger Delgado’s Master in the final scene.
*This is a little Doctor Who in-joke. While he was exiled on Earth during his first series, the 3rd Doctor had removed the console from the Tardis and it was in the lab; in his second series, it was back inside the Tardis.