(2016) Anonymous (ed), BBC Books, £9.99 / Can$16.99 / US$12.99, hrdbk, 219pp, ISBN 978-1-785-94088-0
I ought to start by admitting that I have long been a fan of Doctor Who and I should add that I have enjoyed the character River Song ever since her first appearance. On the other hand I am not in general much of a fan of tie-in novels. Therefore reading a series of short stories featuring the Doctor and River promised to be interesting.
The book contains five stories, all told in the first person by River. The Doctor joins her for the first two, briefly gets her adventure started in the third, and she is on her own, in her role as an archaeologist, in the last two.
In ‘Picnic at Asgard’ by Jenny T. Colgan, the story opens in Stormcage, the maximum security prison in which she is incarcerated, with River once again slipping out of her cell for a quick excursion with the Doctor. This time it is to the planet-sized theme park ASGARD™ and the Doctor is enjoying the spectacle of it all whilst she is simply enjoying being with him. Predictably, things start to go wrong as various equipments malfunction but fortunately the Doctor is on hand to save the day (with help, of course, from River). I found the story a bit thin and it could have been about almost anyone.
Jacqueline Rainer’s ‘Suspicious Minds’ starts in Madame Tussaud’s where River has realised that the waxwork Elvis is actually an Auton who is in hiding after the last failed attempt by the Nestine Consciousness to conquer the Earth; he has escaped his programming and simply wants a peaceful life. They become friends but then the Doctor turns up and warns that the Nestines will shortly launch another attack and Elvis’ days of independence are numbered. Deciding to grant him a ‘last wish’, the Doctor takes them to an insect reserve as Elvis has always wanted to see a meadow. However, the owner proves more than usually dedicated to preserving insects from the impact of humanity and it takes the three of them to stop her excesses; being made of plastic gives Elvis the advantage that he cannot get stung! Again I found this a little thin and not quite “River-y” enough for me. To add some humour, the author has slipped into the conversations many (too many?) puns on Elvis’ song titles.
‘A Gamble with Time’ by Steve Lyons also starts in Stormcage but this time it is the Doctor who springs River from her cell. He needs a favour! In order that he will not cross his own timeline, he wants her to go back to London, 2016, and finish a job for him. Somehow she must ensure that a local office worker called Martin, the Doctor, and a giant, green, alien slug do not between them (and with the aid of a vortex manipulator) do something terrible to time and space. This River feels to me more like the “real” River rather than simply being, as in the two previous stories, someone who just happens to be called River. And it has timey-wimey stuff! The descriptive quality of the writing, which is in the form of “Dear Diary” entries, is good, making this an enjoyable, well balanced story. Indeed, because of the characterisations and the timey-wimey stuff, this is my overall favourite in the book.
Guy Adams sets ‘Death in New Venice’ in a period when River is working legitimately and has been hired by DreamInc to help them with the finer details of New Venice, a resort city they are building for the extremely ultra-mega-rich. The main building material is WishCrete and River is helping programme it, her knowledge of the original Venice allowing it to capture the exact feel of the place. The perceived advantage of WishCrete is that, being psychically active, it will over time learn the preferences of the new owners and slowly adapt their wonderful new dwellings to exactly what they want. But (there is always a but) the psychic abilities of the material are greater than the developers realise and, even as the city is being built, it starts to respond to the deeper thoughts of the workmen and, as we all know, we all have many fears. As these fears start to materialise, the death toll rises whilst the official opening date rushes upon them. As with the previous story this is told from the perspective of River’s entries in her diary, both the actions and her thoughts, and I enjoyed both the story and the writing. The idea of getting what you inadvertently wish for is not new though this is a good use of it.
Finally we come to ‘River of Time’ by Andrew Lane. Again this is obviously from River’s diary and again it starts in her cell at Stormcage. This time she is temporarily released to help a team of archaeologists who have found something strange on a distant planet. They knew the planet was home to the Qwerm, one of the ancient precursor races, but on finally gaining entrance to one of the incredibly ancient buildings they were more than a little surprised to find a blue box, complete with a message that, if found, it should be returned to River Song c/o Stormcage. As River soon realises, this is someone else’s TARDIS and the message is not from the Doctor. The threat, though, is ancient and very real. More timey-wimey stuff and I enjoyed the story.
I was pleasantly surprised by some of the stories and felt that they had at least an essence of River Song, that is to say River Song as I see her. I would think that those Doctor Who fans who enjoy tie-ins will find this book to be a good addition to their bookshelves.
To me, though, the magic of River Song is in the performance of Alex Kingston – she breathes a life into River that these printed pages simply cannot achieve. Perhaps I am wrong to even expect them to.
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