Alien: River Of Pain, the novel by Christopher Maggs, has been given a glossy audio drama adaptation by Dirk Maggs and the fine folks at Audible.
The story is set before and during the events of Aliens, offering further details about the Hadley’s Hope colony of LV-426, what went wrong there, and how the decision was made to send Ripley, Burke, Bishop and the Colonial Marines to investigate.
A number of cast members from the film reprise their roles: William Hope as Lieutenant Gorman, Mac MacDonald as Colony Administrator Al Simpson, Stuart Milligan as the salvager that found Ripley drifting in deep space, and Alibe Parsons as Gateway Station’s med tech.
New additions to the cast include Colin Salmon, Alexander Siddig, Anna Friel, Marc Warren, Philip Glenister, Michelle Ryan and Laurel Lefkow (who, in the role of Ripley, sounds incredibly similar to Sigourney Weaver).
If you’re wondering what this audio adventure could possibly add to James Cameron’s beloved film, read on…
The early days of the colony
Most significantly, River Of Pain gives us an extended opportunity to listen in to life on the moon LV-426, in the period between Ripley’s visits.
While Ripley was drifting around in space, LV-426 was colonised by the government, in collaboration with Weyland-Yutani. The moon was renamed Acheron by marketing execs, and a sizeable collection of real people went to live there. Families, scavengers, scientists and marines call Acheron home during this audio story, with tensions often running high between the factions.
River Of Pain goes right back to the start, showing us how difficult it was to terraform this barren rock, before jumping forward to the final days of the Hadley’s Hope colony and the Xenomorph-based drama that brought the community to its knees.
This extra understanding about the colony, and what life was like on Acheron before it all went to hell, adds even more emotional intensity to Aliens. When you watch the film after listening to River Of Pain, the stakes will feel even higher than they did before.
River Of Pain explains that salvaging was one of the big talking points on Acheron. Even after it was colonised, this wasn’t exactly a place that anyone enjoyed inhabiting. But the allure of finding something valuable out there in the dirt was strong. A sizeable discovery could set your family up for life, and allow you to escape Acheron and return to normal life with a nice big pile of cash.
This causes some tension between the normal people living on Acheron, the government-issued marines tasked with protecting the colony, and the morally-questionable staff of Weyland-Yutani. The company bigwigs want the marines to escort the scavengers (and increase the odds of a decent find), but the marines – particularly their new boss, voiced by Colin Salmon – don’t feel this is their job.
These arguments bring a nice new colour to the backstory of Aliens, and explain why a certain group of people would go out and explore some coordinates (sent by Weyland-Yutani) without any protection…
We get to spend a lot of time with Newt and her family in River Of Pain, and a detailed explanation is offered as to why Newt ended up alone in a vent shaft when everyone else was killed and/or taken away by Xenomorphs. Again, having all this extra detail makes watching Aliens a deeper emotional experience, especially in the scenes between Ripley and Newt.
Impressively, River Of Pain doesn’t simply set up Newt’s family as a perfect example of blissful life. Marc Warren and Anna Friel voice Newt’s parents, and there’s no shortage of bickering between them. Marie Doherty voices Newt, and Matt Keith Rauch voices her brother Timmy, and they’re often snapping at each other as well.
Life on Acheron was tough for the Jorden family, and they saw the potential salvage from the Engineer’s ship as a possible solution, a way to make a lot of money and start life anew. This heightens the tragic air to Newt’s story, and makes her rescue at the hands of Ripley even more meaningful.
How things got that bad
There’s a big gap left in Aliens, between Newt’s dad emerging from the Engineer’s ship with a Facehugger attached to him and Ripley arriving a month later to find a completely decimated colony. The main narrative drive of River Of Pain is to fill that gap, explaining how things could get that bad in such a short space of time.
It feels important to stress that this explaining is often very exciting. The deaths and the Xenomorph attacks play out in excruciating detail, with the screams of the voice cast interspersed with some really grisly Foley work. The sound of the Chestburster making its way out of a person is particularly gruesome.
River Of Pain was clearly made by fans, as it leaves no tiny detail behind. No stone is left unturned. Those Facehuggers in tanks that Bishop experiments on, for example, get an explanation for existing. This is a lot of fun in terms of fan service, and they build a strong story around it too.
Since everyone from Hadley’s Hope – except for Newt – was dead before the main story of Aliens kicked off, River Of Pain has to introduce a lot of new characters, and expand a few tiny ones, in order to tell its story. To get listeners on board for the five-hour audio journey, these characters had to be good.
Thankfully, they are. Colin Salmon (who previously played Strafford in Alien Vs. Predator) really stands out as Damian Brackett, a captain who is sent to take charge of Acheron’s marine element before the Xenomorph action kicks off. Salmon blends furious tones (when he finds out that his subordinates have been talking back-handers from Weyland-Yutani) with soft ones (in a sweet arc related to Newt), adding up to a character that feels fully rounded and fleshed out.
Alexander Siddig also impresses as a Weyland-Yutani scientist, bringing all the sneering insincerity you’d expect. And Newt’s parents are brought to life with a really genuine feel, thanks to the aforementioned voice actors in those roles. Michelle Ryan also does fine work, as Lt. Paris, one of the few marines that gets on with Salmon’s Bracket.
Thanks to all these performances, and some good writing, you’ll find yourself rooting for these characters even though you know they’re doomed. And then, thanks to this emotional investment, when you next watch Aliens, you’ll feel like you’ve already been to Hadley’s Hope and lost a number of friends there.
Meanwhile, at Gateway Station…
Another facet of the fun, with River Of Pain, is getting to see more of what was going on with Ripley while hell was coming to life on Acheron. Of course, we saw a few glimpses of this during Aliens, but existing scenes are elongated here, and some whole new ones are added.
Laurel Lefkow, who really does have a top notch Weaver voice in her locker, embodies Ripley in a number of engaging exchanges. The Weyland-Yutani investigations, the psychological evaluations that follow, and Burke’s recruitment of Ripley all play out with extra detail.
The result of this is a deeper understanding of the character, which, again, heightens the experience of watching Aliens. As I mentioned in a different article, this is one of the best spinoff stories featuring Ripley.
And that’s not all we get to hear during the segments set aboard the Earth-orbiting Gateway Station…
How the mission was put together
We also get to hear Burke (voiced by Tom Alexander, not Paul Reiser) and Lieutenant Gorman (whom William Hope reprises) planning the mission to LV-426. Although Bishop doesn’t feature in River Of Pain, he is mentioned, and some chatter about the quirks of his programming succeeds in raising a laugh.
It’s also mentioned that the team of marines (which we know will feature Bill Paxton’s Hudson and Michael Biehn’s Hicks) have just got back from some time off, and are itching to get out in the field. This goes some way to explaining their barmy levels of excitement and banter in the film that follows.
Again, this is good fan service. Christopher Golden, Dirk Maggs and the team at Audible clearly made this with long-term followers of the franchise in mind, making sure to throw in knowing nods and extra details at every possible opportunity.
All in all, then, River Of Pain is a treat for fans of James Cameron’s Aliens.
As well as offering a scary story stuffed with fleshed-out new characters, it also serves up a platter of new details regarding Newt, the demise of Hadley’s Hope, Ripley, Burke, Bishop and the marines.
If you’re anything like me, these five hours of frights and fan service will fly by in an instant, as there’s always something to keep you interested. You’ll be praying that the new characters can avoid their pre-assigned fate, and you’ll be gobbling up every Easter egg and nugget of fan-pleasing info.
You can currently listen to River Of Pain without spending a penny. If you click here to go to the product page, you should see an option to start a free 30-day trial.