The Diary of River Song Series Four

Posted in Audio by - September 20, 2018
The Diary of River Song Series Four

Released September 2018
SOME SPOILERS FOLLOW

Through three The Diary of River Song box sets and several appearances throughout the Doom Coalition saga, Alex Kingston has firmly entrenched herself as one of Big Finish’s undisputed leading ladies. As River’s own travels continue to intersect with her husband’s past lives in the most dramatic of circumstances, the nihilistic time pirate Discordia have been set loose on the universe for the fourth series, and though River may have met her match, bringing in the Doctor may only make things worse.

Opening this fourth series is ‘Time in a Bottle’ by Emma Reeves and Matt Fitton, a story that offers a rare look into River’s past to help set up the Discordia menace. Fenella Woolgar makes an instant impact as River’s archaeological rival Professor Jemima Still, bringing a hardly-concealed animosity to the forefront in order to draw River into her audacious scheme to explore a signal from a star system where time no longer exists. Aided by her cyborg sidekick Spod who is all too enamoured with River, a unique leading dynamic is quickly created while reminding the audience of River’s implicit knowledge of the Time Lords and their technology along with the unique circumstances behind her creation and physiology.

Any introductory story runs the risk of feeling somewhat superficial after simply revealing the threat that will continue to wreak havoc in future stories, and though ‘Time in a Bottle’ is somewhat rushed with plenty of ideas that could warrant a second story to fully develop its content and motivations, the introduction to the Discordia offered is nonetheless a captivating one. These time cannibals who fashion themselves after demons or devils in Hell have taken advantage of the absence of Time Lord regulation and have taken to traversing time with little regard for consequences or any presumed laws of time, willing to alter established events and even their own personal history to ensure that they always emerge victorious in any conquest. With a near-genocide and Adele Lynch’s Gammarae emotionally epitomising their threat and River emotionally taking charge to ensure that that travesty is not completed, the hidden truth behind the initial signal takes on a much more personal note, though not for River as she so fully expected. Instead, Professor Still’s true motivations and the fitting twist that ensues both further develop her unscrupulous nature while simultaneously almost managing to paint her in a sympathetic light. It’s a tough task to introduce an engaging supporting cast and a new threat, but ‘Time in a Bottle’ has to be classified as a success and proves that though River herself is not infallible and often gets in over her head like her husband, her honour and determination to do right are never in question, and the personal connection to the Discordia’s return should provide a fascinating motivation for the character in the remaining three stories.

To further establish the truly inescapable threat that the Discordia represent, ‘Kings of Infinite Space’ by Donald McLeary shows that no place in time and space is safe for River and her friends. Fashioned after ‘The Chase’ as events hurtle from locale to locale in quick vignettes with the always-destructive and utterly remorseless Discordia always able to locate and track down River, this is the story that perhaps shows best just how confident Big Finish is with Alex Kingston as a leading lady at this point. It’s a bold decision in a set of four stories linked under the banner of one encompassing threat to tell this type of story that focuses as much on spectacle as story as River and her companions visit a water park world, one in which the people have had to change themselves into rats to survive, and others. Ewan Bailey does well bringing an impressive scope of ostentatious characters to life through these disparate adventures, but it’s Kingston’s easy ability to show River’s dedication, charisma, and charm no matter the circumstances that carries a purposefully disjointed episode.

Indeed, it’s with the interactions and dynamics of the leads that ‘Kings of Infinite Space’ shines. River, Spod, and Gammarae all have a personal connection of sorts to the Discordia, and their varying reactions to the horror they inadvertently bring in their wake as they flee for their own survival while trying to determine how to fight back are definite strengths. At the same time, there is plenty of humour mined from the Discordian Melak and an android styled after the appearance, mannerisms, and knowledge of River Song. While this android is initially part of a ploy to allow the destruction of part of the Discordia fleet through a classic battle of logic with a ship’s computer, it quickly becomes crucial both to Melak’s tracking of River and to River’s own form of attack in a fitting long game. So while this chase is more light-hearted filler than essential drama, ‘Kings of Infinite Space’ still manages to pack enough intrigue, intelligence, and confidence to command attention from beginning to end.

‘Whodunnit?’ by Matt Fitton explores River’s Melody Malone alter ego, quite profoundly asking whether this woman is an archaeologist who wants to be a detective or vice versa as she finds herself in a castle in which guests are dying one by one is time as quickly running out. This is a story that proudly displays its inspirations, and filling this secluded setting with homages to famous detectives such as Hercule Poirot, Lord Peter Wimsey, and even Velma Dinkley ensure a sort of madcap familiarity as death continue to mount in the most mysterious of circumstances. Yet as River provides the voice of reason and insists on treating everyone as an equal even as she comes under suspicion when she cannot describe her own husband who has gone missing and whom she fears is dead, just what is actually true in these surroundings is called squarely into question as forgotten memories slowly begin to resurface.

With the world turning upon River and becoming ever more abstract as she battles with guilt and anxiety, Fitton pays fitting homage to the great Franz Kafka whom River has asked to create a complex visual narrative with the help of the TARDIS to help her escape reality and determine how to fight the Discordia. But as events veer more into the absurd and River finds herself on trial, the harsh reality of the world continues to reassert itself as the Discordian Dante inserts himself into the fiction and proves that literally nowhere is safe from his race’s pursuit through time and space. As River slowly remembers what her role in this mystery is, the pieces are all gloriously put into place for the final instalment of this set as the Doctor comes to River’s supposed rescue and to retrieve his TARDIS that she borrowed without consent while Dante sets Gallifrey and the Time Lords squarely in his sights as his pursuit of River becomes more personal. Featuring an emotional ending as Kafka struggles with what the legacy of his work may be, ‘Whodunnit?’ is a sublime blend of so many familiar elements that confidently captivates and ties what seem like wholly disparate events into the overlying Discordia storyline perfectly.

Big Finish heavily advertised that this set would feature the first meeting between River Song and the Fourth Doctor, and John Dorney fully delivers on the anticipation with ‘Someone I Once Knew’ as a singular love story is the only hope for a universe through which the Discordia have run riot. However, whereas River has had to be careful to not reveal her true identity to earlier incarnations of the Doctor in previous stories, her instinct to proclaim herself as another incarnation of Romana is met only with a scoff as the Doctor assures her that he knows exactly who she is and that they are in fact married, welcoming her with a loving ‘Hello, sweetie.’ Though it’s clear from the start that this relationship where for once a classic Doctor is more knowledgeable than his future wife is predicated upon the Discorida menace wreaking havoc with the timelines, allowing the larger-than-life personalities of Tom Baker and Alex Kingston to flirtatiously interact was undoubtedly the proper decision and allows the story to unfold with an immense energy and enthusiasm even as River must open up about the fate of the Time Lords in her timeline and as the Doctor wonders if perhaps this timeline is really so bad since it brought the two of them together.

With River sending the Doctor away to both protect him from and to allow him to help mount a resistance to the Discordia, River suddenly finds herself dealing with an unexpected form of attention as Dante prepares to take over the Empire. Through a quick sequence of vignettes in which Dante shows his incalculable power and his willingness to sacrifice lives to get what he wants, he only manages to prove that he has no control over the heart of another despite his monumental efforts while underscoring River’s own devotion to her once and future husband. Through a look at the heart behind the Discordian Empire, the resolution to this incredible threat takes a most unexpected path with a scope that surprises even the charismatic leading duo, tying up the remaining loose ends with a satisfying twist to River’s own monologue. It seems unlikely at this time that Baker and Kingston will feature alongside each other in the near future once more, but this is a spectacular debut filled with dazzling chemistry when together and bold confidence when apart, and the story and guest performances only further highlight that magic.

The Diary of River Song continues to impress in its range and ambition, and Alex Kingston continues to bring an infectious and charismatic energy to her performance that instantly elevates everything and everyone around her. Though it’s a shame that such a monumental threat as the Discordia is both introduced and eradicated in the same set with a turn of events that is only introduced in the final story rather than seeded throughout, there should be no concern about this series losing its creativity and ability to entertain, especially with four incarnations of the Master looming large as the fifth series approaches.

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