The Diary of River Song Series Seven

Posted in Audio by - January 11, 2020
The Diary of River Song Series Seven

Released January 2020

SOME SPOILERS FOLLOW

Given her intimate association with the Doctor, it should come as no surprise that Big Finish has often chosen to showcase River Song’s interactions with the Doctor throughout his many incarnations as well as with his most famous acquaintances and scenarios upon which he has built his lofty reputation. However, in this seventh series of The Diary of River Song, River is once again by herself, adopting aliases as needed while enthusiastically attempting to save both others and herself from the universe’s many impossible mysteries.

James Goss opens this set as River visits the Nordic colony of Bondar in ‘Colony of Strangers.’ In a bleak and unwelcoming locale where strangers rarely set foot, River quickly finds herself as the prime suspect while featureless bodies continue to wash up on the beach. Allying with the local police force in a land with no crime to uncover the truth and to clear her name, she soon uncovers a dark and hidden conspiracy that involves every level of this community. Goss manages to maintain a high level of intrigue as the mystery of the mounting body count continues to grow with no discernible lead for River to follow, and although the pacing and structure are a bit formulaic as dialogue and set pieces regularly interchange, the truth that reaches so far into this colony’s past offers a satisfying conclusion that wonderfully explains its isolation and stagnancy while also allowing plenty of discussion about the nuances and meaning of life itself. Nonetheless, it’s the unique setting buoyed by accents and small details in the soundscape that becomes an unstated star, and Alex Kingston and Charles Armstrong create a strong investigative pairing even if the exuberant energy of River somewhat jarringly clashes with the more laid-back and flat intonations that fill this Scandinavian noir homage. As it stands, ‘Colony of Strangers’ may not deliver quite the punch or resonance that recent stories in this franchise have offered, but the central mystery and Kingston’s ever-charismatic presence easily suggest just what this series may offer as it at least briefly takes a step away from Doctor Who mythology beyond intriguingly intimating that sometimes River goes where the Doctor is needed but cannot or will not go himself.

In ‘Abbey of Heretics,’ Lizbeth Myles brings River to the twelfth century and a remote abbey trying to manage an outbreak of illness and death amidst rumours of a devil in the surrounding woods. With the nuns afraid that God is angry with them because of the contents housed within their library following the recent death of their abbess, the newly-arrived Sister Melody enthusiastically looks to find a very particular book as she tries to piece together the true extent of this mystery. This is a series in which its lead can often dominate other characters not named the Doctor in terms of both strength and characterisation, but Myles superbly balances the supporting cast with Kingston by creating a series of well-rounded characters who likewise complement a brilliant soundscape to bring this historical setting to life so vividly. Aurora Burghart, Jaye Griffiths, and Janet Henfrey combine to brilliantly explore the many facets of the human condition with individual strengths and weaknesses boldly on display as faith, reason, and technology intertwine in a surprisingly nuanced manner that avoids falling into the narrative trap that such a stereotypical setup could allow. Each decision and motivation is understandable and given both purpose and weight, and as such there is a greater sense of impact than is often the case when River so confidently inserts herself into a mystery. Still, ‘Abbey of Heretics’ is noticeably shorter than most stories in this series and wraps up a bit too succinctly to deliver its maximum impact, but this is nonetheless a highly engaging story that expertly highlights River in a truly dynamic and breathing environment brimming with characterisation and intrigue.

Big Finish newcomer James Kettle pens ‘Barrister to the Stars,’ opening with River accused of murder and holding onto hope that twentieth century law as her chosen legal system under which to be tried will save her from certain death. While earnestly maintaining the seriousness of the central plight, Kettl expertly interweaves comedic undertones that turn this extraterrestrial courtroom procedural into something truly unique, a blend that is anchored by the incredible performance of David Rintoul as a barrister plucked out of his native time who must quickly adapt to the vibrant universe of potential now open to him while preserving and displaying his own intelligence and morality to investigate on his client’s behalf. Armed with his own dry sense of humour that meshes easily with River’s more dynamic and often suggestive stylings, Hodgkiss is a brilliant vessel through which to juxtapose these two distinct settings, his reactions and ability to find a sense of familiarity in his work that breaks through the immense spectacle and truly alien notions before him making him a truly dynamic and engrossing character the likes of which this series has rarely produced. Even more staggeringly, the vast array of aliens whom River and Hodgkiss must investigate and interview likewise come to life vividly as well-rounded individuals with certain talents as well as understandable motivations and secrets that offer surprises, humour, and a logical plot progression in equal measure. Clive Hayward and Annabelle Dowler impressively voice these many individuals, and with Annette Badland’s judge presiding over this unique affair whose only subjective fault is a predictable conclusion, ‘Barrister to the Stars’ is a brilliant debut story Big Finish story for Kettle that shows the true potential of both writer and series.

‘Carnival of Angels’ by Roy Gill closes out this seventh series as a man claiming to have witnessed his own death seeks the services of private investigator Melody Malone in 1950s New York. In this prequel of sorts to the televised ‘The Angels Take Manhattan,’ River in this guise quickly makes her way to Coney Island which becomes yet another visually dynamic and ambient setting for this collection of stories. As her focus shifts to a particular ride that promises individuals trips to either Heaven or Hell, River confirms her suspicions that the Weeping Angels have made a home in this city, and the audio stings that have always accompanied the Angels’ unseen but incredible speed remain wholly effective in driving home the unique threat of this very visual menace. Intriguingly, Gill also develops a certain hierarchical order into the foundation of the Angels while helping to explain certain key elements from televised stories in greater detail. Unfortunately, because the title and cover art blatantly reveal that the Weeping Angels are returning, there is little question as to how the initial mystery will play out which makes the overall story’s progression fairly predictable. However, the focus on the humanity of those around and affected by the Angels is explored wonderfully within the heightened tension of this environment, and although one of the American accents egregiously sticks out for all the wrong reasons, the emotions on display are gripping and create a needed extra layer of investment for the audience. As it stands, ‘Carnival of Angels’ may not completely revolutionize the way a Weeping Angels story is told, but it’s a welcome return for the classic foes as well as Timothy Blore’s Luke Sullieman who was introduced in ‘Animal Instinct’ that cohesively develops multiple aspects and storylines in a wholly entertaining manner.

The decision to not directly tie these stories into the Doctor or his most famous adventures or foes as recent sets have done was always going to be risk because of the lesser fanfare with which such a move would be met. Nonetheless, although a couple of the included stories are a bit formulaic and predictable, Alex Kingston once again easily steps into her beloved role and charismatically carries each adventure through to its conclusion while highlighting just how much life and diversity River Song and her unique morality still have to offer listeners in both familiar and unfamiliar circumstances alike.

This post was written by

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.