The Diary of River Song Series Six

Posted in Audio by - September 02, 2019
The Diary of River Song Series Six

Released August 2019

SOME SPOILERS FOLLOW

The audio adventures of River Song have continued to develop just how intimately intertwined with the Doctor’s many lives his once and future wife has always been. Having carefully crossed paths with his fourth through eighth incarnations to this point without changing established history, River with her access to the Doctor’s diary now finds herself on the fringes of four key moments from the Doctor’s earliest travels in The Diary of River Song Series Six.

Matt Fitton opens this unique collection with ‘An Unearthly Woman’ as the very progressive and educated River joins the Coal Hill School faculty in a supply teaching role while ostensibly moonlighting for the local police force. Though it is something of an odd decision to use the alternate cast of the First Doctor era from An Adventure in Space and Time that Big Finish has dynamically expanded upon with The First Doctor Adventures rather than to bring back William Russell and Carole Ann Ford to reprise their famed roles, this return to the Doctor’s earliest televised outings nonetheless manages to capture everything about the beloved characters that would become so clear over the course of their adventures. With brief intimations at burgeoning feelings for each other, Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright prove themselves to be the quintessential teachers, devoted to their students and their well-being both inside of class and out and willing to break social norms to ensure they truly give their all to their pupils. Of course, it’s this curiosity and sense of morality that would come to prove so essential during their travels with the Doctor, and it’s wonderful to see these characteristics come to the forefront in a slightly more grounded and familiar context through the strong performances of Jamie Glover and Jemma Powell.

In a neat twist, new student Susan has not yet drawn the attention of her two teachers, fellow Coal Hill newcomer Sheila Page and her personal life instead gaining their scrutiny. With River undertaking her own investigations into something stalking the darkness of 1963 London with a mission startlingly relevant to the Doctor’s future and her own existence, the two very different tactics that the teachers and the time traveler take are equally satisfying narratively and complement each other well without doing anything to alter the more Earthbound mindsets of Ian and Barbara as first shown in ‘An Unearthly Child.’ While trying to tie this particular alien presence into the ongoing saga of a recently introduced audio enemy with long-standing connections to the Time Lords is a little superfluous, it nonetheless provides the impetus for yet another emotional performance from Alex Kingston and some nice interplay with these people who would become so incredibly vital to who the Doctor would come to be. ‘An Unearthly Woman’ is a little light from a story perspective, but the setting, the characters, and the weight of its placement within the franchise’s history make it an immensely engaging outing for this box set that only River could highlight.

John Dorney takes River into the Second Doctor era as she is contracted to find a mysterious painting in ‘The Web of Time.’ Arriving in a London undergoing evacuation as the Yeti stalk the Underground, however, River soon realises the danger of her situation and just how carefully she must tread so as not to interfere with the established history written in the Doctor’s diary, especially as she comes across one Captain Ben Knight who will come to have such prominence in her husband’s upcoming adventure. However, being so intimately bound to specific events that will occur in short order actually serves to weaken this overall narrative momentum because River admits that she cannot emerge fully victorious against the intensifying might of the Great Intelligence here. This means that the story often simply treads water from a plot standpoint rather than impactfully moving forward, bringing in a couple of key supporting characters in Kathryn Drysdale’s Erin Harris and Mandi Symonds’s Maude to cause extra turmoil for River and bring the two storylines together, but doing so on a rather more subdued level than has come to be expected for this series.

Having script edited for the Great Intelligence in The New Counter-Measures, Dorney certainly has a firm grasp on what makes the enemy so unique and powerful even in its fairly limited time in focus here, but without question it’s Ralph Watson returning to the role of Captain Knight for the first time in over fifty years who steals the show. Knight quickly comes to life as a stunningly compassionate and well-intentioned man who quickly learns to accept events beyond his realm of established comprehension as the audacious River and her progressive mindset and technology enter his life, but he’s also completely unafraid to stay true to his morals and what he knows to be common decency even as everything around him is thrown into chaos. River states that she cannot change established events and is willing to let innocents whom she knows will not survive the oncoming conflict die, but Knight makes her confront the reality of her decisions with a brutally honest dressing down that evokes the very best of humanity while questioning just what must be sacrificed to live life by the rules that River states. Knight made an instant impact for several reasons in ‘The Web of Fear,’ and within these fantastic circumstances and with a truly brilliant chemistry with River, the character rightfully becomes one of the most memorable this series has yet featured. As with the opener, ‘The Web of Time’ will not satisfy those looking for a profound narrative, but it is a wholly effective return to a beloved and atmospheric setting that boldly examines its lead with her many complexities on full display in equal measure.

Set during ‘Carnival of Monsters’ in the Third Doctor era, ‘Peepshow’ by Guy Adams brings River into the famed miniscope alongside unsuspecting human security guard Dibbsworth as she searches for the valuable battery powering the machine. Her quest expectedly is anything but smooth sailing, and she and her companion soon find themselves facing death from and even forging uneasy alliances with both Sontarans and Ogrons as the bizarre truth of their situation is tensely accepted and far greater dangers are revealed. Of course, the synopsis of this story reveals as much, and in a set that has been light on plot, ‘Peepshow’ tells the listener everything about the runaround it will portray right from the start. Veering into the more light-hearted aspects of these two long-standing Doctor Who alien races, it never genuinely seems as though River is in peril as she confidently offers explanations and changes certain mindsets, and as such the story is moreso an exercise in simply placing River alongside more familiar foes while likewise exploring just how much these races have in common with their thought processes despite their obvious differences.

Given this story’s settings, the Drashigs naturally make an appearance to genuinely amplify the danger, but ‘Peepshow’ is very much a story held together by the performances within its spectacle. And while Dan Starkey and Guy Adams vividly bring the Sontarans and Ogrons to life respectively, it’s very much the chemistry between Alex Kingston and Clive Wood that is the highlight as River once more must lead an innocent human through the perils of her life. With plenty of nods to River’s own repertoire of tools and tricks that she continues to employ to stay one step ahead, ‘Peepshow’ truthfully brings all of River’s most prevalent characteristics to the forefront and so should satisfy fans of the character to no end. However, as the environment becomes increasingly more dangerous for a variety of reasons, she is also quite keen to rescue individuals from the miniscope whom the Doctor would otherwise forget due to their placement within, something not completely at odds with her seeming unwillingness to change events in the previous story but still presenting something of an inconsistency in characterisation that a few key lines of dialogue could have helped to better explain and mend. ‘Peepshow’ is certainly a tale that plays off of its source material successfully, but it isn’t one that consequentially adds to the mythology of River Song and instead is content to simply revel in the unique ensemble of characters it brings together.

Closing out this sixth series of adventures is ‘The Talents of Greel’ by Paul Morris that finds River on the trail of anachronistic technology in Victorian London. Quite rightly, ‘The Talons of Weng-Chiang’ routinely finds itself amongst the very best of Doctor Who’s long list of televised serials, and Big Finish successfully brought that vivid world to life in its popular Jago & Litefoot series for the better part of a decade until Trevor Baxter’s unfortunate passing in 2017.  As a prequel to that famed duo’s first meeting, however, ‘The Talents of Greel’ is able to focus squarely on Henry Gordon Jago as a struggling impresario looking to find the next big act to draw in crowds, and Christopher Benjamin enthusiastically steps back into the loquacious role with an infectious charm and charisma that so few can manage. At times humble and at others wildly pompous as his resident performer Li H’Sen Chang leads him to the wealthy Angus Peel who just may be able to provide the Palace Theatre with a new life, Jago instantly becomes a well-rounded and wholly relatable character both for those familiar with his expansive audio library of adventures and for those with only a passing familiarity with his encounter with the Fourth Doctor, a testament to both the writer and actor and an impressive feat that makes this production all the more engrossing as a result.

While this story must naturally traverse many of the same plot points as its predecessor to tie together Chang, Greel, and the young women being stolen from the streets, Morris manages to do so quickly yet meaningfully while allowing the material to feel fresh as Greel’s scheme is developed. While Nicholas Goh and Angus Wright expertly highlight the darker side of the plot, Jago must also deal with the persistence of one River Song who so dearly wants to be involved with his production and so furtively wants to explore the Palace Theatre’s basement and its hidden assortment of future technology. The chemistry between Alex Kingston and her primary co-star has been an undoubted and consistent strength through each story in this set, and Benjamin and she play off of each other’s energy perfectly to deliver one of the most memorable double acts to date, a dream pairing that reaches a thrilling peak during a bawdy on-stage song and dance number. River has always been a character that has been able to traverse earnestness and audacious comedy in equal measure, and ‘The Talents of Greel’ masterfully uses a famed villain and locale to highlight just how easily River with all of her foreknowledge, technology, and charisma can carry a story with any tone and narrative weight. This is the perfect example of what this series set out to achieve, and it brilliantly stands both on its own merit and as a worthy prequel to the lofty reputation of its source material.

River Song is a character ready-made for fan service, and Big Finish has capitalized on the character’s potential from the very start within the audio medium. The sixth series of The Diary of River Song takes that premise to its extreme, and while two standout stories result to bookend this set, the thrill of placing River into specific locations with specific people sometimes results in a sacrifice of narrative depth that makes the collection as a whole less consequential than the stories upon which these four are based. Still, River remains an unabashed highlight throughout, and the performances and sound design are all top-notch to lend an air of gravitas and verisimilitude to every scene. This is a confident and wholly enjoyable set despite its flaws, but hopefully River will now be allowed to headline her own adventures completely independent of the Doctor now that she has at least briefly met all incarnations but the Second following this set.

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