The Diary of River Song: The Orphan Quartet

Posted in Audio by - August 26, 2023
The Diary of River Song: The Orphan Quartet

Released August 2023


From her first appearance in ‘Silence in the Library,’ River Song and her intimated intertwined destiny with the Doctor that came to be so much more than even the Doctor could have expected have provided some of the most memorable moments and insights into the Doctor since the franchise relaunch in 2005. And while Big Finish has perhaps used the famed archaeologist and professor a bit too frequently through (now) twelve box sets and numerous appearances in other series since her audio debut in 2015, Alex Kingston has continued to thrive in the confident and beguiling role, here leading what has been billed as the final set of The Diary of River Song, The Orphan Quartet.

In ‘The Excise Men’ by Lou Morgan, an eighteenth-century smugglers’ inn on the Cornish coast is under attack. Drawing upon the historical figures who would seek to collect duties and taxes on items entering the country through official and illegal channels, Morgan presents a village that is unknowingly paying the most precious price possible, failing to remember the many lives and loves sacrificed to an external force stemming from an illicit deal made long ago. For River who is dealing with a familial loss of her own, such a deal is unconscionable, and the fairly tepid response from those affected is the all more enraging. Still, by River Song’s standards, this adventure comprises a smaller scale than many, and while Jade Matthew is quite engaging as the young and capable barmaid who is so keen to follow and learn from River and who is inevitably upset that River cannot reverse the losses her village has accrued over the years, ‘The Excise Men’ never quite manages to reach the adventurous highs of so many previous tales within this series. The claustrophobic and dark setting is superb, and the core mystery is solid enough even if River does figure out the deadly influence of figures from the future looking to feast upon doomed souls quite quickly, but the relative lack of dire concern from those affected even as River points out obvious discrepancies such as a tan line left from a wedding band as well as the fact that the villains were reportedly on the verge of collapse regardless of River interfering nullifies much of the potential drama that could otherwise have been accentuated all the more effectively. The ouroboros paradox is a neat inclusion that ties together the list of names that Derek Elroy’s agent of the excise men keeps with those who have been or may become lost to time, but it also means that River is more of a superfluous presence than in almost any of her stories previously and so doesn’t truly highlight her audacity and ingenuity against greater odds. Still, Kingston as always gives a tremendously charismatic performance, but as the opener to her final set of adventures, ‘The Excise Men’ fails to truly capitalize on the unique nature of this beloved character.

After providing some context for “Two’s Company,” the latest Once and Future release that revealed that Jackie Tyler and River sometimes played Bingo together, ‘Harvest of the Krotons’ by James Goss sees the two beloved character unite to investigate a mysterious health spa. While the Krotons are hardly among the ranks of the Doctor’s most formidable and familiar foes, their unique crystalline appearance and ability to capture and utilize the mental energy of those around them for power has certainly made for some memorable encounters across various media. Notably, the ultimate plot is quite familiar as the Krotons again look to turn humans into batteries of sorts, and though the spa setting filled with quasi-celebrities is somewhat unique despite little ultimately being done with the premise, the inclusion of Jackie Tyler is utterly fantastic. She, of course, is a mother trying to continue on without knowing what her daughter is doing or when or even if she will return home, and River and she bond over their unique but wholly unbreakable familial relationships that makes both characters all the more grounded and realistic in the process. And while River is far more knowledgeable about these alien affairs than Jackie ever could be, the easy highlight of this story is the far more specialized set of knowledge that Jackie possesses that is more trivial and expansive than the Krotons could ever have expected. This is balanced by a much more touching moment in which Jackie confronts her own mortality with Rose still very much at the forefront of her mind, and Camille Coduri expertly manages to convey that sense of unbreakable love amid Jackie’s enduring confidence and humour. Intriguingly, River suggests that the Doctor has requested that she come to Jackie to check in on her and make sure she is faring well, a fascinating insight that simultaneously proves just how much the Doctor cares about his friends and their companions, apparently while keeping the prospect of another regeneration out of Jackie’s mind here. As always, Alex Kingston gives a brilliantly energetic and charming performance, and while the Kroton threat minimally develops beyond what has been shown previously despite a global component, the wonderful double act that Kingston and Coduri form more than carries the story and teases a superb series of ongoing adventures featuring the two should Big Finish ever choose to do so.

‘Dead Man Talking’ by Tim Foley continues with River’s exploration of ties to family, here as she confronts a con man who preys upon others’ loss by acting as a medium to provide a means of communication to departed loved ones. In this role as Stanley Kim, Irvine Iqbal quite adeptly coneys the unscrupulous nature and confidence needed to convince grieving souls that he has their best interest at heart while he surreptitiously takes items he desires under the guise of maximizing his connection to the spirit world, and Carol Royle is equally strong as the genuine and compassionate Mrs Prendergast who wants nothing more than to speak once again to her son who was lost in battle. Any grieving parent would give anything to have one more chance to be with a child, and that desperation and perpetual hope are palpable within Royle’s performance, a combination of emotions that allows her both to bond with and stand up to River as River speaks about the enduring bond between parent and children but then looks to break Mrs Prendergast’s bond when she discovers how very real and dangerous the connection here could be. Through this action, Foley provides an unexpected sequel to ‘The Dalek Invasion of Earth,’ revealing that River is in contact with Susan and is helping to track down Dalek technological remnants, in this case a roboman helmet that still holds far too much dangerous potential. This is another intriguing example of River acting in the Doctor’s stead even if no reasonable excuse for the Doctor not being there himself easily presents itself, and while not having Susan directly involved in some capacity is something of a missed opportunity, it still creates a tremendous sense of continuity and again affirms just how meaningful family and friends are to the Doctor and River alike. ‘Dead Man Talking’ is easily the most emotional and heartfelt story of this set and truly allows for the more empathetic side of River to shine through, and Kingston delivers yet another powerhouse performance to help further elevate this story that overcomes a very traditional start and premise to become something much more profound and memorable as Mrs Prendergast must learn to continue on with River’s help.

The final chapter of The Diary of River Song is Lizzie Hopley’s auspiciously titled ‘The Wife of River Song.’ Of course, River is known to have had many partners aside from the Doctor, but this is a story that steers well clear of anything ‘The Husbands of River Song’ previously covered. Indeed, with River unable to remember where she is and who is around her, she must piece together the fragments of information afforded her to learn the truth about the Hive that she was looking for, her sister who is trapped there, and even her honeymoon as all three realities collide. Nina Toussaint-White who previously played Mels alongside Amy and Rory is superb as Brooke, and Sarah-Jane Potts as Jane and Jay Perry as Marshall combine to flesh out the mystery at hand as well as the very distinct yet interlinked sources of confusion for both River and Marshall. The apparent plague that befell this locale is an intriguing backdrop, but the alien source that was willingly introduced to the paying populace and the unanticipated side effects and consequences of doing create a unique wrinkle for River and company to traverse. However, the much more fascinating element of ‘The Wife of River Song’ is the prospect of River willingly and happily settling down and leading something of a normal life, a notion that has seemed all but unthinkable to this point. Regardless of the reasons behind this momentous change of character, it offers a fascinating glimpse at a side of River not often seen, and Alex Kingston brings out these nuances of her well-explored character exceedingly well. With plenty of nods to River’s past along the way, ‘The Wife of River Song’ certainly isn’t the overtly bombastic or far-reaching story that fans might expect from a finale for such a long-running and beloved franchise, but it very much emphasizes the best qualities of River while continuing to explore the themes of family through River’s eyes exceptionally well. Like The Orphan Quartet as a whole, ‘The Wife of River Song’ is somewhat more muted and smaller in scale than so many of River’s previous adventures, and although it would be almost impossible to capture the same level of excitement as her early audios in which she crossed paths with the Doctor in many different incarnations, these four tales still showcase the immense confidence in every aspect of their production that has been a hallmark of the series from the start and prove that this series still has so much it could explore in the future.

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