It’s a really good year to be a River Song fan.
River’s narrative for most of the character’s history has been tightly controlled by Steven Moffat. But in the past year, he has allowed other writers to explore the character. Since the airing of “The Husbands of River Song,” we have had the release of the first series of Big Finish’s “Diary of River Song,” River entering the Eleventh Doctor’s Titan Comics series, and now her own anthology, “The Legends of River Song.”
This anthology is similar to the “The Legends of Ashildr” that came out in December 2015, relating adventures from River’s augmented lifespan under the guise of diary entries. Both books are 224 pages, however, River’s has five stories versus the four in Ashildr’s.
Because we’ve largely seen River from the Doctor’s POV, it’s an interesting swing to get inside her head. The first two stories are adventures with the Doctor at some point after “The Wedding of River Song.” The third involves the Doctor (pre-“The Impossible Astronaut”) enlisting River as a babysitter. The final stories are solo adventures involving jobs River has taken. The best stories, as well as the most controversial, are the ones by Jenny T. Colgan (who also wrote the first story of River’s Big Finish series) and Jacqueline Rayner.
Colgan takes on the picnic at Asgard that River first refers to in her initial TV appearance. After breaking out of her cell, River meets the Doctor at Asgard, a planet-sized theme park, and they get sucked into a series of malfunctions that causes everything to go wrong and dragons to go on a rampage. The planet is painted in loving detail, reminding me a lot of Hedgewick’s World of Wonders had it not gone horribly wrong.
The secondary storyline involves River pondering whether or not to ask the Doctor if they have children in the future or if he’s interested in starting a family with her. It’s a fascinating question, because outside of the realm of fanfic, River is the only character in the series who could have this conversation with the Doctor and not have it seem completely out of left field. Some argue that River should not have any maternal urges whatsoever and that it’s grossly out-of-character for her to even consider it. However, even if children never come about, it’s a conversation most people eventually have with their spouse/long-term partner.
This is a sci-fi book and not a romance novel, so the focus is more on the woes of Asgard than potential angst over becoming parents between the Doctor and River. Still, it’s an interesting emotional issue to bring up and took a lot of guts to address in the first place. I enjoyed how Colgan has River go back and forth about bringing up such a deeply emotional subject, that would involve her baring quite a bit of her soul to the Doctor — something she struggled with on TV. How Colgan handles the resolution of this question plays out in a lovely scene that taps into the vulnerability that we see from River when she drops her mask.
I would have loved to see Colgan dive a bit deeper into the emotional issues, such as the origins of River’s desire to explore becoming a parent. And I do wonder if including five stories into the anthology limited the depth of each story. I would have loved to have the full scene where the Doctor and River discuss the parental issue.
Jacqueline Rayner’s story “Suspicious Minds” in the other direction, heading away from emotional issues in an amusement park to battling slugs in a beautiful meadow. If you were a fan of the recent Christmas special, then you’ll like River’s adventures with an Auton who’s taken on the guise of Elvis. She stumbles upon him when she decided to go witness the train wreck that was “The Three Doctors” in the 70s. Elvis the Auton is rather sweet, a lot like a Deep South version of Ramone from the Christmas Special. Upon hearing that he is headed for a particularly horrible death, River decides Elvis deserves a nice farewell trip.
This story has the best dialogue of the five, a few great laughs, and constant banter and flirting between River and the Doctor (who joins the story when he stumbles across River cosplaying as one of his former wives.) It’s also the most adult, as River cheekily implies that she slept with Elvis and also she and the Doctor reference their own conjugal relationship.
Steve Lyons’ “Gamble in Time” involves a bootstrap paradox where the Doctor recruits River into playing a role in the life of an ordinary man who will turn out to save his life. The story itself is fairly forgettable, but what sticks with you is the over-usage of the term “Dear Diary.” Within his 40-some-odd page story, he uses the term 14 times (or roughly every two-to-three pages.) It’s very jarring, and I’m not sure River would constantly address her diary like that. I prefer the other ways River references writing in her diary throughout the book.
Of the two solo River adventures, “Death in New Venice” is the stronger one. River’s running commentary throughout is a joy as she describes her job in the creation of New Venice: where she is using her vast knowledge (and frequent hops into the past) to literally think the city into shape. This one is a ghost story, which gives off the vibes of “Army of Ghosts,” but takes an interesting technological twist. It’s the only story where no mention of the Doctor is made, so it’s nice to see River completely on her own and using her brain and guts to extradite a lot of people from a near-death situation. I would like to see this story fleshed out and get a Big Finish adaptation at some point.
“River of Time” has River coming across an interesting relic from the ancient days of the universe. But the best part of the story is dedicated to River’s place in Stormcage and her relationship with the Governor there. I wish the entire story had been set at Stormcage because it would have been great to see her in her natural habitat, so to speak.
“The Legends of River Song” goes for plot and world building over diving too deep into relationships. The worlds created for River to play with, from the Asgard theme park to literally thinking New Venice into existence, are lovingly detailed. River’s commentary on the world around her doesn’t stop being amusing, with the best of it coming in “Death in New Venice.” There is a lot of sass, a good bit of cleverness, and some extremely clever Stormcage breakout attempts. It does a good job at capturing aspects of River’s character not dealt with unless you go hunting down fanfic. If you enjoyed these stories, your next stop should be Big Finish if you haven’t listened to series 1 of “The Diary of River Song” already.
Doctor Who: The Legends of River Song (hardcover) is available now at Amazon.co.uk for £7.99.