Big Finish returns to tell some new entries in The Diary of River Song with Series 7. In her latest outing River crosses paths with foes old and new, whilst making some friends along the way.
I have often thought Big Finish could equally excel at both big series-spanning arcs like Dark Eyes or Time War and yet also more disconnected and small-stakes stuff. River Song (Alex Kingston) probably strikes most viewers as being part of the former. She is the driving force behind one of the largest arcs in the modern show. But in her seventh (that’s right, seventh) spin-off audio outing she arguably shows that even in an episodic setting she can shine really well. Filling the role The Doctor usually does, hopping from adventure to adventure, solving crimes, battling with both new and old foes whilst making friends along the way.
Alex Kingston is her usual brilliant self here, bringing mega-fan tier enthusiasm and a great love for the role. Listening to each line she delivers is almost like watching her perform it in the sound-booth, smirking as she does in the main show. Where The Diary of River Song: Series 7 departs from both the TV show and all six previous audio entries however is that it doesn’t even feature an appearance from The Doctor himself! This change of pace was actually quite welcome given how canon-heavy the rest of River’s range can be, often feeling like meeting Colin Baker and Paul McGann was more of a checklist obligation than for good narrative reasons.
Saying that, I wouldn’t say Series 7 makes particular strides to be a step-above the other six instalments in terms of quality or grandiose ideas. River, still, can’t escape the quantum-locked trappings of the main show either, with Weeping Angels showing up yet again. I understand the excitement that comes with including fan-favourite villains such as these (trust me, I too get excited) but there is part of me that just wants more of the original stuff.
I suppose that is a nice segue into talking about the first of the four stories included in this box set.
Colony of Strangers by James Goss
Set on a cold and lonely Nordic colony filled with comparatively dry and dull residents, River brings not only spice and flare to the place but also a lead-in to solving a murder mystery. Colony of Strangers harnesses the “Melody Malone” character traits from 2012’s The Angels Take Manhattan. River’s pseudo-noir detective skills are used to craft a charming little “holiday”.
I wouldn’t say this story reached the level of originality I personally crave, but it was such a nice mix of genre pastiches that I thoroughly enjoyed it. A really solid start, even if the mystery was the least engaging part of it all, the character journey to find the clues provided the fun.
Conversely, Abbey of Heretics had a central plot which I found much more entertaining, balancing tones more smoothly between River’s brand of humour and the setting’s atmospheric dread. There is some genuine fear as “Sister Melody” (River works best with her disguises) first arrives at the dismal and windswept abbey, with uptight 12th century nuns being perhaps even more terrifying than any alien could be at first. Sister Magdalene brings that prude world-view with every inflection in her voice, and it is my belief that Abbey of Heretics contains the best ensemble mix in this box set.
Abbey of Heretics doesn’t just use these authentic historical characters as scene-setting either. Instead it forms a gorgeous commentary on religious doctrine and the pursuit of new knowledge, mixing in some sci-fi when appropriate.
“There is always room for new knowledge” – the highlight of the box-set for me.
Following profound religious commentary is Barrister To The Stars, which is yet another genre-pastiche. This time, River tackles not a Scandinavian crime drama but instead a British courtroom one. However, unlike said TV genre which I usually avoid like the plague, this story neatly fits into River’s humour and this franchise’s often bizarre timey-wimey concepts. Famous barrister (and best supporting character in the box-set) Roger Hodgkiss, played by David Rintoul, is the straight-man to it all. Jokes are made at both the expense of the outwardly-pretentious and overdrawn legal systems of England along with Hodgkiss’ out-of-depth-ness. Perhaps the best jokes come from everything regarding The Institute Of Restitution & Reconciliation, this story’s setting which was such a neat idea I really want to see it on the main show.
Another hit – great stuff.
Sadly, Carnival of Angels is my least favourite of the set, even if I do generally really enjoy the “Melody Malone” shtick. This story takes River back to the same setting featured in The Angels Take Manhattan, and that’s about it to be honest. I didn’t feel Carnival of Angels did enough to stand on its own beyond being a fun side-adventure featuring fan-favourite villains.
Perhaps this story may have been better placed at the very start of the box-set. In this reviewers opinion when compared to Abbey of Heretics and Barrister To The Stars it just didn’t quite reach the same heights. The over-the-top New Yorker accents didn’t help either. That said, Carnival of Angels was an inoffensive and sometimes fun conclusion.
Half of The Diary Of River Song Series 7 was exactly what I expected it to be; a harmless and entertaining Kingston-led adventure romp. The other half was something more; religious commentary and legal humour, both of which really brought some life into this box-set.
I highly recommend both Abbey and Barrister. Colony of Strangers also contained many smaller elements I loved (the dry voice acting of the colonists mainly). Carnival was perhaps the weakest but a perfectly fine side-story. If you like Weeping Angels then you’ll definitely enjoy it – I personally think they are extremely difficult to pull off, especially on audio.
There is something for everyone in this box-set. It proves that River Song is a fully fledged character who can function equally well away from not only big universe-exploding arcs but also her husband.
The Diary of River Song: Series 7
This title was released in January 2020. It will be exclusively available to buy from the Big Finish website until March 31st 2020, and on general sale after this date.
River Song finds many amusements away from the Doctor. Not least of them is solving impossible mysteries, cracking insoluble crimes.
Sometimes she’s Melody, sometimes she’s River, but she’ll always unravel the case…
7.1 Colony of Strangers by James Goss
On the bleak Nordic colony of Bondar, bodies are washing up on the beach.
The Mayor and the police are mystified. But then a prime suspect turns up. A suspect who might be their best hope of solving the case.
7.2 Abbey of Heretics by Lizbeth Myles
Outside the walls of a remote 12th Century Abbey, England is at war.
Inside, a strange sickness runs rife, and there are rumours of a devil in the woods. Death stalks the novices. When Sister Melody arrives in search of a book, she may be their only salvation.
7.3 Barrister to the Stars by James Kettle
River stands accused of murder. Her one hope is being allowed to choose the legal system under which she’ll be tried.
Enter Roger Hodgkiss: curmudgeonly barrister, plucked from a 20th Century English courtroom. He may be out of his depth, but he’ll always stand up for the underdog.
7.4 Carnival of Angels by Roy Gill
New York. 1930s. Melody Malone is new in town and her detective agency is called on to solve an impossible murder.
River’s investigations lead her to a curious carnival ride, offering trips to either Heaven or Hell. But with Angels in waiting, Heaven may not be the best choice…
- Alex Kingston (River Song)
- Charles Armstrong (Karl)
- Annette Badland (Judge / Computer)
- Timothy Blore (Luke Sullieman)
- Aurora Burghart (Sister Patrick)
- Annabelle Dowler (Integer / Contingent)
- Daniel Easton (Dean Cray)
- Jaye Griffiths (Sister Ursula)
- Clive Hayward (Emperor of Eternal Abundance / Duke of Ferrox / Last of the Unnatural Children / Marty Stone)
- Paul Heath (Thomas / System)
- Janet Henfrey (Sister Magdalene)
- Glen McCready (Robosurgeon / Creature / Tors /Tab Kowalski)
- Wanda Opalinska (Gudrun / Espen)
- David Rintoul (Hodgkiss)
- Issy Van Randwyck (Miss Quirke)
- Robert Whitelock (Stark / Prosecutor)