Big Finish Review: The Diary of River Song Series 6
The latest solo series for River Song sees the character dropping in at different points in the lives of the Doctor. The four standalone episodes cover events that occur during his first four incarnations, going so far back as the very first ever episode of Doctor Who.
The Diary of River Song Series 6 is produced by David Richardson and directed by Ken Bentley. It is available on the Big Finish website until general release on October 31st 2019. Here's the synopsis...
River Song has many ways to amuse herself away from her husband. And with access to the Doctor’s diary, she knows exactly when he might be around, and when best to slip in unnoticed and liberate valuable trinkets…
But first of all, she must ensure he makes it out of Totters Lane alive!
An Unearthly Woman by Matt Fitton
Coal Hill School has a new member of staff: an educated woman, who seems to specialise in every subject. Meanwhile, teachers Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright have concerns over the behaviour of one of their pupils.
Susan Foreman is intrigued by Dr Song, but something else is stalking her in the darkness and fog of London, 1963…
The Web of Time by John Dorney
The capital has been evacuated. Monsters stalk the Underground. For River, it’s the perfect opportunity to steal a priceless artwork, so long as she can avoid looters, soldiers and an alien invasion.
With the gallant Captain Knight at her side, River faces the Great Intelligence and its Yeti army. But her biggest challenge may be keeping time itself on track…
Peepshow by Guy Adams
Miniscope parts fetch quite a price on the open market – luckily, River knows where she can find one that’s about to be decommissioned. Unfortunately, this particular miniscope is chock-full of aliens, as well as unsuspecting Earthlings.
River must face a carnival of monsters before she can claim her prize – across miniature habitats, Ogrons, Sontarans and Drashigs await!
The Talents of Greel by Paul Morris
River visits Victorian London on the trail of anachronistic technology. But when young women are stolen from the streets, she takes a stand. River’s investigation leads to theatre impresario Henry Gordon Jago, and his latest star act: Li H’Sen Chang and the unnerving Mr Sin. But if River’s going undercover at the Palace Theatre, she needs to have a song…
Warning - they may be spoilers as I review each story!
An Unearthly Woman
“No one calls me an au d'oeuvre and gets away with it!”
An Unearthly Woman chronicles River Song’s encounter with the Doctor’s original trio of travelling companions. Claudia Grant, Jamie Glover and Jemma Powell, further solidify their status in the canon as Susan, Ian and Barbara, after six stories in their own high-quality series from Big Finish. The story hook of going right back to the beginning – before the beginning, in fact – of Doctor Who is appealing not only for nostalgic value but for also re-examining an important time in the heritage of the show.
The content of the plot and the alien presence, although presented well with mystery and threat, ultimately serve to allow River to team up with three iconic characters. Her interactions with Ian and Barbara involve her playfully upsetting the apple cart and leaving them stunned as to her audacity for a woman in the 1960s, but she also manages to connect to each of them on a personal level. Aspects of both Ian and Barbara are fleshed out as a result of their casual chats at the pub, and the story is better off for sitting in this companionable space for a good portion of the runtime.
Susan is given a quasi-love interest, Lloyd, and the chance to connect with him over her being considered ‘different’ and ‘weird’, and without a real home. She shows her intelligence, quickly figuring out that River does not belong to the time period any more than she does. The whole cast does a fantastic job at portraying a wide range of characters, bringing Coal Hill School’s students and teachers – and various characters of surrounding London – to life.
Prior to listening to the story, it would not be too much to expect a last-minute cameo from David Bradley as the First Doctor (not least as he appears in the cover art!). The episode manages to half-subvert that expectation by having that cameo within the first act of the story, instead of towards the end as would be expected.
As mentioned, the plot is secondary to the well-drawn characters, and the focus upon them as individuals benefits the story immensely. A sneaky Easter egg links the alien menace of this story to the current run of Eighth Doctor stories from Big Finish, but River’s interactions with Barbara, Ian and Susan are what gets Series 6 of River Song off to a brilliant start.
The Web of Time
The second episode starts with a bunch of delightful references to other Doctor Who stories, unexpectedly early in the episode à la the First Doctor’s cameo in the preceding story. In haste one might brand the pre-credits sequence – indeed, this whole set of stories – as overly indulgent; but dipping into the past when least expected was a common trope of Steven Moffat’s tenure as showrunner, who of course created the character whose series this is.
The moment the episode proper begins, the tone shifts instantly to the London-under-siege setting of The Web of Fear. Authentic-sounding incidental music sets the scene brilliantly, as does the array of British army soldiers evading the Great Intelligence-controlled Yeti. The result is one of the most atmospheric settings of the four episodes.
Ralph Watson returns as Captain Knight from the 1968 serial, whose gallantry balances River’s volatile and more morally complex character. His vocal performance has of course changed in the intervening half century, but this could not be helped. Still, Knight develops a bemused rapport with River ,whose flirtatious and impulsive attitude is fully on show. He also manages to reign her in and remind her of the moral code so strongly followed by her husband, neatly justifying his involvement in the drama.
As per An Unearthly Woman, the crux of the plot – River’s attempt to recover a lost painting from this time period – although entertaining, plays second fiddle to the character development for both River and Captain Knight. His presence is also cause perhaps for melancholy for those familiar with the original serial, given that Knight does not survive; but this is dealt with appropriately by River, who has done her homework.
It is clear much consideration has gone into this set overall to ensure the stories slot in before the classic-era serials to which they are linked, and the result is a high-quality production with enthusiastic performances.
“Think of it as an old story we’re walking around in.”
As an midquel to the 1973 Third Doctor serial Carnival of Monsters (that is, happening concurrently with the events of that story, while the Third Doctor and Jo Grant are trapped inside), Peepshow even more so than the other stories features River trying her best not to step on the toes of her husband.
River is on the hunt for an ultra-powerful battery hidden within the Miniscope, the miniaturised entertainment sphere full of different species, including Sontarans, Ogrons and Drashigs. Alex Kingston injects a high level of energy into River, which she can reliably be expected to do at this stage, having played her in more individual stories for Big Finish than she did on television.
The bumbling security officer Dibbsworth acts as River’s de-facto companion. Clive Wood’s apologetic and out-of-depth foil for River, is prone to nervous meltdowns and initially functions to provide exposition in that classic protagonist’s-companion archetype. Yet, gathering confidence and understanding of self-worth across the course of the story, Dibbsworth’s climactic attempt at self-sacrifice adds extra layers to the
Guy Adams’ philosophical and anti-corpocratic ruminations bleed through into the play itself at times, as is common in his scripts, and his take on River is full of wit, with no time for fools. Peepshow is a fun run-about with monsters, innuendo, flippant quips and cavalier attitudes to monster fights between Sontarans and Ogrons.
The Sontaran-Ogron alliance, too, is amusing, as the former begrudgingly work alongside the latter – even Sontarans are prone to sarcasm when dealing with the brainless Ogrons. The high-spirits story is rounded off with a melancholic coda, with a Third Doctor cameo highlighting his imminent departure from Jo – the kind of allusion that holds meaningful depth beyond a simple throwaway line.
The Talents of Greel
Christopher Benjamin returns as Henry Gordon Jago, owner of the Palace Theatre, frompopular Fourth Doctor tale The Talons of Weng-Chiang, in The Talents of Greel. A close prequel to the 1977 serial, Paul Morris’ script is Jago-heavy, being mostly told from his perspective, and treads much the same ground as the original, while also dedicating more time to the villains and Jago’s management of his theatre.
More sensitive casting of Li H’Sen Chang and Mr Sin (both played by Nicholas Goh) – and a less questionable characterisation of the non-Anglo characters than in the original story – are improvements upon Talons’ weakest elements. Fifty-first century war criminal Magnus Greel (Angus Wright) also returns, as menacing and grandiose as ever.
The rapport between River and Jago is slow to develop – Jago is firmly in his role of business-minded theatre manager – but their eventual onstage duet thrills and amuses. A running theme across these four episodes is how the men paired with River – Ian, Captain Knight and Dibbsworth – are in equal parts stunned and awed by River’s audacity and flair, and rightly so given how huge an impression the character has had on Doctor Who mythos.
River’s reasons for travelling to Victorian London at this point in the history of the Doctor is not as well enunciated than her previous appearances, and, more so than the other stories in this boxset, The Talents of Greel is best enjoyed if already well familiar with the original. Still, a climactic ending manages to bring the boxset to a satisfying close.
The rationale behind going back to the fringes of four well-loved classic episodes is explored in behind-the-scenes interviews. Actors’ stories of picking apart the early days of Doctor Who when recreating characters like Barbara and Susan for their appearance in An Adventure in Space and Time are included, as are the cast’s memories of watching the show in the 1960s.
Returnees Ralph Watson and Christopher Benjamin receive praise for their long-running involvement in the show and the infectious passion they subsequently bring into the studio. Cast and crew alike express their delight at fulfilling life-long ambitions to be in an TV episode (Clive Wood) or to write for the Sontarans (Guy Adams). Indeed, everyone taking part must be having a lot of fun.
A short suite of music is appended to the end of the final episode. Howard Carter’s often eerie, sometimes unsettling score matches the era being portrayed in each episode, with lots of chimes and electric sounds. Also, impressive and colourful individual episode covers add extra pizzazz to the whole affair.
Which of the four episodes will be considered the standout story will depend on the listener’s preferences. If Big Finish’s Jago and Litefoot was a Big Finish range that ignited one’s fascination for Victorian London, the final instalment should prove the highlight. Alternatively, if the revamped version of the original companion line-up from 1963 is a favourite, An Unearthly Woman will probably take the cake.
This is the real strength of The Diary of River Song Series 6 – an audio River Song mixtape that visits multiple eras and characters, and is populated by a cast of characters who bring new life to the much-loved worlds of four classic Doctor Who serials.