Big Finish Review: The Diary of River Song Series 7

After seven series, River Song is still going strong. With successive box sets tapping into significant points of Doctor Who continuity or featuring prominent figures such as the Doctor and the Master (in multiple incarnations), series seven of The Diary of River Song proves refreshingly free from mythology.

Instead, River finds herself on four individual adventures that draw on her Melody Malone detective persona introduced in The Angels Take Manhattan and embrace the ‘solo’ in solo series.

Starring Alex Kingston and directed by Ken Bentley, the seventh series of The Diary of River Song is available from the Big Finish website. Here’s the synopsis…

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…

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.

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.

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.

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…

The Review

Colony of Strangers

The opener shamelessly takes its inspiration from Scandinavian noir crime thrillers, or Scandi noir. On a colony planet evoking more than one trope of the genre, River investigates the killings of a mysterious faceless race of alien beings.

From the cold and wintery backdrop, to bodies being found on the beach atop crunching sand, to residents’ heavy Nordic accents, the intentions of both writer and director in emulating the tone of noir crime is clearly evident.

River remains the sharp, inquisitive and irrepressible driver of the plot as she always has been. Even in audio stories featuring the Doctor or the various television episodes in which she appeared, her audacity and energy mean the character always plays a central role. Alex Kingston, too, brings nothing less than her A-game to recordings if the high quality of her performance is anything to go by.

Much of the conflict derives from the suspicion and mistrust resulting from River’s appearance in the colony. The minimalist soundscape and relatively slow pace contribute to this unease. Outside a couple of frenetic action scenes, River’s investigation into the mystery progresses piece by piece – and how strongly the twist the tale resonates may depend on one’s familiarity with classic science fiction cinema as much as crime noir.

Abbey of Heretics

Abbey of Heretics recalls River Song’s involvement in Doom Coalition 3, not least due to her dressing in a nun’s wimple as introduced in that set. A medieval English abbey is the setting for a murder mystery where a ghostly presence also lurks the corridors, and the abbey’s latest visitor, ‘Sister Melody’, quickly disturbs the status quo.

Lizbeth Myles, a new writer for River Song, captures the 12th century medieval setting extremely well. A plethora of phenomena contribute to the evocative feel: parchment and manuscripts, herbal remedies, nun’s devotions, a tolling church bell, sneaking around the corridors, heaving open creaky doors, climbing the steps the abbey tower, and more.

Howard Carter’s sound design and music, although unobtrusive, complement the story nicely. From footsteps echoing in high-ceilinged corridors to rain pattering onto leaves in the woods, the design is on point and helps augment the story atmosphere as much as the enthused performances and time period.

Myles also fuses the historical with the futuristic and otherworldly. Although pseudo-historical, the episode features alien off-worlders whose presence in a medieval abbey is down to a sympathetic cause in principle (i.e. a desire to return home), but has undesirable repercussions for the local human population which River will not tolerate. Her morality, although sometimes unreliable, does not let her down when it comes to a critical point such as it does here.

Barrister to the Stars

James Kettle’s debut Big Finish script is a marvellous addition to the range. It features the best fusion of an unrushed plot and humour with a light tone and vibrant characterisation, melded together with sharp yet expressive dialogue and a confident authorial voice.

The series’ detective theme is expanded to include other parts of the legal process, namely the court of law. Kettle deploys numerous tropes of courtroom drama, from building the case to cross-examination to discussions with the defence counsel during the lunch break. Despite the sincerity of such a plot setup, however, Kettle manages to inject a levity that keeps things fresh.

The learned and verbose British barrister Hodgkiss is the standout. He is at the core of the tale arguably more so than River, taking charge of legal proceedings and parts of the broader plot. Far from being a fish out of water or the ‘curmudgeon’ of the synopsis, Hodgkiss embraces the wackiness of the alien creatures around him. His reliability and intelligence make him an admirable protagonist.

The menagerie of alien species brings to mind a similar collection of creatures in Christopher Eccleston’s second story, The End of the World, and they are just as eccentric. After the despondent tone of Nordic noir and the intrigue of a medieval abbey murder mystery, this story’s true strength lies with its delightful tone.

Carnival of Angels

This fourth episode is the one with the strongest connection to established lore, with the Weeping Angels and 1930s New York setting returning from the 2012 episode The Angels Take Manhattan. Roy Gill’s prequel to that episode also borrows heavily from film noir while portraying the Angels as a mostly unseen threat.

Gill expands upon the New York populace hinted at in Steven Moffat’s episode. With visits to Coney Island and the metalworks, and every local sporting an expressive New Yorker accent, he fleshes out the attitudes and morale of residents doing it tough during the Depression, and also adds to Weeping Angel lore with the introduction of different Angel orders. Reasons for and complications from the temporal disturbances that inhibit the Doctor landing in New York after the events of this story are also hinted at.

Timothy Blore’s Luke returns from Animal Instinct, another Gill script for the River Song range. Here he is River’s ex-student and quasi-secretary, assisting her work as a private detective. Their mostly platonic relationship proves a fresh turn on River’s usual innuendo-fuelled interactions with companions.

The Depression-era setting is prime pickings for film noir, and film noir suits River. As the cap of four detective-themed episodes, Carnival of Angels is a surprisingly human-centric tale with the Angels providing a background threat – but setting up the sequel neatly at the end.

The Extras…

Writer James Goss lays out his love for crime in the interviews, including the notion, amusingly, of a cornered protagonist standing shivering on a beach. (He describes his script as Invasion of the Body Snatchers meets The Killing.) Lizbeth Myles also talks her inspiration from works like The Name of the Rose, and talks to the impression of women’s education and agency in medieval times.

Producer David Richardson explains the process of James Kettle coming to write for Big Finish, and the latter’s love of the language of courtroom drama. Kingston, like always, has taken the time to contemplate the scripts before recording, and her attention to and love of the stories shows.

Details of River Song’s future at Big Finish have not yet been announced, but it is safe to assume she will return for future series. What those series contain is pure speculation – will it be future four-part unconnected episodes, or a return to series-long arcs akin to what we saw in series one through four? Whichever it turns out to be, River will be back with a bang and we’ll be all the better off for it.

Read The Digital Fix’s take on series four, five and six.


Updated: Jan 15, 2020

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